Natasha Oakley - British Romance Author

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

Monday, January 21, 2008

I still hide the cover when I read a Mills & Boon

That's the title of author Fay Weldon's piece on Mills & Boon in today's Telegraph. And it made me smile because ... so do I. I've just received my hardback copies of 'Wanted: White Wedding' and I've got the most beautiful cover. I think my favourite so far. Both my hero and heroine are perfect. If Freya's dress is not as I described it I'm prepared to accept I'm being picky. But ... I'd still hide the cover if I were reading it in a public place.

For me, being in the UK, it's the very lurid pink flashes across the front. These pink flashes being the result of a hugely expensive marketing process when the Romance line launched back in September 06. For others, I know, it's more about what they think other people will think if they're seen clutching a small romance.

Anyway, here's what Fay Weldon has to say. I did warn you it was going to be that kind of a year.

Well, good for them. Mills & Boon have made their centenary - 1908 to 2008 - and are still going strong. They endure literary and intellectual scorn, provide women with what they want, and it pays off.

Only love me, love me, love me and how happy we will be! sells 200 million books a year worldwide; that's six books every second from bookstall and corner shop, seldom from "proper" bookshops. And just as the 19th century saw Penny Dreadfuls - lurid tales for boys - blamed by the magistrates for the rise in crime, so feminists will blame the Mills & Boon romances of the 20th century for spouting "patriarchal propaganda" and even encouragement to rape.

I daresay it is true of Mills & Boon tales that they perpetuate female folly by suggesting that love and marriage is the answer to a woman's problems, and not the beginning of them, but I hardly think it is any worse than that. Are we not entitled to a little wishful thinking? Is it not better anyway to read, than to sit in front of TV watching East Enders shout, snarl and rape?

Shrewdly, Mills & Boon have kept up with the times. Since the Thirties, when they abandoned "proper" publishing and concentrated on romance, the nature of the heroine and the lover has changed. It started as pure romance - poor girl gets rich man; then in the Forties, and wartime, there was a boom in medical romance which still flourishes today on TV. The Fifties meant Hollywood glamour, with girls swooning in the embrace of exotic men, while the rebellious heroines of the Sixties are leaving home - in the arms of the right man, of course.

In the Seventies the girl becomes career-orientated; the Eighties and Nineties we find more open sexual content - and yet more feisty heroines. And where next? I suspect heroines, exhausted by too much multi-tasking, may just want to stay home and have babies.

There are two puzzles here: why does the success of Mills & Boon so incense some, and what is there about them that so attracts others? I, too, reading a Mills & Boon novel on a train, am tempted to hide the cover from public view. But why? They are often well enough written, if on occasion littered with exclamation marks. They are sanitised - but that in itself is an attraction. The reader of a modern Mills & Boon romance is in charge of her own responses. In the text the hero's "thigh muscles strain beneath tight jeans" - but it is left to the reader to decide whether that means an erection, or just tight jeans.

If the tension between potential lovers is that the girl "lost her innocence" to the suitor's father, the reader can interpret that as she wishes - rape, seduction or just a sexy conversation. And, my theory is, it's for this very reason the books appeal so: the books are interactive, so the reader is in control of the fantasy.

As Chesterton put it in 1901, writing about the rise and fall of the Penny Dreadful, "The simple need for some kind of ideal world in which fictitious persons play an unhampered part is infinitely deeper and older than the rules of good art, and much more important. Every one of us in childhood has constructed such invisible dramatis personae, but it never occurred to our nurses to correct the composition by careful comparison with Balzac." Nor should we literary folk try comparing Come Back to Me with Atonement.

Any novel takes a certain slice of life and deals with that. No novel can take on the whole pie chart of our existence and deal with all human experience. The more "literary" the novel, the wider the slice that is attempted, and the more likely it is to fail - and bore. The genre novel contents itself with dealing with a certain slice: the thriller deals with that part of our experience that involves danger; the detective story with our curiosity; sci-fi echoes out alienation in space and time - and so on. The genre novel "takes us out of ourselves" while the literary novel keeps us firmly and sometimes painfully in our own lives, informing us as to our own natures - which is why it is taken seriously and gets reviewed. The Mills & Boon novel takes a peculiarly narrow slice of female life, and so tends to get despised. But it sells.

My mother made a good living for a time writing romantic novels. People queued round the block for the next instalment of Velvet and Steel, by Pearl Bellairs. And my, it packed an erotic punch. Alas, she was one day struck by a pang of conscience: was it right, she wondered, to fill the heads of young girls with pernicious nonsense? She decided the answer was no, stopped writing romances, took a job in a biscuit factory and the family lived in righteous poverty thereafter.

And here's the link if you want to read it in situ and/or leave a comment.

So what do you reckon???

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  • At 11:26 pm, Blogger Kate Hewitt said…

    Interesting... not too bad, compared to some! But I don't understand her comment 'the books are interactive, so the reader gets to control the fantasy'. How's that? Are there buttons for the reader to push?

    And, for the record, I think the genre novel can take us out of ourselves and inform us as to our own natures at the same time, which, to me, is the immense appeal.

  • At 3:45 pm, Blogger Michelle Monkou said…

    Before I make a comment, I need clarification. Is Mills and Boons, considered separate/different from Harlequin and then from Sillohette?


  • At 6:35 pm, Blogger Trish said…

    Nope Michelle basically all the same thing - Harlequin lines and Silhouette lines in the USA & Canada become Mills & Boon lines in the Uk. So any Harlequin books will be released as Mills & Boons cos the brand name has higher recognition.

    So when she refers to Mills & Boon she's covering Romance - Modern (which is Presents in ths USA) - Historicals - Blaze - Medicals - Modern Heat - Desire - SSE etc etc etc. Some may have the Silhouette logo on but basically theyre ALL Harlequin books and ALL released as Mills & Boons.

    She's lumping them ALL under the one umbrella and making a sweeping generalization that they're all the same.

    Welcome to the gnashing of teeth all UK Authors go through on a regular basis...This year we get to share our pain with our sisters all over the world. Enjoy.

    And THIS was one of the BETTER ONES. TRUST ME...

  • At 12:40 pm, Blogger Liz Fielding said…

    I'm the sad old bat who you'll see reading Mills & Boon (pink, blue or any other colour) openly in the first class carriage of the train from Swansea to Paddington.

    I refuse to allow other people's prejudices to dictate what I read on a train.

    I may start wearing a purple hat very soon.

  • At 2:19 pm, Blogger Natasha said…

    Ah but, Liz, you're in the *first* class carriage. You can do anything then. :)

  • At 1:39 pm, Blogger Liz Fielding said…

    Just one of the advantages of having reached an age where I have a "Senior Railcard", Natasha, which equals thirty per cent off. A completely open, unrestricted return to London costs over £300 now.

  • At 3:05 pm, Blogger Natasha said…

    Oooooooooooh I want one of those! As it is I have to take out a second mortgage to make the hour long trip and *always* regret my shoe choice.

  • At 5:55 pm, Blogger Liz Fielding said…

    You'll be there soon enough, Natasha -- don't rush towards it. I think you can get a Family card that might help if you travel even occasionally. Mine was £24 and I saved that on my first journey. And I'm doing it twice in February.


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