A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I read Laura Vivanco’s study of Harlequin Mills & Boon romances, For Love and Money (2011), while I was reading Edward James’s Science Fiction in the 20th Century (1994). Both books are about a particular niche in contemporary fiction, which attracts devoted fans and writers passionate about their work. Film adaptations of works in these genres are common: these are highly popular areas for the study of why people read the books they do. But while I could see quite clearly why people might want to read some of the writers James was discussing, I could not see why anyone would want to read the writers whose works were quoted by Vivanco. I was more than disappointed by the quality of the writing in those quotations: I was appalled.
I don’t think this is the fault of those authors. Vivanco explains very clearly how the Harlequin Mills & Boon brands work. The novels they publish are manufactured to a carefully worked out formula. The publisher knows what sells best, and tells any potential author who might be thinking ‘I could do this’, how to write to the formulae that will bring in the sales. There is a certain amount of fluff in the guidance about needing to have a passion for reading romantic fiction to be any good at writing it, but essentially, their advice to authors is ‘write this way to sell your work’. I found this highly interesting, though chilling, since studying a formula can be fascinating. But I had not realised how much the formula smothers the individual voices of these Harlequin Mills & Boon writers. Vivanco quotes from many, many separate works, and the only way I could tell them apart was that the older texts, predating the 1950s, had a recognisable style, some sense of a person writing, rather than the formula. I could imagine someone speaking the dialogue in those quotations, and I felt interested in the stories, the characters, their voices. This was not the case with the extracts from the more recent novels, written, as Vivanco says in her title, for the money. I’m not at all surprised that wise novelists, some of whom are now famous, used pseudonyms when they wrote for this romance manufactory. But clearly there is a vast and satisfied readership out there who want to read novels written like this: they choose to buy these books, and that’s the problem.
Vivanco was sensible to explain the formulaic nature of these novels at the beginning of her study. They are clones of the same hive mind: a single story in multiple, infinite iterations, written by uncounted authors and their pseudonyms. This allows her to apply literary criticism to the whole lot without discriminating between them. Very little is said about the authors: we get no sense of their career trajectories or most important works. This is where Edward James’s treatment of the science fiction industry works better: I learned a lot about the writers from him, which I didn’t from Vivanco. But maybe there are no star authors in Harlequin Mills & Boon, just brand labels. She works through several themes, looking for examples to prove her point, which is that these Cinderella romance novels produced to the Harlequin Mills & Boon formula fit the glass slippers normally worn by ‘real’ literary princesses. The romance genre is notorious for not normally being considered worthy of literary criticism, so Vivanco’s study is a good addition to the new romance studies.
However, I have caveats. I don’t think Vivanco has studied these generic, formulaic novels in the most interesting way. I have worked on very similar fiction, mass-market novelettes published in the 1890s. I got nothing of interest by looking at their literary quality, but found vast amounts to write about when looking at them as book history. Thinking about these novels as part of daily reading, and looking at their context is fascinating for understanding their readers’ reading tastes, and how much they would pay for it. Janice Radway did this in 1984 (Reading the Romance) for the American romance market. Looking at how Harlequin Mills & Boon romances are marketed, and what exactly their formula is, and why it works so well, would be valuable socio-literary book-history.
Unfortunately, Vivanco spends most of this book struggling to persuade us (me) that these novels sprout from a deep, rich bed of nutritious literary quality, and share a common standard of literariness. But it’s the formula that Vivanco is critiquing here, not the writing. Because these novels are so formulaic, they are policed rather than edited. Anything that transcends the formula will be edited out if the publisher thinks that The Reader or The Buyer (much more important) will not like it, so applying the principles of literary criticism to a formula seems a bit pointless. Also, I do think Vivanco reads too much into her subject. On p.116 she quotes a novel in which the heroine uses the phrase ‘iron bars do not a prison make’, and the hero corrects her, saying that it’s stone walls, not iron bars. Vivanco claims this as an example of the serious literary foundation beneath these novels; since the heroine is (mis)quoting the seventeenth-century poet Richard Lovelace. The dialogue continues to show us that of course the heroine knew that the phrase came from ‘an obscure seventeenth-century poet’, but this doesn’t wash. If the heroine knew that much she’d have got the quote right the first time around, and she’d also know that Lovelace is not obscure, but regularly anthologised and taught today. It’s more important to notice that this character is quoting a cliché, and getting it wrong because she only has a dim memory of the quote. Someone, inside the prison of Harlequin Mills & Boon romances, is trying hard to be literary, but the formula won’t allow it.
Laura Vivanco, For Love and Money. The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance (HEB, 2011), ISBN 978-1-84760-196-4
Kate podcasts tiny, hand-crafted essays on why she really really likes a book, in which enthusiasm tramples all over her critical considerations: http://www.reallylikethisbook.com.