Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel as inspiration? DePaul University professor of English Eric Selinger feels that paranormal fiction gives authors and readers the opportunity to think through ethics and politics of desire with higher stakes than in more realistic subgenres.
What draws readers and writers to paranormal romance?
Well, paranormal does a lot of things. It does a lot of things for authors. It does a lot of things for readers. On the one hand, paranormal gives you the opportunity to write larger than life characters, larger than life drama, larger than life plots. The stakes are very high, and that’s something that lets you write romance in a key that just doesn’t work in contemporary. I think it worked in the 1970s in historical romances, and then people got tired of it. The genre moved on, and there’s a kind of evolution that goes on at any given moment in the popular romance genre. So it gives you the opportunity to talk about love where the stakes are very, very high.
It gives you the opportunity to talk about issues that are vexing and difficult if you look at them in a more realistic setting—issues having to do with gender, issues having to do with power, issues having to do with desire. And what it does is take those issues and project them out onto an oversized silver screen, where things that are metaphorically true for all of us at the level of our desires, at the level of our emotions become literally true. We want our loves to last forever. That is a fundamental human desire in love, and in paranormal that becomes a literal possibility depending on what kind of being or species you are dealing with.
We have to negotiate somehow in our real lives the claims of the body, the claims of desire, which are a part of us but are not identical to who we are as rational and conscious and ethical creatures. Our desires escape and overwhelm us sometimes. Well, in a paranormal romance, you can take that psychological fact and you can make it literal in the form of a shapeshifter. There are a lot of paranormal romances—especially I think the ones where you have a hero who is in some way literally connected to, literally bodying forth a certain kind of animalistic side to desire, a certain kind of scary degree of anger or danger. That would be awkward and difficult politically, ethically to deal with in an ordinary human character, but when it’s projected out there on that big silver screen can be thought through and can be dealt with. And that’s something, I think, that paranormal romance authors learned in part from the treatment of paranormal creatures and paranormal romance in other media.
I think that Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, the Joss Whedon television shows, were enormously influential in the romance community. The way that Joss Whedon took psychological truths about adolescents and about high school, about young love, about sexuality, and turned them into these wonderful parables about demons and vampires and creatures from the Hellmouth. I think a lot of romance authors at that time were watching those shows and thinking, “Wait a minute, this is marvelous. This gives me the opportunity to deal with enduring questions and issues in an exciting way, in a way that lends itself both to high drama and also sometimes to humor. It gives me opportunities that more realistic romance fiction simply doesn’t have.”