Slightly to my surprise, this week I find myself in search of an allegedly invisible genre. Romantic fiction! I was a little surprised. Libertà has sponsored a Romantic Novelists’ Association prize for books in this non genre.
Of course, romantic fiction has not shown its face in the pages of so-called respectable newspapers and magazines, or even on the shelves of major bookshops, for some years now.
But I was taken aback to see a tweet two days ago from Andrew Holgate, Literary editor of The Sunday Times casting existential doubt on the genre in which I have been writing and reading for most of my life.
The Tweets in the Case For and Against Romantic Fiction
1 First, there was a sorrowful tweet from Agent Kate Nash. She had, she said, been excited by the news of TST’s announcement that it was going to do a round-up of the best books of 2021 from every genre. “But,” said Nash, “where is your list of the year’s best romantic fiction?” She added the hashtag #EverydaySexism.
Myself, I interpreted that as reflecting the assumption that romantic fiction is predominantly read by women, and therefore considered not worth a) reading or b) thinking about. Typically articulated by George Orwell, when he complained about the popularity of Ethel M Dell. He was affronted because her books were read by quite a decent, almost intelligent, class of woman, not just “wistful spinsters and the fat wives of tobacconists.”
2 Back came the reply. HOLGATE 1: I suppose it depends whether you think it’s a genre. Patricia Nicol actually did our main fiction recommends. It’s worth noting too that her recommendations in those roundups she does aren’t just for books written by women.
3 Author Philippa Carey responded to HOLGATE 1 Assuming that all romantic fiction is written by women is as foolish as thinking George Eliot was a man.
4 In a hole, but still digging, HOLGATE 2: Just on that point, Philippa, and I am happy to agree that romantic fiction is a genre, very happy, I was responding to the tag #everydaysexism in the original email to email and trying, hamfistedly, to make exactly your point.
Um, no — the point was about disrespecting readers of the stuff, not the writers of whatever gender.
Picking on Tweets
And we’ve all done it. Truncated unwisely to fit the words available. Tweeted off the top of our head on the train home, often fast, sometimes tired — and even emotional.
But “depends whether you think it’s a genre”? Think it’s a genre? Come on!
And especially since The Sunday Times, the last time I looked, was in the News Corp stable along with Harper Collins, publishers of rather a lot of rather good romantic fiction.
Not to mention their now wholly-owned subsidiary Harlequin Mills and Boon.
And they all live together in a little wooden house. Well, actually rather a large glass geometric confection. But you get the picture.
I’d say that was verging on professional discourtesy. To colleagues. Not a good look.
Season of Digs and Hollow Bashfulness
The month when romantic novelists scan lists of favourite reads of the year — or even Best Books of the Year as the Sunday Times bravely (nearly said manfully but that would be unfair to many decent chaps of my acquaintance, including several romantic novelists) trumpets. We search in vain for romantic titles that we have loved, or indeed anything at all written by our fellow romantic novelists.
As wonderful, much loved and Sunday-Times-listed-best-seller (just saying) Milly Johnson describes in her angry and saddening blog last week, the Media have pretty much airbrushed out romantic fiction from any book discussion they choose to run.
Yet all the books and authors she mentions in that piece have made readers’ lives better for a moment; and sometimes much longer. “Thank you for keeping me sane,” people have written to her, during lockdown. I’ve heard similar stories from other romantic novelists.
And I admit that I found it particularly pleasing that one of her own books is No 2 in the paperback bestseller list, published by The Sunday Times in the middle of Part One of its “All Genres Best” Gallimaufry.
It’s called I Wish it Could Be Christmas Every Day and its about a bunch of people holed up in a remote inn on the North Yorkshire Moors. (Yes, life did just imitate art at Tan Hill pub. You’re not hallucinating.)
Another author name-checked by Millie in that blog is Philippa Ashley, whose Special Cornish Christmas is No 9 on That Same List. Readers vote with their cash.
Value in Romantic Fiction
But overall they add to the sum of human happiness. And sanity.
Speaking as a regular reader of romantic fiction, over the years they have brought me much pleasure, often laughter, even energy (at the end of 16-hour shift on the twentieth floor of an unheated hotel in a snowstorm)! Comfort on a grey day. A place of refuge on a dreadful one.
This is not trivial.
Milly asks whether media presenters are afraid of romantic fiction because they think that the cool kids will laugh at them. That could well be true. But I think there is, quite genuinely, an embarrassment factor on the part of the timorous reader.
Yes, romantic fiction is full of hope and wisdom and kindness, as Milly says. But at some point someone is going to address, well, feelings. Especially attraction and, sort of, affection and, even (oh, heavens, must I say it?), l**e.
This does not sit well with either the Protestant work ethic (love is often unearned) or that Augustan imperturbability (love is nearly always undignified) to which the Anglo Saxon — male in particular — aspires.
As I have said in another blog on this website, the blessed P G Wodehouse encapsulated that feeling in two magnificent sentences.
Egbert Mulliner’s beloved has penned a romantic novel and reads it to him. And so…
He marvelled, as many a man has done before and will again, how women can do these things. Listening to “Parted Ways” made him, personally, feel as if he had suddenly lost his trousers while strolling along Piccadilly.
I have to admit, I have some sympathy with Egbert. I have read declarations of love and similar that have made me want to put my head under a cushion until the twitching subsides. In the classics, too.
Jane Austen kept embarrassment off the page, by and large. But Fanny Burney has it front and centre and some of it is damn nearly unbearable. But then I have a very low embarrassment threshold.
A Modest(ish) Proposal
So I do, genuinely feel for the Egbert Mulliners of this world. I would like to rescue Mr Holgate and his team from their company. The trouserless promenade in Piccadilly is all in your head, guys. And anyway, it doesn’t last. Really.
I suggest you pop upstairs and talk — even listen — to the Editors at Harper Collins and HMB. And then read a romantic novel or ten.