Natasha Oakley - British Romance Author

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

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Here we go again ....

As I've said here before, with Mills & Boon's centenary year just around the corner I'm braced for criticism as the media spotlight shines on us. What's so particularly annoying is that the negative swipes usually comes from people who haven't read a M&B for years, if ever. To date not one crass remark about my career choice has come from anyone who has read anything I've written.

Anyway ...

The Guardian newspaper here in the UK is today carrying the article below. Actually, I quite like it because Abby Green, as her real-life alter-ego Daisy Cummins, does a fine job in defending what really shouldn't need to be defended.

Get a coffee and settle down!

Mills & Boon: 100 years of heaven or hell?

Mills & Boon enjoys a huge readership, but has attracted furious critics during its 10 decades in business. Daisy Cummins explains why she is proud to write for the company, while Julie Bindel just wishes the books would go away.

Daisy Cummins and Julie Bindel
Wednesday December 5, 2007
The Guardian

A fine romance

Mills & Boon books have long been an easy flogging horse. Many assume they are only read by the hopelessly unfashionable and out of touch, desperate for tales of helpless heroines swept off their feet by dashing, mildly brutish heroes.

In fact, though, the person reading an M&B is far more likely to be a successful, highly intelligent woman in her 20s or 30s. And neither these women nor the heroines they love are waiting for a man to come and rescue them. M&B has moved on and sexed up.

Next year sees the firm celebrate its centenary and high sales figures continue to speak for its success. Two hundred million books sold worldwide per annum; 13m shifted each year in the UK.

As the daughter of a single-parent feminist, I was hard-wired from an early age to balk at the merest whiff of sexism. Yet, after finding a M&B in my Irish Catholic grandmother's room one summer, I was hooked. I had discovered an exciting world of feisty heroines and hard-muscled heroes. Sexual tension simmered and exploded. And there was always a happy ending. The hero and heroine were equal partners and every conflict was happily resolved, not necessarily in a marriage but with a firm commitment for the future. For me, the child of a revolutionary and somewhat bohemian background, it was a welcome - albeit, at first, slightly guilt-inducing - contrast to the anger at men I had witnessed growing up.

My mother knew I read them and said nothing, giving her tacit permission. She understood the need to balance things out. I now write for M&B myself, and am supremely proud to do so. My last book, The Kouros Marriage Revenge, was about a devastatingly gorgeous Greek. I write under the name Abby Green purely for the thrill of having a pseudonym.

Let's start with the first old chestnut that's used against these books: that they are pulp fiction written in purple prose. Well, they have never been presented as contenders for literary prizes and therefore need not offend anyone who would denigrate them on this basis. These books started out as serials, novellas written to appeal to women who would pick them up for an exotic, escapist treat. And, as with any successful business venture, the original formula has stayed largely the same. Man meets woman, they fall in love, there is a conflict and, ultimately, a happy ending. It is the paradigm behind every great literary romantic work.

Detractors believe that these books perpetuate the stereotype of the doormat woman, taken by a boorish hero, crushed in his arms and transformed into a newer, different type of doormat. They suggest that this fiction encourages women to subscribe to a mythical fairytale, in which men are always the saviour. What drivel. The women who populate these books come from as disparate and wide-ranging economic situations as the women who read them. To say they are all mindless romantic illiterates yearning to be saved is lazy ignorance.

I consider myself a feminist. Not perhaps in the sense that my mother would have called herself a feminist. That fight was fought, and necessarily. For me, feminism means being economically independent; able to pursue the career of my choice without being thwarted; free to make decisions concerning my body, or my vote. I have never struggled with sexual discrimination.

Lovers of romantic fiction, of M&B, know our own minds, we know our own expectations of love and romance. We can separate fantasy and reality. We are not stupid. So go forth in public, ladies - and gents, if you like - take your copy of Bought for the Frenchman's Pleasure or The Italian's Captive Virgin and read it with a smile on your face, cover held high, proud in the knowledge that you are sticking two fingers up to the begrudgers of romance.
Daisy Cummins

To find more about Abby Green and her books visit her website here.

In the opposite corner is freelance journalist, Julie Bindel.

Julie Bindel is a freelance journalist. She writes for the Guardian newspaper and Weekend magazine, and various other British and European newspapers and magazines. She is the co-editor of The Map of My Life: The Story of Emma Humphreys (Astraia Press, 2003) and several book chapters and research papers on sexual violence and the criminal justice system. A founder member of the feminist law reform campaign Justice for Women, Julie believes that doing paid work, however ethically and responsibly, is not enough, and remains a committed political activist. Julie has written investigative features on international prostitution, sex tourism in Jamaica, stalking and harassment, transsexualism, being a lesbian schoolgirl, the beauty industry and serial killers. For a bit of light relief she has written on the death of the hostess trolley, female orchestra conductors, fancying Camilla Parker Bowles and hating vegetarians.

Detestable trash

Fifteen years ago, I read 20 Mills & Boon novels as research for a dissertation on "romantic fiction and the rape myth". It was the easiest piece of research I have ever done. In every book, there was a scene where the heroine is "broken in", both emotionally and physically, by the hero. Having fallen for this tall, brooding figure of masculinity, the heroine becomes consumed with capturing him. The hero is behaving in a way that, in real life, causes many women to develop low self-esteem, depression and self-harming behaviour - blowing hot and cold, and treating her like dirt. But all comes right in the end. After the heroine displays extraordinary vulnerability during a crisis, Mr Macho saves the day and shows her he cares.

By this time (you know how uppity women can be), our heroine is so fed up that she does not comply when he grabs her inevitably small frame in his huge arms, and attempts to take her to bed. And so begins the "gender dance" - man chases woman, woman resists, and, finally, woman submits in a blaze of passion.

My loathing of M&B novels has nothing to do with snobbery. I could not care less if the books are trashy, formulaic or pulp fiction - Martina Cole novels, which I love, are also formulaic. But I do care about the type of propaganda perpetuated by M&B. I would go so far as to say it is misogynistic hate speech.

Why do I care so much about books that few take seriously? Are there not more important battles to fight? Challenging the low conviction rate for rape certainly seems more urgent than trashing novels that perpetuate gender stereotypes, but there is no doubt that such novels feed directly into some women's sense of themselves as lesser beings, as creatures desperate to be dominated.

One argument from M&B apologists is that the heroine has moved with the times. True, she is now more physically active and sexually imaginative. The modern-day character often dares to have sex before marriage, knows what she wants in terms of her career and personal life, and even has a sense of humour.

As a result of the changing heroine, the hero has been required to catch up. But rather than becoming a "new man", it seems he has become even more masculine and domineering in order to keep the heroine in line. This is how the rape fantasies so integral to the plot have been able to persist.

Take this description of a recent M&B novel, The Desert Sheikh's Captive Wife: "Tilda was regretting her short-lived romance with Rashad, the Crown Prince of Bakhar. Now, with her impoverished family indebted to him, Rashad was blackmailing her by insisting she pay up ... as his concubine! Soon Tilda was the arrogant Sheikh's captive, ready to be ravished in his far-away desert kingdom."

Or Bought: One Island, One Bride: "Self-made billionaire Alexander Kosta has come to the island of Lefkis for revenge ... He doesn't count on feisty pint-sized beauty Ellie Mendoras to be the thorn in his side! ... There's a dangerous smile on Alexander's lips ... As far as he's concerned Ellie's a little firecracker who needs to be tamed. He'll seduce her into compliance, then buy her body and soul!!"

Or Virgin Slave, Barbarian King: "Julia Livia Rufa is horrified when barbarians invade Rome and steal everything in sight. But she doesn't expect to be among the taken! As Wulfric's woman, she's ordered to keep house for the uncivilised marauders. Soon, though, Julia realises that she's more free as a slave than she ever was as a sheltered Roman virgin."

The first two were published this year, the third comes out in January.

In 1970, one of M&B's regular writers, Violet Winspear, claimed that her heroes had to be "capable of rape". Another, Hilary Wilde, said in 1966, "The odd thing is that if I met one of my heroes, I would probably bash him over the head with an empty whisky bottle. It is a type I loathe and detest. I imagine in all women, deep down inside us, is a primitive desire to be arrogantly bullied." These comments may have been made some time ago, but the tradition seems to continue in the many M&B novels that depict female submission to dominant heroes.

My horror at the genre is not directed towards either the women who write or, indeed, read them. I do not believe in blaming women for our own oppression. Women are the only oppressed group required not only to submit to our oppressors, but to love and sexually desire them at the same time. This is what heterosexual romantic fiction promotes - the sexual submission of women to men. M&B novels are full of patriarchal propaganda.

I can say it no better than the late, great Andrea Dworkin. This classic depiction of romance is simply "rape embellished with meaningful looks".
Julie Bindel

Here's the link if you want to see the article in situ.

What do you think?

The Guardian has a 'Response Column' if you'd like to write a reply. The editor is Jonathan Harker and his email is should you wish to give an opinion direct.

Personally, I don't know that I'd trust any of Julie Bindel's research on any subject if she relies on something she read fifteen years ago and can't trouble herself to read more than the back blurb of three current releases before writing an article for a national newspaper. Particularly when she must know not one of those authors will have written that blurb. Like the cover art and titling, it's a marketing decision.

I have a feeling that the more I think about Ms Bindel's article the more irritated I'll be. She quotes authors who were writing thirty odd years ago! It's just lazy.

Nor does she seem to have any awareness of the different lines which are now released under the M&B banner, concentrating entirely on the Modern/Presents line. Fair enough, perhaps, since it is hugely popular but ...

I feel the need to splutter inarticulately. Please feel free to add in your own swear word here!!!!

I'm going to get on with writing my book. I'm just too busy to spend any more time on such drivel.

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  • At 5:20 pm, Blogger Anne McAllister said…

    Thanks so much for quoting the article. The link Kate Walker gave me had gone defunct. I totally agree with you. How daft to expect anyone to believe a person who read 20 books eons ago and now claims to have a definitive opinion on the whole genre or at least all the offerings of one publisher.

    And kudos to Daisy aka Abby Green for her very articulate essay on reading and writing romance fiction. Hear, hear!

  • At 7:34 pm, Blogger Jennie Lucas said…

    Yes, Natasha, thanks for reposting the story! And terrific job, Daisy. Way to go you!!

    As for Ms. Bindel, I cannot understand why, as a feminist, she'd try to control what women are allowed to read and dream about. Contrary to what she apparently believes, we are strong-minded enough to choose our own fun and pleasure, thank you very much!

  • At 7:58 pm, Blogger Kate Hewitt said…

    Great defense on Daisy's part! As for Julie Bindel's comments... I agree with everything everyone else has said. It's ludicrous to think you can quote what someone said in 1966 and think it is still relevant and applicable today--would you do that in any other field? Science? Art? Music? The fact that she admits she hasn't read any in 15 years says it all, really. Must get back to work now--I have a terrible temptation to scour the internet for views on romance and it really just isn't worth it. Congrats again Daisy!!


  • At 11:11 pm, Blogger ~ Paula Roe ~ said…

    Natasha, I'm spluttering along with you. What I find so incredible is this gem: "This is how the rape fantasies so integral to the plot have been able to persist." Ummm... WTF? Bindel read 20 books over 15 YEARS AGO! Where the hell are the rape fantasies in today's modern romance? Oh, and this one: "This is what heterosexual romantic fiction promotes - the sexual submission of women to men." What a load of bollocks - romance novels are about love, respect, overcoming odds, honor, monogamy and forgiveness, as well as escapism. This woman must be rabidly against marriage and long term commitment, then. And if relationship stories are so bad for you and suck so much, then everyone who enjoys a good romantic movie is obviously contributing to the opression of women.

    Paula x

  • At 4:09 am, Blogger Lee Morrison said…

    Wow, great post, Natasha.

    She actually got that article published? Amazing.

  • At 1:02 pm, Anonymous Marcia James said…

    I'm a feminist and I write hot, humorous romances with strong heroes and heroines who are equal partners in life, whether or not they play power games in bed. And I feel sorry for people like Ms. Bindel who are missing out on great reads due to their ignorance of the romance genre. And Ms. Bindel is obviously putting her personal likes and dislikes before the true meaning of feminism -- the right to make our own choices. While I don't read a lot of Presents (since I gravitate more toward Harlequin Blazes), I totally support a reader's right to choose the type of story she wants to read. If Ms. Bindel had her way, the only books published would be the ones she likes to read, which is ludricrous. I hope her comments have the opposite effect from the one she intended by bringing new readers to Mills & Boons, who might try the books out of curiosity and then fall in love with them.
    -- Marcia James

  • At 2:45 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Julie Bindel is an idiot. As a lesbian she cannot give an unbiased opinion on a heterosexual romance.

  • At 6:10 pm, Blogger Liz Fielding said…

    The joyful thing about JB's rant is that the highly intelligent Guardian readers who already love M&B will simply raise an eyebrow and reach for their latest book and spent the evening with their feet up, enjoying the fantasy.
    And maybe one or two who've never looked at one will try one to find out for themselves. Because they're intelligent, modern woman. Like our heroines.

  • At 8:21 pm, Blogger Barb said…

    Congratulations to Abby Green for expressing her joy of writing romance so wonderfully.
    If anyone's interested in arming themselves with info to use when the media come knocking in the coming year, there are some good articles, including Anne Gracie's Myths about Romance, on the Romance Writer's of Australia website, .

  • At 10:43 pm, Blogger talpianna said…

    The editor is Jonathan Harker....

    So glad to hear he kept his day job!


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