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.