Tuesday, 6 September 2016

To Be Or Not to Be Feminist Literature… A Mills and Boon Author’s Perspective.

So summer is the silly season in the UK press calendar… And with that in mind there’s been a lot of noise in the last week or so, mostly from The Guardian, triggered by Val Derbyshire, a professor from Sheffield University, who is leading two events at the university’s Festival of the Mind espousing her theory that Mills and Boon books are FEMINIST LITERATURE!! 

Which to those who don’t read Mills and Boon books, seems like an outlandish claim, because the perceived wisdom goes something like this: Mills and Boon? Feminist Literature? WTH? Aren’t they bodice rippers? Full of arsehole heroes? Mealy mouthed heroines? Purple prose? ‘Forced seduction’ (otherwise known as rape)? And how can they possibly have any literary weight anyway if they’re written by computers? To a formula? By men writing under pseudonyms who are trying to earn a few bob by writing trash? 

Those of us who love reading M&B books can easily hit back at those commonly held myths. But I’ve done that already, and I’m not here to do it again, because it’s boring. But after reading Derbyshire’s argument and Julie Bindel’s strident rebuttal I wanted to stick my oar into this particular debate because: I’ve actually written a few M&B books in my time as a romance novelist and no one has ever accused me of being mealy mouthed (unlike all my M&B heroines, obviously).

Now, to be fair, I haven’t actually heard Derbyshire’s lecture but from the selective quotes carried in The Guardian article about her – during what was clearly a slow news week – it seems her thesis makes a couple of key assertions based on her extensive reading of M&B books over the years: that they deal with difficult subjects (such as rape) in a female-centric and often empowering way and that they are predominately written by women for women. Excellent, we’re off to a good start. She actually reads M&B books… And The Guardian reported on that original story with remarkable magnanimity. 

Over to vocal M&B hater, Julie Bindel, to slag off Derbyshire’s theory and M&B books as trash that supports the patriarchy and condones rape based on her possibly not-quite-as-wide-reading of the texts involved… Personally I didn’t think the two out of context lines quoted from a sex scene in a 2010 book depicted rape (unless the hero has a magical mind-reading penis). Bindel would disagree. But what I can say categorically is I don’t know a single M&B author/or editor working today who would want to write or publish a scene in which the hero is having sex with the heroine knowing she does not consent.

Bindel also goes on to make a derogatory comment about “fun feminists” (because we can call ourselves feminists, but some of us are more feminist than others, apparently) and some patronising comments supporting the right of women to read whatever trash they like as long as they don’t pretend it’s feminist. But fair play to her, at least she isn’t wheeling out that old anti-women sentiment that women who read romance don’t actually know it’s fiction or should be chastised for reading whatever the heck they want.

But here’s the thing, as an author I’d have to say I’m perplexed by both the It’s Feminist-It’s Not Feminist arguments for two reasons:

Firstly, as with any other fiction writer, Mills and Boon authors bring their own life experiences, their own sensibilities and their own unique voice to the stories they write. So when Val Derbyshire says the stories they write are all feminist or Julie Bindel says they’re all not feminist, they are both falling into a common misconception that says - unlike any other publisher in the market today - every book Mills and Boon publish can be lumped together and judged accordingly.

That said, it is true that M&B series books and specifically their best-selling line Modern (or Harlequin Presents in the US) which I believe are the books most people are thinking of when they refer to an M&B book (and certainly the ones always pictured in these articles) – sorry to all those authors that write for M&B’s many other lines, you don’t exist – do have certain key similarities because of M&B’s guidelines for each of their series lines… In the case of Modern: the heroes are alpha (aka 'overbearing macho men' in Bindel land), they’re irresistibly sexy, the settings are glamorous, jet-setting and aspirational. In short, these books are high-octane escapist romantic fantasy in a handy page-turning chunk… Rather inconveniently, though, even Modern books have individual authors with individual voices who create their own individual characters and conflicts for each story… Or we’d all be writing the same book. And it would be a whole lot easier! (yeah, sorry, that computer programme thingy is a myth too). Now, maybe people who don’t want to read books that hold a guaranteed promise within the narrative (which is what those M&B guidelines are there to deliver) or desire the comfort of a  guaranteed positive outcome (which is the promise of a romance novel in general) think these books are all the same. But people who do read romance, know and see the difference very clearly… It’s all in the eye of the beholder peeps…

But here’s the other thing that perplexes me about the Is It Or Is It Not Feminist argument… I think it completely fails to understand the creative process of writing. And yeah, I know - having made the fatal error of bothering to read The Guardian comments section on Bindel’s piece (sheesh, why didn’t someone stop me falling down that black hole for an hour?!)  – I’m well aware a lot of people think there is nothing remotely creative or challenging about writing an M&B novel. But as someone who has actually done it a few times and spent sleepless nights agonising about her hero’s conflict or re-writing an opening scene 50 times to get it right, just bear with me here…

I consider myself a feminist and not one of those trashy “fun feminists” either ( just ask my sons, who have to handle my impassioned rants about everything from women’s reproductive rights to The Bechtel Test on a regular basis). Even so, I’m sure Julie would make mincemeat of some of my books. A good example would be Pleasure, Pregnancy and a Proposition (ignore the daft title, it’s what’s called a marketing tool). 

This was my fourth book for M&B and opens with the hero striding into the heroine’s office in Camden and virtually kidnapping her in front of all her workmates so he can make her take a pregnancy test. I’m holding up my hand here to say that my hero Luke’s behaviour in that opening scene is not exactly enlightened. I might even be forced to admit my hero behaves like a prize jerk (even if he’s an extremely hot prize jerk). And my heroine Louisa (being a feminist like me and not a remotely fun feminist at this point in the book) is justifiably furious. And frankly she’s not particularly mollified when she discovers to her horror that she actually is pregnant and this hot overbearing prize jerk is the father!! 

But before we get all up ourselves freaking out about how patriarchal and prize jerky my hero is in that scene, let me explain how I came up with that opening sequence. It all started when I was looking with my two sons at their ultrasound pictures and telling them what an incredibly emotional moment it had been for me and their dad when those pictures were taken… And an intriguing question popped into my head… What would happen if you were sharing that intensely emotional ultrasound moment with a guy you couldn’t stand? Now obviously, I knew that guy was going to be the hero, and these two were going to end up together despite their differences in that scene because I write romance novels and romance novels are about relationships with a positive outcome (DUH). And because I like to write hot romance novels I also knew that while these two did not like each other they would still be extremely sexually attracted to one another (remember, he’s an exceptionally hot prize jerk, in my heroine’s defense)… But everything else was in the balance… How could these two ever work out their differences, make this relationship work after a start like that? And as a writer all I could think was… I absolutely LOVE IT. Because the harder their journey the more exciting, challenging, emotionally intense it will be for me and my readers. That’s what I’m looking for…  A great opening conflict. 

Of course, once I’d figured out that initial opening sequence of events, I had loads of questions to answer. Why was the heroine clueless about her own pregnancy? Was she in denial for some reason? And why was the hero so determined to find out if she was or was not pregnant? Why had he behaved like a domineering jerk? Did he have strong enough motivations for doing what he did? Did those motivations ultimately excuse his behaviour?… I thought so… Others didn’t… But it was still a great start to a romance novel (if I say so myself). Yes, some readers might say that opening is contrived, over the top, melodramatic. Those readers won’t read on and that’s their choice. Those readers also probably don’t read Mills and Boon Modern books. But the readers who find that conflict delicious, compelling, exciting, those readers who want to know what’s going to happen to these two people and the tiny life that now connects them, will read on, hopefully because I’ve set those characters up well enough to make their flaws and weaknesses (particularly my hero’s in that scene) as compelling as their strengths… 

What I was not thinking throughout that whole creative process or indeed while I was writing the rest of the book and trying to figure out how these two were going to deal with all the emotional baggage I’d dumped on them while still having lots of hot sexy times in a 50k word count was: is this feminist or is it reinforcing the patriarchy?

Were readers thinking that… ? Hmm.

I got some pretty furious reviews on Goodreads for that book, from women who were really pissed off about the hero’s behaviour, and the heroine’s. They didn’t think the hero’s motivations were good enough for him to be such a prize jerk at the beginning of the book. They also thought my heroine was TSTL because no smart woman in the history of the world ever got to three months gestation WITHOUT realising they were pregnant, apparently. Fair enough. Obviously for them I had not done my job well enough. But that’s their opinion. Other readers loved it. But do I think those differing opinions were because those readers were or were not feminists? Actually no, I think primarily it was because they either were or were not convinced by my characters’ behaviour. 

Christian Grey is a good example of a similarly Marmite hero. Not many people would argue that he is a feminist hero, or indeed that FSOG is a feminist book (although I would argue that Ana Steele is the one with the real power in that relationship, but that’s a conversation for another blog). But do any of us actually believe that there weren’t a lot of feminists reading that book and enjoying it (raises hand in the air), just like there were other women who probably wouldn’t consider themselves feminists who hated it and could not connect with the characters in any way? Of course, Julie Bindel would probably tell us that any feminist who says she likes FSOG must be one of those trashy “fun feminists”, but then I’d just have to sic Tina Fey on her who says ‘Girl-on-girl sabotage is the worst kind of female behaviour, right behind saying ‘like’ all the time and leaving your baby in a dumpster”. ie: stop right there trying to out-feminist me, Julie! 

But here’s my point as an author - who never left any of her babies in a dumpster - even if she sometimes wanted to. (Yeah, sad to say, that initial intensely emotional moment wore off occasionally!)…

Should Mills and Boon authors, or any romance author, or indeed any author at all have to make their characters do one thing or another based on a set of principals, or beliefs, even if they are their own principals and beliefs? Or indeed can they? Doesn’t that ultimately fly in the face of an author’s creativity, their ability to create their own unique multi-layered characters within a fictional universe? And why should female writers, or romance writers, or indeed Mills and Boon authors be held to a different standard than everyone else? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the books aren’t feminist, or that they are. Or even that I don’t strive to push what I consider to be my own personal feminist agenda in my own books… Because yes, all my heroines and I would cheer Maya Angelou when she said: ‘I’m a feminist. I’ve been a woman for a long time now, I’d be stupid not to be on my own side.’

But my point is that Mills and Boon books, like all romance novels (even the tiny percentage written by men!) and any other type of fiction, are written by authors who have a creative vision. And whether you consider their work to have value or not, Mills and Boon authors like all other authors, have one primary purpose when they write a story – not to make it feminist or non-feminist – but to create something they themselves would want to read (yup, that thing about M&B authors being hacks happily writing stuff they know is trash for money… complete bollox, as well)… 

Of course, the hope is that a few other people will want to read it too - and in my case those people may be Val Derbyshire and probably won’t be Julie Bindel (unless she’s writing an article about what patriarchal tripe I write) - but as Ian McEwan put it in The Guardian magazine (oh, the irony!): ‘I don’t care about sales. The dopamine moment is finishing the novels.’ 

To be fair, Mills and Boon authors generally write a lot of novels, so you could totally accuse us of being dopamine junkies. But don’t get us started on whether or not our books are feminist… Or you’re liable to get yourself a 2000+ word blog on the subject.


Raven McAllan said...

Perfect. I wholeheartedly agree with you.

Michelle Smart said...


Kandy Shepherd said...

Well said, Heidi!

Jean Barrett said...

Perfectly put.

Lucy Ellis said...

Just stumbled across your blog piece, Heidi, and read the Guardian article for the first time. You absolutely nailed it. Let's spare a thought for poor Julie Bindel, apparently the only feminist in the village... ;)

Heidi Rice said...

Cheers Lucy... You just made me laugh!