I have been pondering some feedback I was given about a sample chapter from my novel. I was told that it was a “bit Mills and Boons”. Argh! Horror! Mortification! Luckily no-one else has agreed with this rather damning analysis, including my agent whose job it is to make sure I am producing something reasonable, but when I took this feedback to other writers, one said, “Actually what’s wrong with romantic fiction? Have you read any recently? Some of it is quite good.”

And I have to admit, no I have not read any since I was 15 and used to borrow them from the mobile library van, sneak them into the house, and hide them under the mattress. See –  even then it was shameful.

So I went and got one from the library. In fact the one recommended to me by said writer. It was a quick and easy read, and by the second or third page I knew what was going to happen and with whom. It was simply a case of finding out how, and seeing how good the sticky bits were. (One of the great excitements at the tender age of 15 was finding out just how detailed the sticky bits were. Most of the time not very, I have to say).

Reading now, with the heavy weight of experience, I don’t think this one sample (and as a scientist I admit this is poor sampling) was particularly well written. It felt as if it had been a rush job, not much attention to prose, and the descriptive passages were pretty poor.

The hero was tall, dark, rich, bit scary and of course nearly twice the age of the heroine who was poor but plucky and of course virginal.

Why do these books do so well? I think it’s female porn actually. Many women like reading them for the titillation – it is a turn on. Romantic fiction is for women what porn mags are for men. Women generally get turned on by romance, tenderness and detail and men get turned on by the quick anonymous f… That’s not to say that this is what we want in real life, just what gets the juices flowing. Actually to be truthful it did not do that for me last night but I remember that it did at 15.

So just as porn can trot out the same old stories over and over and over and men get off on it, so romantic fiction churns out the same plot line over and over and women go for it. I think it is sobering to consider. Any women out there –is this really what taps into the female psyche?

I recently read Lynn Segal’s new book Making Trouble. For anyone who was involved in 1970s feminism – do read it, she captures that period exactly. But one aside she makes is that she talks about women needing passivity in sex, and how feminism tried to deny all this. Interesting coming from one of the women who was really central to the WLM in that period.

I am sure you’re going to take issue with me, but consider it seriously. Why do these books, each one a variation on the same theme, sell in their millions? Surely if it was about literary content someone would complain, “Oy! This is just the same damn plot and characterisation as last time!” And then look through a pile of porn mags and read the story lines (such as there are) and see if you can see a theme here.

Then shoot the messenger if you must.

(first published October  2007)


rom-fic-3Additional thoughts. Oh how innocent we were! Now there are entire sections of the bookshop given over to Mummy Porn… Or erotica as it is coyly referred to. The birth of the Kindle – still an unknown when I wrote this – allowed women to download any sort of titillation and read it waiting at the school gates. So maybe the difference between men and women isn’t in stimulation needs, but in the shame factor.

Purely in the interests of research, you understand, I bought and read  EJ James Fifty Shades of Grey. What did it remind me of? Mills and Boons but with incredibly sticky bits. Of course by page five I knew who was going to get sticky with who (though to be fair there weren’t many options) and by the end of the book I still couldn’t really give a damn about these totally unrealistic characters. And to be frank, it didn’t do much for me, titillation wise either. 

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