Exploring difference

Paranormal novels let readers and writers explore real world differences through fantastic beings. Eric Selinger, DePaul University professor of English, on ways that paranormals let us pose difficult questions:


What draws readers and writers to paranormal romance (part 2)?

We live in 21st-century America in a culture where our interactions with one another are rationalized. They’re rationalized by economics. They’re rationalized by egalitarian politics. They’re rationalized by the fact that we’re dealing with one another in the workplace and in domestic space where we are profoundly familiar with one another in a way that say 19th-century men and women really weren’t.

The educational lives, the professional lives, the day-to-day lives of men and women in America in the 19th century, and well up until the 1960s, were profoundly separate. One of the things that springs from this is a nostalgia for or a fascination with the idea of a radical difference between the sexes. We see this in popular advice texts, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus is the sort of classic example. I don’t take those as being texts that are telling us some things that are true about men and women as such, but they’re speaking to certain desires that we have in our culture right now for a kind of clarification and simplification of this very messy drama that we all deal with in our day to day lives. Well, paranormal takes that model and shows it to us in a way where differences between the genders can be mythologized, they can be asserted as fundamental ontological differences, even sometimes differences between species. I’ve got a heroine who is half Valkyrie and half Fey, and a hero who is a werewolf.

They have different desires because they are of different species! This is a really interesting and fun way to work through, to think about, and to play with material that’s in everybody’s minds. So in terms of gender it’s a very inviting space. In terms of dealing with the Other more generally, the racial Other, the ethnic Other, the national Other, I think what paranormal does is sidestep certain kinds of restraints that we might put on ourselves. We know we’re not supposed to feel certain ways. We know that xenophobia is a bad thing. We know this, we accept this, and yet the fear of the Other remains. And xenophilia also remains, a fascination, a desire to understand, to engage with that which feels other to ourselves and to bring it close and to find some point of connection. So paranormal may appeal in that regard.

So paranormal is a very flexible genre, once you’re writing in paranormal, anything you want to say, any rule that you want to have be true in your universe, the author makes the call. You set up the rules of this universe, and then you play the game accordingly. There are a lot of very high fantasy serious paranormal novels, but there are also paranormal novels that include a lot of comedy, a lot of playful stuff. I think that readers who are looking for escape on top of escape, but who are also looking in that escape for something that tethers them to the real world in terms of topics and ideas and emotions that they care about, it’s an ideal vehicle.

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