Seeking the Invisible Genre

shortlist for Liberta Books shorter romantic novel award 2021Slightly 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.

George Orwell with BBC microphoneMyself, 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.

Rosie M Banks, reader4          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

OK, it ‘s not fair to take people to task for talking piffle on Twitter. I mean in the Trumpverse there were whole exchanges that barely touched the sides of meaning as they flowed past.

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!

The News Building, HarperCollins’s London HQ

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

I’ve got over my amazement and even my initial annoyance. For Mr Holgate is not alone. It’s just that time of year again. Dreaded December.

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.

Milly Johnson accepting RNA Outstanding Achievement Award 2020

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.

 

moon and snow Jan 2004And 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

publish for impact blurbNo, I don’t accept the Malvolio Assertion. Romantic novels are not lesser things. They vary in quality and impact of course, as individuals within every population do.

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.

Embarrassment factor

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.

PGR Romantic Novelist Honeysuckle CottageThis 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.

Sophie Weston Author

Sophie

22 thoughts on “Seeking the Invisible Genre

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    God forbid any of them would be seen reading a romantic novel! I do agree this stems from embarrassment. The average male has no clue how to express his feelings. Those rare exceptions are prized, let’s face it. Reminds me of Michael McIntyre’s comedy – he expresses it so well when he talks about relationships and how differently men ane women think.

    Reply
  2. Sophie Post author

    Know what you mean, Liz. To be fair, I know rather a lot of men who are very good at expressing feelings. (And some women who aren’t.) Engineers, civil servants, a teacher or two. Just not in the published or broadcast media. Even dear Alan Titchmarsh is fundamentally a gardener.

    Incidentally, did you know that when [insert whatever the Egbert Mulliner Society is called] awarded one of his books the Bad Sex Prize, he turned up to receive it? Now that’s balls, for you.

    Reply
      1. Sophie Post author

        Alan Titchmarsh is one of my heroes. Kind, tolerant, funny and his hollyhocks don’t fall over.

        (And no, that is not a double entendre, all you romantic novelists sniggering behind your desks. All my hollyhocks outgrew their garden canes and when they fell over, took the canes with them. It looked like a battlefield.)

        Reply
  3. Elizabeth+Rolls+

    A chap (who didn’t read fiction at all) mansplained it to me some years ago…
    “But no one actually reads romance anymore.”
    Me: “So why do you think my editor keeps buying my books?”
    Him: “Ho. That’s an interesting point.”
    Me: Reaches for the gin as he suggests that I should write a romance in which one of the main characters DIES. Because that would be subversive.

    Reply
  4. Liz Fielding

    I was going to start with a dismissive “But how can you take it seriously when no one dies and there’s a happy ending?”. But then there’s Jane Austen, who started the whole romance genre, no matter how hard the literati try to confine her to the “classics” shelf.

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  5. Joanna

    Sad but true. As is Milly’s excellent blog which should be compulsory reading for literary editors. I’m sure the Chancellor of the Exchequer is happy to accept all the overseas earnings from UK romantic novel writers.

    Reply
  6. lesley2cats

    Funny, isn’t it? I can’t write it, but I’ve been reading it – and been a member of the RNA – for decades. And I can vouch for the fact that the writers, many of whom are my closest personal friends, are friendlier and less judgemental than their crime writing colleagues. Except me, of course. And the genre of crime in which I participate, the dreaded “Cosy”, has long been treated in the same way as Romantic Fiction by the – ahem – intelligentsia. Until a certain media personality decided to write one. Even so, those of us who have been ploughing the furrow for years are being ignored. But luckily, we, like our romantic novelist friends, have loyal and sensible readers. And funnily enough, over the last two uncomfortable years, sales of both genres have soared. I wonder why? (Sorry – went on a bit, there.)

    Reply
    1. Sophie Post author

      You can’t beat either Orwell or PGW when it comes to a pithy comment. And Edwin Mulliner was fiction, of course. Orwell, poor sap, was commenting in his own person, based on his book shop running experience.

      Still we all have our failings. I myself can’t grow hollyhocks. (See above.)

      Reply
  7. Sarah Mallory

    Well said, Sophie! Professional discourtesy indeed. Some of the most intelligent women I know (& men, I should add) read or write romantic fiction. We should stop calling it our guilty pleasure.

    Reply
    1. Sophie Post author

      You mean we have brains the size of the planet and they are limping along on the slow train to Market Sodsbury by comparison? Nice idea.

      Reply
  8. Sue McCormick

    I have always been astonished at academia’s fear of reality. There is no romantic fiction? I am sorry to hear that Jane Austen never published, neither did the Bronte sisters, Too bad Georgette Heyer never published any novels. I am sure there are many others to be named. In academia if it is a recognized work, by definition (theirs) it isn’t romantic fiction)

    Reply
  9. avm1966

    Thank heavens for all you romance fiction writers. You have given me so much pleasure over the years and provide the best escapism money can buy. Long live happy endings. So please don’t allow TLS, Orwell or anyone else to put you off. They are hypocrites the lot of them as P&P is definitely a master of the genre but possibly wearing more subtle ‘wrapping’. Georgette Heyer got a moment of glory on The Book Programme on R4 the other day and bless her, she laughed at the bodice rippers too – Sylvester is one my favourites of hers

    Reply

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