Kitty: Oh hai Impish Idea! You may not actually remember me! I have no idea who is running the site anymore! Joining me is Mr. Cratylus, who I felt was uniquely qualified to discuss romance novels.

Cratylus: What.

K: We’re talking about that section at Barnes and Noble with the long name. The most bizarrely specific genre.

C: You should stop putting off that article about Mary Sues, and that other article about how to make fictional worlds. And maybe that comic.

K: Please to be stop talking now. The question on the table is “can teen paranormal romance be good?” I’m of the opinion that any idea, no matter how stupid, can be executed in a way that’s enjoyable. But I don’t think the 2012 literary climate is very encouraging to “good” paranormal romance.

C: Twilight will probably be felt for generations to come. Like a famine. Unlike a famine, there was no diaspora.

K: You don’t know that, you’ve been dead for centuries.

C: Now perhaps you should define “paranormal romance” as a genre.

K: Sure! Long version or short version?

C: Please, don’t make this hurt more than it already is.

K: So the genre is called “teen paranormal romance” most of the time, which has its own section at Barnes & Noble that is substantially larger than the comics section. It invariably features the bland, bitchy Protagonist who may or may not be accompanied by some bland, bitchy friends. Protagonist has never really been intimate with anyone, and if she has, she is still most likely a virgin. She is said to be intelligent and mature, and she thinks of herself as plain, probably while describing physical features negatively that are not actually negative.

C: Your readers will very much buy that overlarge eyes or full lips or too-long legs or a deathly pale complexion are undesireable, because your readers have all hopped out of time machines from the year 1850.

K: Protagonist is disaffected, stuck in a rut, or otherwise just bored with her daily routine. Something interrupts said routine—she moves to a new town, attends a new school, there’s a new kid, whatever—and the story usually begins around this point. Protagonist falls in with the supposedly mysterious and compelling Bishounen who is drawn to her for some reason or another, and he’s a cold, distant jerkbag or a way-too-forward walking sexual harassment lawsuit. Bishounen is revealed to be a vampire, fallen angel, worwilf—

C: Werewolf.

K: Wurrwulf, or whatever fantasy humanoid can be made to look pretty. It is then revealed that Protagonist is different somehow and therefore deserving of this magical creature’s attention. More often than not, this difference has something to do with how tasty she would be, how tasty her soul would be, or how much power she would lend Bishounen if he killed her. But he doesn’t do any of those things because reasons. She is also targeted by something else, perhaps the Rival vampire angel warwhippet who intends to hurt her or use her or kill her. Or maybe a whole clan of them! Get creative! And then at the end, Bishounen saves her, Rival is killed or neutralized or escapes to set up a sequel for the inevitable (INEVITABLE) trilogy, with a surprise fourth book if the author is feeling particularly saucy. The end.

C: Scintillating. When you put it that way, I can see why you would have a hard time making the case that paranormal romance can be good.

K: Which is why I’m asking you to fix it. Fix the genre.

C: Ugh. Okay. Let me just list all of the possible subversions of the Twilight plot…

K: Really? You have 5 hours until sunup and you are choosing to occupy that time with a boring-ass list?

C: ssssiiiiiiiiiiiighhhh … Right, you would think that the first thing wrong is the protagonist. Obvious, isn’t it, that you wouldn’t read a story where you hated the character through whom you viewed the plot. However, in a lot of romance novels, if you don’t like the viewpoint character, it doesn’t matter because you will be given niblets of man-candy throughout, and the narrator is usually such a dull non-entity that it doesn’t matter if you dislike her.

K: I dunno, I find it hard to stave off the waves of disgust that tumble over me whenever I’m exposed to Bella Swan for longer than a couple seconds.

C: Bella’s a special case. Anyway, since fixing the protagonist isn’t really a priority for this genre, let’s see about fixing the protagonist’s friends. What do good friends do when they see their friend with a guy who is clearly a huge jerk?

K: I was about to say that in high school it depends on how attractive he is, but the author doesn’t even have that excuse. High schoolers are stupid, but by and large they aren’t sociopaths, and they’d probably start noticing when a friend got a lot more bruises and injuries since she started seeing a dude (BELLA I AM LOOKING AT YOU) or if they were potentially attacked by the guy or the guy is visibly a bad person (THIS GLARE IS FOR NORA).

C: Right. That doesn’t really excuse their friends having their one singular personality trait make them unaware of what’s wrong with the protagonist.

K: They only have room for “chipper” or “obnoxious” or “flighty.” They can’t cram “thoughtful” in there anywhere! You’re asking too much.

C: I think it’s well-established that readers of paranormal romance never ever care about the friend characters, and they end up being completely irrelevant to the plot anyway. They’re just there so the narrator has someone to talk about the love interest with.

K: Having two or three girls in a story does not necessarily guarantee it will pass the Bechdel test, I guess.

C: What about the love interest?

K: Well, he’s attractive.

C: Attractive, mysterious, fascinating, intellectually similar to the narrator. He usually has more personality than the protagonist, but it’s comprised of more unsavory things than your average fellow. The readers very definitely don’t want this bit fixed, because…I don’t know. I have no idea why.

K: I don’t really, either, but there are some personality types who are attracted to the idea of being used sexually and not having any choice in the matter because it absolves them of the shame or blame associated with consensual-ness. That’s not to say girls who have this kind of fantasy want to be raped, they just want to let go and not have much, if any, control of the situation. They’re not uncommon and I don’t think they’re unhealthy but I do think this sort of thought has an underlying, damaging cause in some people. Girls in American culture in particular are usually taught that sex is a bad thing to have when they’re still teenagers, and for some girls actually reading about sex is off-putting or gives them guilt enough that reading it just isn’t enjoyable. So, the G-rated version. Expect inappropriate touching or hungry stares or, uh, slamming against walls. And descriptions of need and want and other such piddle.

C: Piddle?

K: Now that I’ve gotten the horrible sex part over with, high schoolers really want to be special and better. This is often kind of nebulous, they don’t know in particular what they want to be special for, they just want to be recognized and affirmed and superior. Some quick and easy ways to make the narrator, and thus the reader, unique are to make her the only “smart” girl in the story and make her be the most mature student there, as well as having her be the only one who resists Bishounen’s mind powers—or is really really delicious to whatever Bishounen may be. Protagonist is better than other humans because she is “smart” and “mature” and “level-headed,” Bishounen is better than other humans because he’s a physically and mentally superior fantasy humanoid. They are obviously made for each other because if Bishounen went out with Obligatory School Bitch or Obligatory Supernatural Ex Girlfriend, who are both dumb as boards, he would just be insulting himself. Both she and he are supposed to appeal to the reader’s deep, forbidden desire to be better than other people despite her plainness, and by extension, have a mate who is better than other people.

C: Oh. Well then.

K: In conclusion, no, the reader does not want Bishounen fixed.

C: The other story elements aren’t entirely flawed. There’s something to be said about battles between supernatural creatures occuring just under the surface of our everyday boring world. What else could be going on that we don’t know about? This setup neatly taps into the human desire to understand the unknown, and to interact with things that may think wildly differently from ourselves.

K: So do you want to clubfight? I technically count as a Gorgon.

C: No thank you. This plot might be a bit more interesting if it weren’t driven entirely by the idiocy of the characters. The narrators seem far too willing to wander where they know full well may be bad territory, but they press on anyway, perhaps in a misguided effort by the author to demonstrate bravery. Who knows. I do think this plot, even with the romance angle, could be done well. But the reader doesn’t really care about the supernatural world plot. It’s there to make tension, sure, it’s there to make you worry if the love interest will get there in time to save the narrator, but ultimately it doesn’t matter too much.

K: Soooo…?

C: So I think the chief problem with this genre is that almost everything feels superfluous. Paranormal romance is what it sounds like—“paranormal” and “romantic”—but everything else is just a load of canned icing on top, that is to say, insubstantial, not very filling, and probably bad for you. The other chief problem, or vice problem if you will, is that the reader base simply doesn’t care about the mediocrity. This is something that has gone back since romance stories have existed—mediocrity sprinkled with pretty embellishments and the occasional smattering of intrigue so that the reader holds their breath and exhales when it all gets better. Why fix what isn’t broken? They’ll still be sold and read, and as long as that holds true, they will be continue to be written.

K: This bums me out for the same reason that many chick flicks bum me out. These things are written by women intended for women, and they are overly maudlin and dull with a lot of contrived stuff happening to one-note characters.

C: Why do you think that is?

K: Umm…uhh…

C: Come now, use your brainmash.

K: Wellll…one could make the argument that a chick flick, like any other Hollywood film, must be greenlighted before production can start. And the people responsible for greenlighting movies are mostly dudes. So, maybe said dudes think that a female-dominated, female-produced film will only appeal to females if it’s sappy and stupid and insulting. Film that shit, we’ll make millions. What I’m saying is they might be out of touch, and they, not being women themselves, probably have a warped view of what women actually like.

C: Alternatively, they know this type of film will get asses into seats for the same reason mindless action films will get asses into seats.

K: You’re saying that Sleepless in Seattle is the female equivalent of Escape from New York?

C: Yes, actually. Both are dumb, unchallenging, unabashed female/male fantasies respectively, intended not to make you think but to make you pay for a ticket. There’s still the issue where chick flicks get a lot more public and critical bile than silly action movies, but I choose to believe that’s because most people complaining about chick flicks are just those who don’t want to watch them, and most critics complaining about chick flicks feel like they’re far below their ability to review.

K: Then this probably applies broadly to paranormal romance in the sense that it’s a guilty pleasure genre. I guess the male equivalents are probably Warhammer novels or Witchblade?

C: Let’s go with that.

K: That’s not to say women don’t read those, I’m just saying it’s mostly guys who read those.

C: I’ve forgotten what point you’re trying to make here.

K: The point is…paranormal romance can probably be good.

C: “Probably” here is written in 20-meter letters and painted red. There are a lot of factors going into why good paranormal romance will be rarely published; that is to say, all media and genres have tried-and-true, paint-by-numbers guaranteed cashrakers, and this is what will dominate in whatever industry the media belongs to. It also depends a lot on marketing. Look here, a black book with a minimalist white and red cover and a thin lowcaps font! It must be like Twilight, and it usually is. Look there, a brown and grey first person realistic military shooter with a fellow in a soldier’s uniform at the middle of the box! It must be Call of Duty, and it usually is. The Twilightesque allows for an escapist female fantasy about being special and adored by someone better than human. The shooter is an escapist male fantasy about guns and warfare with no consequences beyond being set back a couple of minutes when death occurs. I do think these are roughly the same—it’s just that female-oriented media tend to receive a lot more spit from those not in the target audience.

K: Why’s that?

C: Beats me. You should ask for people to discuss it in the comments.

K: No! I am afraid of the bile!

C: Let them throw up on you.

K: Hey, the sun’s coming up.

C: Is it?

K: Yeah, it’s like, that big glowing blob of fire over that hilltop.

C: Huh.

Super Secret Hella Announcement
Aforementioned articles will happen soon, but I’m also working on a spork of the Draco Trilogy. You may recognize their author, Cassandra Clare, from back when she spelled her name with an i.

Tagged as:

Comment

  1. Epke on 8 September 2012, 10:29 said:

    Hehehe, warwhippet… I remember you, Kitty! And your awesome, awesome MS Paintings! “I am so pretentious… DERP!”

    I think most paranormal romance books are also projections of the author: when they write it, they (some more consciously than others) are writing about themselves with a different name, when they were younger etc. in what they perceive as the “ultimate teen fantasy”. And they always assign their protagonist (the self-insert, more or less) some quality they think themselves had in high school when everyone else was dumb, boring, shallow and usually prettier and cooler – little realising that they were exactly the same: they just had a higher opinion of themselves because they read books in public.
    I also think that the reason why they go with paranormal stuff is to show how the protagonist, who is basically every reader once published, is too good for the rest of humanity and needs a special, supernatural affirmation of her role. Absolute tripe, really.

    Bile for everyone!

  2. Danielle on 8 September 2012, 13:23 said:

    Yay! Kitty’s back! Your MS Paint comics should hang in a museum. :p

    Anyway….

    Loved the article. It hit on some good points I hadn’t considered, like why so many Bellas in paranormal romance seem to have borderline rape fantasies… That it essentially means a negation of guilt and/or blame makes a lot of sense.

    To give my $.02 cents on your question: I think female-oriented fantasies get more bad press from their opponents than male-oriented fantasies do because the latter are easier to swallow. There’s no stalking, almost-rape or any other criminal behavior from the male lead. More often than not, the male lead is the one opposing this behavior, as it is sometimes exhibited by the villain. Look at Taken, for instance. Brian Mills rescues his daughter from an international prostitution ring, who do all the things you’d expect them to do. They are the villains here, and they are the ones stalking, kidnapping and raping women. Mills is the one opposing this—whether the victim is his daughter or not—and so the audience has no trouble accepting him as the hero.

    In the female equivalent, it’s often the hero who acts like a villain. He stalks the female lead, forces her into situations where she is virtually powerless, and talks often of killing her. Were this a film like Taken, our lead would be on the run from the girl’s father or boyfriend or brother, but in this genre the audience is supposed to accept him as the hero, and his actions as romantic. But there’s a dissonance here: Isn’t this guy the villain? Why does the heroine think this is romantic? Because the audience recognizes him as the villain, seeing him treated like a hero provokes disbelief and anger.

  3. Nossus on 8 September 2012, 13:37 said:

    In the above comment, Edward Cullen is compared to a brutal human trafficking organization… sounds legit.

  4. Danielle on 8 September 2012, 13:44 said:

    If there were more of him….

  5. Kitty on 8 September 2012, 14:18 said:

    @ Epke:

    “they always assign their protagonist (the self-insert, more or less) some quality they think themselves had in high school when everyone else was dumb, boring, shallow and usually prettier and cooler – little realising that they were exactly the same: they just had a higher opinion of themselves because they read books in public.”

    This is exactly it. I’ve known several girls like this before, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they ended up writing the next bestsellers of this genre.

    @ Danielle:

    That’s a good point, but in some male fantasy stories, the protagonist is just as much a sociopath as the antagonist. The one that jumps to mind is (of course) Escape from New York. There’s also the God of War franchise after the first game, because while the first game was a fairly well-structured classical tragedy, the stories of the second and third were just Kratos being a douchebag.

  6. Danielle on 8 September 2012, 16:58 said:

    Ah. I haven’t seen Escape from New York, and most of the male fantasy I’ve seen is more Taken or Die Hard than Warhammer. In that case….I don’t know. I guess I’d have to see more of the negative types of male fantasy to give a decent answer.

  7. Mingnon on 8 September 2012, 17:55 said:

    This post has mostly to do with male and female protagonist roles as well as what kind of love interest(s) they’re given:

    There were also examples of male protagonists being able to get away with having multiple ‘girls of the week’ (007 and Indiana Jones for instance). Whereas in Romance and Paranormal Romance, female protagonists can only get away with a maximum of two male love interests for the express purpose of a ‘love triangle’.

    This compared to dating sims; while both mostly deal with choosing one character to date and eventually fall in love, male-oriented H-games (Or Eroge) are usually the ones where you can choose to have sex. Female-oriented H-games, when there are any, tend to have two different routes per date; a ‘pure love’ route and a ‘love/hate’ route. The latter brand of H-game seeming to come from Shoujo manga, which deal with either a will they vs. won’t they plot, or a plot involving a boyfriend from Hell.

    The will they vs. won’t they also occurs in male-oriented manga, only then in the form of harems, so males can pick from a variety of girls versus the shoujo’s one or two.

    To put my rambling in short; Males are expected to enjoy having multiple partners, while females are limited to one or two guys. One of them being almost always the arsehole.

  8. Tim on 8 September 2012, 18:11 said:

    There were also examples of male protagonists being able to get away with having multiple ‘girls of the week’ (007 and Indiana Jones for instance).

    Apparently at least in Bond’s case this was deliberately ended during Dalton’s tenure as Bond due to the 80s paranoia re: AIDS.

  9. Juracan on 8 September 2012, 18:32 said:

    It’s interesting that you bring up chick flicks, seeing as I’ve often compared their continued paint-by-numbers existence to the popularity of “teen paranormal romance.” It’s understandable, in that I can perfectly understand the desire to make heaps of money, but it’s also really depressing— that’s what sells, so that’s what authors and movie producers make.

    While I would agree that the male equivalent would be dumb action movies (which I often have trouble getting myself to watch, too) and first-person-shooters, but I think part of the cause of how critics treat the two categories differently is that the male-oriented action movie usually doesn’t consider itself to be deep or meaningful— the authors of “teen paranormal romance”, on the other hand, seem to be convinced that their works are pieces of art that explore deep human themes.

    @Danielle: I would agree that protagonists and heroes of male-oriented escapism isn’t often a stalker or rapist, but they often are assholes. The video game series mentioned by Kitty in the above post (God of War) comes to mind.

  10. OrganicLead on 8 September 2012, 20:00 said:

    I think a lot of it comes form how hyper masculine culture has become. A woman interested in macho-manly-man stuff is to be celebrated, a man into feminine girly stuff is to be shunned. I don’t know why that is, but it explains who one set of cliches is favored over another.

    I also bring up the Manic Pixie Dream Girl stories for a pretty damn close parallel to the generic paranormal romance story from a male perspective. The difference is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl stories tend to focus on the protagonist and his growth while the paranormal romance focuses on the love interest and learning more about him. I think it stems from the idea that women aren’t supposed to be “egocentric”.

    I also think that the reason why they go with paranormal stuff is to show how the protagonist, who is basically every reader once published, is too good for the rest of humanity and needs a special, supernatural affirmation of her role. Absolute tripe, really.

    I think it’s something different. As a teenager, you feel mature and ready to take on the world (A general you) but you’re held back by parents and laws. Having special powers gives you more power to be able to act.

  11. Kitty on 8 September 2012, 21:25 said:

    Where did you ever hear that egocentric behavior is exclusive to men? It’s a human thing, not a gender thing. Everyone’s an egomaniac—the purpose of the teenage years is to learn that you should keep this to yourself.

  12. OrganicLead on 8 September 2012, 22:44 said:

    Maybe I miss communicated. I was trying to say that there’s a expectation from society for women to be the “caretakers” and “motherly”. That women are supposed to give poor lost souls a chance (even if they’re not all that keen on the idea) or else they’re seen as those Obligatory School Bitchs. This transfer into how they’re written about, consciously or subconsciously.

  13. Perennial Rhinitis on 10 September 2012, 03:59 said:

    “Twilight will probably be felt for generations to come. Like a famine.”

    More like a nuclear explosion. The fallout caused by Twilight will still affect generations of readers and writers alike.

  14. Fffan on 11 September 2012, 05:02 said:

    QW ASSDF SDF ASDIEHSK YOU’RE BACK!!!

  15. Fell Blade on 11 September 2012, 10:08 said:

    Great article! You made a lot of good points. One thing I’ll throw out there with regards to the paranormal romance vs. action flick is that at this point, we do have several action films that were done well. While there are films like the classic 007 movies that tend to be more “male wish fulfillment”, there are a few that go beyond that and present good lead characters and relationships (Danielle noted “Taken”). But so far, none of the paranormal romance that I’ve seen has been able to rise above the seething cesspool that is Twilight.

  16. Tim on 11 September 2012, 10:13 said:

    I think a lot of it comes form how hyper masculine culture has become. A woman interested in macho-manly-man stuff is to be celebrated, a man into feminine girly stuff is to be shunned.

    I don’t think you can really say that, the beefcake blockbuster movie boom of the 80s has kind of given way in recent years to guys who, while still chiselled, don’t look like they eat steroids like most people drink water. Even comics are trying to drag past the Liefeld 12-pack abs.

  17. swenson on 11 September 2012, 10:30 said:

    But so far, none of the paranormal romance that I’ve seen has been able to rise above the seething cesspool that is Twilight.

    This is my primary issue with the genre. There’s certain genres I just don’t like. I rarely read horror. I usually dislike memoirs. I don’t typically like DRAMA and THEMES modern realistic literary fiction novels. But I willingly will admit this is only a matter of personal taste, and even if I say, for example, “most literary fiction is pretentious trash”, I still believe there’s good stuff out there. Not just “at least it’s not as bad as Twilight”, but genuine classics, with great writing, fascinating characters and settings, gripping plots, important and powerful themes, etc.

    Except for paranormal romance. I’m sure a great book could be written in this genre, but I’ve never seen a single one. And that is pathetic.

  18. Fell Blade on 11 September 2012, 12:28 said:

    With any genre it seems like there are many, many writers at the poor or mediocre level, and the select few who rise above and produce something great. I think the difference is that in most other genres there are several works that are really good and hold the standard that all others within the genre aspire to reach. The standard for teen paranormal romance has become Twilight, which sets the bar incredibly low.

    As an illustration, J. R. R. Tolkien wrote a wonderful series and set the standard for high fantasy literature. Tolkien’s work had quality writing, good characterization and dialogue, an interesting plot, and great world building. So when Paolini came along, he aspired to something that really was an excellent standard. He didn’t achieve it, but he had a good starting point for inspiration and was able to come up with a premise that at least had potential. Paolini wanted his heroes to be wise and honorable like the heroes of Lord of the Rings (and Star Wars, too); he wanted his villain to be as evil and menacing as Sauron; he wanted a world that was as fascinating and mystical as Middle-Earth.

    With paranormal romance, however, Twilight is the standard. It has terrible first person narration, loathsome characters, a pitiful excuse for a plot, and completely nonsensical world building. But because of its success it has spawned numerous clones that repeat all of these mistakes; and even with the bar set so low many of them fail to even reach Twilight’s level of writing. Their standards has become manipulative Edward, aggressive Jacob, and self-centered, reclusive, “how-can-super-natural-hotty-love-lowly-me” Bella. Is it any wonder they are so terrible? And they will continue to clone Twilight until someone writes and successfully publishes a good alternative.

  19. OrganicLead on 11 September 2012, 13:11 said:

    I don’t think you can really say that, the beefcake blockbuster movie boom of the 80s has kind of given way in recent years to guys who, while still chiselled, don’t look like they eat steroids like most people drink water. Even comics are trying to drag past the Liefeld 12-pack abs.

    That’s because there have been some shifts in cultural attitudes. (“Ew, I don’t want to see a half naked guy. That’s so gay! Is that long hair? Is that dude a chick?”)

  20. Kyllorac on 11 September 2012, 16:36 said:

    Paranormal romance isn’t always bad, though it is a pain to sift through the stories that focus solely on romance with a dash of paranormal for background flavoring versus stories about romances with/-in the paranormal. Twilight belongs squarely in the former, while the latter tends to be pushed into the urban fantasy genre because it isn’t as formulaic as the former.

    I wish I were kidding about the “it’s not formulaic enough” reason.