I promise, this is not another Fifty post. It’s not even much of a rant. It’s more of a thinking-out-loud post. I came to a realization that helped me conceptualize what unites any number of books that I can barely get through, but are nonetheless soaring up the bestseller charts.
One of my fellow reviewers at Dear Author wrote a positive and enthusiastic review of a self-published novella, one which also happened to be doing extremely well in the Kindle rankings. I was curious about it, and since it was short and in the free lending program at Amazon, I downloaded it and read it. I thought it was cute but not very good. Here’s my Goodreads review, and here’s the Dear Author review.
It’s kind of hard to believe we read the same book, isn’t it? This was puzzling to me, because while Dabney and I disagree on certain things we think are important in romance novels, we also agree on some favorite authors and favorite books. The easy answer would be to say that I was right and she was wrong (my favorite of course), or that she was right and I was wrong (I’m getting better at admitting my wrongness as a possibility, really). But I didn’t think that was it. And de gustibus didn’t seem to capture it either.
I mulled it over while reading the comments, but I wasn’t getting anywhere until the author posted a comment where she said that no, this wasn’t written as part of the Twi/50 world, but that she was a huge Buffy fan. And not just any kind of Buffy fan: A Buffy/Spike fan. And then it all made sense.
For those of you who are not versed in the Buffy fandom, there is a big divide between the Spuffy faction and the Bangel faction. No, wait, that’s not right. Let me back up and explain (this is important; summing up is not enough).
If you care about the romance in Buffy as a romance, i.e., beyond the romantic subplot’s function as a storyline shaper, then you are either on the Spuffy team or the Bangel team. But there is also a third team: long-time viewers of Buffy who don’t privilege the romantic relationships over other aspects of the show and who think that Spuffy is an abomination. This faction holds the position that Spuffy ruined Seasons 6 & 7, were complicit in the horrors known as Doublemeat Palace and Crack Willow, and generally turned a fabulous series into a soap opera starring a boring, tedious, and borderline offensive couple. To them, Spike and Buffy are two people who are terrific apart but should not be allowed to interact as anything but Slayer and (chipped) vampire.
If you spend a lot of time in the Buffy fanfic community, I’m not sure how much you interact with members of this third group, since so much of fanfiction is focused on romantic pairings. But on the alt.tv.buffy-v-slayer boards, while the series was unfolding, it was a huge issue. While the romance between Buffy and Angel was crucial to the development of both Buffy and the series as a whole, by the end of Season 4 Bangel was all but over. Angel had his own show (and affiliated usenet group), and his own (eventually also fucked-up) relationship with Cordelia. Buffy was his past love, and he crossed over to her show for Very Special Episodes. But the romantic relationship was kaput.
So the fans’ conflict was over whether Buffy/Spike, the romance, was ruining Buffy, the show. Again, I think that where you stand on this is hugely influenced by what you get out of the show. I was in the anti-Spuffy camp (just in case you can’t tell). I think Spike is a terrific character and James Marsters does an awesome job with him. But as a romantic figure, I liked him best with Dru. Once he was mooning over Buffy, and definitely after he was chipped, he became uninteresting to me as a hero (although he remained interesting as a character). I actually think (heresy alert!) that after Season 4 or maybe 5, the romantic relationship arcs were frequently problematic, although early Willow/Tara was pretty good and if you didn’t enjoy Xander/Anya you lack the comedy gene. But Buffy’s relationships stopped working for me.
From our 2012 perspective we might say that Buffy needed to just be by herself for a while, as she worked her way into her mature role as Slayer Leader. I don’t know. But I do know that when she was with Spike, I didn’t like her character and what was happening to it the way I did when she was younger and growing as a person through her romantic relationships. It didn’t help that the story arcs got strange and occasionally felt as if they were being retconned. From this perspective, Spike felt inconsistent and unsatisfying and Buffy was even harder to understand.
BUT. If you were a romance fan, and you were watching in large part for the romance aspect of the show, there was a very good chance you loved Spike and his Arc of Unrequited Love, Pain, and Redemption. I mean, really loved him, to the point where you frequently wondered (heresy alert #2!) if Buffy was good enough for him. And when you get to that point on a show named Buffy, there’s something going on.
Here’s what I think is going on.
Buffy is a show with young, attractive people who mix and match, romantically speaking, over the course of the series. If you’re a romance reader, you automatically look at the characters in terms of potential romantic couples. Spike and Buffy probably have the most interesting series arcs as characters (along with Willow of course, but for various reasons she wasn’t going to be Buffy’s romantic soul mate). Xander is too much of a sidekick to be a romantic hero. Giles is the father figure, so eeeuuuw. Angel has to be on Angel. That leaves us with Spike, who is brilliantly played by Marsters, and Buffy. But Spike has to be re-vamped in order to be a true romantic hero. So he gets chipped and ultimately re-ensouled. The sort-of-alpha vamp (come on, Dru was the alpha in their relationship) turns into emo-alpha.
And man, do we love our emo-alphas in romance. The strong, masculine hero whose vulnerable side can only be revealed by The Right Heroine, but once it is, he’s a puddle of goo, over and over again. Spike totally embodies this contradiction. He’s an old and powerful vampire, after all. After he’s chipped, he still has his vampire urges, they’re just thwarted by the chip. Any other vampire would be driven crazy by the chip. But Spike is smart and he’s in love with Buffy. He lives with the chip and even embraces it because it lets him be close to Buffy.
Me, I liked pre-chipped and pre-souled Spike way better. But then, I also liked the way Dru kicked his ass. I’m probably not your average Spike fan.
Here’s my theory: Edward, Christian, Keith (the dude in the book that Dabney and I split on), they’re all Spike. They’re all the emo-alpha who is redeemed by the right heroine. Now, this is not a new character. We’ve had emo-alphas forever. But what we haven’t had is the totally-spelled-out-and-explained-in-words-of-one-syllable emo-alpha, the emo-alpha male who is no longer a mystery. How can he be, when he’s telling you about himself all the time?
When I was reading about Keith and listening to his long-winded internal monologues, I kept flashing back to one of my favorite Mary Burchell books. It’s an old M&B (released in the US as a Harlequin Presents) in which an ingenuous young woman is basically blackmailed by the hero into acting as co-respondent in his divorce case. The Burchell book has no sex (or even implied sex until the last pages), while the Grey novella’s sex scenes make up the bulk of the novel. In the Burchell we never get the hero’s POV, while in the Grey we are privy to all too much (IMO) of the hero’s thoughts. But both books take place over a very short time (about a week). And in both, the heroines spend a lot of their time waiting for the heroes to come home every night and spend their days falling in love with said heroes, who turn out to be more sensitive and vulnerable that their billionaire backgrounds would suggest (Burchell’s hero is more realistic in his tycoonosity, but she was a surprisingly astringent writer of romance).
In both books, the heroines redeem the heroes. They bring out their sensitive, vulnerable sides. But in the Burchell, as in many old M&Bs, this is done through inference. The reader does the work. These days, the authors lay everything out on the page. Nothing is left to chance. Or subtlety.
Clearly the in-your-face, obvious, wordy explanations of the hero and his angst/pain/redemption work for a lot of readers. They don’t work for me.
And that’s why, henceforth, I’ll nod my head when people rave about the next book with the emo-alpha hero. I know what they’re talking about now, and I know why they like it. But I’ll pass, thanks. I like my authors to leave me some of the emotional and cognitive work. As Liz said so perfectly, I can’t write it, so that’s why I read fiction. But my romantic imagination still works quite well, and I like being able to use it when I’m reading about a hero. When his every last thought and motivation is explained, it’s harder for me to do.