As a teenager, I couldn’t get enough of the Mills and Boon romances which I would buy second hand with the bit of pocket money I got from delivering newspapers. The dog- eared books would be swopped at school and devoured in breaks and free periods at the risk of getting detention.
My fantasies of being swept away by a dark haired man with smouldering eyes were kept alive until it became obvious that these rich, arrogant alpha males intent on ravishing naive virgins were in reality a template for permission to abuse women, sexually, emotionally and psychologically. It took my English literature teacher to point this out. It’s ironic that my first husband was a perfect fit for the stereotype.
Mills and Boon capitalised on the need for women to escape the horrors of the 1930’s Depression and the subsequent war. With 20 million regular readers worldwide, 3 million of them in the UK, I hear an echo of my teenage years, as in take me away from all this, hand to forehead, swoon, swoon.
The books have come in for fierce criticism from feminists who argue that such stories promote the ‘gender dance’ and that women prefer to take their sexual health and relationship advice from what happened between Millicent and the brooding Count Stefan.
I’m not trying to sound cynical here because taste in books is personal. As a writer I could not type, “He seized her in his muscular arms,” ’ without tittering. It’s not my style and that’s because I can’t write or relate to romance. Maybe it’s because I’ve suffered at the hands of a real version of one of these so called heroes that I am pushed to write about the darker sides of relationships. I would go as far as to say that in the old Mills and Boon books of the 1960s, (I haven’t read any since), that the some of the male characters do demonstrate what we would today consider to be abusive behaviours which the women read as love. I recall an old adage of “treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen.” Love isn’t supposed to hurt. I realise not everyone will share my view and I apologise if you are angered by it.
Romantic fiction is a special genre best left to those who can ‘feel’ their characters and understand the behaviour patterns of people who respect, care for and deeply love each other. No mind games, no control issues and certainly no domination of one gender over the other.
Romantic comedy on the other hand is a joyous sub-genre of romance. Its goal is to catch the reader’s heart with a mix of love and humour in a respectful way and it works. It’s another form of escapism, light hearted, idealistic with a happy outcome so you feel uplifted when you close the book.
As I’m no expert on this, I’ve asked a brilliant author of rom-com, Daniel D. Gothard to explain more.
I love fiction, all kinds - suspense, thrillers, literary, et al. Some are taken more seriously - mainly by critics - than others. As a novelist of two recent romantic comedy books, and as someone who was a bookshop manager for twenty years, I can say first-hand that I have been surprised by the slightly haughty reaction by some book blog reviewers and bookshops.
Shakespeare wrote romantic comedy - "Much Ado About Nothing" is one of the most often performed of his plays and much beloved of the chattering-classes, and yet I would bet cold, hard cash that if you attempted to compare that play to the work of David Nicholls, Richard Curtis or Nora Ephron those same chattering-classes would be appalled.
Romantic comedy is not meant to reflect the grit of reality; it isn't meant to personify psychological torment, world affairs or the need for social development and justice - there are plenty of books and films that do cover those issues. Rom-com is important because it can transport us, take us into areas of our hearts and minds that make us remember better days; recreate a sense that things might get better for us in the future, or perhaps just give us some respite from the everyday grind. It's a release.
I adore the film "When Harry Met Sally" - it takes us through the turbulent relationship of two people over many years, makes us root for them to grow ever closer and - using expert dialogue, humour and moments of genuine pathos - eventually rewards us with a very smart and happy ending.
Romantic comedy has been given its own genre and tucked away in most readers' minds as being formulaic, but - in my opinion - that is ridiculous. Although there are some authors who create a very specific brand - the Shopaholic books come to mind - stick to that and are very successful, for most authors rom-com is something they add to their work as a flavour.
My advice to any author thinking about a story which a publisher or literary agent might see as romantic comedy is to write the exact story you want - like playing a film in your head before you've seen it, as Hitchcock used to before he started directing each time. Write something that you find funny and romantic; don't try to cover various 'bases' that you think are essential to a traditional template.
If you laugh and feel good after reading through your finished draft there's a good chance other people will too!
Daniel’s latest novels are:- Simon Says which can be found here:-
His novel Reunited can be found here:-
Both books are great reads if you want to be taken out of yourself and maybe indulge in a bit of nostalgia.
Daniel can be contacted on Twitter @bookslifelove