I’m going to be blogging about WisCon 31 panels and events as soon as I can after attending them (hint: that’s not so soon), and posting to the relevant sections of THL. When I’ve posted them all, I’ll do a round-up post with links to all of my write-ups, and probably some others I find.
On Friday night, I attended the “Lifestyles of the Rich and Supernatural” panel, which was moderated by L. Timmel Duchamp, with panelists Holly Black, Carla M. Lee, and Catherine Lundoff. L. Timmel Duchamp began by reading the panel description from the program, which was:
Vampires have been a popular trend in romance for a long time, but shapechangers, minor gods, superheroes, ghosts, and magical time travelers are catching up. Do supernaturally powerful heroes provide a PC alternative to the Alpha Male in historical romance (and older contemporaries?)? What need does the powerful caretaker fantasy fill for a modern reader? Or is it the strangeness we like, and not the power? Or both? How is the story different when the heroine is the supernaturally powerful half of the pair?
Duchamp then pointed out some of the assumptions in the panel write-up, talking about the other kinds of vampire stories that are out there – not all books featuring vampires are romances. Some don’t even have romantic subplots.
The panel, however, did focus on (cross-genre) romances and romantic subplots within genre works containing supernatural elements. Holly Black noted, as she was introducing herself, that on a broad level the focus of the panel was to be talking about different kinds of power, and that romances are very focused on power dynamics between characters.
Duchamp connected these ideas to the history of women’s desire in writing, stating that up until about twenty years ago, the popular understanding (which was reflected in literature) was that men had desire, but women only desired to be desired (by men, presumably). Black followed up on this idea with a brief discussion of Annette Curtis Klaus’s Blood and Chocolate (which was made into a film not that long ago – I still haven’t seen it, though I have read the novel), which deals with ideas of feminine desire through the metaphor of lycanthropy, and Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, which, according to Black, has themes of submission intertwined with the heroine’s sexuality. Both of these books were popular amongst young women and girls.
Carla M. Lee then brought up another series of books (which I didn’t catch the name of. Oops [ETA: Anna Black helpfully notes in comments that the book is Bitten, by Kim Harrison, and that there's a sequel, Stolen]) in which the female werewolf main character is unable to satisfy a number of desires when pretending to a normal human relationship (and form). Primary among these is hunger – Lee described the character eating one meal with her boyfriend, and then going off in wolf form to gorge herself until she’s actually full.
There seems to be a trend in this sort of story of a very powerful female lead who is conflicted about her power. The panelists wondered whether there are supernatural stories (with shapechangers or otherwise) where the female characters aren’t eaten up with guilt over their powers (or unable to embrace them). The general consensus was that these stories do exist, but that they’re less common (and potentially less popular).
The next big topic on the panel was that of multiple relationships. One audience member talked about the ways in which female leads are often constructed to be so attractive that it seems as though every other character in the book (or series) is attracted to them sexually. The conversation drifted momentarily into a discussion of how very common love triangles are in speculative romance, particularly in series books, but then came back to the idea of the hero or heroine as overpoweringly sexually attractive.
Black related some of this to ideas of Otherness. The “alpha male” character, she said, belongs to mainstream (particularly older mainstream) romance, and is attractive because he is, well, manly. The powerful non-human or not-quite human male, however, is attractive because he is Other – it’s a kind of xenophilia.
Audience members immediately chimed in with support for this idea of xenophilia. One related it to a fannish interest in the character of Spock from the original Star Trek, a man so remote and alien that many fans fantasized about a very special sort of romance with him because “only you could make him love you.”
Catherine Lundoff pointed out that the Otherness can’t go too far in a romance – the characters need to be human enough for readers to relate to. Lee supported this point with the observation that when a character is so different from human as to be truly monstrous, then the story is horror, rather than romance.
The next topic was class (which had been mentioned in the panel description, after all). The panelists observed that it is very common for romance heroes to be wealthy, or otherwise members of a higher class. Black wondered if wealth maps to power, and could be another kind of Othering. Lee supported this idea, noting that heroines in speculative romances tend to be working-class – waitresses, barmaids, etc. An audience member observed, however, that the capacity to earn money can itself be viewed as a form of power, and that financially independent heroines are fairly new occurrences in romance.
Another contrast to more traditional romances that was observed is that speculative romances rarely (though not never) deal with pregnancy and children. The panelists agreed that this was so, but didn’t have time to make much of it before the conversation shifted again, back towards love triangles, and series characters who have multiple romances, often with very different kinds of lovers.
I raised my hand at that point, and observed that I’ve read several novels with a heroine who has two romances: a fling with the “Alpha” type character which, presumably, resolves that sort of interest, and then a more long-term commitment to a more sensitive, gentle type. Could the function of multiple lovers be to allow the heroine to sample a little of everything before settling down into a romance-style happy ending?
The topic shifted from there into an exploration of the meaning of “Alpha.” The panel was built around the idea of “Alpha Males,” but Duchamp wondered whether it is possible for female characters with supernatural talents or abilities to be considered “Alpha.” Several audience members expressed the idea that the “Alpha” label has more to do with attitude than with powers, but no one was convinced that this rules out “Alpha Females” as romantic leads.
Duchamp then tossed out a question about whether all vampire stories are romances. Black quickly responded that most vampire stories have romances in them, but are not themselves romances – almost all stories, she said, have romantic subplots, which can help to engage readers and pull them along. But not all stories are part of the romance genre.
Romance in the genre sense, everyone mostly agreed, requires that the romance be the central plot of the story, and that there be a happy ending. Why, then, some wondered, are there so many speculative romance series? More traditional romance series will often be set around a family, or a group of friends, or some other narrative space shared by multiple characters. This is because, somewhat by definition, a romance has to end with a happy ending, and when it’s over, it’s over – there’s not much room for a sequel.
I wondered whether the series format might be a reaction to some of the tension-building elements coming in from the more speculative side of the genre-blur. Black drew a link specifically between series novels and mysteries, which have been popular in series form for quite some time.
As the panel wound down, Lee observed that though they are progressive and boundary-pushing in many ways, mainstream speculative romances are still leaving female bisexuality unexplored. Often it is present in the form of a side-kick (roommate or friend) to the main character, but these characters don’t get a fair share of the narrative attention. Lundoff felt that this might be in part because of issues with marketing – it’s difficult to sell woman/woman writing to speculative romance readers, whereas woman/man and man/man both sell very nicely. An audience member wondered if that will change, in the future, and Duchamp joked about not wasting characters: if you have a bisexual female character, why not use her?
It was a very interesting panel, and I’m glad I attended it. One thing I’m sorry that I can’t quite capture in a write-up for this blog is how funny it all was. The gaps in my notes are all due to my laughing too hard to write down what was going on. If you ever get a chance to attend a romance-related panel at WisCon, I recommend it.