Adapting VA to screen

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…been reading about adapting Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy books to screen… and I just found some of these points interesting, in terms of considering how  the books work…

Snider notes that “Richelle Mead’s story about the bond between two young women eclipsed expectations and delivered a modern, fresh take on classic vampire mythology. Not one to be done in by overused tropes of the past, Mead drew from previously untouched folklore to craft a story that transcended the genre and propelled the vampire’s long and sordid history in a bold new direction.” (p.11) “Mead’s story is thick with vampiric imagery and folklore, but those elements are just part of a larger, more important tale. The backdrop of St. Vladimir’s Academy allows Mead’s heroines a chance to experience the dramatic ups and downs that come with burgeoning adulthood. Just as any typical teenager deals with gossip, peer pressure, and the pangs of young love, so do Rose and Lissa. Together the two young women take ownership of their lives and the choices they’ve made, and though they can be sensitive and emotional, make no mistake – they’re not to be trifled with. They fight to the death to stand up for what they believe in. Thematically, Mead confronted numerous emotional issues like survivor’s guilt and depression, blending fantasy with reality to [-p.13] create an exciting new world all her own.” (pp.12-13)

Mead has explained that “Rose’s character and personality were, in some ways, inspired by one of my adult characters: Eugenie from the Dark Swan series. Eugenie’s another action heroine who’s [-p.14] not afraid to get in a fight, but she’s a twenty-something woman who has already come to terms with who she is and who she wants to be. I began to wonder what it’d be like to write about a younger character, one who was kick-ass and not afraid to stand up for her beliefs, but who was still growing, finding her identity, and also learning what it means to control her fighter impulses. I was fascinated by the idea of that journey.” (pp.13-14)

According to Michael Preger, “The setting and world are fascinating but most of all, for me, it was the strong female relationship between Rose and Lissa that captured my interest; their independence, self-reliance, and loyalty to one another, above all others. They are the kind of role models that instill a different perception of females in today’s world. Something often lacking in today’s storytelling. But it doesn’t end there. The mythic underpinnings of this vampiric universe are unique. It’s not the same old monster story. It’s a wonderful setting to explore interesting personality dynamics between the characters.” (pp.24-25)

Producer Susan Montford noted: “I wanted to explore the friendship and bond between the two teenage girls, and the responsibility and cost of developing and honoring their talents and gifts. …Rose and Lissa’s dynamic is very relatable and forms the central thread through the story.” (p.27)

Daniel Waters explained that: “I was having a problem that the girls, in many ways, sit around waiting for new information and new dead animals to drop in their laps (a novel can get away with that more than a movie, especially when we are caught up in Richelle’s writing), but making the fate of Ms. Karp and even the true nature of why Rose and Lissa left the Academy in the first place into actual mysteries that the girls must proactively investigate – it suddenly gave the film an engine.
The elements of the movie are still mostly from Rose’s point of view, but she is no longer in control of all the facts, which makes things a lot more cinematic. At its bare bones, the adaptation process was taking the story out of Rose’s head and putting it on-screen.” (p.45)

Zoe Deutch commented: “Initially I was struck by how funny the script was. In my opinion, you don’t read a lot of young-adult adaptations that actually capture the hilarity of being a teenager. Also, as a woman, I deeply appreciated the fact that this is a story that puts friendship before romance.” (p.55) “I connected with Rose’s humor as a means of survival, her hotheadedness and passion, and her fiercely loyal nature toward those she loves. …Rose Hathaway’s sense of humor is as brutal as her fighting skills. …I connected with her being passionate and not holding back her feelings. Rose’s motivation throughout the story is rooted in protecting Lissa, but progressively she gains more desire to be the best protector she can be, and therefore has more confidence in her ability. Of course, there are many other motivations strewn throughout, including her big fat crush on Dimitri, her want for her mother’s approval, and her love of knowing everything that’s going on around her. My favorite thing about how Richelle Mead wrote the characters of Vampire Academy is that they’re all playing against type.” (p.54)

Talking about Zoey Deutsch as Rose, Mark Waters states: “I think that a lot of people like how in control she is. And even in regard to sex, it’s not callous or something she necessarily treats lightly. I think that’s what’s key. It’s not someone who gets used or isn’t thoughtful about her sexuality. She very much is and I think that’s the important part of being strong about it, being decisive and knowing what you will do and what you won’t do. And I think that was the most important piece to care about with that.” (p.56)

Ref: (emphases in bold mine) Brandon T. Snider (2013) Vampire Academy: The Official Illustrated Movie Companion. Razorbill, Penguin: New York

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Unemotional characters of genre fiction

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When everyone around him is a potential (or real) enemy, the secret agent must be detached, unemotional, dispassionately observant – in a word, cool. This is his legacy from the Raymond Chandler hard-boiled detective. This posture is necessary because his survival depends upon his constant [-p.76], accurate evaluation of all around him, people and events. In that respect the spy is what many of us want to be; in that respect we participate in the action of the story. Puzzle-solving, code-deciphering, and character-analyzing are the modes of his survival.” (pp.75-76)

“The secret agent may be acting out our fantasies in his sexual adventures as well. This aspect has been thoroughly discussed and needs no supplement here: most spies have a compelling way with beautiful women, at least since the 1950s. Their occupations make our fantasies complete: the agency will not allow attachments or emotional involvements of any kind, and so the spy is not only free to love and leave, he is under national security orders to do so. Le Carré has reminded us, in his fiction, that even spies can have families, though for the most part his operatives are bound to their London offices. Greene’s confidential agent was once married, but that was long ago and in another country; now, her haunting memory hinders his action. Bond tries marriage once and pays for it when the opposition murders his bride. It is much better, espionage fiction tells us, to remain detached. If you love a woman, you will get hurt.
If the fictional spy expresses (predominantly male) sexual impulses, he also is a medium for expressing our noblest aspirations. In his loneliness, his isolation, there is also the opportunity for heroism, manifested as self-possession, inner [-p.77] strength, the courage to do what he feels is right and to make such decisions while removed from societal pressures. There are no Joneses to emulate in his milieu. Thoreau would approve.” (pp.76-77)

“The spy novel also enables us, as spectators, to purge and then obliterate the worst that is in us. Movie ads often describe the spy’ls life as one of ‘cheating, lying, and stealing’: in what sphere of the psyche is that quite attractive? In what sphere of our psyches do we want to be free to break any of the rules we wish, as it is convenient, and never be held accountable? The spy can do just that because he is invisible, because he is an alien body in his host society. He moves horizontally to intrude into the lives of others, but his own life is structured vertically. We want to be a part of that life, perhaps even to live that life, but in one sense only: we realize that we cannot really lie, steal, and kill, that we are not really like that.” (p.78)

“We have always had spies, but only recently have we made them our heroes. Their time has come round at last because it is our times that see in their work a part of our own desires and our fears. The spy novel, ostensibly so restricted in its possibilities, allows us to pierce deeply into ourselves, where the possibilities are infinite.” (p.78)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold, mine) John G. Cawelti and Bruce A. Rosenberg (1987) The Spy Story. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London

Vampires lend themselves to unstable desire

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Vampires lend themselves to unstable desire: part of the exciting potential of any vampire text is the way in which it overturns notions of what sexual act is being represented in the bite.” (p.203)

Ref: Sara Wasson (2012) “Coven of the Articulate”: Orality and Community in Anne Rice’s Vampire Fiction The Journal of Popular Culture, 45(1) February, pp.197-213

the vampire’s sexual otherness

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In a 1997 essay, Andrew Schopp considered the homoerotic aspects of modern vampire literature, and while his approach is in a context pre-the-current-vampire-craze, his comments are still relevant. He wrote:

Although it has long held a formidable place in the heart of western culture, until the nineteenth century the vampire existed primarily as a creature to be feared, the revenant come back to torment the living. Paul Barber explains that the vampires of early folklore represent the way ‘preindustrial cultures’ interpreted, or misinterpreted, the ‘processes and phenomena associated with death and the dissolution of the body’ (1). In the nineteenth century, however, the vampire transformed from a feared cultural phenomenon to a desired cultural product, from mythic explanation of the unknown to receptacle of cultural desires. This transformation has culminated in the contemporary vampire product, which provides a space for articulating and reconstructing cultural desires, even for contesting dominant cultural narratives. Given this product’s subversive potential, its frequent reliance on the homoerotic would seem an especially compelling subject of analysis.” (p.231)

By its very nature, the vampire is an outsider, an ‘other’” (p.232) “Burton Hatlen explains that the vampire’s position as alienated ‘other’ produces a dual response in the audience: the vampire comes to represent that which we both fear and desire (125).” (p.233)

“Comments by fans delineate a specific set of characteristics that render the vampire attractive, and perhaps the most prominent characteristic is the vampire’s sexual otherness. For the fans, vampire entertainment provides an opportunity for sexual deviation, for the chance to engage in all ‘forbidden sexual practices… oral, necrophilic, incestual [sic], homosexual’ (Dresser 152). The vampire’s sexual otherness both reflects and fosters a desire to break free from sexual constraints, while its immortality reflects and fosters a desire to break free from physical constraints (152). Underlying these two characteristics is the vampire’s power. According to fans, this power enables one to challenge almost any socially imposed barrier.” (p.233)

A couple more quotes form Schopp’s essay that I liked include:

“As one fan commented, “[…] Perhaps part of the appeal of the vampire is it gives us the belief that there are beings who can live outside the problems of society that we, as mortals, must face everyday. (Dresser 160-161)” (Schopp, p. 233)

“To an extent […] certain vampire products use the vampire ‘space’ simply to reinscribe dominant cultural ideologies and mandates, rather than using that space to revise such mandates, or offer alternatives.” (p.237)

“…the contemporary vampire product clearly functions as a site for playing with sexual alternatives, for acting out socially prohibited roles, and for reconfiguring desire. Though it can easily reinscribe heteronormative ideology, the vampire space has the potential to articulate alternatives and to contest dominant modes of structuring sexual desire and identity.” (p.241)

Ref: Andrew Schopp Cruising the Alternatives: Homoeroticism and the contemporary vampire The Journal of Popular Culture Volume 30, Issue 4, pages 231–243, Spring 1997

Note – reference is to: Dresser, Norine (1989) American Vampires: Fans, Fictions and Practitioners.  New York: Norton

The reference that look interesting in this article (to me, at least) is missing from the reference list at the end… ‘Rosemary Jackson’ on ‘paraxic’ worlds? Schopp explains: “Unlike science fiction characters who tend to live in a world removed from our everyday life, the vampire often has dependent connections to our world. The vampire product constitues a prime example of what Rosemary Jackson has termed a ‘paraxic’ world, a space that exists both inside and outside of our world. According to Jackson, paraxis ‘is a telling notion in relation to the place, or the space, of the fantastic, for it implies an inextricable link to the main body of the ‘real’ which it shades and threatens’ (19).” (Schopp, p.233)

Teen girls and genre in the critical reception of Twilight – Bode

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I really enjoyed Lisa Bode’s critical analysis of reviews of the film Twilight – and how constructions of female adolescence are drawn on by film reviewers to patrol the (gendered) boundaries of genre. Great article! …some quotes:

“The critical reception of Twilight (2008), Catherine Hardwicke’s film adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s first teen vampire romance novel, though, repeatedly mobilizes an idea of its audience that is not just female but adolescent. This is hardly surprising as the Twilight novels were marketed in the young adult sections of bookshops, and the film features a dangerous romance between an ordinary 17-year-old girl, Bella, and a 108-year-old teen vampire, Edward. However, what is interesting in film reviews for Twilight is how [-p.708] often a (mainly) female adolescent audience, and associated mode of viewing, is evoked, and how this is variously used to denigrate or legitimate the film and its pleasures. The lowly cultural status of the teen girl audience has been examined before in Melanie Nash and Martti Lahti’s work on Leonardo DiCaprio’s disavowal of his teen idol identity (Nash and Lahti 1999, 72) in the wake of his role in Titanic (James Cameron 1997). However, Twilight’s critical reception provides us with the opportunity to see some of the variations in how differently situated film reviewers define and deploy the teen girl. [/] For some reviewers, the teen girl audience taints the film, and the film taints the girl, and both are to be reviled. But for others, the film, and the adolescent girl who is imagined to be captivated by it, become objects of a somewhat romantic fascination. This article asks: what can the adolescent girl, her different connotations, and the ways reviewers position themselves in relation to this figure, reveal about Twilight’s cultural resonance, and the ongoing dynamics of distinction in the contemporary cultural field more broadly?” (pp.707-708)

“Film critics perform an important role in pre-shaping audience reception (Barker 2004). In the words of Pierre Bourdieu they often influence ideas of ‘what is worthy of being seen’, what is unworthy, and ‘the right way to see it’ (Bourdieu 1984, 28).” (p.708)

“Film reviews […] are useful to analyse not only for what they foreground of the struggles over cultural meaning but also for what they [-p.709] reveal of the dynamics of power in classification of films and their audiences, and the ways in which such things as gender, age and class are linked in this process of classification.” (pp.708-709)

“…when reading the reviews it is often difficult to separate the evaluation of Twilight from the reviewer’s disposition towards the teen girl audience. For instance, in the negative reviews is Twilight a ‘bad’ film because it is supposedly made for teen girls, or are teen girls deficient because they like Twilight and reveal their intense engagement with the film and, notably, its display of young male beauty, through gasps and shrieks?” (p.709)

“While all the reviews examined describe Twilight’s audience as ‘teen’, ‘tween’ or ‘adolescent’, the more negative the review, the more derisive is the language used to describe the audience, and maintain distance between the taste of the reviewer and that of the audience. Repeatedly, adolescent females are maligned for their lack of cultural capital, described as ‘indiscriminate’ (Ochieng 2008) or said to have ‘insipid’ (Burns 2008), ‘banal’ (Brayton 2008) or ‘less discriminating palates’ (Chang 2008). Dehumanized and de-individualized as the film’s ‘designated demographic’ (Ochieng 2008) and described in animalistic terms as ‘swarming’ (Puig 2009) and ‘mallrat masses’ (Ochieng 2008), they are presented as easily targeted and manipulated by a cynical market-driven mass culture. Accordingly, Twilight is seen as a crass commercial ‘product’ (Hanke 2008), a ‘cash machine’ (Vasquez 2008) designed to feed the gaping maw of this indiscriminate swarming squealing mass, and part them from their money.” (p.710)

“…reviewers use the girl as a means to leverage their own cultural superiority: their individualized and aesthetically informed responses to the film; their detached, rational and critical disposition; and importantly, too, their knowledge of vampire and horror film genres that enables them to distinguish between greater and lesser examples.” (p.710) … “For instance, horror film aficionado Felix Vasquez Jr complains bitterly that Twilight’s trailers promised ‘vampire action’ to ‘non-fans’, but failed to deliver, being hybridized or rather, polluted, by the teen and romance genres. He curls his lip at the way female authors such as Anne Rice have popularized the ‘emo’ vampire who struggles with his or her monstrosity instead of gleefully predating, and reveals that by his definition a ‘good’ vampire film should foreground blood lust, gore and ‘action’ rather than moping introspection (Vasquez 2008). Vasquez’s particular definition of the vampire genre, as a subgenre of horror, appears to exemplify the way some horror fans use their ability to ‘stomach’ onscreen blood, viscera, gore, and transgression as a marker of a rather masculinist distinction, or what Hollows calls ‘the ritual test of masculine hardness’ (Hollows 2003, 44). Clearly, Twilight, Anne Rice and the ‘emo’ vampire provide little opportunity for viewers to test themselves in this way. However, by positioning these films generically, Vasquez and others work to patrol the boundaries of their idea of what the vampire genre should be, and determine who it is for (and not).” (p.710)

In contrast to the way that the audience is portrayed in the negative reviews as swarming indiscriminate mallrats, positive reviews have an empathetic or affectionate regard for Twilight’s perceived or imagined audience, and for female adolescents and adolescence in general. While the positive reviewers still mostly identify themselves as ‘not the film’s target’, these writers strive to reconnect with their own adolescent yearnings (either as romanticizing or wryly commenting on their younger selves) or produce a reading of adolescent imagination as a complex and liminal state, on the cusp of cultural and sexual knowledge. This attempt to see the film in relation to a teen girl perspective is in part predicated on the way the positive reviewers tend to frame Twilight generically as a teen romance film, rather than as a vampire film. Evaluating it as a teen romance produces a very different set of cultural and cinematic reference points, and it means that if there is evidence of an affective link between teen girls in the audience and the teens represented on the screen then it testifies to the film’s success. For instance, Sukhdev Sandhu, writing for the Daily Telegraph (UK), refers to the vocal responses of girls in his screening as evidence that the film has succeeded in conveying an ‘emotional truth’ that connects with its audience (2008). [/] While this type of assessment casts the teen viewer in a more favourable light, it is nevertheless the case that neither in the positive nor in the negative reviews is the adolescent girl mode of engagement imagined as rational, mindful or critical. If negative reviewers see the female adolescent as uncritical and easily enthralled, the positive or more ambivalent reviewers describe her as ‘estrogenic’ (M. O’Sullivan 2008) or ‘hormonal’ (Knight 2008). Such labels do not in this case necessarily mark the teen girl viewer as ‘more easily seduced’, but rather as one who experiences a natural, complex and mysterious state, that makers of teen films rarely manage to connect with or capture.” (p.713)

“In the reviews of Twilight I have surveyed, the affective contagion of the teen or preteen girl audience is much more usually disavowed or resisted. Even positive reviewers of the film appear to need to bring in references to legitimate culture, such as the nineteenth century romance novel, not just as a means of elevating Twilight but invoked as a kind of talisman against a teen girl pop contamination of their adult critic identity. How does this reconcile with the fact that grown men and women happily confess to enjoying Transformers (Michael Bay 2007) or The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan 2008), and that so many reviewers of Transformers in particular tap into a 13-year-old boy viewing mode? For instance Ebert, who as we saw above was keen to delimit Twilight’s audience, but in his review of Transformers, however, he self-consciously slips out of his stuffy adult critic persona with lines like: ‘it’s goofy fun with a lot of stuff that blows up real good’ (Ebert 2007). Ebert willingly submits to an uncomplicated joy in dumb kinetic violence and spectacular explosions, and revels in the hoots and cheers of the audience with which he shared the screening. Perhaps, then, more so than age, it is gender that functions here as a key factor in the relative status of taste formations....” (italics in original, p.716)

“This article has examined some of the different ways in which film critics, in their reviews of Twilight, construct the film’s teen girl audience and, in relation to this figure, reaffirm both their own taste formations and their cultural values. Although film reviewers are often reporting upon the vocal behaviour of actual girls attending their screening, these writers use the adolescent girl as an imagined ‘other’. Thus, references in reviews to girls as a dehumanized swarming mass or as the giggling bearers of complex longing, reveal more about the cultural values and social position of the film reviewer than that of actual adolescent girls. Moreover, childhood and teenhood (unlike other social categories such as race, ethnicity or gender) are thought to be temporary states, transitional phases that are passed through on the way to an adult identity imagined as ‘fixed’. Because of the teen girl’s temporary occupation of her identity, and the sense that she is not yet properly initiated into systems of culture, and not yet fully sexual, reviewers appear to denigrate or sentimentalize her without guilt. Where does this leave the adult audience and fandom, those of us old enough to ‘know better’ and yet confess to drawing pleasure from Twilight?” (p.717)

Ref: (my emphases in blue bold) Lisa Bode (2010): Transitional tastes: Teen girls and genre in the critical reception of Twilight, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 24:5, 707-719

Abstract: “Reviews of Twilight (2008), Catherine Hardwicke’s enormously popular screen adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s teen vampire romance novel, reveal a focus on both the gender and age of the film’s audience. The teen, tween or adolescent girl, her tastes and affective response, are evoked in different ways by many reviewers to denigrate the film. However, the adolescent girl is also used in positive reviews to legitimate Twilight and its pleasures. This article asks: what can the adolescent girl, her different connotations, and the ways reviewers position themselves in relation to this figure, reveal about Twilight’s cultural resonance, and the ongoing dynamics of distinction in the contemporary cultural field more broadly?” (p.707)

Sex and virginity in Romance novels

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Virginity, sexual awakening, and inexperience in romance

On the importance of both virginity and sex in romance, Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan have quite a lot to say – all interesting. They write that “One of the more peculiar constants of most romance novels, from historicals to contemporaries to paranormals to even erotica, is the sexually unawakened state of the heroine. She’s relatively innocent, as proven by her inexperience or her outright virginity. No matter what type she is, she is definitely not the ho-type.

Therein lies the deep, humid, dark, and somewhat curious den that is home to the two sacred mythical beasts beloved to Romancelandia. They’re interconnected, if you know what we mean (and we think you do): the Unawakened Woman and the Heroic Wang of Mighty Lovin’. They are the plague and the backbone of romance. No other genre is as obsessed with the heroine (a) having excellent sex, and (b) not having sex at all unless it’s with the One True Love, who’s also usually the sole person who can make her come. Got orgasm? Got true love! The heroine’s sexual inexperience remains intact only until the hero’s wang of mighty lovin’ introduces her to the wonderment of the fizznuckin’. It’s part and parcel fo the fantasy: the awakening to love  is that much more powerful when it’s accompanied by a sexual awakening as well.

Everything about the love has to be superlative, and on the [-p.37] heroine’s part, it’s easiest to use an association we’re already comfortable with: sexual purity. The sexually experienced woman in fiction still raises hackles and creates uncomfortable associations with uncleanness, the threat of infidelity, and moral degeneration. Interestingly enough, the sexual experience is also superlative for the hero, but authors choose to portray it using, not inexperience (which would ruin the fantasy, because we’re not necessarily interested in reading about lovers who come a little bit too fast and use a little bit too much tongue when kissing), but what we and many others online refer to as the Magic Hoo Hoo. The Magic Hoo Hoo does it all: it heals all ills, psychic and sexual. It provides unparallelled pleasure to the hero, despite the heroine’s reluctance, inexperience, and awkwardness. It’s capable of experiencing (and inducing) earth-shattering multiple orgasms on its first outing. It also creates an instant emotional bond that’s even more irrational and persistent than a newly hatched chick imprinting on the first living thing it sees. All that, and it makes you coffee in the morning. One taste of the Magic Hoo Hoo is all it takes; the hero won’t be satisfied with anything else, physically or emotionally.” (p.38)

“In contemporary romance, virginity is treated differently. The heroine can be:
A: A bona fide virgin, for any number of reasons, many of them completely neurotic and serving as backstory for why the heroine doesn’t believe in herself.
B. Sexually experienced – but it’s never been like it is with the hero….
c. Sexually experienced and perfectly happy with her past orgasms, so much so that it’s a nonissue, but inexperienced in some other, very significant way.” (p.51)

Most contemporary romance novels published after the early 1990s allow the heroines to have sex. They have sex before marriage with somebody who isn’t the hero. They aren’t presented as pure, pristine vessels of womanhood…. So how to create the imbalance of power? What can substitute for viriginity?
Ignorance and inexperience, of course! And maybe life-threatening danger.
Many a contemporary heroine finds herself a fish out of water in the plot of a romance. The city girl moves to the small town in the coutnry. The country girl moves to the city…. …you can make a fool of yourself and charm or fight your way out time and again – it never gets old!” (p.52)

Paranormal romances: from virginity to turning/changing…

Wendell and Tan take this discussion into the paranormal arena, describing the way in which the heroine’s virginity is given new life (as it were) in this genre:

Paranormal romances have a different spin on the virginity angle. Not only is there a chance for an otherworldly protagonist and an innocent human becoming mixed up in each other’s worlds, [-p.53] but there’s always the question of whether he will change or turn her into whatever creature he is. Lilith Saintcrow theorizes that the ‘changing’ or ‘turning’ motif of paranormal romances is the new virginity, and we Bitches think she’s on to something. How many conflicts in paranormal romances are created because he bites her and turns her into a vampire…? Rarely is there a cure. Instead, the happy ending hinges on the communion and then a new community – the heroine becomes like the hero after he initiates her into his world.” (pp.52-53)

Saintcrow traces the modern origins of the virginity/paranormal change parallel to Anne Rice and the first several books of Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series. Rice’s ‘florid descriptions of teeth puncturing skin in her vampire series are downright erotic, code-talk for sex.’ As Saintcrow tells it, among a generation of women who had grown up in a time when unprecedented developments in birth control finally allowed women largely to avoid the risks of pregnancy, and record numbers of women were graduating from college, in swaggered Anita Blake, a gun-toting vampire hunter who was not only strong and competent, but ‘morally and ethically ambiguous,’ in a way mostly allowed in male characters at the time. The mix of unwilling penetration and transformation with strong female characters led to a transgressive space in which a woman is allowed to own her own body and sexuality, but lingering cultural anxieties about ownership over the wandering vagina meant the “metaphor of contamination’ by werewolf, vampire, etc., takes the place of the defloration.”

Saintcrow also points out that the language between the heroine’s unwilling loss of virginity and the unwilling change is startlingly similar. As she wrote in an interview with us:
‘The heated descriptions of breaking the hymen can, with very little trouble, be transferred over to the male vampire/werewolf biting the female human to transform her. Through this agency of contamination the female human is initiated into the world of sex [-p.54] or ‘darkness’ and discovers sexual autonomy/Phenom Cosmic Power. It’s simply not workable to have a believable female virgin over thirty anymore. Not because it’s socially impossible anymore, but because the women shelling out the dough to buy the romances won’t buy it the way they would in the seventies….’

And really, that’s the basic plot of any virginity loss: he initiates her into his experience, and includes her in his world.” (pp.53-54)

Ref: Sarah Wendell & Candy Tan (2009) Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels. Fireside: New York

Romance reading pleasure… how much, when and where is the sex?

It’s an interesting discussion, and one which connects with what Joyce Saricks has to say on the matter of reading Romance… On conducting the reader’s advisory interview, Saricks writes: “There are three vital pieces of information we need to discover: what does this particular reader mean by Romance? Does this reader want a book set in a particular time period or with Paranormal elements? And, finally, how much sex does the reader want – or how much will she tolerate?” (p.143)

A “…crucial piece of information we need to discover when we talk to readers is the amount of sex they want in their Romances. By this, I do not simply mean whether they want a lot of sex or very little and how graphically it is described. Sometimes one very explicit interlude leaves readers feeling this is a very sexy book, even if that was an isolated occurrence. The real point is the intensity and frequency of the sexual encounters, and whether they occur at the beginning, before the reader really knows the heroine and hero, or farther along in the story. Often if the sex comes later, it feels different than books in which there is graphic sex right from the first few pages. If the sex is later and between a couple seen by readers as ‘made for each other,’ it is less likely to offend or even really be noticed, almost regardless of how graphic. We are often surprised by readers  who say they are looking for books without a lot of sex, like those by Susan Elizabeth Phillips or Stephanie Laurens, when we know that explicit sexual interludes figure prominently in novels by these authors. This is a phenomenon I am unable to explain, even though I have encountered it with regularity in speaking with readers. It may have something to do with the reader’s perception of the heroine. If she engages in sexual activity too early in the story, before we know and care about her, we may be more likely to view her as promiscuous. That perception creates a different tone in the story, and for many readers it is not as satisfying.” (p.144) “Readers are really looking for that satisfaction Romances give them, and for some, sex too soon or too much sex destroys that feeling. The atmosphere and when sex occurs can make all the difference.” (p.145)

Not that Saricks reduces the genre to the positioning of the sex in the book! (I get the pun, but I’m feeling short on words). It is simply an important part of the appeal that she discusses…

Saricks also notes (and is this comment relevant?): “Judging from my personal experience, when we come face to face with a Romance reader, we have only about five seconds to make a connection with the reader. This may sound absurd, but we have no more than a few seconds in which to let this reader know that we understand Romances and their appeal.This is not the time to be aloof. Romance readers are accustomed to being looked down upon, and we need to learn ways to indicate immediately that we have read in this genre, that we are someone they can talk with about their favorites.” (p.145)

Ref: Joyce G. Saricks (2009) The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction (2nd edn.) American Library Association: Chicago

“A Brief History of the Modern Romance Novel” according to Wendell and Tan

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“Boy meets girl,
Holy crap, shit happens!
Eventually, the boy gets the girl back.
They live Happily Ever After.” (p.11)

One would think,” Wendell and Tan acknowledge, “that we could tell the story once and be done with it. But we’ve written and read countless thousands of variations of this story, and we show no signs of being sick of it.

The romance tradition goes all the way back to the oldest myths, and we could wank on and on about medieval courtly love, the rise of the gothic tradition (which marked some of the first popular novels written by and for women), and the influence that people like the Brontë sisters and Jane Austen have had on the various elements of romance, but that could easily take up a book in and of itself. We’re just going to cut right to the chase and talk about the clearest predecessor we can find for the modern romance novel: The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen E Woodiwiss.

The Flame and the Flower was first published in 1972, and it’s one of the most famous in the bodice-ripper tradition. These books are typically set in the past, and the hero is a great deal older, more brutal, and more rapetastic than the heroine – but then, despite the way more and more romances push the envelope, we’ve yet to encounter one in which the heroine plunges the depths of the hero’s dark tunnel of muddy love against his will.

But back to The Flame and the Flower. This novel is, in many ways, the Platonic ideal of the bodice ripper. The heroine’s bodice is, in fact, ripped; the hero is appropriately arrogant and hard-edged before being brought low by the power of love; swashes are buckled; buckles are swashed; villains are suitably hideous; and the adventure runs at quite the fever pitch. No noun or verb is left unmodified, and Woodiwiss works simile and metaphor to limp exhaustion. It was a runaway bestseller and spawned countless books that followed, with various degrees of success, that particular formula, such as Rosemary Roger’s infamous Sweet Savage Love (which, if nothing else, is probably the most-parodied romance novel title of all time).” (p.11)

“And honestly,” they write, “‘sweet, savage love’ serves as a neat encapsulation of the older style of romances. The turmoil and violence, they runneth over in torrents as mighty as the hero’s seed. And speaking of mighty torrents of heroic seed, it was well-nigh de rigeur for the heroine to be raped by the hero in those novels. The rape would be justified in any number of ways within the framework of the story [something Wendell and Tan devote some time to discussing in depth and with much humour later]….

And oh lawdy, the sexual euphemisims. Romances like Sweet Savage Love and The Flame and the Flower were a great deal more humpy than any of the other mainstream love stories at the time, and there was a veritable arms race to see who could come up with the moistest grottoes and the most potent (and jutting) spears of manhood so they could titillate without being considered obscene. / They were discreet enough at first.

By the late 1980s, oral sex scenes were practically a requirement (as was the accompanying fluttering distress and confusion of the heroine the first time her hey-nanner made the acquaintance of the hero’s mouth), and we had the occasional startling turn of phrase, like the hero who ‘burst like a ripe melon’ within the heroine, as recorded by Rebecca Brandewyne’s deathless prose in Desire in Disguise.” (p.12)

The genre, however, has changed a great deal since those Old Skool romances were published. it’s true: the covers haven’t changed that much. …But though the covers may be similar, the content is different in some substantial ways. …The Old Skool, very roughly speaking, ran from the late 1970s through the ’80s, while the New Skool started sometime in the late 1980s and continues to the present, but as with any attempts at categorization, there were some books published in the ’80s that were in the New Skool mode, and Old Skool-style romances are still occasionally published.” (p.13)

More old Skool romances, from historicals to contemporaries to category romances, shared several elements in common, elements that don’t necessarily hold true for the newer types of romances that now dominate the market. Some of them include: BRUTAL HEROES” (p13)… RAPE… THE HEROINE: COMIN-OF-AGE COMES EARLY… THE CONFLICTS (“The Big Secret was a staple of Old Skool romance novels. Ranging from ‘My brother is a spy for the enemy’ to ‘I’m a maaaan, baby’ to ‘I lied about something very small and extremely pointless at the beginning of the story, and now it’s snowballed out of control because the author needs about twenty thousand more words’ worth of conflict’, Big Secrets littered the landscape of Romancelandia like dollar bills on a strip club stage. / And then there are the Big Arguments. …[and] Big Misunderstandings.” (pp.16-17)) THE SUDDEN REALIZATION OF LOVE… THE POINT OF VIEW… etc.

Actually, backtracking a little, I quite enjoyed the way Wendell and Tan connected these last two points… they explain: “Given the antagonistic nature of the lovers, resolving the tension between their evident hatred for each other and their out-of-control [-p.19] lust was quite a trick to pull. Thus was born the Sudden Realization of Love device. At some point, the hero and heroine realize: OH! All that hatred, and the fights, and the fear? All actually manifestations of love. Hey, Ike hit Tina because he loved her, okay? And when the hero hits her, it feels like a kiss, obviously.

We’d almost always witness this critical epiphany on the part of the heroine, inevitably followed by page upon page of angst about how the hero could not possibly love her back, so she’d act like even more of a spoiled buttnoid because it’s not as if what she did mattered any more, anyway (cue the world’s tiniest violin). And sometimes, we’d witness the hero being coldcocked by the brass-knuckled fist of love as well, but that was a relative rarity. It was much more common in Old Skool romances for heroes to relate to the heroine, in excrutiating detail, about the Exact Moment the scales fell off his eyes – usually during the denouement at the end of the book. Why? Because of: / THE POINT OF VIEW

Most of these Old Skool romances were written solely or mostly from the heroine’s viewpoint, though a few early authors started including the hero’s point of view, too.” (pp.18-19)

“…Scholars have differing views as to why the viewpoints stayed so faithfully with the heroine for so long. Pamela Regis, in A Natural History of the Romance Novel, offers an analysis of how Old Skool romances followed the heroines partially because they had much more development to undergo than the hero, and the heroine’s achievement of autonomy and self-actualization was the point of the narrative. This borne out by the thirteen-item plot summary for [-p.20] the ideal Old Skool romance formulated by Janice Radway in Reading the Romance, published in 1982:

1. The heroine’s social identity is destroyed.

12. The heroine responds sexually and emotionally.
13. The heroine’s identity is restored.

In other words, the quest of the romance was the fulfillment of the heroine, and the hero was often a tool (in the construction sense, not in the dickhead sense, though often he could be both) in that fulfillment.

This idea has merit, but the fact that the hero was simultaneously villain and savior, punisher and lover, probably also dictated the choice of point of view. A lot of the central conflict and tension in Old Skool romances depended on the heroine and the reader not really knowing what the hell was going on in the hero’s head – insofar as he showed any capacity for rational thought not dictated by his penis, that is, and given the priapic state of many romance heroes, that capability is somewhat in doubt.” (pp.9-20)

“But romances,” Wendell and Tan remind us, “have undergone some fairly drastic changes over the past several decades, with trends visibly changing by the late 1980s and early ’90s.” (p.21) It seems, with the New Skool romances, we are starting to see: GENTLER HEROES… MORE SCENES FROM THE HERO’S POINT OF VIEW… THE RISE OF THE KICK-ASS SEXUALLY EXPERIENCED HEROINES… and THE QUIET DEATH OF THE RAPIST HERO [which Wendell and Tan discuss in some depth and in their inimicable style later in the book.]

Ref: (italics in original) Sarah Wendell & Candy Tan (2009) Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels. Fireside: New York