Reading Romance : Why do we do it?

These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer with antihero the Duke of AvonThis month I’ve been thinking about reading romance. Who does it? Why? When? And, well, what qualifies as romance? Troilus and Criseyde? Jane Eyre ? Anna Karenina? These Old Shades? Gaudy Night? Bridget Jones?  Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music?

I’ve read them all and I’d say “yes but” to all of them. Many people, maybe most, would disagree with me on at least one.

On 3rd February the UK’s Romantic Novelists’ Association published its short list for this year’s awards.  It’s the RNA”s 60th anniversary and this year there are nine categories.

My seven stories above would each fall into at least one of them.

Love is in the Air

And then there was St Valentine’s Day last Friday. That always brings out a flurry of saccharine fluff, embarrassing stunts and grimmish think pieces in the media.

Commercialism – shock, horror! Unrealistic emotional expectations from reading romance – fie, sir, write me a sonnet or leave at once! Head for the pub, lads, and fast.

Reading romance, poet, producer, comedianThough this year, my beloved BBC Radio 4 pulled out the stops to do rather better. Henry Normal – poet, award-winning producer of Alan Partridge and award-wining writer of Mrs Merton – took a good hard look at Love. It was wonderful.

He offered some wry thoughts and personal reflections on “love, romance and other unreasonable expectations”. With a very good assessment of Cupid, the poster god of romantic love, thrown in.

Armistice Day - old radioIt was an absolute diamond of a radio programme. Very funny, humane, eloquent, kind and truly moving at unexpected moments.

I admit I teared up several times, especially when he talked about the big difference between loving someone and realising that you are loved – and how he remembers it. Well worth a listen, believe me. His thoughts on Cupid will make you hoot, too.

Reading Romance 60 years ago

Rosie M Banks, The lady Magazine 1920The RNA’s first President declared in her opening speech that although, according to libraries, romantic novels gave the most pleasure to the most people, the writers almost had to apologise for what they did.

Nobody asked why readers read the books. The readers were still there, shared with a whole raft of women’s magazines, like Women’s Weekly, The Lady and the upmarket Woman’s Journal. The latter serialised the heavy hitters, Georgette Heyer and Mary Stewart, but every one of them would include a more or less romantic serial every week or month.

The RNA was not interested in researching readers and their motivation. They wanted to change the Cinderella status of the genre with the public in general.

Chairman Alex Stuart’s real beef was that nobody reviewed romantic novels any more, though some had been discussed in even the Times Literary Supplement before the War.

Indeed, the second Romantic Novel of the Year was The Witches’ Sabbath by Paula Allardyce. Her very first novel, The Ballad Maker of Paris, published under her real name of Ursula Tordayhad been respectfully reviewed by the Spectator in 1935.

Eva Ibbotson, whose lovely Magic Flutes won in 1983, had received an appreciative welcome for her first adult novel, then A Countess Below Stairs, in the upmarket Woman’s Journal a couple of years earlier. But public  respect came slowly.

Reading Romance Today: Libertà Books sponsor Award

As you can see from both the prizes and the names on this year’s short list, romantic fiction now fields a much bigger team of genres than it did in the 60s. Several of today’s short-listed books will be, or have been, reviewed. But not all. Indeed, even in the 60s, I suspect, serious candidates for the main award did not include “lighter” (Denise Robins’s word) fiction published by Mills & Boon and other publishers’ shorter romance lists.

At LIbertà, we love that genre and think it’s important. Which is why we are proud to be sponsoring the award this year, for the second time.

Reading Romance: the Shorter Romantic Novel

Mills & Boon are still the definitive publisher of shorter romantic fiction.

Though we should remember that Barbara Cartland’s late explosion of activity embraced novels of 35,00-45,00 words, shorter even than a classic Mills & Boon. (She had only published 100 of her famed 700+ by 1963, when she turned 60.)

Determining qualities of this genre are intense focus on the central relationship AND a guaranteed happy ending. This hasn’t really changed since the 60s, or even earlier. What drives the story is the pain and passion of two lovers.

In some, as in Mary Burchell’s famous Warrender series, or Bella André’s Sullivans today, the world of the story, a family and even minor characters may also be important., though always subordinate to the main story. These days, pretty much everything else is negotiable. Some qualities, though, will be signalled by the publisher – gender of the protagonists, erotic heat level, time period – usually by imprint.

So Who Is Reading Shorter Romance?

Well, me. Obviously

I read my first Mills & Boon at a really painful time. I felt bewildered and out of control. And I was broken-hearted. (No, not over a love affair. That came later.)

Later, I read favourite authors for fun and pleasure. I still do.

I have a Keepers Shelf , holding books like The Driftwood Dragon, that I won’t lend, in the way I don’t lend Wodehouse or my Jane Austen.  And when I go back to them, sometimes for research, sometimes for consolation, sometimes for the pure indulgence of re-reading, they never disappoint.

On 1st February, Marian Keyes (16 great books, 35 mn copies sold, fan of Strictly, thoroughly good egg) told the world she’s another one.

In fact they were so shocked, they made it the headline of an otherwise wide-ranging, lively and sometimes painful interview. I used to mainline Mills & Boon.

She was on dear old BBC Radio 4 again, this time on Sunday 9th on Open Book, talking about her new book, Grown Ups.

Pressed by an evidently wincing Mariella Frostrup on the Mills & Boon thing, Keyes expanded with great vivacity. Like me, she had done it before, in her case as a law student. Then, last year, her father died and she found herself reading author Lynne Graham’s books on the conveyor belt method.

Now, Graham is a USA Today best selling author, so Keyes is not alone. A reader once thanked me for getting her through a situation which sounded just unbearable. Another Mills & Boon author told me about a reader who was in dreadful pain and read her books in the ghastly period before she could take more pain killer medication.

And I had a light bulb moment. The answer – or one of the answers – to the who? when? why? conundrum is:  anybody; when they’re in pain; because there’s pain in the books – and it ends.

Reading Romance – by two people who write it

Later in that same Open Book programme, Marian Keyes, this time answering Frostrup’s “Why are we so addicted to love in our novels?” seemed to agree with me, saying : “If you read a love story and you know that the ending is going to be happy, you can go through the painful stuff in a book that is so excruciating in real life, and you can kind of endure it because you know it’s OK, it’s OK, good times are coming.”

David Nicholls (from Starter for Ten to the lovely Sweet Sorrow) replying to that same question, said, “Because there can be a terrific emotional kick from it, it can be very uplifting, it’s rich with comedy, the misapprehensions, because we rarely say what we mean.”

He talked about the things that I’ve found in short romantic fiction as well as most novels short listed for the RNA Awards over the years, as well as most other genres and the classics, too : confusion… excitement… embarrassment…  (Oh Fanny Burney! Who does embarrassment as agonisingly as she did?)

Nicholls concluded, “It would be crazy not to be drawn to that material in fiction.”

So that’s another answer to why? then. Our lives are in these feelings. It would be crazy not to read about them.

Sophie Weston AuthorSophie

8 thoughts on “Reading Romance : Why do we do it?

  1. lesley2cats

    Inspiring and encouraging. When I had two children under two and two slightly older, and very little money, there was a little newsagents in town that ran a sort of M&B library. He had a huge stock of the books, you could buy them, read them, take them back and swap them for a new one for a very small fee. The local library couldn’t compete! That little shopkeeper saved my life at that point. My two closest friends were very sniffy about the books and I gave up trying to defend them.

    Reply
    1. Sophie Post author

      There used to be a book shop like that in Oxford, Lesley. Generally known as the Marxist bookshop because that was that it had been set up to sell. But by the mid 90s, I’ll bet it was earning its keep from M&B – and doing a lot of good at the same time.

      Reply
  2. Sarah Mallory

    Perfectly expressed, Sophie, thank you for clarifying it so well. I think romance can be a safety valve when real life gets too much for us. It certainly works for me (and it doesn’t give one a hangover!)

    Reply
    1. Joanna

      Made me laugh, Sarah, even though it’s absolutely true about both the safety valve and the hangover. Sophie has done a cracking piece here. And a lot of the people who are sniffy about the books (as Lesley says) may not actually have read any. [When people get sniffy with me, I try to remember to ask: “Which authors did you particularly dislike that led you to that conclusion?” Tends to produce a bit of coughing and spluttering.]

      Reply

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