01 November 2011

Searching for the Right Things in All the Wrong Places

Below is my attempt to delve into the appeal of Paranormal literature. Though not so old, it is already becoming dated (Dystopias are the new thing, it seems). Trouble is, I don’t read Young Adult Paranormal literature. I like reading about it, because it produces interesting discussions…I just don’t enjoy reading paranormal romances. Not my thing. The real reason that I even had enough information to write this is because I have a book-review addiction, and an affinity for snark: YA (young adult) paranormal romances produce scads of both. So, having read more reviews and snark pieces on this style of novel that I care to admit, I was more or less able to pick up on the trends as an outsider, and form on opinion on the ‘why’ of the thing.

Bookstore shelves are stuffed to bursting with Young Adult paranormal novels these days. Not only that, but the contents of these novels, per most genre fiction, fit neatly into a comfortingly familiar plot structure; young girl meets mysterious, inexplicable boy who also inexplicably loves her despite her plain humanity. The boy will turn out to be one of the following; fallen angel, vampire, werewolf, faerie king or some such mystical being.

It is not a bad set-up and though the famous (or infamous?) Stephanie Meyer had a firm hand in popularizing the sub-genre, she was hardly the first person to put this fantasy to paper. The appeal is obvious; the tension of two different worlds, a heavily exaggerated version of a cultural or class conflict—a ‘higher’ being drawing a lower into some epic, earth-shattering romance. ‘Meant for each-other’ to the impossible extreme.

Catering largely to teenagers, but appealing to almost the entire age spectrum, the gist I get from my critical-book-review addiction is that most of these tales break down into a series of tension-fraught make-out scenes, with the paranormal conflict laced throughout so as to make all this hormone-charged behavior so much more epic than it would otherwise be.

Is it surprising that teen girls want romance? Hardly. Is it a shock that they find the exploration of sexuality in these books fascinating? Not at all. Is there more to this obsession with otherworldly romance, than meets the eye?

Absolutely. And the desires buried in the text go beyond the secularly obvious.

So let’s begin at the beginning (“and then, when we get to the end, let’s stop!”): Otherworldly. Something beyond our normal parameters. What is it that draws people to the “other” which can’t be defined, contained or at all transformed? It can’t be discarded. The lure is too strong. The mysterious “other” is what it is and it’s worth your time (Why? Because). Some people wonder and question. But she knows. That nameless girl who represents all the heroines in these stories knows. Therein lies the appeal. The very idea that there is no concrete explanation is half the draw.

But, wait a minute…why is it always a girl being drawn “upward” into this mystical romance, and not the other way around? We could cite sexism or marketing strategy. The trope sells like hotcakes. But that’s an insufficient explanation. Why does the formula resonate?

Well first of all, from a strictly story-standpoint…it’s the most basic Cinderella tale: being rescued from the normal, from the mundane, from the unpleasantness of regular life.

But from a broader, spiritual stand-point, I think we can answer that question of resonation when we recall that the church is referred to as the ‘bride’; a woman, plucked from obscurity to become something far beyond her natural capabilities. The same metaphor is used in the Bible to describe God's relationship with Israel, most particularly through the prophet Hosea. She was meant for it, somehow...in spite of the circumstances, and in spite of herself, even.

It should also be noted that there is a male version of this trope and the sci-fi/fantasy world is positively saturated with it. The farm-boy/rogue/outcast who turns out to be the ‘destined-one’/king/savior-of-all-mankind. The parallel here is a bit more overt and accepted than in vampire “chick-lit”. ‘Messiah’ figures in literature are very common. But, for some reason, it’s the bride/Cinderella figure that is the current money-maker, cultivating avid fans who line up for book-number-whatever like it’s Harry Potter or something. (I definitely get the appeal of both tropes, but I like the more action-y fisticuff characters my own self…those are on the up-and-up in YA female-oriented literature as well, a la Hunger Games). It’s a dime novel that doesn’t look like a dime novel, essentially.

The trouble with both tropes is that these messiah-types and lover-hero types, however otherworldly, are inevitably filled with human flaws and selfish actions. Even the ostensibly ‘perfect’ ones come off as tin men and nobody likes them because there’s no such thing. We do not know how to make what we do not understand. We write human messiahs with supernatural powers, because that’s all we can manage. We turn them into the ideals of what we want to be, or how we wish we would be loved. We are trying to satisfy a desire we were created to have…and which can be fulfilled...but only by God.

Vicariousness isn’t gonna cut it…but it sure has oceans of market-appeal: Romance, Sci-fi, Fanstasy, Video Games, Role Playing, Chick-flicks, Super Hero movies etc.

Now what about the fact that, in many of these teen novels, the mysterious male lead often treats the smitten girl condescendingly...even unkindly? He’s a “bad boy.” He’s “dangerous.” What does this say about our society? Do women want to be pushed around without explanation? Do they want to be treated poorly? Must the man keep his epic secrets from them? Must he deal with her so strangely? Must he be so difficult to understand? Must the heroine feels like she’s kept in the dark?

(Frankly that would annoy the ever-loving daylights out of me in a guy character, but okay, it seems to be really popular)

Well, I’m not alone in my belief that women don’t want to be treated like this by any actual, human man (that’s a different discussion called “unhealthy relationships”) but only by a fantasy ideal whose otherwise inscrutable behavior is derived of irrefutably loving motives. They want to be loved and pursued in this very unique way by this incredibly unattainable person. So he gets invented on the page. These heroic figurines can’t live outside of the lines they’re typed in, yet they represent the notion of something powerful and all-knowing that we less-knowing humans long for.

To suss this out, I can only recall that the heroes of both the Old Testament and the New struggled with the genuine hardship of following God. He didn’t always make sense to them. He was not always easy to obey. His judgments could be devastating. His followers have been known to endure heartbreaking delays, persecution and periods of silence, loneliness and pain. Sometimes he permits horrible things to happen to those who love him, as in the cases of Job and Joseph.

But He was worth it to them. He is worth it to us. Also they were worth it to Him, which is the confusing bit. His thoughts are not our thoughts neither are our ways his ways. I’m tempted to say to this entire genre of paranormal romance, as if to a person, “close…so close, but no cigar.” The crucial facts are missing, so the passion is misdirected.

This is where the central problem is. No human is worth this particular breed of trust and devotion. No glittery hero either. So obsessions are created around these human impossibilities to compensate for this giant misdirection away from God towards Man. We should love and serve each other, not idolize each other. Are we setting young girls up to idolize and idealize the men they date/marry? Yes, I suspect so, and it’s easy to see how that will go awry.

It’s perhaps too simple for me to dismiss these teen fantasies as merely that. But in our modern world, in which ‘youth culture’ is dominant and worshiped, the vamp-and-werewolf literature of today probably bears a more accurate representation of people’s deepest desires than the Andy Hardy-and-Nancy Drew of yesteryear. Young adult literature is dubbed excellent if it is bilingual; speaking equally to its target audience and to the generation that raised them.

This is the tricky part; these sorts of books are the fluff of our day. These are the sugar-coating idealists. The wistful dreamers. The seekers of happily-ever-after, producing ‘spunkified’ versions of old-fashioned damsels-in-distress. The cynicism which surrounds these mouthfuls of cotton-candy can quickly melt their thin cry for something ‘other’—oh how much hilarious snark they have produced!—because it is so very thin. It hardly knows what it’s asking for. It’s caught in the mire of a life unperceptive of God.

As C.S. Lewis observed about ungodly or perverse affections, “Eros, turned upside-down, blackened, distorted and filthy, still bore the traces of his divinity.” So, are sewage weeds better than nothing growing at all? At the very least, they show a lack of resignation to the pervading philosophies in which all deep desire is dismissed as childish folly; love is a lie, faith is a fairytale and destiny is for dungeons & dragons.

So perhaps my respect for these pieces of literature is scant, but my empathy is substantial. This washed-out fantasy love can be seen for what it is beneath all the teen angst: yet another translation of a deep, unshakeable desire to know, love and be loved by Someone enigmatically “other”—the only One who stands so wonderfully beyond our natural selves—to be in the otherworld, with the One who created the world.


  1. Bravo! I think you really put your finger on the misguided literature that is so prevalent right now. What wouldn't surprise me in the least is that any Atheist with salt would say that our (Christian) relationship with God/Lord is the ultimate "other-worldly" fantasy. I really appreciated the use of the word "spunkified", nice!

  2. And C.S. Lewis or his ilk would reply: thirst was made for water, and hunger for food! Longings do not exist in a vacuum. Thanks Brandi!

  3. Hey!!
    א. Yay for Alice in Wonderland quote/reference.
    ב. I knew where you were going with this when I read a bit of the intro because you had told me a lot of your thought process on this before, but it was really really nice to get to read through it and now I have a reference that I can turn someone to in case they are, you know, caught in the trap of unfulfilling fantasies.
    C. Since we can never get too far from C.S.Lewis..."If i find in myself desires nothing in this world can satisfy, I can only conclude that I was not made for here."
    ד. It is like the woman at the well when Jesus comes up to her and tells her that if she drinks that water she will thirst again but he can give her waters of life which after drinking, she will not thirst again. This is similar in that these types of stories feed a hunger inside and sate it for a moment, but you will have that hunger again. Jesus is the only thing that can sate that hunger and keep it sated.

  4. Amen! Yeah...I know it's easy to infer too much from pop-culture and what-not...but the fact is that any time something has broad appeal, or even specific appeal, you can dig in and find out what the source of the appeal is.

  5. I love Brandi and Shannon's comments...I didn't catch the Alice in Wonderland quote...Jayme, I read this out loud to your dad and we were both amazed. Such prohetic insight...keep doing this and may it reach more and more people.

  6. Thank you Mom and Dad! Means a lot to me.

    And the Alice in Wonderland quote was just for fun...remember when the mad hatter is asking Alice to explain herself: "Start at the beginning and when you get to the end...stop!"