Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Observer - a correction/addition

Now that I've had time to go out and buy a copy of The Observer to read, I've realised that if you read the article by Francesca Segal on the internet - there is a paragraph missing - and, for me personally,it's an important one. It also explains why I am suddenly 'Walker' in the internet reproduction of the article as this names me as Kate Walker. I did wonder what had happened to my full name on the internet!

So in the interests of accuracy - here's the article with the missing paragraph replaced.

Who said romance was dead?

In the time it takes you to read this page, Britons will have bought 100 novels by Mills & Boon, now in its centenary year
Francesca Segal
Sunday January 27, 2008

'Men are so beaten into submission these days,' says Jilly Cooper. 'They're so wet and worried and confused that one simply has to reach into romance novels to find a proper hero.'That prince of sales figures, Harry Potter, has shifted 400 million books in his 11-year career. But when you realise that 200 million Mills & Boon novels are sold worldwide every year, it's all too obvious that Jilly Cooper has a point.

A Mills & Boon paperback is sold in a UK bookshop on average every 6.6 seconds. Compare this to our domestic market for literary fiction, where some critically acclaimed novels sell so few copies that the author might well have been better to bypass the publishers and knock them off on a photocopier. As it reaches its centenary, Mills & Boon is a truly astonishing phenomenon.In 1908, the company was launched as a publisher of general fiction, as well as etiquette guides and manuals for modern living. One contributor wrote under the rather progressive pseudonym of 'Gentleman With a Duster', but its list also featured Jack London, PG Wodehouse and Hugh Walpole. It became clear very quickly, however, that romances outsold all else. The character of the list has changed immeasurably, but if the company has retained anything from those first years, it is its policy of encouraging new writers alongside its stars.

It was Charles Boon who realised that the future of the company lay with women's fiction and during the First World War, as life became harder and men more scarce, he began to focus on the escapist romance novels for which the house is now known. And yet there has always been a pervasively sneering attitude to them, the name synonymous with saccharine sentiments, prehistoric gender roles and risible sexual euphemism. Why, with 3.2 million devoted readers in the UK and 50 million worldwide, has such snobbery persisted?

'I think it's partly because they're cheap,' says Joanna Bowring, co-curator of the Mills & Boon centenary exhibition at Manchester Central Library, 'and also because they're considered disposable literature. And they're almost exclusively read and written by women and so have never been taken very seriously.'

Mills & Boon is a very serious business. Its highly stylised category romances are published in 12 distinct series, whose content ranges from the innocent to the explicit; from cosy, domestic love stories to glamorous international dramas. A reader picking up a hot-pink Romance novel will never be subjected to the graphic, lust-fuelled scenes in a flame-covered Blaze story. Some follow the quaintly traditional path most associated with the novels - virgins, chaste kisses and wedding bells, while others have evolved to represent their current readers and show single mothers, divorcees and mistresses, the complex structures of modern families and relationships.Their specificity is astonishing - one series, Medical Romance, is peopled entirely with hunky doctors and pretty nurses, while Modern Romance is filled with an alternating catalogue of Greeks, Italians and Arab sheikhs. Nocturne, launching later this year, will focus on the improbably narrow niche of paranormal passions.

Read one you enjoy and the colour of jacket will guide you to the others in the same series, sharing enough elements that you will never be disappointed. It is this repetition of both plot and characters that inspires criticism, but it is also what keeps readers reaching for the shelves or, in the case of subscribers, the letterbox. Committed readers receive up to 70 books a month by post and such is their faith in the consistency of the brand that they simply take what's new rather than selecting individual titles.

Like Disney, everything in the Mills & Boon universe is tightly controlled. Fans have learnt that they can depend on them completely for the security of a happy ending. As one subscriber from Fort Worth, Texas, explained: 'They give faith when you need it. You know everything will be all right and the man is not a swine.' They tap into a fundamental need for reassurance, a small domain of predictability in a world where bad things happen. This is the awesome power of the romance novel and the reason why the relentless attacks of literary snobs on both the prose and the frequent use of cliche is redundant. No one believes they're great literature, nor do they need to be. They're cherished for their simplicity. Sometimes, all we want is a break from wondering what's going to happen next.

'Romance novels provide a glimpse of what we feel life could be,' says another fan from Australia. 'The heroes are always thoughtful and confident and can always take care of the women they love.'

Over the years, a frequent objection has been that romance novels cause women to become dissatisfied with their lot, encouraged to expect a Lancelot when they ought to be happy with a more readily available Don Quixote. It is only when talking to Kate Walker, one of the company's most successful authors, that I notice the subtle sexism implicit in this concern and, indeed, in many of the oft-repeated attacks on the novels. Does romance encourage women to foster unrealistic expectations? Does science fiction give men unrealistic expectations about inter-galactic space travel?

'I think,' corrects Walker, 'that the readers are aware of their escapist value - and that we've never actually met a sheikh or a Greek billionaire. And in any case, the problems that I give the characters are familiar ones that can't be solved with money or power. In that sense, it's the same issues your plumber could have with his missus, but in a glamorous setting.'

Walker has been applying this formula since 1984 and in that time has sold more than 12 million copies of her books in 67 different countries. But, like a great many Mills & Boon writers, she began 'because it's a job that a woman can do to support herself for independence while having a family. There are very few publishers that have such a strong female history. Even the heroines have traditionally been working women, not housewives. Yes, it was a company started by men, but the women have sustained it'.

Just as, in turn, it has sustained the women. 'A friend of my mother's had been abandoned by her husband,' says Walker, 'and she made a life for herself and her two kids by writing Mills & Boon novels. As a company in which women have always been so important, strong and professional, there isn't one to match it.'

But feminist critics have long attacked the books, citing retrogressive plots, passive women and the reinforcement of the dominant male. 'It means they haven't read one since the Sixties,' explains Walker. 'I couldn't write a passive woman if I tried. Yes, the men are strong, but my heroines give as good as they get.'

While the heroines have evolved since the early days, the heroes remain much as they were a century ago. 'There's always been a subtle undercurrent of force throughout the books and that's never changed from the earliest ones. Even later, when other aspects are influenced by feminism and the shifting attitudes outside the novel,' observes Joanna Bowring, 'the men are masterful and stern.'

This was expressed rather less subtly by Violet Winspear, a popular writer who caused a furore in 1970 when she declared that her male characters 'must frighten and fascinate. They must be the sort of men who are capable of rape'. A shy spinster who lived with her mother and a cat, it's easy to dismiss Winspear as out of touch with her contemporaries and her books did have unusually darker elements. But a quick glance at the titles of current releases in the racier and more cosmopolitan Modern Romance series suggests that dominance is still dominant. The Greek Tycoon's Unwilling Wife; The Billionaire's Captive Bride; The Desert Sheikh's Captive Wife; Surrender to the Sheikh; Taken by her Greek Boss - all of these are 2007 publications.

Stories in which male dominance remains the norm stand accused of setting back women's emancipation, our hard-won rights to a partner instead of a ruler. They are considered outdated, no longer representing what women of today really want, but none the less encouraging such desires to linger. The fundamental flaw to such an argument is that Mills & Boon has always been a minutely sensitive gauge, polling relentlessly and reacting instantly to the changing tastes of their readers. Whatever appears on the pages is there because the readers want it.

This goes to the heart of what makes Mills & Boon's success so remarkable: while many of the details have evolved over the years, the core of the stories has remained the same. Every reader I spoke to expressed a similar sentiment - they reached for a romance novel for its promise of a happy ending. It's all there on the back of one of their earliest paperbacks - 'Your troubles are at an end when you choose a Mills & Boon novel. No more doubts! No more disappointments!'

It has been calculated that dedicated modern Mills & Boon readers will have seen their characters sharing some 30,000 embraces and tripping merrily to the altar at least 7,000 times, more than enough happily-ever-afters to cheer the most jaded of readers. Jilly Cooper puts it best: 'After all, life's bloody tough. Mills & Boon is much better than binge drinking.'·

Readers, Writers and Romance, an exhibition celebrating Mills & Boon's centenary, will be staged in Manchester Central Library from June, before touring the north west into 2009


Trish Wylie said...


You did GREAT! Am very PROUD to know you my darlink.

And the missing paragraph was kinda important. I did wonder why you were suddenly Walker... ;)

Margaret McDonagh said...

Thanks for posting the full article, Kate, and well done on doing such a great job.

However, I can't help but be miffed both at Medicals being dismissed as nothing but "hunky doctors and pretty nurses" and at the suggestion the heroes have not evolved at all in 100 years and remain stern and with the "element of force". Nothing could be further from the truth.

Still, a much better balanced piece than most. And, as we know, not only will we never please everyone, there will always be those swift to criticise and mock when they've never read one.

Mags xx

Laura Vivanco said...

I know I'm late in commenting, but I couldn't let this go without saying something:

encouraged to expect a Lancelot when they ought to be happy with a more readily available Don Quixote

When did Segal last read Don Quijote? The man is unique, and quite mad. He's the one who tries to joust with a windmill. Really, really not a good example to choose if you're trying to come up with a fictional character to represent a "more readily available" and normal kind of man.

I wonder if that's why the paragraph was omitted?


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