CROSSROADS: Will You Be My Undead Valentine?
Happy Valentine’s Day, everybody! Not only is today Thursday, nor merely even Valentine’s Day, but it’s also the day when another of my Crossroads essays goes live over at Amazing Stories.
This week, I’m taking a close look at paranormal romance and urban fantasy, how they work and the complicated ways in which they use metaphor and power dynamics. Come and take a look!
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Since you have to be a member to comment on the amazing stories post, I thought I would comment here.
I have loved both instalments of your consideration of the border marches of romance and speculative fiction and think you have been very much on the money as you have considered the links and origins and drivers. As an old ‘Old Skool’ reader who has seen the evolution of the romance genre and loved my SF and fantasy reading alongside romance I wanted to make some observations:
1. The Old Skool rape/forced seduction romances were written and read at a time when good girls couldn’t be seen to initiate or have sex outside of marriage. Part of the power dynamic and negotiations around agency in these stories is that the heroine gets to have sex, to orgasm and to remain ‘good’ according to the cultural standards of the day. The heroine is never just managing or engaging in her personal relationship with the hero. The hero’s rape behaviour is constructed and never just his personal stuff. This means that heroine is always explicitly negotiating how she stands in her world through this individual relationship and finding power in the most difficult circumstances.
2. I would really recommend Pamela Regis’ text ‘A Natural History of the Romance Novel’ published in 2003 to anyone wanting to think about these topics. Her analysis of the literary history of the romance genre highlights how much is going on besides the ultimate HEA. One of the things Regis highlights is that these stories have a strong redemptive arc and are often about reconstituting community. I often wonder if the Vampire and Shifter stories are as much about wanting to create community as they are about the individual relationship because they are always about packs and clans or the heroine moving from isolation to having friends. I also think the notion of being made whole through love and connection; of the broken things inside a character being mended by the new relationships and possibility that love creates between the hero or heroine and their world is an important defining feature of PNR and perhaps SFR.
3. I read somewhere once, that Lois McMaster Bujold said that romance is a fantasy of relationship and SF a fantasy of agency. I wonder if that can be paraphrased as – romance is a fantasy of the power of community/connection and SF of individual power [to change worlds]?
4. I read most genres and the thing I have noticed as I have come to read more romance than SF lately is that I need to code switch between genres when I read outside of romance. My expectations of the characters and story need to be different in order to engage fairly with the story in front of me. I remember reading Thomas Harlen’s ‘Land of the Dead’ and waiting to see who Gretchen’s love interest would be before mentally slapping myself and code switching. It was fascinating to make that realisation because until then I had been reading the book and waiting for the real story to start.
5. I tend to categorise not on SF vs SFR or UF vs PNR but on whether a world needs to be made and/or saved or whether a story is about making your way in the world as it is. Sometimes the borderlines shift between these or one become the other but what is going on with personal power is examined and in play in quite different ways in each.
6. I do think many PNR and SFR writers often need to work on their world building skills, their focus on the relationship can be at the expense of plot and how the world shapes and alters the lives and possibilities of their protagonists. I want them to read books like China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh and write as well as that. I would recommend Martha Wells Raksura books to anyone who likes SFR even thought the romance is not conventional according to the genre. I love how the Queens are the alphas and that Moon codes as female according to genre conventions and that all is perfect and logical in the cultures and world Martha has created.
I’d like to thank you so much for your fascinating and insightful comment. I’m glad you’ve been enjoying the Crossroads Romance series, and you’ve definitely given me some ideas to think about as I wrap the series up (I’m also going to have to track down that Bujold quote – it would be perfect for a point I’m making in my last post of the series)
Would you have anything against my quoting your comment in the comments at Amazing Stories? I understand if you’d rather not register there yourself, but I do think your insights would be very interesting in the discussion. If you’d rather I not quote your comment there, then no worries.
All that being said, I am a big fan of Pamela Regis’ A Natural History of the Romance and strongly agree with your recommendation. As a critical history and overview of romance, it is great. For the purposes of my Crossroads series, I got tremendous value out of Regis’ history, Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan’s Beyond Heaving Bosoms, and the collection Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women edited by Jayne Ann Krentz. While the latter may be a little dated now (it pubbed in ’92), I found that it still provides great insight into the authorial considerations and approach to romance. There’s an essay in there (“Beneath the Surface: The Hidden Codes of Romance” by Linda Barlow and Jayne Ann Krentz) that I think is particularly relevant to the code-switching issues you bring up.
To that point, I definitely think the reading protocols for romance differ significantly from science fiction, which in turn differs from fantasy. Part of PNR’s commercial success, I think, stems from the fact that (a) it builds on well-established conventions in the romance and detective fiction genres, and (b) its blended reading protocols (romance + supernatural fantasy) have been massively popularized through non-literary media (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, etc.). SFR hasn’t been so lucky (yet).
All that being said, I agree with you 100% that many (but not all) PNR/SFR writers could benefit from some more attention to world-building. When speculative fiction fans complain of the world-building in romance, I always try to keep Sturgeon’s Law (90% of everything is crap) in mind: after all, many (but not all) SF/F writers could have better character development.
I think that in practice this tension between world-building/plot and character/emotion is one of the biggest challenges in mashing together romance and speculative fiction. Many don’t quite get it right, but I think there are plenty who do. From a more romance-inclined perspective, I recommend J.D. Robb’s In Death series (she has a relatively light world-building touch, yet the series is set in the future and uses a typical detective structure). From a more fantasy-inclined perspective, I recommend M.K. Hobson’s The Native Star.
Happy for you to add this comment to the amazing stories blog post.
As I was reading your comment back to mine and reflecting on Regis description of the eight elements of a romance story arc I was thinking that romance genre worlds are the ones of connection and relationships through time, while SFs worlds are all geographies I am imagining venn circles where these overlap and there you will find PNR and SFR.
I think LMB said that in an interview probably close to ten years ago around time Chalion/Sharing Knife books were first published. Try http://www.dendarii.com/ fan site they try to collate all the media, interviews, etc.
Dear Author has an interesting blog post about power in romance up http://dearauthor.com/features/letters-of-opinion/love-is-indeed-a-battlefield/
Ooh, neat! Thank you so much for pointing me to that essay, I hadn’t seen it yet. There are a lot of interesting points, especially in the focus on contemporary romance. I’m going to have curl up and read it more carefully later this evening. Thanks for letting me know!