Unknown Unknowns (2): Erin S. Young and Romantic Economics

By Laura Vivanco on

When writing "Flexible Heroines, Flexible Narratives: The Werewolf Romances of Kelley Armstrong and Carrie Vaughn" (2011), Erin S. Young deliberately stepped into an area bounded by "known unknowns" since she was dealing with two unfinished series of novels. While scholars of popular culture may have very good reasons for wishing to comment on such texts, they inevitably run the risk that later developments in a series may invalidate or undermine their findings. Young states that

the works of Kelley Armstrong and Carrie Vaughn [...] violate the conventional romance formula by omitting “the betrothal,” as well as any other indicator of “happily ever after.” (204)

In Armstrong's series "Elena explicitly rejects Clay’s renewed offer of marriage, and she refuses to attempt procreation" (208) and in Vaughn's

Kitty explores a number of romantic relationships with different partners in different locations.

What both of these series offer, then, are heroines whose paranormal attributes play a key role in their refusal—and sometimes, inability—to marry and bear children. (208)

However, in novels which were presumably published after Young completed her research, Kitty becomes engaged and by the beginning of Kitty Raises Hell she has a husband. As for Elena, she does eventually become a mother.

The "unknown unknowns" made their presence felt while I was reading Young's argument that traditional romance fiction reflects "Fordist" economic conditions, while the new type of "paranormal romance" emerges as a result of the socio-economic conditions prevalent in later decades:

Fordism designates the period of welfare capitalism in the United States between the 1950s and the 1970s, an era of postwar mass production characterized by the stable employment and unionization of working-class laborers. Flexible accumulation marks the transition from mass production to small-scale production, the rise of the service industry, and the growth of “flexible” employment arrangements (in terms of hours, contracts, work locations, etc.). I argue that the conventional romance narratives of the 1980s and prior reflect romantic relationships in the context of Fordist capitalism. The paranormal romance subgenre that emerges in the 1990s, on the other hand, explores the changing constructions of male and female subjectivity under flexible accumulation. [...] The heroines of “paranormal romance,” like the multi-volume structures that contain them, fully embrace the “dynamics of a ‘throwaway’ society” as they experience a multitude of romantic relationships, sexual encounters, and adventures that yield only temporary satisfaction. (205-07)

The hypothesis is an interesting one, but it does not seem to take into account novels such as Forever Amber (1944) and the Angelique series, which appear to have been "unknown unknowns" to Young. They're "known unknowns" to me but thanks to All About Romance, I am at least aware that the former featured a heroine who

had multiple partners and faced many perils before finally ending up with her "one true love." [...] Forever Amber was published in the 1940s, but it did have a lasting impact. [...]

the Angelique series by Anne and Serge Golon [...] were sprawling historical adventures about a French woman during the time of the Sun King - Louis XIV. Angelique peaked in popularity in the 1960s, were hugely popular and still remembered today [...]. But while many UBS's shelve them under romance, they aren't really romance novels and have more in common with Forever Amber. (Marble)

According to Elaine Showalter, Kathleen Winsor's Forever Amber

Forever Amberrevealed its age's secret desires and myths. The headstrong Amber - beautiful, empowered, resilient - represents a rebellion other women identified with, even, like my mother, as they hid the book away in the cupboard.

The novel came out in England in 1945. While English women were weeping over Celia Johnson's stoic portrayal of sexual renunciation in Brief Encounter they were also bonding over the bawdy, upwardly-mobile Amber St Clare. Forever Amber was published at a time of social upheaval in Britain, the beginnings of the welfare state and the erosion of an ethic of social and marital deference. Divorce petitions skyrocketed during the war, rising from 9,970 in 1938 to 24,857 in 1945. Moreover, Winsor's readers, the majority of them women, identified with Amber's calamitous life and admired her fortitude in times of hardship. The great fire of London would have seemed familiar to those who had had lived through the blitz. The random nature of plague would ring true for those who had lived with the constant fear of buzzbombs and V2 rockets.

As for Angelique, in the 1980s Rosemary Guiley stated that her

adventures have been so often mimicked that they now seem like stock fare. She sails to Africa, is kidnapped by ruthless pirates and sold to a sultan for his harem. She escapes that, too, and returns to France, only to leave again for the New World with yet a new lover, of course, and the feeling that anything is possible. With Angelique, anything is. (98)

All this rather suggests that the "paranormal romance" heroines whom Young examines are not quite as groundbreaking as Young's essay seems to imply, and Young's argument about two distinct economic periods producing two distinct types of heroine would seem to be undermined by the fact that heroines whom,

like the multi-volume structures that contain them, fully embrace the “dynamics of a ‘throwaway’ society” as they experience a multitude of romantic relationships, sexual encounters, and adventures that yield only temporary satisfaction. (207)

appear to have flourished under Fordism.

So much for some of the "unknown unknowns" of romantic fiction. But what about "unknown unknowns" in the area of the paranormal? Could it be that some of the "paranormal romances" examined by Young were replicating the "dynamics of a 'throwaway' society" primarily because they were drawing on the conventions of, say, fantasy, speculative fiction, erotic fiction and/or horror? This would appear to be the opinion of Paula Guran, whom Young quotes in her essay and who argues that

There are paranormals that would be best classified as belonging to a subgenre of fantasy or mystery or action/adventure or erotica or suspense or horror or historical fiction . . . By combining the aspects of so many “types” of literature, paranormal romance is becoming a type unto itself.

I did not come to paranormal romance from Romance. I suspect that many other paranormal readers come from the same literary turf I do—science fiction, fantasy, and horror. (Introduction 12)

My background as a reader is rather different from Guran's: if I were to make a map of my knowledge of popular culture, I'd have to mark the area of paranormal fiction with a sign reading "here be dragons, werewolves, vampires etc". It's pretty much a "known unknown" for me, so I turned for help to Dr Hannah Priest, whose "current research focuses on monsters and monster theory in late medieval romance and 21st-century urban fantasy."


  • Guiley, Rosemary. The Romance Reader's Guide to Printed Pleasures. New York: Facts on File, 1983.
  • Guran, Paula. "Introduction: What is ‘Paranormal Romance’?." Best New Paranormal Romance. New York: Juno Books, 2006. 7-17. [If that link doesn't work, it should be available via the Internet Archive.]
  • Marble, Anne. "Bodice-Rippers & Super Couples."  All About Romance. 15 May 2003.
  • Showalter, Elaine. "Emeralds on the Home Front." The Guardian, 10 August 2002.
  • Young, Erin S. "Flexible Heroines, Flexible Narratives: The Werewolf Romances of Kelley Armstrong and Carrie Vaughn." Extrapolation: A Journal Of Science Fiction And Fantasy 52.2 (2011): 204-226. It should be noted that Young's "Corporate Heroines and Utopian Individualism: A Study of the Romance Novel in Global Capitalism", Ph.D. thesis, University of Oregon, 2010, can be downloaded from here.

I think "romantic suspense" is as much mystery (and often Gothic) as it is romance. Where do the lines blur? Is an HEA make a romance? Frankly, there were a number of Louis l'Amore books I read in high school that were basically romances focusing on the hero's overcoming barriers to earn the heroine's love ... but he is considered a defining Western writer. Hmmm ...


According to the RWA it's the centrality of the romantic relationship as well as the HEA which makes something a "romance". The Romantic Novelists' Association aren't worried about the nature of the endings when it comes to defining "romantic fiction" but they too stress the importance of the weighting given to the central romantic relationship, though here too they seem quite a bit more flexible than the RWA:

Is Donna Leon a romantic writer? She writes crime—and extremely well, but her hero is definitely in love with his wife. Tolstoy? Anna Karenina? There’s a love story there all right—but is the book a romantic novel? An editor once referred to Dr Zhivago as “that old saga.” Is it a literary novel or is it a saga? Could it possibly be both? Sarah Harrison, The Dreaming Stones? A great historical or a love story with a great deal of literary merit thrown in? [...]

try giving each thread of your story a title—love story, family relationship, experienced tragedy, ambition etcetera. Next, picture a mountain range, the Cairngorms, the Himalayas, whatever, and give each mountain peak the title of a strand of your novel, with the most important thread going on the highest peak, the least important, the smallest. If when you’re done, the love story is stuck on K2 you’ve written a romantic novel. ‘Seemples.’

I've read/seen a few Westerns, but generally speaking they're are still "known unknowns" to me. I'm going to have to do some more research on them. Can you remember any Louis L'Amour novels which feature a heroine who comes from the East? It's a theme which is intriguing me at the moment.

There were frequently love interests in L'amour's westerns but they were usually something "extra" the hero got for his heroism and not central enough. The female Antagonists were rare and didn't always have romances (I actually liked the fact he allowed widows to STAY widows if they wanted to instead of falling for the next guy to cowboy up and help them). I remember that in Echo Sackett's book (yes, I was a Sackett Family fan in a big way) a dapper dude form the East fell in love with her, but her deeds were first and the romance was a nice bonus -- just like the guys (which was nice).

Elizabeth Lowell's suspences (my hands down favorites in that sub-genre) keep the romance an important part of the plot, but the story surrounding the love story is so intense that it can overshadow the romance. I definately think of her as an excellent romance author, but for some books the love seems to be a benefit that comes with/from heroism -- very, VERY similar to a L'Amour work.