Romantic fiction rocks, judging by the enthusiastic turn out at this year’s Romantic Novelists’ Association Awards. Roars of delight, from the home team (publishers, friends, fellow writers-in-the-genre) greeted every winner’s name. Celebration was definitely the key word of the night.
Romance even made it into The Economist last week, (11th March 2023, p23). Although I have a couple of issues with the piece, it’s mostly good news. They report that sales of romance and saga fiction in Britain have risen by 110% in three years, to £53mn annually, their highest figure for a decade, according to Nielsen BookData.
Publishers, they say, “are starting to take notice.”
Well, some of them were cheering their lungs out the Monday before this article was published (see above) so that’s fair enough far as it goes.
Only – call me picky if you will – but even in my experience, they’ve been doing that for a good twenty-five years before the pandemic shut down the RNA annual thrash. Started to take notice?
To be fair to The Economist, their three quarter page report is illustrated by a Regency lady listening to a gentleman pontificate, while waving the book from which he has presumably been reading aloud. She looks weary. Could it be that she has heard it all before and would rather be reading?
Oh, the Shame!
As you would expect from The Economist, the research is exemplary, the style clear and, as a bonus, it’s damn funny. A couple of the jokes made me laugh out loud, even while I winced. And I think those jokes (and those winces) are the root of my other problem with the piece.
The first example is from TikTok. “where once people merely read a category called ‘books’, now they read categories called ‘#friendstolovers’,” laments author. They take particular exception to ‘#billionaireromance’; “there is no category named ‘#earningsparity'” they point out.
I snorted coffee, reading that and wheezed with laughter for several minutes afterwards. Like I said, they do their research, those Economists.
They take aim at a similar, and certainly connected, target: the Mills&Boon title. When it comes to naming a book, Sheikhs have a solid back list. A search offered 282; ‘Doctor’ produced 380 but ‘Billionaire’ hit the jackpot with 754.
“‘Middle Manager’ returned the pitiless phrase, ‘Sorry, no product matches the Keyword,'”reports The Economist sadly. (“I could DO that,” said the author, when she stopped giggling like a loon. “I could so DO that one.”)
Romantic Fiction and Branding
Romance has had an uneasy reputation in the UK, certainly since World War 2. When Alex Stuart co-founded the RNA in 1960, one of the reasons she gave for it was that her sort of novels were no longer reviewed, although they had been – even in the TLS – right through the thirties.
Long-serving RNA President Diane Pearson (1985-2010) was not only an acclaimed author in her own right but a Senior Editor at Transworld. As evidence of her eye for popular fiction, her stable included Kate Atkinson, Frederick Forsyth, Jilly Cooper, Terry Pratchett and Joanna Trollope. In her speech of Welcome to the RNA Awards every year she pointed out the size of the global market for romantic fiction and the loyalty of its readers. All were backed up by the latest statistics.
But when she and I collected the RNA’s 50th Anniversary Memoir, even Di had to admit that sometimes we were our own worst enemy. She called her end piece Moi? A Romantic Novelist? Barbara Cartland and Mills & Boon, two mega brand identities, between them had overwhelmed the image of romantic fiction. “It is like saying all crime writers are the same as Mickey Spillane,” she wrote, with some feeling.
Romantic Fiction: the Wider Landscape
But romantic fiction is more than a single brand. And it is where The Economist ventures into a one paragraph analysis of a romantic novel that I really stopped laughing. For some reason they have chosen an example of “Jihadi chick lit”, a sub-category previously unknown to me. It doesn’t sound a barrel of laughs. I can’t see many romance readers spitting on their hands and getting stuck into it, frankly.
Why didn’t they go for one of the RNA’s previous award winners? Or a proven best seller, like Katie Fforde or Jill Mansell? Think their usually impeccable research dropped a bit of a clanger there.
Similarly I do not recognise the landscape they identify as “the novels that straddle the romance best-seller charts” especially those claimed to be “modern and American”.
Can it be that they have mistaken one exceptionally successful outlier for an example of the population? Much of what they say may well be true of the phenomenon that is Colleen Hoover. She is undoubtedly worthy of The Economist‘s attention in her own right. At one point she had six titles in the top ten, I’m told.
But that is not representative of the whole romantic fiction landscape. Go look at the wide variety of titles that emerge from the RNA Awards every year! They are voted for by Readers.
And this where I take my hat off to the excellent people who are trying to rebalance the scales of justice when it comes to romantic fiction, especially Sara-Jade Virtue of Simon and Schuster. It’s a hill we’ve been climbing a long time. And not, I think, just because, over the last 50 years, the genre’s image has been highjacked by the super brands.
Is there an inbuilt recoil from romantic fiction in the British psyche?
Joanna Trollope, in a thoughtful address at the RNA’s 50th Anniversary Conference, thought that it was a sort of snobbishness and arose “as all snobberies do, out of fear – a fear of emotional display, a fear of emotional vulnerability, and also a terror of humiliation and rejection.”
She also said, and I agree with her, that romantic fiction “is not escapism, in the sense of trying to avoid what must be faced, and it is not trivial. It is, instead, crucial for the richness of our imaginative lives and for the optimistic health of our hearts and minds.”
It seems to me that, as most crime fiction says “there can be justice,” most romantic fiction says, “love will find a way.” Once we have that imagined possibility we can set out, with open heart, in search of a following wind to bring us safely into port anywhere.
Respect Romantic Fiction! We need it.