Paranormal Romance: Notes towards a definition I

Following on from Sam’s excellent discussion on the elusive nature of the newly-emerged genre of paranormal romance, I thought it might be interesting to share my own fumbling towards defining the genre, which has formed a central part of my recent research.

This first piece is an extract from my paper, ‘”Two kinds of romance”: generic hybridity and epistemological uncertainty in contemporary paranormal romance’ (the full paper can be downloaded here). This was early on in my research and you will note how I settled on the term ‘Gothic romance’. That I have now decided on ‘paranormal romance’ displays some of the uncertainty surrounding definitions of genre and particularly newly-mixed ones like this:

Horace Walpole inaugurates the Gothic novel with, as he says in the Preface to the second edition of The Castle of Otranto, an intention ‘to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern’—or what we now call the Romance proper and the novel—so that ‘imagination and improbability’ are rendered with verisimilitude.[i]

But contemporary Gothic has not only been further novelised, sometimes through a greater attention to characterisation, and with the marvellous appearing amidst quotidian settings, it has also been ‘romanced’ in new ways. Walpole aimed to blend the Romance and the novel; it might be more accurate to talk of one genre modulating the other, after Alastair Fowler.[ii] Latter-day Gothic involves further novelisation with its contemporary settings and more successfully achieved formal realism, in Ian Watts’s terms, as the ‘full and authentic report of human experience’, including fuller characterisation.[iii] Very recently, an additional modulation has taken place: of Gothic by ‘romance’ in its present-day sense of fictions centred on romantic love. A new subgenre has emerged, one adumbrated by Fred Botting’s notion of ‘Gothic Romanced’.[iv]

This form has many of the trappings of Gothic, but the plot is subordinated to the movement towards amatory consummation of romantic fiction; the setting tends to be contemporary; it seems to assume a female readership; and, crucially, it centres on love affairs between humans and supernatural creatures. It’s been given various generic labels—dark romance, dark fantasy, paranormal romance. I have settled on the use of ‘gothic romance’ as being the most general and the one that most clearly indicates its generic hybridity.[v] I’ll also be showing that this genre, too, is subject to further transformations by and admixtures of other genres.

Because the categories I’m using have been created by marketing departments and so on, the question is raised how much, as theorists, we can take them for granted. In some ways, since genre works by fulfilling and revising expectations, it might actually be valid to accept them, provisionally at least; the labelling and associated packaging do themselves arouse generic expectations.[vi]

Gothic romances fulfil Walpole’s manifesto rather well. They take the folkloric or mythic structures that constitute romance and flesh them out with the stuff of the novel—a depth of characterisation and particularity unimaginable in the originals; circumstantial detail (notably that of the modern world in all its familiarity); and a splash of ‘romance’, as in the sharp psychological delineation of a love affair—again, absent from Arthurian romance, for instance, but perfected in, say, the novels of Austen or the Brontës. But this latter is also, of course, the domain of romantic fiction.

Genres can be associated with epistemological perspectives, with ways of knowing, or questioning, the world. So what happens to these perspectives when contrasting genres interact? In a letter to Mme du Defand, Walpole sets ‘imagination; visions and passions’ against ‘rules, critics, and philosophers’ and the ‘cold reason’ of the age (p. x). Thus, from its inception, Gothic appears as a reaction to Enlightenment rationalism (reclaiming contemporaneous senses of ‘Gothic’ as barbarous).Yet in the Preface to the first edition, he writes from the perspective of one who sees such fictions as tools of an ‘artful priest’ who wants to subvert the ‘reformers’ and ‘innovators’ of Enlightenment and restore ‘the empire of superstition’ (3). Many eighteenth-century thinkers made similar claims: in the sober ethnographical accounts of the phenomena of vampire infestations in Eastern Europe early in the eighteenth century, priests were accused of manipulating the common people through superstition. These accounts later become incorporated into the Gothic novels that Walpole had spawned, and seeded the vampire narratives from which Gothic Romance eventually emerged. For Walpole, the Gothic manuscript he claims to have uncovered is an instrument of oppression by the priesthood which can now be recuperated, once taken out of its historical context, for non-utilitarian, aesthetic purposes.[vii] Thus Walpole performs a subtle kind of historicism here. Rather than simply affiliating to a barbarous past, he simultaneously exposes Romance as an ideological instrument in its day, but allows its aesthetic properties to be appropriated by the reader of the present day.[viii] So the Gothic novel’s resistance to Enlightenment is qualified right at its inception. The initial generic hybridity which Walpole signals is directly related to ambivalence over Enlightenment, and this instability characterises the Gothic’s successors to this day.

In Walpole’s commentaries, then, we already see the conjunction both of diverse genres and of conflicting world-views. I want to observe this in contemporary texts with contemporary perspectives and, following one of this conference’s themes, see how these perspectives may be countercultural or otherwise. I will look at two examples of the genre to show how, in each, the interaction of other genres within them play out different epistemological concerns.

[i] Horace Walpole, Preface to the second edition, The Castle of Otranto, ed. and intr. by W.S. Lewis (1764; 2nd edn 1765; Oxford: Oxford University Press, World’s Classics, 1982), pp. 7-12 (p. 7). For the Romance genre, see Gillian Beer, The Romance, The Critical Idiom, 10 (London and New York: Methuen, 1970); Barbara Fuchs, Romance, The New Critical Idiom (Abingdon: Routledge, 2004); Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (1957; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990); Fredric Jameson, ‘Magical Narratives: On the Dialectical Use of Genre Criticism’, in The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (London: Routledge, 1981), pp. 103-50. For the emergence of the novel and its relationship to Romance, see J. Paul Hunter, Before Novels: The Cultural Contexts of Eighteenth-Century English Fiction (New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1990), though the literature is vast. For Romance, romantic fiction, and women readers, see Rosalind Coward, Female Desire: Women’s Sexuality Today (London: Paladin, 1984); Jean Radford, ed., The Progress of Romance: The Politics of Popular Fiction (London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986); Terry Lovell, Consuming Fiction, Questions for Feminism (London: Verso, 1987); Laurie Langbauer, Women and Romance: The Consolations of Gender in the English Novel (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990); Catherine Belsey, Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture (London: Blackwell, 1994); again, there is a huge body of work in this area.

[ii] See Kinds of Literature: An Introduction to the Theory of Genres and Modes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982). In looking at the transformations of genre, I have also found the following of use: Tzvetan Todorov, ‘The Origin of Genres’, in Genres in Discourse, trans, by Catherine Porter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); John Frow, Marxism and Literary History (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986); Hans Robert Jauss, ‘Theory of Genres and Medieval Literature’, in Toward an Aesthetic Reception, trans. by Timothy Bahti, intr. by Paul de Man, Theory and History of Literature, 2 (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), pp. 76-109; Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature, Marxist Introductions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 173-91; Margaret A. Rose, Parody: Ancient, Modern, and Post-Modern, Literature, Culture, Theory, 5 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

[iii] Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (1957; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), p. 35.

[iv] Fred Botting, Gothic Romanced: Consumption, Gender and Technology in Contemporary Fictions (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008).

[v] John Cawalti has used the term in a slightly different, though relevant, sense; John G. Cawalti, Adventure, Mystery, and Romance (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1976), p. 41.

[vi] Victoria Nelson is one of the few who have recognised this subgenre of ‘paranormal romance’ as such, but she makes very sweeping claims, predominantly that they represent a craving for a new religiosity in place of that suppressed by the Enlightenment. There’s something in this, but we need, first, to be far more particularised, and recognise precisely what counter-Enlightenment values are being embraced—it’s not always religiosity—and, second, be far more dialectical and observe how different texts complicate this by introducing contesting positions. In all, Nelson misses the variety of responses explored in Gothic Romance; I want to demonstrate at least some of these. (Victoria Nelson, Gothicka: vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 2012); paranormal romance, pp. 100, 106-10, 127; romance subgenres p. 107 n.34, n.37; sympathetic vampire, pp. 124-47.

[vii] See Barbara Fuchs, Romance, The New Critical Idiom (Abingdon: Routledge, 2004), pp. 120-1.

[viii] See also Walpole’s quote, ‘The dead have lost their power of deceiving—one can trust Catherine de Medici now’. And see Hans Robert Jauss…?

About William the Bloody

Cat lover. 18C scholar on the dialogue and novel. Co-convenor OGOM Project
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2 Responses to Paranormal Romance: Notes towards a definition I

  1. Lucy Northenra says:

    Yes, it is very interesting to see scholars such as yourself adopting different terms at different stages of their research. I am looking for one that is appropriate to Y.A. fiction in particular and to the new High school gothics. I have a slight issue with the term ‘paranormal’ as it just conjures up aliens or episodes of the X files for me and does not suggest the folkloric or literary, or adolescence itself as monstrous or liminal. I am contemplating alternatives. ‘Gothic romance’ is not a new term when applied to texts and has just as easily been applied to Radcliffe so there is a need to invent a new term. I like the fantastic as a genre, situated as it is between the ‘marvellous’ and ‘uncanny’. How about ‘dark fantastics’ ? It is tricky. I like the ‘romance’ term as in quest narrative or in the eighteenth-century opposition to ‘novel’ as representing an exaggerated narrative, something wild or wanton, but used in the contemporary it seems only to represent desire and to further feminise these texts and ensure they are derided.

  2. William the Bloody says:

    Thanks for your response, Sam. I’ve been meditating over the issue of genre classification for the past few years. When I began looking at these books, around 2009, Waterstone’s shelved those for young adults as ‘Dark Romance’ and those for adults as ‘Dark Fantasy’ (if I remember correctly). Some might sneak into ‘Urban Fantasy’ (defined more by setting than plot), or ‘Fantasy’, or even ‘Horror’. I looked at Amazon’s ill-defined and overlapping classifications and those of the American Library Association. I accumulated a lot of bookmarked links to various websites as I explored this (I intend to write up this research) and emailed Waterstone’s head of marketing. By that time, however, the Twilight boom was over; the Hunger Games dystopias had taken over and my contact told me they no longer shelved paranormal/dark romances separately. So, it’s clear already that what is an unstable and hybrid genre anyway can’t be considered apart from economic considerations.

    But classification is always tricky; genres mutate and boundaries are fuzzy and names never capture the full character of all the species collected under them. Despite the inadequacies, I think we have to stick with ‘paranormal romance’ as that is how the genre is most usually labelled. It may be unpleasant to have to follow the market here, but readers’ expectations (which are directed by such paratextual matters as classification, cover design, and even shelving) are an important part of understanding the texts. We could devise more suitable, more discriminating terms, but a) our material is constantly shifting and interbreeding, and b) no one would know what we are talking about! But, in our critical writing, we can be alert to all the finer shades that ‘paranormal romance’ doesn’t capture.

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