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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Broadsheet Broadside!

Yawn! That's the sound of the Sad Puppy waking up from a few month's happy snoozing in the sun to discover that as at least six months have passed it must be time for the UK broadsheets to have another go at romantic fiction. A few months ago The Guardian newspaper made a slight tactical error when they asked Julie Bindell to comment on Mills & Boon romances and it became clear in the course of her remarks that she hadn't read one for thirty years. So this time the Guardian had a Cunning Plan - get Tanya Gold to claim that she was a M&B junkie and that way the paper wouldn't be caught short fielding someone who hadn't picked up a romance book in decades.

Why should we doubt Tanya's romance-reading credentials? Only because there were some odd discrepancies in the article. Oh, and also because most romance readers are very proud to support the genre whereas it seemed to make Tanya feel quite nauseous. It also seemed that every M&B book Tanya had recently read contained the hero saying the phrase: "You stupid little fool!" I don't for a moment believe that this is representative of the current crop of Presents/Modern Romance. (And as an aside, why do these articles almost always concentrate on the Modern Romance imprint? Do the writers do so little research that they don't realise the wealth of different lines? And why do they equate romance only with Mills & Boon books?)

The article provided the revelation that it wasn't easy to write "a Mills & Boon book" - again this catch all description was used as though they were all interchangeable and identical. It's not easy to write any book so why should it be easy to write one for Mills & Boon? Only prejudice and value judgements suggest that it would be. Science fiction isn't easy to write, crime fiction isn't easy to write, short stories aren't easy to write. Writing for Mills & Boon isn't easy.

I don't have time to take the article apart here because I have a romance book to write but I do want to make the point that the article, so witty and well-written, was particularly clever because it looked as though it was saying some positive things about romantic fiction whilst managing to reinforce the view that it is WRONG. Perhaps the clue to this approach was in the heading in the paper, which referred to the writer enjoying Mills & Boon books "even though she knows it is wrong." That's quite a statement. Who is making that judgement and upon what moral authority? As I said in my Twitter on this last week, in what way is it "wrong" to enjoy romance books? Is it "wrong" in the sense that The Guardian and other broadsheet papers are "wrong" to take money from punters looking for happy ever after through adverts in the lonely hearts columns? Or is that quite different??

In the same newspaper on the same day was a completely different yet related article by Simon Jenkins. In it he lamented the fact that items of bad news in the media used to be balanced by the inclusion of an equal number of items of good news. His contention was that these days that has all changed. You only need to turn on the radio or TV, or to read the paper, to be faced with item after item of grim news; flood, famine and pestilence. Okay, occasionally there will be the eccentric item at the end of the news bulletin - the one that usually features a cute pet doing something wacky, like the cat that likes to travel on the bus, for instance. And of course there are sometimes genuinely happy, moving and uplifting pieces of news but they seem few and far between. For example, as I'm writing this the three top stories on the BBC website are about soaring unemployment, a knife attack and an air crash. Simon Jenkins' posited that bad news sells, which is why we are given so much of it. Life hasn't actually changed that much; the way it is reported has. He also takes it one stage further and suggests that having such a diet of bad news served up to us by the media cannot help but set a national mood of depression and fear.

This is where romantic fiction comes in. It is escapist and it makes people happy. It lifts the mood and is the reverse of bad news. And it feels as though we can't be allowed to enjoy this happiness without someone criticising our pleasures.

Both Guardian pieces in different ways reminded me of another article that was in the Observer newspaper a few weeks ago called simply "Snark." Snark is "sly, knowing and often downright nasty," the header said. "And it attacks, under the guise of wit, without proof or reason." There is a lot of snark about these days, whether it is in newspaper articles, blogs or even book reviews. One of the dangers of snark is that it is seductive because it can be so funny. There is an implication that even if you are the target of snark, if you don't laugh along with it you are either a bad sport, you have no sense of humour or you're too thin-skinned. I'd take issue with this. One of my writing colleagues recently put her finger on the fact that in print, either on the internet or in papers and magazines, there is a distance that leads commentators to say things they would never dream of saying directly to someone, face to face. Or at least one hopes they would not for respect and courtesy's sake. Or is that too old-fashioned a view these days?

Whether it is or not, it brings me full circle. Author Louise Allen wrote an elegant rebuttal of the Bindell piece. Author Michelle Styles made some spot on observations in the Tanya Gold piece. But in neither article nor in many others has a journalist actually interviewed a romance author or authors, asked them why they write the books, why they believe in them, why romance appeals, why readers love the books. Nor do readers get much of a look in. Tanya Gold asked for readers to contribute to the article and then briefly quoted a couple of them. One of the quotes was about a reader's academic qualifications which I believe is wrong on so many levels. When did anyone ever comment on the academic qualifications of a reader of science fiction or crime, for instance? Isn't it irrelevant? We're back to those value judgements again.

I suspect that the truth is that editors don't want to publish a happy, feelgood article all about writers who believe in what they do and readers who love romance books. For where is the bad news in that? Where is the snark?

And I'd be happy to say all this to their faces, no snark involved.

*I'd like to thank very much all the romance readers and authors who responded to my Twitter on this subject and inspired me to write this article - and who inspire me to write the books in the first place! Thank you.


Jan Jones said...

Excellent post, Nicola! And all true. A woman who has supposedly got an under-bed space stuffed with M&Bs does not, when forced to read three new ones, suddenly decide she doesn't like anything about them. Case proven, m'lud.

Diane Gaston said...

I read the article, Nicola, and had much the same reaction as you. She made the point that it was difficult to write a M&B (duh!)but that was about the only thing.

Someone on one of my loops said that journalists bash romance out of jealousy, that they all think they have a book in them and resent the wealth of books romance writers produce. I think that is too broad a generalization (my friend Darlene Gardner who now writes Superromance was a journalist).

It always bothers me that Romance gets such bad press. I just don't understand it. Maybe there is the assumption that if something makes us happy, it must be frivolous. If a book leaves us depressed and morose, then it must have had "meaning." In my view the best romance novels make you think or learn something but also leave you happy and hopeful at the end.

Not a bad thing at all!!

Anonymous said...

I had the same reaction to this article -- I thought that anyone who actually was a "junkie", being embarressed of the "condition" or not, couldn't possibly have those thoughts about what M&B novels are! Even more than the clear lack of understanding of what constitutes today's category romance novel, I thought, were the descriptions of those who worked at M&B, the "blinking" (suggesting stupidity, lack of upbeat thinking, etc.) I was out and out offended by her depiction of authors and publishers of romance, basically, not to mention doubting of her premise.

And a junkie reading three books to bone up before writing a piece? Only if one considers "well on the way to a collection" being five or six books. Though I suppose that if one had five or six Austen novels it would be a good beginning of a collection.

All said, though, the author looks like an interesting journalist to follow, if one likes such snark. My ultimate conclusion was just that this was her latest ariticle (chosen or assigned) and that she really doesn't feel romance novels are worth bothering with if you've got the wits to understand more high-brow literature, etc. Sadly, somewhat typical in some circles...

Nicola Cornick said...

Thank you, Jan. Yes, I thought it was odd that she supposedly had so many M&B books under her bed - I keep mine on a shelf (g!) - but yet she seemed to hate them. Some inconsistency there, I think!

Diane, that's a fascinating insight provided by your friend and no doubt true at least in part. Sad, but there we are. I sometimes wonder why I even rise to articles such as this because such entrenched attitudes are unlikely to be changed by my bat-squeaks. Then I remember it's because we're proud of what we do and we don't have to accept anyone else's judgement of it.

Nicola Cornick said...

Like you, Anonymous, I think Tanya Gold is a very interesting journalist and I enjoy reading her, but this article disappointed me. I did think it very clever, though, in the sense that it appeared to be quite positive at times but the use of language was insidious. As you say, the editors apparently "blinking" puts a very bovine image in mind. There were a number of examples of this through the article.

margaret blake said...

I too wonder why these people are always "sniping" at romance writers and readers. It's easy to do but at the same time cheap journalism. Why is it wrong to enjoy escapism? My husband loves westerns, no one ever writes something derogatory about these and yet they stick to a tried and tested successful format. It is always romance and particularly Mills and Boon that catches the flak - M and B are on my shelf and read on the train or the bus, wherever. They are not the only books I read but they are books I enjoy and I am not ashamed to say so.

Traxy said...

I think it's because it's seen as quite cliché literature, with big Alpha Males behaving like right bastards and simpering females swooning at their feet... like anti-feminist. I only started reading M&B about a year ago and I quickly found out that wasn't the case at all! The women are strong and capable and while I do think it's a bit silly that "everyone" in contemporary settings seem to be a Greek or Italian tycoon, and all females are curly redheads, that doesn't mean all books are the same.

Then, of course, there's the issue of "it's mainly got female readers, therefore it must be frowned upon as being silly"... which is just wrong. Surely that's more of a feminist issue than the contents of the books themselves (which aren't about weak women who have strong men to take care of them anyway)!

Personally, I think M&B are a hoot to read! It cheers you up on a rainy day when everything is miserable, and you get all warm and fuzzy inside. More people should read them, definitely! With regards to writing them... well, I'm going over a few ideas at the moment... but yeah, I don't expect it to be a walk in the park... but it'll be great fun having a go, because I get inspirations on different romances everywhere I look. :)

Nicola Cornick said...

Good luck with the manuscript, Traxy! You've definitely put your finger on the stereotype of what some people *think* M&B books are like. I find that if I challenge people who say this, most of them haven't read any of the books anyway yet they still feel qualified to offer an opinion. Extraordinary!

And good on you, Margaret, for standing up and being counted. I had an (ex) friend who wrote to tell me she used to hide my books in brown paper bags because she was ashamed to be seen with them. I pointed out that most people would probably think she had a porn magazine hidden in there. Perhaps the poor girl thought they were one and the same thing!

Alison said...

A very well written response Nicola. I don't understand why romance has to be picked out from all the genres anyway, and I for one absolutely hate being told what I should read.

Nicola Cornick said...

Thank you, Alison. Yes, I hate being told what I should or shouldn't read as well. come to that, I hate being told what to do and what not to do period!