Monday, April 5, 2010

Why Mills & Boon still make the ladies swoon (according to the Irish Independent website)...

There's nothing that makes my day as a Mill & Boon author quite the same as an article filled with falsehoods and a blatant lack of research on the part of the person writing said article. The fact that the article is written under the banner of a respected newspaper in my own country, making the writer but two CHEAP phone calls away from authors who KNOW what they're talking about, makes it worse.

Let's take a closer look at what Patricia Casey had to say about the books in her online article for the Irish Independent, shall we?

Under the title of "Mind & Meaning: Why Mills & Boon still make the ladies swoon".

Having started the article by telling us how her mother didn't want her to read Mills & Boon, Ms. Casey then goes on to inform us that she still doesn't know why. Asking would seem to be the logical solution to that problem. Reading a few and making up her own mind would seem to me - at the very least - to have been necessary before writing an article on the content of the books. I don't know what it's called in journalistic circles, but in the world of a Mills & Boon author it's called RESEARCH. As in:

Research: To study (something) thoroughly so as to present in a detailed, accurate manner.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Let's start with:

"The recent arrival of electronic reading devices has led to a huge surge in the downloading of Mills & Boon books. Apparently, ashamed to be seen carrying a paper copy, the 30-somethings have taken to downloading them onto their electronic readers, so avoiding embarrassment."
Is that why people read books on electronic reading devices? EVERY book downloaded onto an electronic device is done so to avoid the embarrassment of revealing the cover of our reading material in public, is it? I'm willing to bet it's not. So what we're doing is starting the article by saying we've never read a Mills & Boon and that 30-somethings who do MUST be downloading them to avoid public humiliation. I'm optimistic about a detailed, accurate article already...

"Even though the Mills & Boon group almost went out of business on several occasions, they have shown enduring resilience, and according to recent statistics more than 140,000 stories were downloaded digitally while 400,000 were bought through Amazon in the past year. The digital era has undoubtedly facilitated this expansion."
Yep, nothing at all to do with an increased need for escapism from real life due to the economic climate and the pressures people are facing on a daily basis. The same upsurge wasn't seen in the 1920's, was it? Undoubtedly the fact the digital era has allowed Mills & Boon readers to avoid public embarrassment has MUCH more to do with it.

"Why are these formulaic books so popular? This in itself is one of the reasons -- they are predictable."

In the same way a Murder/Mystery is formulaic and predictable? A Sci-Fi? Every genre has basic commonalities. In a romance, two people meet and the story follows their journey as they fall in love. Dan Brown's best-sellers have a trail of clues the hero follows through to a dramatic ending. Patricia Cornwell's books have gruesome murders the heroine has to solve, hopefully before the killer strikes again. Newsflash: People choose the books they want to read based on the fact they'll get what they want from their reading experience. There are basic formulas and yes, there is predictability in EVERY genre of fiction. So how come I'm not seeing the same criticism aimed at all the other genres of fiction? Seems to me, writing to any kind of a basic 'formula' in a romance doesn't seem to have harmed the market any more than it has the other genres. Don't believe me? Well apparently I'm not the only one wants to read the same 'formulaic' and 'predictable' plot time and time again in a romance. Thanks to Google in the name of that little thing called 'research', I can even look at some facts via the Romance Writers Of America site.

According to Business of Consumer Book Publishing 2009 romance fiction was the largest share of the consumer market in 2008 at 13.5 percent. Simba Information estimates the breakdown on the market as:

  • Romance fiction: $1.37 billion in estimated revenue for 2008
  • Religion/inspirational: $800 million
  • Mystery: $668 million
  • Science fiction/fantasy: $551 million
  • Classic literary fiction: $446 million
That's an awful lot of people reading the exact same book over and over and over again. But let's move on to the content of the books, shall we?

"The hero is tall and handsome with a thick mop of hair; the heroine has a sylph-like attractiveness, and is never overweight."
I do love a sweeping generalization. Especially when it involves 60+ book releases a month from a pool of 1,300 authors worldwide. The heroine is never overweight? An article in The Guardian says otherwise. How can I be sure? Possibly because I was interviewed for it:

"The new approach to chick lit has gained such a following in America that Mills & Boon has even given it a name – "bigger chick lit" – and has published two books in the new format: Last-Minute Proposal by Jessica Hart and His LA Cinderella by Trish Wylie.

"All women have body-image issues, no matter how slim they are," said Wylie. "The ultimate fantasy for most women today is simply accepting themselves, whatever their body weight. That's what we, as authors, are responding to."

Jenny Hutton, editor of modern romance for Mills & Boon, said the new chick lit heroine was a woman with whom the reader could genuinely empathise. "Through the journey taken by this new breed of heroine, the discovery is made that it's not weight that was the issue behind her lack of self-esteem."

But let's not let a little thing like FACTS get in the way, shall we? Moving on, from Ms. Casey we get:

"The hero may be a doctor, pilot or a billionaire while the heroine is a nurse, air hostess or poverty-stricken beauty."

Maybe in the 1950's, but apparently Ms. Casey got her information from someone who was unaware we had a recent change of century. The HEROINE of my June 2009 book was a pilot. My heroines have been photographers, writers, interior designers, news reporters, chef's, art appraisers, hotel managers and yes, they've been school teachers and single parents too. Their professions have been as diverse as they are in real life. As diverse as some of the varying jobs I, myself had prior to becoming an author. As for poverty-stricken - yes, there have been heroines who struggled financially - find me someone in real life who HASN'T experienced that at one time or another; particularly NOW.

But maybe I'm mistaken in thinking Ms. Casey's view of modern day Mills & Boon books is both out-dated and factually incorrect. Let's read on and see...

"He (the hero) saves lives through his psychological prowess and is always considerate and insightful. She (the heroine), on the other hand, is gentle and supportive."
Let me just check back over my nineteen books in print with Mills & Boon to make sure my heroes and heroines fit this description...

It's amazing I ever sold! None of my heroes have EVER saved a life, particularly not through psychological prowess. Always considerate and insightful? As someone who has spent half her writing career answering to the statement of ONE AUTHOR who decades ago said her heroes had to be capable of rape, I'm going to ask the critics of Mills & Boon to make up their minds! Either our heroes are considerate and insightful, saving lives with the power of their minds, or they're inconsiderate, brutish bastards, capable of rape. But again with the sweeping generalization, let's not get in the way of those. Same goes for my heroine's. Gentle and supportive? More likely to point out the error of the hero's ways, thank you very much. But even if they weren't, are gentle and supportive considered weaknesses in a woman these days? Are they weaknesses in ANYONE?

"There are specific categories to facilitate the reader in making a suitable choice: medical romances are peopled entirely by doctor/nurse couplings but these never involve a male nurse and a female doctor, while the international drama series is set in exotic locations. "

We got a fact right! There are 'specific' categories, well done! I'd have said it was more about allowing the reader a VARIETY of choice, but maybe that's just me. Having mentioned there are choices - suggesting DIFFERENT KINDS OF STORIES - how many of the eleven odd categories listed on the Mills & Boon website do we mention? Two. Maybe it was a word-count restriction. So, let's look at the two we mentioned, the first being Medicals which, apparently, are 'peopled entirely by doctor/nurse couplings'.

From the back of Medical Romance books released in April/May 2010 and currently available at the click of a curious mouse on the Mills & Boon website, we have:

"A&E doctor Olivia mourned the loss of her soldier hero husband two years ago, although there was a tiny part of her that believed he was still alive..." ~ Her Long Lost Husband by Josie Metcalf.

"Outback Flying Doctor Phemie Grainger prides herself on being cool, calm and capable – until a chance encounter with her professional idol, renowned emergency doctor Gil Fitzwilliam, throws her into turmoil..." ~ A Baby For The Flying Doctor by Lucy Clark.

"Single dad Dr Luke Daniels has come home to heal his heart. Dr Terri Mitchell remembers Luke from growing up in Port Cavill..." ~ Bachelor Dad, Girl Next Door by Sharon Archer.

But Medical Romance's are 'peopled entirely by doctor/nurse couplings', right? Where the man is the doctor and the woman the nurse. There are NEVER any female doctors. Heroes who aren't doctors at all, heroines who aren't in the medical profession, heroes AND heroines who are BOTH doctors? Nope. None of them. Don't be silly. And discovering that fact took so much work!

As for the 'international drama series' which is 'set in exotic locations', I'm assuming we're talking about the Modern Romance line, not that it was named. Kind of depends on your definition of 'exotic', though. For a reader living in London, a story set in London might not seem all that exotic. For a reader living in Sydney, a story set in Sydney might not seem all that exotic, and so on... International is accurate. Glamorous would have been correct too. Might have been simpler to go with Mills & Boon's description of books that are: 'Set against a backdrop of luxury, wealth and international locations.' But since naming the line and quoting from the publishers website falls under the realms of research...

"The denouement in the story comes when the hero gently tells his heroine of his love for her as he bends to kiss her tenderly but fulsomely on the lips. She reluctantly submits and a spark within her acknowledges her previously denied attraction to this tower of masculinity. Wedding bells then follow."
Was this after he saved her from an oncoming train by untying her from the railway tracks with his 'psychological prowess'? In my seven years of writing romance, I can honestly say I've never had a hero kiss a heroine 'fulsomely on the lips'. Can't remember ever reading that description either. The heroine 'reluctantly submits' to her 'previously denied attraction to this tower of masculinity'? Hasn't been a whole heap of denying going on in my Modern Heat books. Or reluctant submission for that matter. And heaven forbid a woman should be happy the man she loves, loves her too! What woman could possibly want THAT?

"Feminists have castigated these books for stereotyping women into particular roles. They claim that although there has been some evolution in the female characters over time, the constant portrayal of women as passive and submissive is unacceptable."

Constant portrayal. Wouldn't that be another sweeping generalization? Considering this article is chock-a-block with the same uninformed, patronizing tone I've read before from the kind of feminists who haven't - and wouldn't be seen DEAD - reading a Mills & Boon, I'm finding it a tad hard to care what they think any more than they care what I think (unless it matches up with what they think, I should think). I always thought a huge part of the feminist movement was a woman's right to freedom of choice. As a modern, independent woman I'm no more going to have my reading preferences dictated to me by a card-carrying feminist, uninformed journalist or a literary snob, than I am anyone - be it female or male. Has Ms. Casey even taken the time to talk to Mills & Boon readers or writers? She might be surprised to discover what a diverse group of women we are, and with brains too! One could say we're as diverse as the books we read or write, but since ALL the books are the same...

"Strange, then, that their appeal persists in light of the progress made by women over the last century. "

Isn't it? One might wonder WHY? And, oh , I don't know, maybe ASK them? Considering this article is on a website, it might have been interesting to open it up to comment, but no, let's not do that either.

"One of the reasons may be that everybody needs escapism and while women now become presidents of countries and of banks, become diplomats and spies, the woman on the street identifies more with relationships and family than with professional success. "

I couldn't agree more with the part about escapism. But, just out of curiosity, do all those presidents of countries and banks, diplomats and spies, etc., who read murder/mystery novels do so because they identify with the need to murder someone?

"So a gentle love story, where the main players are good looking and thoughtful, holds more appeal than a literary classic exploring themes of lust, revenge and betrayal."
Because there are never any themes of lust, revenge or betrayal in a Mills & Boon...

"The fact that most titles are written by women for women adds to their accessibility."
Because women never read any books written by men. Because men never write romance novels. Because men never read romance novels. Because it's difficult for a woman to buy a book or get one out of the library unless it's written by another woman? Lord knows we all live in fear of being judged by the cover of the book we read. That's why so many people opt for electronic downloads, doncha know.

"A further appeal is the pro-forma style and content."
Because, thanks to intensive research, we've established they're all the same.

"In a complex and capricious world, a storyline that predictably culminates in a happy ending provides a degree of insulation against harsh reality and reassures the reader that good things can happen."

It hasn't insulated me from harsh reality. Neither has chocolate or a long soak in a bubble bath. That sucker is still there no matter what I do. Allows me to escape it for a while, yes, so does any book or film. Seems to me every story focusses on the human condition in some form or another, a romance novel just happens to concentrate on two people falling in love; something that happens all over the world, every single day. One would like to hope more often than a serial killer is on the loose, our planet is on the eve of destruction due to the arrival of an alien race, or we Muggles are in danger from Lord Voldemort. Am I holding out for a billionaire, pilot, doctor to come save me with his pyschological prowess and therefore a Mills & Boon insulates me from the harsh reality that he's just not out there? Not so much. Does it mean that sometimes the experiences of the characters resonate with me, make sense of something I've experienced or watched others going through and that I'm left with a sense of hope? Absolutely it does. Vitamin pills for the soul, as a reader of mine likes to say.

As it happens, I also like when the killer is caught at the end of a murder/mystery. I like it when entire universes are saved in a Sci-Fi. I like when the bad guy gets his comeuppance and the good guy gets his reward. I want certain things from certain books. Am I criticized for THAT? Are all of my reading choices looked down on as 'lesser' forms of fiction?If the so-called 'feminists' who criticize Mills & Boon had their way, the books would be burned in the streets. Now THERE'S modern thinking!

"The handsome men and exotic locations capture the imagination and give a glimpse of what life could be like, although most women also accept their escapist value."

Well, at least she thinks we (most of us, that is) know the difference between fantasy and reality. That's more than some Mills & Boon critics do.

"Better to tuck up in bed with a Mills & Boon than sit in a darkened room nursing a bottle of whiskey."

Those are your choices folks: Alcoholism or a romance novel. Romance readers of the world, beware!

If this article hadn't been so full of sweeping - and factually INCORRECT - generalizations and if Ms. Casey had given the impression she'd done any research into the subject, I'd probably have let it slide. Taking pot shots at romance readers and the romance genre is universally accepted as 'clever' after all, isn't it? There has to be a REASON why women read these books. It couldn't POSSIBLY be simply because they enjoy them. Where are the articles delving into the psyche of the murder/mystery reader or the Science Fiction/Fantasy reader or the reader of the literary 'greats'? What is missing in the lives of THOSE readers? What movement for the right to choice are they ignoring, setting us back by decades when it comes to progress?

When Mills & Boon celebrated its 100 year anniversary in 2009, I was pleasantly surprised by the tone of the many articles that came out. Any publishing company that has survived the test of time surely deserves a modicum of respect for the achievement and it's ability to GROW in our current economic climate. There were documentaries and dramas onscreen and even a programme where a writer tried to pen a Mills & Boon book and found it more difficult than she'd anticipated. The brand is a 'soft target' for those trying to be clever or who approach the subject with a tongue-in-cheek attitude. In my opinion, the latter can be tolerated more easily than the former; we're used to being the butt of peoples' jokes, after all. Unfortunately this article attempts to fall into the former category. It might have come across as smarter if the writer had taken the time to do a Google search. Any idiot can do that these days, right?

I can't help but hope Ms. Casey's approach to becoming a Doctor involved more research than this article.