I am not sure what the word is – overheard? read? visually eavesdropped? – but I read a conversation between Shannon Stacey and Angela James about paranormal vs. contemporary romances, and why the fanbase for some paranormal series is more active, involved, and at times rabid than the fans for contemporary series.
This idea made me ponder for a good few weeks now about why that is.
First, the idea that a paranormal romance series can enjoy a more active and sometimes coordinated fanbase is true, but that doesn't mean there aren't well-coordinated efforts on behalf of contemporary romance series.
Susan Mallery's Fools Gold series not only has an active Facebook page, but she also has a “varsity cheerleader” squad made up of fans who promote and celebrate the series. Mallery's website also has quilt patterns, recipes, knitting patterns, and swag to buy and win.
Debbie Macomber also has a very active fanbase – and as I learned from her acceptance speech at RWA a few years ago, she also has an agent for film, tv, books, and knitting as well. A knitting agent. (I can think of a few friends who would LOVE to be knitting agents!) Macomber's community of fans rests on a similar premise to Mallery's: that there are activities related to her books and the community of her books that can remind readers of the feeling and experience of reading those books, even then they're not actually reading. So if they knit or cook or visit a bookstore, they can both reconnect with their own experience with the books they loved, and share that experience with others.
But paranormal fans are a different sort of fan group. Contemporary romance series fans may knit, cook, quilt or drag race (I'm kidding) (that would be cool) and relate their activities to the series, but paranormal series exist in a whole other world apart or parallel to this one. And that disconnection from present reality creates a more intimate connection for the reader to the series – if online behavior of those fangroups is any indication.
Stacey and James' discussion was focused on the GoodReads awards, which were decided by reader voting, and the results of which revealed which books had active clicking fans and not necessarily which books were absolutely the top of the year's publications. JR Ward: active fans, and winner of the best romance of the year, despite the book itself having mixed and some very detailed negative reviews.
As per Shannon and Angela's discussion, the paranormal fans are more likely to click links, rate books, review books and spread the word about a series they love – and connect with other readers. That's not to say that the contemporary fanbase can't be built among readers; I think the limitation is that the contemporary world building is reality-based, and ultimately the connected activities are both based in the real world (knitting, cooking, etc.) and focused on real-world promotion instead of online.
When I brought this up recently, because I was looking for the original tweets, Moira Rogers Bree said that her theory is “that lots of us spec-fic fans have a background of enthusiastic fandom participation.”
That's definitely part of it. There's an isolation in liking something that's somewhat marginalized, and, as Rogers Bree pointed out, speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction, and paranormal fans are accustomed to the books they like being unappreciated generally, and the ways in which they demonstrate that regard being misunderstood – so they band together closely. Comic Con, Dragon Con, and other conventions with lots of costume play are not going to be matched in attendance by any similar conventions focused on contemporary romance. There's little in the way of costuming, for one thing.
And that is part of why I think paranormal series have this powerful thrall over readers at times. On the surface, there's not that much difference between the structure and community of contemporary series and paranormal series (and yes, I'm lumping some UF titles in under the 'paranormal' umbrella for the purposes of this entry).
Both contemporary and paranormal romance have world building, and some authors are wonderfully skilled at it to the point where the reader believes these places exist – or wishes like hell they did. Forks and Caldwell are not so far away nor different from Fools Gold and Cedar Cove, in many ways.
Both contemporary and paranormal romance are frequently published in series, so there are multiple characters and multiple opportunities to visit or re-enter that world, so readers get an intimate knowledge of those characters, that place, and that community. This is, I believe, part of why small-community romance is popular: it's intimate and allows readers to visit characters in multiple editions similar to the way paranormal series allow readers to visit and intimately know a small group of characters.
What separates the contemporary and the paranormal worlds and series, and why the paranormal has such a stronger following, I believe, rests in the content of the books themselves, and the prevalence of secrecy, the repeated focus on a quest, and the enticement to demonstrate similar loyalty.
There's a secret world element to just about every paranormal series. Sometimes the secret is the intricacy of the world which the characters navigate.
But in every case, only readers of that series are familiar with the secret, and have a deeper level of shared intimate knowledge with fellow readers of the series. Whether the secret is the existence of a society apart and alongside of the human world, or the secret is a danger that threatens everyone, paranormal and human like, there is always something large, dark and scary hanging over the community as a threat and a villain that must be vanquished – preferably vanquished without anyone noticing much of anything.
Why does that translate into strident and active defense and promotion of the series? I think it is because of the idea that nature abhors a vacuum, coupled with reader generosity and book pushing. None of us wants to be alone in knowing the secret amazement of a book, and we want to share the reading experience with someone – but in order to fully share and experience it, we readers need more readers to embark on each book until they, too, know the secret and can discuss it in detail.
In many of the cases of books that have rabid followings – Twilight, Harry Potter, the Black Dagger Brotherhood, or Dark-Hunter series, for example – there's layers of secrets within the secret world that readers learn, and tensions that sometimes depend on keeping those secrets from the “outside” or “normal” world and from other characters inside that world. By reading these series, individuals enter that secret world merely because they know about it, and they can bring other people into that world by enticing them to read the books.
Repeated Focus on a Quest
As I mentioned, often in the larger story arc of the paranormal series, there's a “bigger big bad” or threat that hangs over the community, a much greater problem that must be solved by everyone or by The Most Special One (looking at you, Jesus H. Potter), as the series draws to a conclusion (if it ever does). There are repeated smaller and larger quests and demonstrations of fealty to one another, and to the larger mission.
Natty Mae asked on Twitter while I was discussing this entry as I wrote it, “why do so many paranormal series center around groups of angry men living in frat houses of the damned?”
I think that feeds both the dedication to the quest and the secrecy elements that influence fan engagement. Most of these groups of “angry men in frat houses of the damned” (HA) are bound together by task or quest, and must shield one another from the outside evil or temptation – which makes those pesky women they get paired off with one by one (in color coded order, in some series) even more of a temptation and threat. That too engages fans because it's another small community to focus on in repeated visits to that world with each new book, and another step to understanding the plot of the larger story taking place over several books.
Add to that the “team” mentality, and the proliferation of these paranormal world fan groups, and there's a competitiveness that I think appears once the group is well-established that collectively seeks to edge out one series over another, to promote one secret enclave over another in online and public spheres (which is a bit of an echo of the battle within the books).
Enticement to Demonstrate Loyalty
Because these books focus on action, bravery, and dedicated accomplishment and loyalty, and because there are often community-generated or author-generated rewards for being among the most active members of the community, readers who are privy to the secret world within the books can be similarly inspired to demonstrate their loyalty by actively promoting and devoting time to the series in whatever way speaks to them. Whether that's fan conventions, online chats, bulletin boards, reviews and supporting of other reviews, readers embrace the secret world, share it with one another, and participate in the culture of the world by mimicking it online. And, of course, readers promote it simply because they love it and want others to discover the series as well.
So that's my theory: paranormal series that feature a repeated large and small series of quests or adventures, and repeated demonstrations of strength, loyalty, and community focus, all within shrouded layers of secrecy, engage fans in a different manner than contemporary series. Perhaps this is why some contemporary (and historical) series have touches of paranormal now, in an effort to echo and attract those fans who can so fiercely defend and elevate a series they love.
What do you think? Are you part of a fan community devoted to a paranormal or contemporary series? Why do you think paranormal fans are so much more active and interactive than contemporary series readers?