Friday, December 7, 2007

The Mills & Boon row

Here's the link to what will no doubt be the first of many such discussions as we approach M&B's centenary year:,,2222083,00.html

Just to fill in non-romance readers, an M&B author (Daisy Cummins) and Julie Bindel, a freelance journalist who works for the Guardian wrote contrasting articles on the merits (or NAAAHHHT as Borat might say) of Mills & Boons.

The comments by Julie Bindel have already roused strong responses across the internet and there are some terrific refutations of her position (based on the reading of 20 M&Bs 15 years ago) that basically the books sanction rape... No, you have to follow the link and read her skewed logic for yourself. If you want to find the great ripostes, google Natasha Oakley, Small Town Scribbles, Teach Me Tonight and Smart Bitches Read Trashy Books.

The reason the article pressed my button was that I've been doing my own research - it's about 15 years or so since I read M&Bs with any regularity at all. So after my declaration the other day that I'd always wanted to try to get into that market and the incentive of the competition currently being run by M&B/Harlequin, I bought six M&B Modern novels (aka Harlequin Presents), which are their bread and butter monthly output. Eight currently, going up to twelve as of next year. So these are books in demand, and yes, they are the ones which tell you exactly what it is on the tin, e.g. Billionaire Baby's Secret Greek Virgin.

It would have been much more interesting if Bindel (or perhaps someone with some time and genuine curiosity) had done a decent survey of these books. They are just natural extensions of celebrity lifestyle magazines - of course they sell like hotcakes. First of all, there's variety. So far, I've been taken to Malaysia, Greece, Italy, London and NY. But all the settings have in common a lovely glitziness to them, like going into a five star hotel and having soft-voiced waiters offering you cocktails on proper coasters with decent nibbles. Mm, remove me from the wind and the rain, the day to day hassle and my classroom with a conduit from the canteen's deep-frying equipment. Two pages into a classic M&B and it's all thick (shag, lots of shag) pile carpeting and marble staircases.

Then we have the alpha male. I've been idly trying to find a placeholder for the alpha male in my competition contender. Most modern Hollywood stars are too young looking, ditto those sulky models posing for Armani/Hugo Boss ads. Let's see, I suppose Adrien Brody might be a candidate:

And in case you have any post-Pianist ideas about him looking like a coathanger, check this out:

(Yes, you're very welcome. It was a pleasure.)

Yup, he's all potential tycoony, with actually a very cute smile but lots of brood about him, and mmmm, tasty bod. Now, what red-blooded female wouldn't mind hanging out with someone like that for a couple of hours (because that is roughly how long it takes to read the 50-55,000 words of an M&B). And rather than being an actor who might have narcissistic tendencies and could go all Stanislavsky on you, you get to be with Tycoon Guy with a terrifically healthy bank balance. Of course money can't buy you happiness but in a wish-fulfilment fantasy, the knowledge that neither hero nor heroine will ever have to worry about the gas bill, the mortgage, life insurance and a pension is, well, fantastic.

The big difference I've noticed with the heroes is that they are generally nicer and more sensitive. When they discover they have a four-six-eight year old child that the heroine has hidden from them, they don't say, damn, the Child Support Agency is going to get after me now, they say, "Why didn't you tell me, I want to be a father to my child, I must bond with the fruit of my loins, call me super-Dad, and no, I will not go out and buy it Nintendo Wii and hope I never have to talk to it again." They cook. They worry about their chickies. They are gooey inside. Exterior of steel, interior of My Little Pony. Well, perhaps not quite so synthetic nylon, but just as dayglo. These are men who whup corporate ass by day and go all melty-cheese toastie by night. And are very keen on pleasing their women in all the good ways.

The heroines pretty much fall into the feisty/clueless paradigm that you might expect - that lets us readers feel a little better just in the way that it is permissible to feel better when you see a picture of an A-lister in the throes of some fashion nightmare in Heat or OK.

And finally, M&Bs are forgiving. Both heroes and heroines can commit serious doo-lalliness (except adultery which is beyond no-no), provided the writer can still show that they are Good People, who would never be kitten-drowners or dog-kickers. M&B characters get away with blunders and mistakes that make Field Marshal Haig look like a chap whose plan for the Somme turned out to be a mighty fine idea which played out not so very badly all things considered. And they still get the guy/girl - in the interests of equality, it should be noted that generally speaking, both hero and heroine could be nominated for clot of the year.

So, luxurious, hot and forgiving. Like cocoa and lycra, two other necessities that help us through the workaday world. I'm not sure I could be addicted to M&Bs - there are so many other books on my bookshelf, but for a couple of hours of escapism and mingling with the uber-rich, I'm happier reaching for a romance than for a copy of Hello! magazine, because the other thing that M&B guarantees us is a happy ending, and you know what they say about the curse of Hello.

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