Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Paranormal Romances: Better than X-Ray Vision for Critics!

I'm going to start this post the way I started my last one:

In my post on the definition of paranormal romances, Eric asked:
I wonder whether paranormal romance lends itself to allegorical reading, or at least metafictional reading. That is, does the "paranormal" part of the world correspond in some way to the world of romance experienced by the reader while reading the book itself--and, by extension, to the worlds of desire and love?
And once again my answer for Eric is an unqualified "Hell, yes!"

I've been thinking about this a lot more. Paranormal romances, evidence to the contrary, are not really my "thing." My "thing," for what it's worth, is romances with strong masculine perspective. Not necessarily the perspective of alpha males, but rather just lots and lots of the story told from the hero's point of view.

I know why this is and have actually published on it. My basic point in my article is that some women (I definitely include myself in this group) read romances in order to watch the hero fall in love, because we want to see that he's feeling the same emotions, the same pain and heartache and joy that we feel when we fall in love. We want to see ourselves (the feminine) and our emotions reflected in the alpha representative of patriarchy.(1) We also want to see the alpha male recognize, understand, and truly believe that he can't live without the heroine and without her love.(2) (This is why Susan Elizabeth Phillips' books are so powerful, in my opinion--the heroine comes to the realization that she can live without the hero, but the hero's big realization is that he absolutely can't live without the heroine--but that's another post. Or a future article.) And this need or desire doesn't have to be consciously recognized or understood by the reader by any means. But the sharp increase in the hero's perspective, especially during initial sex scenes and the final reconciliation scene, as well as the focus on masculine communities (brothers, SEALs, vampires, football players) in best-selling series are, I argue, not coincidences.

Some paranormal romances, I have figured out recently, don't need to mess around with alluding to these theoretical underpinnings of the romance. They can make them theoretical overalls that are immediately available for the critic's use and enjoyment without needing to search hard for them. They are metafictional to the nth degree and almost point neon signs to the reason for the reader's enjoyment of the romance.

Take, for example, Laura Kinsale's Uncertain Magic. The heroine is psychic and can read the mind of everyone around her. This is represented as a curse, not a blessing and the unhappy romantic fates of Roddy's female ancestors who also had the gift are explicitly described. When Roddy meets Faelan, an impoverished Irish Lord with a reputation as a madman and murderer, she cannot read his mind. She uses her incredibly large dowry to buy his proposal and marries him, convinced this is her only chance at happiness. The story is told entirely from Roddy's perspective, and because she cannot read Faelan's mind, neither can the reader. Kinsale herself says:
until the very end, the entire story is told solely from the heroine's point-of-view. Initially, I chose this technique to emphasize Roddy's inability to "read" Faelan's mind, but after I completed the manuscript, I realized what a powerful narrative technique it can be.
When Roddy finally breaks through Faelan's mental walls in the last few pages, his thoughts are almost like crack for the reader (I tried to think of a more professional way to say that, but "crack" really conveys the addictive, high-inducing nature for the reader of finally reading Faelan's thoughts).

In her recent lightning review of Kinsale's novels, Candy, one of the Smart Bitches summarizes the issue of perspective in Uncertain Magic:
I missed having Faelan’s perspective, but because of the way the story is structured and because so much of the plot hinges on solving the enigma of why Faelan’s mind is closed off, it has to be told only from Roddy’s POV.
This is where the X-Ray vision comes in. If romances are, fundamentally, about the reader's access to the hero's thoughts and emotions, Kinsale's use of the paranormal gift of mind-reading in Uncertain Magic makes this theme overt.

I've already discussed Nora Roberts' Midnight Bayou as meta-romance, but I think it's worth adding a snippet of what I said in the comments to that post:
Because all romance heroes, are, of course, created by women. They're "reincarnations" of women in the image of what we wish men could be. And Declan's unique status [as a reincarnated woman] unveils that aspect of romance novels, but still gives us our HEA.
Just as Faelan does.

Then there's a new paranormal romance anthology out called Over the Moon. Angela Knight's contribution, "Moon Dance," is about a female werewolf whose father insists she marry an abusive werewolf to preserve her aristocratic werewolf line. She refuses and runs away to seek protection from a "bitten" rather than "born" werewolf who is a cop and obviously alpha. After they first have sex, she muses in the morning:
All her life, she'd dreamed of a man like him. Then again, she supposed every red-blooded woman in America had dreamed of a man like Lucas Rollings--body by God, face of an archangel, a protective streak a mile wide. Who wouldn't want somebody like that by her side?

But there was more to him than great abs and an Alpha male growl. She remembered the vulnerability in his eyes when he'd described his abusive childhood. He'd gone out of his way to assuage her guilt and convince her he admired her for her battle against Stephen and her father.

When she thought about it, that little confession of his was pretty unusual all by itself. Most Alphas would rather eat glass than admit they'd ever been anyone's victim. It ran against the whole persona. (67-68)
First of all, werewolf stories make overt the fact that the heroes of romances are alpha males. And while Elena desperately needs the literal protection of Lucas' alpha status, she is also looking for a vulnerability in her hero that she (and the reader) recognizes because she feels it as well. Elena literally seeks Lucas out to solve her problems, a trait of male-male dialogue practices, but just as important to the success of their relationship is the fact that he can also empathize with her, a trait of female-female dialogue practices.(3)

Later, Lucas and Elena "spirit link." As they both change to were-form, their spirits mingle and link forever, to the extent that if one of a spirit-linked pair dies, so does the other. This process is told from Lucas' perspective:
Touching her mind was like laying naked in warm sunlight after a cold winter. His spirit unfurled with a hungry desperation, enfolding her and bringing her close.

Just as she enfolded him. Together...

, a voice said deep inside him. This is what I was looking for all along.

The alpha male, in his pure form, is desperate for connection to the female, desperate to be enfolded within her, and this is what he has been looking for all along. The male is not complete without the intimate connection to the female, and this is a powerful concept for the reader.

Virginia Kantra's contribution to Over the Moon is "Between the Mountain and the Moon." (WARNING: Spoilers ahead!) Unbeknownst to the heroine, she is the child of a father who spent fourteen years in the Fey kingdom in the Appalachian Mountains along the Appalachian Trail until he was saved by the heroine's mother. The fey Queen who was defeated by the heroine's mother is looking for revenge and chooses to enact it against the heroine. The Queen uses her own son, Rhys, who is himself half-human, although his father "left" when Rhys was eight by abandoning his human emotions and becoming full fey.

When Rhys and the heroine, Caitlin, have sex (she's a virgin and doesn't have an orgasm!), rather than Caitlin being enchanted and therefore destroyed by the sex as was Rhys' intention, Rhys' finds himself reeling from the emotional energy of their coupling:
Instead, she had destroyed him. Challenged him. Not merely sexually--he might have coped with that--but emotionally.

He could barely forgive her for that.

Or himself. (133)
The hero--that representation of inscrutable patriarchy--finds himself stunned by the emotional importance of what he meant to be not only a one-time, casual sexual encounter, but one that was meant to devastate the heroine instead, while the heroine remains relatively untouched.

Later, Caitlin casually touches Rhys' arm:
Rhys tensed. He couldn't help himself. The sidhe did not touch except in the formal figures of the dance or the equally deliberate moves of sex. Every time Cait touched him, she breached the walls he'd learned to construct to protect the sniveling, abandoned, eight-year-old child within. (144)
Rhys' traditionally masculine defenses of emotionlessness and casual sex are systematically threatened by his heroine. He finds himself helpless in the face of the artless acceptance of the heroine.

And in the end, it is Caitlin's love for Rhys that literally saves him from being torn apart by the Wild Hunt. She confronts the Hunter King who was once Rhys' human father, finally begging him, "Please . . . You were alive once. You were in love once. Please. Let him go" (182). It is the King's memory of the human love he felt for a woman that eventually saves his son, Rhys, from Rhys' mother's vengeance.

All because of the love of a good woman.

Paranormal romances bring to the forefront the theoretical foundations of the appeal of the romance. While these foundations are present in most "mundane" romances, paranormal romances make them overt, make them--in fact--the major plot point on which the salvation of the hero depends.

(1). This summary is the quick and dirty version, without the discussion of Foucault's theory of confession. See my article, "'Expressing' Herself: The Romance Novel and the Feminine Will to Power," in Scorned Literature: Essays on the History and Criticism of Popular Mass-Produced Fiction in America. Eds. Lydia Cushman Schurman and Deidre Johnson. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2002. 17-36.

(2). This last argument actually comes from my article, "'If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more': Direct Dialogue and Education in the Proposal Scenes," in Talk in Jane Austen. Eds. Bruce Stovel and Lynn Weinlos-Gregg. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2002. 167-182.

(3). See Deborah Tannen's You Just Don't Understand: Men and Women in Conversation).


  1. I found this really interesting because I look for such different things in romance. I agree that these features are present in many romances, and I'm sure they do explain the appeal these romances have for many women. For me, though, these features are ones which alienate me. It seems that so much of what makes these novels appealing to some women, and what makes them explorations of some women's fantasies and fears, is speaking to experiences and needs which aren't mine.

    For example, I tend to assume that both parties will feel the same about each other, but I find the idea that either party can't live without the other worrying. To me that suggests obsession. I can't remember the line precisely, but at the end of Heyer's Frederica, when the heroine thinks she may be in love, she asks if love means feeling not quite happy or being irritable when the person she loves isn't there. And Lord Alverstoke agrees that that's what love is. It seems that for them being without the other creates a niggling sense of not-quite-rightness, but not a devastating feeling of aloneness or a sense that they will perish without the other. You get a similar sense in Austen's Persuasion that Captain Wentworth can live without Anne. He's done it for years, after all. But he's much happier with her.

    I much prefer this depiction of love because it makes me feel as though the protagonists are continuously making a choice to stay together. For me this makes marriage/romantic relationships seem more of an organic, ever-changing and growing thing over which humans have some control and for which they have to take responsibility, rather than a sort of magic spell which binds them forever. And it suggests more of a continuum between romantic love and other kinds e.g. love of friends, family etc.

    Re masculinity and 'the focus on masculine communities (brothers, SEALs, vampires, football players)', again this is something that doesn't have any resonance for me, probably because the men I know have similar interests to the women I know, or at least, the interests they have aren't easily divided into men having 'masculine' interests and women having 'feminine' ones.

    Re the image of what we wish men could be again, I don't have one ideal of what I wish men could be. I know what I like about my husband, but I see men as individuals, rather than as part of a group (and the same goes for women). I suppose I just don't see that great a divide between 'men' and 'women'. I see people, all of whom are different. So for me, romances which are exploring the type of masculinity you describe, and contrasting it with 'female' values/needs just don't fit with my experience. I wonder if this takes us back to some of the discussions we had earlier on the blog about archetypes, what's erotic, and the two poles of romance described by Northrop Frye. I'm sure it's no coincidence that Laura Kinsale's books and views featured prominently in that discussion too.

    she supposed every red-blooded woman in America had dreamed of a man like Lucas Rollings--body by God, face of an archangel, a protective streak a mile wide. Who wouldn't want somebody like that by her side?

    Hmm. So could it be that this is more of an American thing? It's the 'protective streak a mile wide' that's jarring, for me. I've noticed that this is something that turns up a lot in American romances, but it's not something I or my female friends have ever looked for in a man. I don't know if that's because we're in the UK and the construct of masculinity is a bit different here, or just because I happen to be friends with people who have somewhat similar ideas to mine.

    I feel I should apologise because this comment is very much about me, but I can't help but use myself as an example of a different sort of reader, who prefers a different type of story. However, the very fact that I do prefer a different type of story, and that I immediately recognise what you're describing, makes me think that you're right in what you say about why this kind of story is so prevalent in the genre and why it appeals to so many women.

  2. The "protective streak" thing jarred me too--not what I look for in real life, but I'll admit it's often there in the heroes of the romances I enjoy. I don't think I'd be able to live with ANY of the heroes I enjoy reading about, though, and my husband is certainly nothing like them, so it's all relative. That's what bugs me about critics saying that romance heroes are what readers are REALLY looking for. No--reading experience is different from real life experience and the READERS know that, even if most critics don't.

    As to the paranormal romanace trope of "they were meant for each other." That bugs me, too. I said that paranormals were not really my thing, and this is mostly why. I stopped reading Christine Feehan precisely because of this--absolutely no conflict between the characters, to my mind, because they're instantly meant for each other and know it, so they don't fight it at all, and don't have to work at the relationship. I really hope J.R. Ward doesn't get sucked into this problem, because her characters have similar feelings.

    I did a lightning review of Jory Strong's Spirits Shared, a m/m/f menage book available at Ellora's Cave, on my personal blog and had precisely this problem when I read it: "There was no conflict. Jory Strong certainly tried to manufacture conflict: would they have sex now or later? How submissive would she be? But the upshot of the paranormal element was that the three of them were meant for each other....there's absolutely no doubt BEFORE they [have sex]that they're going to stay together for ever and EVAH. Which is kinda boring, if you ask me. Yes, erotic romance (or Romantica, as Ellora's Cave has TMed it), is still a ROMANCE and therefore needs the HEA. But if that means you're going to give the reader the HEA before the characters MEET, just so that you can spend more time on the [sex], I'm not really interested. If I wanted that, I'd read porn or true erotica, where it's all about the one encounter, rather than about a HEA. I've got enough good erotica, I don't need to find it misnamed as romantica. Hot sex does not equal romance, even if characters have HEA. You've still gotta have conflict--real, life-altering, character-driven, tough-decision-time, get-over-yourself conflict."

    So I agree with you there. But the two stories in OTM were short stories and I think they handled the meant-for-each-other-ness well. In fact, in the Kantra, they were meant, but the conflict is to whether that will actually happen because of external conflict, so it worked out well.

    I go for ALL the masculine communities!! :D Suzanne Brockmann's SEALs, Susan Elizabeth Phillips' football players (new one out next week! Woohoo!), J.R. Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood, Nora Roberts' Quinn brothers, so I know of what I speak. And other readers obviously do, too, because all these series are best-sellers. And yes, the authors have other skills that make them rise above the rest of Romancelandia, as the Smart Bitches call it, but I think their appeal is also directly related to their male characters.

    I love seeing that other people read for different reasons. The post recently on Smart Bitches about reading expectations between SF/F readers and romance readers was like exploring another world for me. I almost couldn't imagine reading for the reasons the SF/F readers were listing. So it is all personal, all about one individual reading experience. What we try to do as critics, I guess, is extrapolate that into more general experiences, which is both our gift and what gets us in serious serious trouble sometimes!

  3. reading experience is different from real life experience and the READERS know that, even if most critics don't.

    Yes, there's been a lot of discussion in online communities that I've visited about the difference between the readers' fantasies and their reality (e.g. they like to read about an alpha, protective hero but in real life wouldn't want to be married to that sort of man, or they find 'bad boys' attractive to think and read about, but probably wouldn't trust one in real life). There are exceptions there too, like the readers who say they are married to a former 'bad boy' or a man who's very alpha.

    But for me these types don't work either as a 'fantasy' or in real life. I suppose my 'fantasy'/reading 'life' is as mundane as my real one. I mean literally 'mundane' as opposed to leaning towards myth and heroic heroes.

    What we try to do as critics, I guess, is extrapolate that into more general experiences, which is both our gift and what gets us in serious serious trouble sometimes!

    I know, and people sometimes think that academics are completely objective, when of course we can't be. It's different if the subject is pure maths, but objectivity isn't possible when it comes to literature, because we all bring our own cultural baggage to the texts. And if we're writing about reader responses we can't really know for sure how typical we are unless we do a lot of surveys, and even then the questions we ask may influence the answers we get. That's one reason I tend to stick to analysing themes, imagery etc, because then I don't have to worry about other readers' responses. I can still get into trouble, of course, because if the author's background is very, very, different from mine I might be making very big and very mistaken assumptions about the sub-texts in a novel. So I'm always ready to be corrected.

  4. Sarah, you and Laura might both be interested in the discussion about types of heroes that's going on this week over at Michelle's Romance By the Blog. The first entry is here: They keep going all week, evidently.

    (The guest blogs, not the heroes--sorry, couldn't resist!)

    I need to spend some time thinking through my own reaction to various heroes, I suppose. What are the approaches out there in the criticism? Hmmm... There's Radway's (the hero is really the nurturing Mother); and Kinsale's (the hero is a part of the female reader's psyche); there's Krentz's (the hero is Black Beauty, whose taming proves the heroine's power). Each of these can be useful, depending on the book, but surely none is sufficient for all books, and I'd love to hear about (or have us generate) more!

  5. Put that way (with hero as mother, the reader's psyche or horse), I'm beginning to wonder if the hero as a person (and not the embodiment of something else) would be a really radical theory? ;-)

    Sorry, that was me being flippant. To be serious again, I think these theories probably work best to describe romances at the more mythical end of Frye's spectrum.

  6. Too funny, Laura! :D

    My heroes are definitely men--that's the point. And the alpha-er (?!) the better. But men falling in love, men with emotions is what I want, which I guess is closer to Krentz than anyone else, with some Kinsale thrown in.

  7. Eric, yes, I'm really interested in what you like about romances. Do you read them for the heroine and put up with the hero, like I put up with the heroine for the hero? Do you read them purely to analyze them or do you enjoy them then go back to analyze them? Do you like seeing the characters grow together, or do you focus on the plot rather than the relationship?

    Really curious about a man's POV.

  8. "Really curious about a man's POV."

    So I gather!

    I'll need to think (and write) about this at some length, Sarah. When I read romances during the school year, especially during a quarter when I'm teaching a romance class, it's hard for me to take off my cap and gown and have the sort of "natural" reading experience that would make the best source of reflections on this topic. My gut sense is that I read different books differently, and find different pleasures in them, even when I'm not actively thinking about my courses, so I'll have to mull this over for a while. But I will answer, I promise!

  9. Hi Sarah,
    Thanks, this is a great Post. You raised many intriguing questions and considerations for me. For example, regarding your Comment to Nora Roberts, "Because all romance heroes, are, of course, created by women. They're 'reincarnations' of women in the image of what we wish men could be." As I thought about the heroes in my romance novels, I tentatively concluded that maybe my men (the heroes in my book) represent the kind of man I wish I were(?). Interesting.

  10. I much prefer this depiction of love because it makes me feel as though the protagonists are continuously making a choice to stay together. For me this makes marriage/romantic relationships seem more of an organic, ever-changing and growing thing over which humans have some control and for which they have to take responsibility, rather than a sort of magic spell which binds them forever.

    Yes, exactly. I'm another reader that's looking for this type of romance. Reading the other sort of story is, at best, like eating a carob chip cookie when what I want is chocolate. Kind of similar, but it doesn't really hit the spot. It's probably the same for readers who want the more mythic stories, when they come across something more mundane.

    I really wish there were some way to distinguish between the two.

    My main problem with the kind of story talked about in the post is, I think, how steeped it is in ideas of essential gender difference that are, imo, terribly confining. And, at times, almost parodic in the way it turns culturally enforced behaviors into products of nature.
    The supernatural bond can imply that, in their natural state, men and women are so different as to almost belong to different species which cannot connect with each other. That's an idea that makes me rather sad.

  11. Re: Supernatural Bonds

    A sudden thought this morning.

    We've been approaching this through Frye's notion of "destiny" as a mask, in effect, for the real force at work in any story: authorial desire and design. These may not always go in tandem, I gather; there are authors who insist that their characters refuse to do what the author wanted, or lead the story in unexpected ways, but I take it that such moments show the author's unconscious sense of literary design at work, over-ruling her conscious intentions. (On some level, she knows or senses that a longed-for plot development would spoil some other logic or structure in the story, for example.)

    From that perspective, the topos of h/hn as pre-destined soul-mates could seem lazy or a case of overkill. Of course they're "destined" to be together, the reader may respond; the conventions of romance have already taken care of that!

    What, though, if we look at the proliferation of this topos as answering some perceived desire or anxiety in the reader? What might it meet or assuage?

    My thought this morning is that it addresses a dilemma that the newspapers and magazines were full of a couple of years ago: what sociologist Barry Schwartz calls "the paradox of choice." (He has a book by that name; there's a good review of it in the New Yorker here:

    Perhaps there is some part of the market, some set of readers, who dislike the feeling that there are (or might have been) other choices or options out there--in this case, other romantic partners. How then to be entirely satisfied with the one you have or have ended up with, knowing that had any number of purely contingent factors played out differently, you might have ended up with someone else? Would that have been better? Was this the right decision? Can I even make a decision, knowing that it forbids other options? (Such anxieties are well documented in psychological literature, and I can hunt up some sources if anyone likes.)

    The "fated soul-mate" romance novel, then, offers an immediate innoculation against this anxiety of choice. While reading it, one inhabits a world where destinies are not just ineluctable, but also overt, asking only to be embraced with a sort of amor fati. (That's what, Nietzche? Ecce Homo? Will need to check and see.)

    I guess I'm trying to use this topos to map the unspoken need it could fulfill: a surplus of inevitability that assuages the anxieties brought on by a surplus of choice. This move might even help explain how such texts revive those "ideas of essential gender difference": that is, they speak a nostalgia for such differences in the face of their breakdown in real life.

    Hmm... put that way, of course, it sounds like a banal observation. Grrr! What do you all think? Am I on to something, or spinning my wheels?

  12. No, I absolutely think that's a valid observation. I'm not saying the topos doesn't work sometimes. It worked for me for the first few Feehan books and definitely works for J.R. Ward, so far. But when it works, the authors add other conflicts, rather than just, "I'm meant for him? Oh, okay. Let's go do it." And I'll admit it adds an edge to the story, knowing that the characters are PERFECT for each other, and I can absolutely see that coming from subliminal concerns with the perception of rising divorce rates and second and third marriages messing with the idea of one partner meant for the other and no one else that Western marriage has been based on for 200 years. If it's paranormal, you know you were meant, and that overwhelms all other more mundane concerns about melding two different lives into one shared life.

    I'm reading Stephanie Coontz's The History of Marriage right now. I know Laura's talked about it before, but it's a fabulous book, and I got some of my ideas in this comment from her discussion of the effects of changes in the purpose of marriage over the millenia.

  13. The anxiety caused by choice hypothesis might also suggest a reason why stories about arranged marriages/marriages of convenience are still popular in the romance genre despite them being so very, very rare in Western society any more. [Although it could also be argued that the marriage of convenience plot is an easy way for authors to get the hero and heroine in close proximity, that would only explain the appeal of this setup for authors; it wouldn't explain its appeal for readers.]

    The article you linked to, (I've just put the link in again, because I couldn't get your link to work properly) suggests two different types of anxiety caused by an excess of choice.

    One is that people might wonder if they've made the right choice, which leads to the 'grass is greener' type speculations. Being certain that a partner is a soul-mate bonded for life would sort out that problem.

    The second possible anxiety caused by the amount of choice available is that caused by the very act of choosing. Consumers sometimes feel overwhelmed by choice in the supermarket and, similarly, single people can feel overwhelmed by the complexities of having to date. If fate steps in and finds the ideal partner for you, that simplifies things hugely, so I think it might be an appealing fantasy from that point of view too.