Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Not at all Guilty Pleasures

More on that radio programme.

No, I haven't heard it yet - it isn't broadcast until tomorrow so, unlike so many journalists I've met or read, I am actually going to wait to hear what is said before I comment, criticise or cheer. But I was pointed in the direction of a press release for it here and in that I found these paragraphs -

The company has remained essentially conservative with no sex before marriage, no inter-racial relationships and, especially, no heroines with deformities allowed. One of Mills and Boon's most prolific writers in the Sixties, Violet Winspear, caused controversy in 1970 when she claimed her heroes had to be "capable of rape".

Lucy examines why Mills and Boon still doesn't deal directly with some elements of modern society, such as same-sex and inter-racial relationships.

No sex before marriage? - No - I'm sorry - doesn't that just date their opinions so so badly? I mean when was the last time you read a Modern/Presents novel - and even some Romances - when there was no sex before marriage? I'll be honest and say that I don't think I've ever written one.

No inter-racial marriages. Has anyone read Melissa James Aboriginal heroes? And just what is a sheikh book - hundreds and hundreds of sheikh books - if not 'inter-racial'? I've read several books too with Japanese or part Japanese heroines - and those part Japanese heroines must have been the product of an inter-racial relationship.

No heroines with deformities? Depends what you call deformities I suppose - and I for one wouldn't write a heroine with serious physical problems unless I could do it really really well. Same goes for inter-racial relationships. But I've read heroines with scars - heroines who have had breasts removed because of cancer. And what about Liz Fielding's feisty heroine Matty in The Marriage Miracle? The whole point about that book is that Matty is in a wheelchair. 'Deformity' no - but disability very definitely.

And excuse me, where is it written that every single book published must be made to deal with every single 'element of modern society such as same-sex and inter-racial relationships'? And why should the light romances of the Mills & Boon authors be singled out for criticism of that? I have written gay characters - so have many other romance writers. I haven't written romances with gay couples at the centre of the book because that is not what my audience is looking for. And again I couldn;t write them well enough because I don't have the knowledge. What about so many other popular novelists? Should I not read - say Robert Goddard because he writes about heterosexual men and women? Should I not read Barbara Erskine because her heroes and heroines are not of different races?

And what about the very successful Kimani Romance imprint?
Who did their research for this? They should be shot.

But then, in a paragraph above the one I've quoted, I read:
Lucy speaks to editors and executives, exploring their huge archives. She meets Julian Boon, the son of Alan Boon – himself son of one of the company's co-founders and widely credited as the genius behind the brand – and historian Joseph McAleer, who divulge the company's history.

Joseph McAleer wrote Passion's Fortune The Story of Mills & Boon. It's quite an interesting books as far as it goes. I was sent acopy to review when it originally came out. If you want to know the facts about how the company was started, how it grew and grew, what the early authors were like, the early books, it will give you those.

But Passion's Fortune was published in 1999 - which means it's very nearly 10 years old now. And when it was published it only went as far as the 1960s in dealing with the way the books were written and the types of stories, the attitudes of the authors - and the readers. That is, this 'history' stops way back in history. My son was taught about the 60s in history lessons when he was at secondary school and he's been a teacher himself for over five years now. I may have lived through the 60s as a child but I don't live in the way I used to do then - it's a long time ago.
The 60s were when all the changes happened all over the country - when attitudes to premarital sex and babies born 'out of wedlock' etc etc had a bomb put under them and new attitudes started to prevail - thank heaven! M&B books started to reflect that too - way back in the same decade. And that's where McAleer's book STOPS. It was already 30 years out of date when it was published - now it's almost 50 years behind the times. If it's Passion's Fortune that they're using as their bible for what M&B want from their authors, then they're w-a-y behind the times.

And why choose this book above The Romance Fictionof Mills & Boon 1909-1990s by jay Dixon, who's also written a history of M&B (but much more focussed on trends within the novels rather than the economics of sales), is a feminist and actually worked at M&B in the 1980s. Even this book, which was also published in 1999, is now lagging behind the times but she does recognise the changes that have happened since the 1960s - and in the popular culture of the UK those 30 years were a very long time.

Of course, it's still possible that the programme itself could turn out to be a well balanced, carefully researched, enlightening commentary on Mills & Boon as it actually is today but I'll admit that from their press release I'm not feeling that hopeful. I would love to be happily surprised - I really would.

What intrigues me though, as someone who is fascinated by popular culture and the way the media works, is that the press release for this brand new programme persists in dragging out the tired old clich├ęs, the old-fashioned image, the supposed 'conservative' approach of Mills & Boon books and authors. I have read/seen/listened to so many same old same old reports on the company like that that if I was just a general radio listener then I wouldn't even want to turn on another programme that, accordingto the press release, is going to tellme exactly the same old, same old stuff.

But if they'd advertised the programme as being ready to demonstrate how hugely the books had changed, how widespread their readership is, how many nationalities of women are buying them - and the reasons why - the exciting, vibrant, hugely successful company that has developed from that original 1908 publisher - the many many women of all ages, races and backgrounds who are now working in the company - as authors or editors or in marketing or design - or heading the company as Donna Hayes does as opposed to the rather paternalistic management style of the Mr Boons . . .
That would be a programme that as a student of popular culture I'd want to listen to.
Well, we can always hope that the mistakes of the press release are not reflected in the actual content of the progamme. Unlike so many commentators who aren't prepared to give me, my books, my fellow authors and the company I work for the courtesy of doing so - I'm going to get my facts about it before I say anything.


India said...

What a brilliant post Kate. I can feel the adrenalin begin to pump as I read it, and am in total accord with you. HOPEFULLY it'll be one of those rare and clever pieces of journalism that starts with the cliches and then subverts them all...

If not, please forward your blog post to the relevant person at the BBC!!

Michelle Styles said...

I agree with you and will be listening with gritted teeth.
I do know they did interview editors etc, BUT it can all depend on the angle.
The only thing to do is to complain to the BBC IF the programme is skewed or mis represents the situation.

Natasha said...

HEAR HEAR!! Well, we will see. Hopefully readers will contact the BBC if they are irritated by the programme. Meanwhile we M&B authors will do what we always do when rubbished in the press - go look at our royalty statements. :)


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