To finish off Exeposé sex edition, Gareth Roberts sees beyond the trash in the low-brow romance novels
There’s probably something patronising about me writing in defence of Mills & Boon novels, the erotic novel imprint that has been publishing for over 100 years. I don’t read them myself, and I find them badly written.
The style is often jerky and the sex scenes, when they inevitably happen, are horrendously overwritten and display a
knowledge of psychology typical of a 12-year old. The plots are also entirely ridiculous, largely because they are simply a background to the romance, and both the writer and audience are not that interested in them. They feature stock characters, particularly weird, ultra-masculine heroes. They will never improve, largely because the audience do not want them to.
But that doesn’t mean that I don’t, on some strange level, admire them. The fact is that writing them takes a great deal of skill. Mills & Boon novels are written by people who are looking for comfort, and it is very difficult to make novels comforting.
Indeed, romances are so formulaic as novels that a writer has to be unbelievably creative to avoid recycling the same plot over and over again. It takes a great degree of skill to actually do this, and few people acknowledge the flexibility romance novelists display in overcoming this problem.
And it’s not really fair to criticise the writing. Sex writing is notoriously difficult to get right and often turns out badly. John Updike, a writer who won two Pulitzer prizes and is hailed as one of the greatest of the 20th century, was regarded as extraordinarily bad at writing about sex. Yet Updike’s occasional purple prose is ignored as an indulgence of a great novelist. If more literary writers are to be given free reign to indulge in purple prose, then why not genre writers? The answer is snobbery, and ignores the fact that most romance novelists do a very good job at avoiding it.
It is hypocritical to complain about people reading romance novels. Everyone likes low-brow trash on some level. I, for instance, love Perry Mason novels from the mid 1930’s, which were described by Julian Symonds as being notable for having plots “as clever as a watch mechanism … and also the total lack of characterization.” I know these novels are not very good, but I still read them. The fact is that people read trash knowing that it’s trash. Readers of romance novels are as aware as anyone else that what they’re reading is no good, but they enjoy it. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to read it? There is no justifcation for sneering at the readers of romance novels. They may be reading garbage, but it’s garbage no worse than that everyone else enjoys.
Gareth Robertsbookmark me