When a certain notorious biology professor from Minnesota notices the massive wall o’ befanged man-titty adorning his local Wal-Mart, and finds it notable enough to blog about. Poor PZ. I can only pity his eyeballs. I don’t know if this is a sign that paranormal romances have finally hit the big time, or whether they’ve jumped the shark.
It’s always interesting to pop outside the romance community and see how people outside of it perceive the genre. Do I have thoughts on that? Boy howdy do I ever.
Some of the people sniping at Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series as being equivalent to Harry Potter for angsty teenyboppers except not particularly well-written made me stop and go: “Wait, Harry Potter was well-written?” (This is clearly because I am such a superior reader with superior tastes in all my literature, and anyone who thinks Harry Potter is awesome is wrong. And stupid. And racist. And a killer of puppies. Just so we’re clear about where I come from when I make statements of aesthetic judgment.) My pointless and incredibly silly snobbery when it comes to children’s and YA fiction aside, what struck me about some of the comments in Pharyngula that dealt with Twilight was the offhand dismissal of the series, not merely because they weren’t especially well-written (I myself couldn’t finish Twilight, and in that regard I’m totally in agreement that it’s the Harry Potter of vampire teenyboppers), but because they were obviously written for a teenage female audience in mind. There’s much casual contempt for literature that deals with the emotional and the female, and I see it as a logical extension from a culture that devalues female experiences in general; that teenage female romantic experiences in particular are singled out as being especially frivolous and assumed to be Not Worthy of Serious Thought isn’t anything new, but it still chafes at me when I see it pop up.
I am also fascinated—FASCINATED—that Harlequin has become shorthand for romance, all romance, the way it has, since books published under the Harlequin/Silhouette imprint cover only a very specific niche of romance. It’d be as if, in attempting to define ice-cream, somebody didn’t address the ingredients, or the characteristics that make ice-cream, well, icy and creamy, but instead chose to refer to it solely by a rather slapdash association of flavor and brand name, sometimes resulting in rather jarring juxtapositions if you know ice-cream well. “My mom’s a huge fan of Breyer’s Phish Food, but I just don’t get it—the thought of eating bits of unbaked chocolate chip cookie dough in ice-cream makes me want to hurl,” sez somebody, and it’s all I can do to not leap up like an obnoxious bastard and say “DUDE, Phish Food is Ben and Jerry’s, and for the love of God, it doesn’t have chocolate chip cookie dough anywhere in it, and really, YOU OBVIOUSLY DON’T EAT ICE-CREAM AND THEREFORE ARE UNQUALIFIED TO COMMENT ON WHAT WE’RE EATING, AND I’M GOING TO JUMP ON YOUR HEAD BECAUSE YOUR NEXT COMMENT IS OBVIOUSLY GOING TO BE HOW EVERYONE WHO EATS ICE-CREAM IS A FAT WHORE. SEE HOW I’M JUMPING ON YOUR HEAD? JUMP. JUMMMMMP.”
Right. Now that I’m thoroughly craving Phish Food (AND have successfully squelched my desire to act like an obnoxious bastard on somebody else’s comment board—at least this time): PZ’s question at the end intrigues me. Where DID this surge come from?Because people attributing the surge to Twilight are wrong. Twilight hit just as vampires and paranormal romance were huge and getting even bigger. JR Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood had hit the scene like a hundred-khilitohn bhomb the September previous to Twilight‘s publication. I’m not necessarily interested in tracing the whole trajectory to its source, because I think the current paranormal romance scene is not a direct reaction to, say, the disturbing eroticism of Dracula—I think Anne Rice’s novels are a better candidate for that.
Personally, I think the current paranormal romance boom is the direct descendant of Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, which is more urban fantasy than a creature driven by older, more Victorian mythologies and sensibilities.
Regardless of what the Anita Blake series has become, and regardless what people may think, the popularity of the books and its unholy progeny is due to more than the thrill of reading taboo-busting inter-species nookie; somebody in the comments quoted a Powell’s Books employee defining the genre as “women committing every imaginable act of lust and perversion with vampires, werewolves, demons, Lovecraftian tentacled rape gods, basically anything you can imagine as long as it’s not a normal human man”—which made me go HAAAA, but also made me go “Oh, come ON, judging all of paranormal romance just because you were forced to page through the Merry Gentry series is hardly fair. I mean, taboo-busting inter-species nookie is pretty hot and definitely a factor in the popularity—and really, God bless our prurient motivations, because so much brilliant art would have gone (and continue to go) unexpressed if it weren’t for horny artists sublimating their unspeakable urges in beautiful ways, and I really don’t see any inherent wrongness in reading something to get your rocks off (but oh God that’s another topic for another time). But slapping the “It’s the Sex, Stupid” label on the phenomenon is too simple, and falls into the old “Psh, it’s porn, that’s why they like it” dismissal that covers everything and explains very little.
My theory is: it’s also about women, and putting women in control, and how we’re still not comfortable enough to put it in real-life/realistic fiction terms yet.
The surge of demand for women in a dominant role—as pursuers and protectors and warriors—has been a long time coming, and I think it says something interesting about us and our level of comfort with and/or inability to suspend disbelief about women owning a certain sort of cultural power that most of the asskicking happens in Not Quite Earth, and that many of the heroines are Not Quite Human. The current crop of paranormal romances owe a lot to Anita Blake, but they owe much to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, too.
And now I’ve pretty much reached the extent of my over-thinking about this particular bit of romance, it’s your turn: feel free to overthink paranormal romances in the comments. Or, you know, don’t. Do you read it mostly—even solely—for the hot sex and because you have a hard-on for angsty immortals? Sing it loud, and sing it proud.