[To the Ends of the Universe] White-Hot Lusty Vampires in Love: The Dismissal and Power of Paranormal Romance
Editor’s note: Nebula Award nominated author Jason Sanford is now publishing a monthly column in SF Signal called To the Ends of the Universe. These columns were originally printed in the Czech SF magazine XB-1. Jason’s novelette Her Scientifiction, Far Future, Medieval Fantasy, published last year in Interzone, is now available as a Kindle ebook.
One of the hottest publishing trends of recent years is paranormal romance. Likewise, today’s most dismissed publishing trend is also paranormal romance.
While those statements might seem contradictory, dismissing novels involving the word “romance,” or ignoring any type of fiction which generally appears to be written by or for women, is an age-old affair. In the 18th century, “sentimental fiction” novels were often dismissed by serious-minded people because the books aimed to provoke an emotional response in female readers. Throughout the 20th century the romance genre was generally ignore by literary critics as being worthy of only housewives. The more recent chick lit phenomenon suffered a similar fate, with critics dismissing novels like Bridget Jones’s Diary as “inconsequential” (never mind that the novel’s lighthearted and funny take on life resonated with millions of readers).
Now paranormal romances have joined the dismissal party, with lots of head shaking and tut-tutting from disapproving prudes and critics.
But despite this attitude, paranormal romances refuse to be ignored. The subgenre—which focuses on romance between humans and any number of fantastic creatures, including ghosts, ghouls, zombies, shapeshifters, demons and so on—consistently tops the best-seller lists and is, simply, the go-to writing topic for many of today’s hottest young fiction writers.
Perhaps the most famous paranormal romance series is Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series of vampire-human romance novels, which have sold over 116 million copies around the world and spawned a blockbuster films of the same name. Meyer’s stories provoked such a passionate response from readers that fangirls divided themselves into opposing teams, with one group wanting the heroine to hook up with vampire hunk Edward while the other supported werewolf heartthrob Jacob. This division was so well-known it was spoofed in the film parody Vampires Suck, where the film closed with Team Edward and Team Jacob going at each other in full-throated war.
Another extremely popular paranormal romance series is the Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris, detailing the lives of vampires and humans in a small Louisiana town. The series was also the basis for the hit TV series True Blood.
One striking aspect of paranormal romances like these is that they exist within two genres—traditional romances and fantasies. And within the fantasy realm, most paranormal romances fall closely in line with the subgenre of urban fantasies, which set fantasy tropes into modern times and non-rural settings and often feature hard-hitting characters on the edge of society.
Matthew Cook, who published the acclaimed novels Blood Magic and Nights of Sin with paranormal romance imprint Juno Books—along with other stories in the British magazine Interzone—offers this tongue-in-cheek checklist to see if a novel qualifies as paranormal romance:
- Tough chikz: check!
- With guns/swords/knives: check!
- Who are often investigators, detectives, witches, spirit-chasers and/or all of the above: check!
- Who get romantically (or at least sexually involved with) their paranormal prey: check!
- Which consists of vampires, werewolves, demons, ghosts, spirits, mythological hotties: check!
- Who are often conflicted about their urges to prey on their romance interest: check!
Of course, that’s a deliberately simplified take on the subgenre, and many of those points would apply equally to the urban fantasy genre. But it does illustrate that the main difference between the paranormal romance and urban fantasy subgenres essentially boils down to whether or not the romance is essential to the novel’s plot. If it is, the story is paranormal romance. If it’s not, more than likely it’s urban fantasy.
This blurring between the subgenres is in many ways encouraged by publishers and book sellers. According to author Leah Cypess, author of the young adult fantasy Mistwood, because paranormal romances sell so well publishers often try to place everything in that subgenre. As she says, if you look at the teen paranormal romance section in a bookstore, “at least half the books there would work with the romance subplot removed.” Cypess saw this happen with her first two novels. Because Mistwood had a romantic element, it was placed in paranormal romance. And even though the sequel, Nightspell, lacked that romantic element, many bookstores still sold it as paranormal romance.
According to Diana Rowland, author of the Demon series of urban fantasies and the new White Trash Zombie series, “The biggest difference between urban fantasy and paranormal romance is the same thing that differentiates any book from any romance novel: a romance MUST have a “happily ever after” at the end (or at least a “happily for now” if it’s a series.) The romantic aspect should be a major aspect of the plot, if not the CENTRAL aspect, and there absolutely must be a satisfying resolution to the romantic tension at the end.”
Rowland also saw first-hand the blurring of the lines between urban fantasies and paranormal romances. “I’ve published three UF novels that have plenty of sex and a dash of romantic tension, but are quite clearly UF because the romance is not central to the plot”—though the sex is, she added with a grin—”and there’s no resolution to the romantic tension at the end.” Despite this, Rowland’s books were often cross-marketed to lovers of paranormal romances.
So if paranormal romances are so popular that other subgenres like urban fantasy try to assume the PA mantel, is it fair to say that people actually dismiss the subgenre?
For example, here is the opening paragraph of a New York Times review of the film Twilight:
“It’s love at first look instead of first bite in Twilight, a deeply sincere, outright goofy vampire romance for the hot-not-to-trot abstinence set. Based on the foundational book in Stephenie Meyer’s best-selling multivolume series, The Twilight Saga (four doorstops and counting), this carefully faithful adaptation traces the sighs and whispers, the shy glances and furious glares of two unlikely teenage lovers who fall into each other’s pale, pale arms amid swirling hormones, raging instincts, high school dramas and oh-so-confusing feelings, like, OMG he’s SO HOT!! Does he like ME?? Will he KILL me??? I don’t CARE!!! :)”
Lest you think that dismissive attitude only applies to the film adaptation, note the reviewer equating her comments equally to the novels. And the attitude expressed in that review isn’t so different from what I’ve heard from other people in science fiction and fantasy circles. At one recent convention I attended, a well-known fan expounded at length about his dislike of paranormal romances and how the subgenre was crowding out quality science fiction and fantasy books. I tried pointing out that his comments sounded like the old arguments people made against romance novels, but he didn’t agree.
Personally, I believe these attitudes about paranormal romances result from the subgenre being aimed, for the most part, at female readers. While there are genres which are generally aimed at men—such as westerns and techno-thrillers in the Tom Clancy vein—you generally don’t see them dismissed in the same way as genres aimed at women. And before you think this means only men dismiss paranormal romances, there are also many women who do the same thing. After all, that dismissive New York Times review I mentioned earlier was written by a woman.
This pattern of dismissing certain types of books which are either written or read by women is called “false categorizing,” a term created by Nebula and Hugo Award winning author Joanna Russ in her classic literary critique How to Suppress Women’s Writing. False categorizing is where works by certain authors or on certain subjects are placed in unworthy genres, which are dismissed by society at large. For example, a type of writing popular with female writers and readers will find itself called not “serious, of the right genre, aesthetically sound, important…” by critics. As a result, the entire genre can be dismissed.
I personally think such a dismissive attitude toward paranormal romances is silly. While I don’t generally write in the subgenre—I’ve only written one short story that would qualify as paranormal romance—the subgenre has the same proportion of great works to bad as any other writing style. Theodore Sturgeon’s famous law that “ninety percent of everything is crap” obviously applies to paranormal romance, but it likewise applies to genres like science fiction and fantasy which are not outright dismissed by so many people. And what I find particularly ironic is that it wasn’t too long ago that the science fiction and fantasy genres were themselves on the receiving end of the dismissal stick. Now its often the science fiction and fantasy fans doing what we once experienced from others.
So where does the paranormal romance subgenre go from here? As with the old joke about where does an 800 pound gorilla sleep, the answer is the same: Anywhere it wants to.
Because paranormal romances are so popular, publishers will keep looking for the next Twilight bestseller while writers will keep pairing humans with hot fantasy creatures. And as long as the subgenre doesn’t forget what matters most with readers—an exciting story of love featuring characters who are anything but ordinary—I expect paranormal romances will thrive for many years to come.
Filed under: To the Ends of the Universe
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