Natasha Oakley - British Romance Author

Writer of tug-at-the-heartstrings, feel-good romance for Harlequin Mills & Boon

Monday, September 24, 2007

Guilty Pleasure

It's all beginning. With Mills and Boon turning 100 years old in 2008 there will undoubtedly be an upsurge of media attention. Here's a programme not to miss if you've got access to BBC Radio 4 at 11.30am UK time. (

Guilty Pleasure: a Hundred Years of Mills and Boon.

Here's what Jane Anderson says about the programme in the Radio Times:

"Comedian Lucy Porter admits to feeling a sense of shame in being caught reading a Mills and Boon romance on public transport. But, as she finds out on visiting Romance HQ, aka the Mills and Boon offices in the aptly named Paradise Road in Surrey, these works of fiction shift 200 million copies each year. There's a strong feminist contention that Mills and Boon encourages women to settle for less than they're worth, but Fay Weldon argues back that we should let writers write what they want and readers read what they want."

Chris Campling writes:

"Someone you know has read, possibly even written, a Mills and Boon romantic novel. There is no shame in this. In fact, so little shame is there that people pour out of the woodwork to talk to comedian Lucy Porter for Guilty Pleasure - a Hundred Years of Mills and Boon (Radio 4, Thursday, 11.30am).

Some of them are successful M and B writers, including Roger Sanderson, the imprint's only male novelist. The only one to admit to it, perhaps. Others are not so fortunate. One failed contributor to the oeuvre tells Porter that having her contribution, the intriguingly titled Fires of Zanzibar, knocked back so damaged her confidence that she was put off writing for six years. Luckily when Helen Fielding did get her nerve back she came up with Bridget Jones, so it all worked out in the end.

Porter's programme is full of nuggets like that, as she talks to editors and executives and roots through the company's enormous archives - 100 years of slim volumes full of bursting bodices takes up a lot of space.

In the interests of balance, though, she also talks to those critics who argue that the novels are formulaic, badly written, sexist and for people who are unhappy. One can see the truth of the first three gripes, but the fourth? What's wrong with writing and publishing books that make unhappy people happy?"

Okay, I'm braced. I have no doubt parts of the programme will irritate me greatly - as has some of the above. We'll see ......

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  • At 7:43 pm, Blogger Laura Vivanco said…

    The BBC's got a press release about it here and it includes 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.

    Are they being serious? It's been decades since M&B's have had scenes with sex before marriage. Depends how you define "inter-racial", but what about all those sheiks? Nowadays they're not like E. M. Hull's who turns out to have had European parents. And Jackie Braun recently had a heroine who was half Japanese. I'm sure there are quite a few other examples. There have also been plenty of heroines who are disabled: Liz Fielding's award-winning The Marriage Miracle springs to mind.

    It's true there aren't any M&Bs with the central relationship being between two people of the same sex, but there are sometimes gay secondary characters who are in relationships.

    I have to wonder if this quote is really about M&B at the time of Winspear, because it certainly doesn't describe the novels being written and published in the past decade or more.

    I think I'll have to listen to Radio 4 on Thursday.

  • At 8:29 pm, Blogger Natasha said…

    Oh grief! Do you think 11.30am is too early to be fortified by a large glass of wine????

  • At 8:40 pm, Blogger Trish said…

    I have to say I've had a gay secondary character in a book though he's single and loving it! And am currently writing a hero coping with the onset of hereditary blindness AND LOADS of my characters have had sex before marriage. WHAT A LOAD OF RUBBISH.

    There better be email facilities for this show!!!

    And *only male writer who confesses to it*?????????? I HATE researchers who don't do their research!!!

  • At 8:53 pm, Blogger Natasha said…

    My first 'sale' had happy 'married' gay characters in it. I do think the whole thing is very silly. And I'm currently writing a Sheikh!!!!

    Oh well, let's wait and see. The bit on the BBC website did say Lucy Porter has done a course to see whether she has what it takes to make an M&B author.

  • At 9:31 pm, Blogger Biddy said…

    I was interviewed for the show but have since been told that it won't be part of it.

    They were trying to get both sides of the coin, people who liked and people who didn't. They had full access to the M&B offices so they knew all about the current M&B guidelines. In fact the only reason I knew about the M&B competition I entered was through them. They were interviewing and recording the whole session where the editors took is through what it took to write for all the different lines.

    I can't believe the BBCs own press release!!

    Some of the questions I was asked was whether the books gave women an unrealistic expectation on relationships and the like. I do wonder now that the reason my interview isn't being used is because I have a positive attitude towards M&B and the fact that I am exactly NOT the type to M&B reader they are trying to show. I.e. young, successful, realistic and fully functional in the real world. Ho hum.

  • At 9:37 pm, Blogger Trish said…

    Also by saying that the interviewer herself was embaressed to read the books on the train isn't she kinda advocating the fact that women have to live up to a certain expectation? Whose to say what people can and can't read???

    It's NOT a good press release is it? Maybe they just like the controversy???

  • At 1:56 am, Blogger Ally Blake said…

    Seriously!!! That press release garbage has me so riled I want to grab someone by the throat!

    All these "interviews" and you wonder how many of the people involved at the top end actually saty down and rea a handful of the current books. Hmmm???


  • At 8:16 am, Blogger Kate Walker said…

    Ok so the books are about hetero relationships - so why should we write about same sex relatinships? There's plenty of specialised books for that market - which is not ours. Inter-racial?? Would the media please get their heads out of their - ahem - the sand. Anyone read Melissa James Aboriginal heroes? To name just one.

    My heroine in Constantine's Revenge has an openly gay friend who is also - shock horror - a dear friend of the hero and that book's already over 10 years old.

    Anyway, great minds think alike, Natasha - I've blogged on the same topic this morning.

    We'll all just have to brace ourselves - and wait to see what the programme actually says - and listen to it with open minds, before pre-judging it. Then we can comment with some actual knowledge.

    It's just a pity that the media seem incapable of doing the same for us.


  • At 8:21 am, Blogger Kate Walker said…


    Checking out that press release, I note with a sinking heart that the programme has included 'historian Joseph McAleer, who divulge the company's history.'
    I have that man's book - he calls it The Story of Mills & Boon - and it stops in the 1960s! 40+ years ago and before so many of the major changes that have developed since - does that show you where the programme's mind-set is likely to be?

    But again -we'll wait and see what the truth actually is.

    Kate (who is laughing so hard at the fact that my word verification for this is BOOBmc! Long live the Cleavage of Romance Novelists)

  • At 9:02 am, Blogger Laura Vivanco said…

    The other thing about Joseph McAleer, apart from the fact that he stops his history decades before the present day, is that he's very focussed on reading the books as "products" and he's internalised a lot of what Alan Boon said. Alan Boon seemed to think of the novels as quality products, produced to a certain "formula", and Boon was also fairly keen on keeping a "moral" aspect to them. I put "moral" in quotation marks, because obviously one person's "morality" might be rather different from another's. McAleer himself is, according to the blurb on his book, "Director of Communications for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and editor of a Catholic monthly newspaper". So I get the impression that he approved of Boon's stance (which is rather reflected in that strange paragraph in the press release).

    Why they chose McAleer instead of 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, I don't know. I suspect it's probably for the same reason they cut the interview with Biddy.

  • At 9:33 am, Blogger Biddy said…

    On the subject of whether the producer and presenter have read recent releases, they have. I saw the stacks they had in the office. And it seemed to cover all the M&B lines.

  • At 10:24 am, Blogger Natasha said…

    We'll just have to wait and see. I just know that I've become used to receiving jibes about what I write. It's really quite staggering that people can be so rude to denegrate what I do and, by extension, who I am within ten minutes of meeting me.

    I'm not expecting to find this programme as annoying. There's a part of me which knows it's 'entertainment' and if I were making it I'd be anxious to put together something as contentious as possible. And I know reporters have column inches to fill. I also know how many have tried to write for M&B and failed. :)

  • At 10:38 am, Blogger Jennifer Lewis said…

    Argh. It is possible that the person writing the press release could be more to blame than the person making the program. Of course they want controversy as that always sells!

    I want to know how the "Director of Communications for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and editor of a Catholic monthly newspaper" started reading romance novels in the first place. Bet there's a story there ;-) Yeesh.

    I'm pretty impressed that M&B has been around so long. I didn't know that.


  • At 12:15 pm, Blogger Laura Vivanco said…

    I want to know how the "Director of Communications for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and editor of a Catholic monthly newspaper" started reading romance novels in the first place. Bet there's a story there ;-) Yeesh.

    From what I've gathered from reading McAleer's book, it seems that M&B discovered an archive of letters.

    McAleer doesn't say exactly how he got involved, but I suspect that John Boon, who'd got a double first at Cambridge in history, looked around for a historian to take on the analysis of the archive. Earlier, the Boon's had got in touch with someone else to do some research on the company:

    In 1968 Mills & Boon, now a powerful and successful publishing company, celebrated its Diamond Anniversary. It did so with a publicity coup: the publication of a report on its readership [...]. ‘It seemed to me that we had this readership identifiable through Reader Service,’ John Boon recalled. ‘Peter Mann had written an article in the Bookseller doing an analysis of readership. We pulled him aboard and asked him to do research. He was commissioned, yes, but he was carrying out a research job for us. We influenced him in no way whatsoever.’
    Mann was senior lecturer in sociology at Sheffield University when invited by Mills & Boon to survey 9,300 readers on the catalogue mailing list.
    (McAleer 132-33).

    If you go here you can read the introduction and a chapter of McAleer's book, and there he says that the two Boon brothers

    provided unfettered access to a long-lost archive of 50,000 letters which has proven to be a treasure trove. John Boon, reflecting his Cambridge training as an historian, placed no restrictions on this work nor asked for editorial approval. Both brothers also displayed an extraordinary generosity of time and the legendary Mills & Boon hospitality which made years of research a joy. (vi)

    I imagine that the Boons would have thought McAleer was a good choice because his "former publications include Popular Reading and Publishing in Britain, 1914-1950 (OUP, 1992)", either that, or he was interested when he learned of the archive and contacted them, but either way he already had an interest in popular fiction in the UK.

    Just to give you a sample of what McAleer has to say, here's a quotation from the introduction:

    The Mills & Boon imprint, like any successful commodity in a mass market, stands for a quality product, a kind of guarantee of an easy, thrilling, and satisfying read with an obligatory happy ending. This flavourful confection, wrapped in a brightly coloured paperback cover with a dreamy scene, is to many addictive in its escapist nature. (2)


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