Dear Author, one of our favourite sites, recently had an excellent post examining the appeal of the now infamous 50 Shades series as well as that of self-publishing sensation Kristen Ashley. Ashley, who is an extremely prolific writer, has attracted a massive fanbase with her alpha male romances, the most popular of which centre on motorcycle gangs, law enforcement and the like. Personally, I find both Ashley and James’s work to be hilariously bad in terms of their prose (Ashley’s devotion to the run-on sentence is a continuing source of pain) and cringe-worthy in terms of their dynamics portrayed. I admit it: I don’t like alpha males, I hate romanticised “claiming” of women and I absolutely loathe abuse portrayed as love. So the appeal of these kinds of romances will forever elude me. Call me old fashioned but the moment a man starts talking about how a woman is “his”, I’m consumed by an overwhelming desire to run away and buy some pepper spray.
These kinds of all-consuming romances are hardly old hat in publishing, both adult and YA. It feels as if we spend most of our time on The Book Lantern discussing the rape culture and romanticised abuse ever present in modern mainstream YA and NA. The latter in particular has fallen in deep with this trope to the point where it seems as if the entire category of New Adult is limited to contemporary romances with a huge dollop of sexism on top. I get that for a lot of women, this is an extremely desirable fantasy to have. That’s one thing. The issue here is that these particular kinds of romances have saturated the genre and category to the point where it seems as if they’re the only option available to readers. Not only did extreme romance become the norm, it became the expected romantic mode.
So what’s the appeal of “extreme romance” for readers of YA and NA? First we need to look at who these readers are. The expected answer for YA fans is, of course, teenagers, but we all know that it’s not so simple these days. With over half of YA recent purchasers being adults, the category seems tilted in favour of the adult audience, one with more disposable income than the average teenager. This audience is the primary target of NA, in my opinion. The romances in the work of Abbi Glines, S.C. Stephens and Jamie McGuire, for example, operate in much the same way that the all-consuming passions of Twilight and Hush Hush, only consummating the love isn’t considered heinous.
Next, we need to look at what the term “extreme romance” suggests. Personally, I’m disappointed whenever the word “extreme” turns up and there are no explosions involved. In this context, explosion free, “extreme romance” conjures up images of the highly dramatic: soap opera style arguments, passionate embraces in the rain, wall banging orgasms every time you have sex, the overwhelming, all-consuming passionate love that you literally can’t live without. Extreme suggests risk and danger, and isn’t all that positive sounding. However, even I can admit to seeing the appeal in the idea of a gorgeous man who fits the general definition of “perfect” having eyes for you and only you. Not only does he love you wholeheartedly but his entire life is ruled by that love. It’s not a new model of romance, it’s been around as love as love stories have been. Why is it so popular now, particularly with the teen/new adult age group? That’s a thesis I’m not quite ready to write.
The interesting thing about this “extreme romance” in the context of YA is that it’s still incredibly safe and predictable for the reader. We never doubt for one second throughout four books in the Twilight series that Bella and Edward will end up together. Nobody is ever in any real danger because the author is not emotionally prepared to put her characters through that, nor is she distant enough from her own creation to have real dangers to the relationship unfold. Dating a vampire with control issues is “safe” for Bella, even if it’s a potential landmine of sexism and rape culture. This can also be applied to a huge chunk of the paranormal romance canon of the past 6 or 7 years. Even in a dangerous world of mythical creatures, the relationships are never actually at risk, no matter how many red herrings or tired plot points are thrown in (I’m looking at you, Mortal Instruments). No amount of desperate love triangles will threaten the designated pairing.
This extends to NA, where contemporary romances rule the roost. Romance is grounded in its rules of safety. Happy ever after or go home. Granted, there’s usually a lot of angst thrown in the way but the basic pattern remains the same. The reader lives vicariously through a new and shocking tale of romance at its highest peak of emotion with the knowledge that no matter how much anguish one must endure, “love” will win (note the quotation marks around love because dear god I refuse to refer to anything that happens in a Jamie McGuire or S.C. Stephens book as love). There’s a certain appeal to the kind of romance that relinquishes a woman of her control, leaving her able to just give in and have someone else take care of the big issues. There may be some sparky dialogue that “proves” how equally matched the pair are but in the end it’s marriage and babies and love saving the day, then sex (after the wedding for YA, before it for NA, pretty much every time).
The issue with extreme romance isn’t that it exists – your kink is not my kink – but that it’s the sole option available right now in the categories. The all-consuming angle somewhat fits with the rush of first love that’s so appealing to many young women. However, there’s a huge difference between the adrenaline of first love and the possessive nature of the “extreme romance”, and when that’s the only thing you can see in YA and NA, that becomes a problem because the problematic elements are normalised to the point where we dismiss them as just par for the course. NA is currently a Formula 1 style race to the top, with self-publishing leading the way and prolific writers churning out generic stories as quick as they can to keep up with trends and make a bit of money, so the category hasn’t had a chance to settle down and evolve beyond extreme romance. Perhaps with time that will change. Now that YA has moved somewhat beyond the sparkly bandwagon and is on the lookout for pastures fresh, we’ll find something a little less extreme.