Every now and again, I like to pause in my appreciation of the romance genre and take the opportunity to bitch about it instead. I know it’s not perfect. As the largest genre in the world, it also contains the largest collection of bad books. I don’t review books I think are terrible – mostly because life is too short to read bad books. But also because what starts out as criticism all to easily becomes snark, and that’s of no help to anyone. Possibly of more use is a look at some of the genre’s wider and more persistent trends – trends that veer dangerously close to overexposure. Here are a few things I’m finding particularly grating, in no particular order (except perhaps order of irritation).
The use of the phrase “kick-ass” to describe the heroine.
There’s no denying that heroines have toughened up over the last ten-odd years. As contemporary novels become more true to life, the idea of physical fitness has become part of the heroine’s daily life. I’m all for that. In the hands of a skilled writer, the details of day-to-day living can add layers to a heroine’s personality. Fitness, or it’s absence, can add to that picture.
But the kick-ass heroine is something else again. She’s not simply fit, she’s toned to a fighter’s toughness. She’s Jane Bond tough. And she’s getting so ubiquitous, particularly in urban fantasy, that she’s becoming extremely tiresome.
If you’ve perused a new-releases section lately, you’ll know exactly the kind of heroine I’m talking about. She’s usually facing away from the viewer, and dressed in artistically skimpy leather, the better to reveal her tramp stamp. She’ll often be holding a sword, or bow, or some other anachronistically large weapon, but she still looks like she had her hair blown out at a professional salon ten minutes ago. And she comes with a ready-made checklist of attributes: a tendency towards sarcastic remarks; a job that requires her to work on her own; the ability to get in fights. We know she’s tough because A) she has a tattoo, and B) well, we’retold she is. She’s “kick-ass”, you see.
But when heroines are truly tough, when they have been been tempered by real adversity and have been honed into something new and powerful, they aren’t “kick-ass”: they’re just supremely capable. Down to the bone competent. Utterly confident in their own skills. Take, for instance, Eve Dallas the protagonist of J.D. Robb’s ‘In Death’ series. As a lieutenant in the NYPD, she investigates
murders and chases down criminals. She takes hits (but gives more); runs down criminals; navigates the politics of the job; and copes with the fault lines in her soul left by a truly traumatic childhood. She is intense, stalwart, and enduring.
To call her “kick-ass” would be an insult. Real strength is innate, and can’t be applied like a tattoo, or ticked off on a checklist. If you have to tell a reader that your heroine is “kick-ass”, she’s not.
Vampires and Demons and Zombies, oh my!
I harped on about vampires last year, and my whinging still stands. Unfortunately, to my dismay the trope of the endlessly lonely, eternally suffering vampire is still going strong. I do understand the appeal, at least a little, but I resent the swing in tone from real emotion to angst. If there must be vampires, do they have to be emo?
Also, there are simply too many of them. There are so many secret brotherhoods of vampires in romance that a reader would be forgiven for thinking every second person in the world was a blood sucker. That gets particularly complicated when the vampires are still hiding from humanity. Given their prevalence, I get the feeling the vampires must accidently bite one another all the time. Following behind the enormous spread of vampires is the ever-increasing tribes of vampire hunters. They also lead lonely secret lives they can’t share with the rest of the mortal world: they just stake instead of bite. Frankly, they could all use a rest. Let’s put them all on hold until they’re rare enough to be interesting again.
Demons and demon hunters are also growing in popularity. They aren’t quite as numerous as the vampires, so they’re not quite as annoying. Yet. My uneasiness with demon romances is really the same basic concern expressed two different ways. When the demonology is drawn from (mostly western) religious traditions, the books run the risk of being preachy, in a God vs. the Devil sort of way. When it isn’t, the demons tend to come across as… just really powerful creatures from somewhere else. In which case, why are they demons at all? And having a character tell the reader that they’re only called demons isn’t really as good an explanation as you might think. So far, my mental jury is out on demons, but the forecast isn’t too cheerful.
As for zombies… I don’t get the sudden obsession. Seriously, the difference between undead and dead is more than just a simple prefix. Yes, I got a chuckle out of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but after all, it was an extended one-note joke. And Daniel Waters’ Generation Dead was a remarkably complex and emotional novel. But as characters in a romance, zombies are bottom of the class. Shambling around with bits falling off, trailing the stench of decay… ech. That’s just gross. Just typing that makes me want to wash my hands.
Chris Szego likes brown paper packages tied up with strings.