Enjoy this Monday with Mildred!
Romance novels versus the zombies
For a reason I don’t remember now, I recently bought a romance novel to read on my kindle. I may have been feeling nostalgic for all those little white books my mother used to devour back in the 60s, that she would leave sitting all over the house and that I would pick up and read every now and then when I was really, really bored. It was the 60s. There was no internet.
Years later I became hooked for a few years on another genre, post-apocalyptic stories, in the specific sub-genre of zombie novels. My new affliction is also a sub-genre, the lesbian romance novel. I assume there are many similarities to mainstream, straight romance, but I don’t know what they are because I never read those. So, all my comments concern only lesbian romances novels.
For some other reason that I haven’t yet fully grasped, I have become seriously addicted to these books, because apparently I’m a sucker for somewhat socially embarrassing prose addictions. This time it’s way worse than when I couldn’t get enough of the zombie novels because of the sheer volume of available titles. There is no end to them. The pool is very deep and you can drown.
What finally struck me was how very similar lesbian romance novels are apocalyptic zombie novels. They’re reliably formulaic, with a wide spectrum of writing talent, and are all about the end of someone’s world.
First of all, a reader needs to distinguish between a novel that includes a love story and a Romance Novel. The former is as old as words while the latter is a twentieth century invention about a developing relationship between (typically) two people, with the story being only a means to an end. Events in the story line, though important, are secondary to the relationship. Just like zombie novels are not about the zombies but about whatever social message the author wants to convey with zombies as the empty canvas.
With each genre the readers feels a delicious sense of anticipation. You know the two protagonists are going to get together. You really want the super nice but heartbroken heroine to be rescued by their True Love. And now I’ve got to try and walk off having written a sentence like that. In zombie fiction we begin with someone’s normal world and then follow their efforts to survive a growing threat. Each starts with hints of things going off the tracks leading to everyone’s world derailing.
In the romance novels the characters have a certain sameness. Everyone has green eyes in these books, which is a little jarring once you look up green eyes and discover they’re actually exceedingly rare. That research also revealed to me that my hazel eyes are also somewhat rare, so yea. Everyone has a cool job that makes them interesting and a terribly sad backstory that some nice some woman should come along and heal them from. Most of the time they haven’t had sex in a very long time, which I suppose is meant to make them more relatable to the reader, as well as to up the steaminess of the obligatory sex scene. They’re a LOT more graphic now than when I was a kid, where a steamy kiss was about it. Zombie novel heroes, even when they’re women are almost always military, ex-military, or quasi-military greek letter awesome (Alpha Force or Delta unit, etc.) who love to talk about what kind of ammunition they’re using and reel off lists of what assets they’re carrying, like a computer game inventory. Unlike the horror stories of my youth, today’s zombie novel is way gorier in their depictions of undeath and “repeat kills”. Either way, these novels are about creating characters that are likeable, someone you want to root for, which is a lot more difficult than people give credit for. Writers tend to have a type of character they go to time and again with only slight variations from book to book, and that’s okay really. There are so many romance fiction writers that if you’re looking for a different kind of character, just change writers. A reader will unfortunately not find such a large choice with zombie novels.
Diversity is a real issue. For most romances an “olive skinned” character is as daring as it gets. There is the occasional Latina, and the even more rare African-American. I recently read a book set in England with an Indian protagonist and it lent a lot to the texture of the story. Writers should try that more often. Nearly all zombie novel protagonists are Caucasian as well.
Each genre emphasizes things. In romances you’ll notice an emphasis on the disruption of routine. A lonely woman has gotten into a rut of some kind and must be shaken out of it. There is an emphasis on cool jobs, though the effects of the job on character don’t tend to be terribly strong. Sure, she’s most likely a doctor or an actor, but most of the time that just means her precious time for romance is limited, creating One More Obstacle. The sought after professions are the ones that give the author room to describe their muscle-y arms and the “long delicate fingers of her strong hands”. Zombie novel protagonists also have rippling muscles and can cave in skulls with interesting tools.
Each has terrible cover art, though romance novels are the worst. Maybe I’m just spoiled by science fiction which is always great. Looking back I now see that my mom’s book cover art was just as bad, only more kitchy and often hilarious. The level of writing is similar for each genre as well. Most are only okay, with not a few of them being really terrible and some gems that really speak to you and which you’ll read more than once – even if they’re not actually very good.
If you want to really go down the Matrix hole, you can try a lesbian romance zombie novel. I haven’t yet, because it looks too bad for even me to stomach. I have tried a couple of lesbian romance apocalypse novels. One was painfully bad, but the other, while suffering from some typical apocalypse novel problems, was actually an interesting story of a successful polyamorous relationship.
None of this explains, of course why I’m so hooked on either of these genres. Romance novels are a billion dollar industry, so I’m by far not the only one. I think part of it is a Disney upbringing that makes us crave predictability and happy endings, no matter how forced. Also, the world has been getting more fractured and frustrating for the last century, making predictably happy endings from a complete remake of someone’s life or society itself a soothing balm to a lot of people.
If you haven’t yet tried a romance novel I recommend you seriously consider whether you want to sample the prose crack. I’ve enjoyed it as much as the many terribly written zombie novels I’ve read over the years, but it’s hard on the wallet, so reader beware.
CFR: In Addition: For me the PERFECT zombie romance is the xkcd Outbreak comic shown below. I like adult romances. Oh well done!