Let’s hear it for romance
The Guardian April 2005
When I announce the Romantic Novel of the Year today, bets will be on to see how long it takes for the winner to declare, “I am not a romantic novelist”, while keeping a tight hold on the £10,000 cheque.
Not that I would blame the winner entirely. Last month’s spat over comments by Toby Litt and Ali Smith that women writers are “too domestic” and don’t take risks makes these dangerous times to be a woman writing about anything as mundane as love. Domestic? Boring? Who would want to be dubbed romantic as well? Maybe that explains the collective identity crisis that seems to have seized the Romantic Novelists Association in its choice of shortlisted novels for its annual prize.
There was plenty of sex, illness and family breakdown on the shortlist, but no real gut-wrenching, bodice- ripping, burst-your-heart-with-hope- and-despair romance. Instead what we had were tales of love in a cooling climate, free of racing pulses, with nothing Byronic between them. I was not the only judge to feel flummoxed: half our final meeting was spent deliberating on how the RNA defines romantic. The inclusion of Andrea Levy’s Small Island seemed an attempt to lend literary legitimacy to the award, but why should it need it? Is romance really such a dirty word? Readers happily own up to enjoying “relationship” novels, but balk at the suggestion that they read romances. RNA members annually debate changing the name of the association to something “less pink and fluffy”. A cloud of chiffon prejudice and relationship trauma has obscured the romantic revolutionary sun of Keats, Shelley and the Brontës.
It is about time romantic novelists got angry, reclaimed the word’s proud tradition and celebrated good writing that makes the pulse race as much as the mind.
I see no such self-doubt haunting the consciences of crime writers. Instead, crime is cool: it has cultural cachet, which is why leading lights such as Ian Rankin are regulars on the hip lit circuit and review shows. When was the last time anyone saw Marian Keyes or Elizabeth Buchan on Newsnight Review? Yet both are excellent storytellers who are unafraid of dealing with the darker side of life. Crime writing is judged by the best of the lot, romantic novelists smeared with the same cheap rouge as Mills & Boon.
There is more than a tinge of sex ism to the disparaging treatment of romantic novelists. Women writing for women about issues other women are interested in are not taken seriously by the male-dominated cabal that rules lit crit. Why else would Louis de Bernières’ unashamedly romantic Captain Corelli’s Mandolin be regarded as better literature than Joanna Trollope’s dark tales of tangled love? It is not a question of commercial snobbery: both sell shed-loads and score highly among reading groupies. It cannot be thematic either. Romantic novelists frequently tackle tough issues: Adele Parks wrote about female infidelity in her first book Playing Away and has since tackled divorce and bigamy.
“I do feel that because we live in a patriarchal society, men try to invalidate what women find interesting, and women are interested in reading about relationships,” says Keyes. “I am dismissed as writing chick lit, which is an incredibly pejorative label, but I am writing about post-feminist women.”
Romantic should not be a pejorative term, says author Amanda Craig. “Romance, in the highest literary sense, is a thing to be proud of. At its finest, ‘romantic’ encompasses just about every great work of literature that you can think of, from Wuthering Heights to Anna Karenina.”
Judy Piatkus, one of the most successful publishers of romance in the UK, blames the likes of Barbara Cartland for undermining romantic novelists. The best works of romatic fiction stand up against the best books in other genres, she claims: “Romance is about passion and love, which, let’s face it, is what lots of literary novels are about as well, but no one says that.”
Piatkus publishes US romance queen Nora Roberts, who is the second-biggest-selling writer in the US after JK Rowling but virtually unknown in the UK. Piatkus says: “While everybody puts down romance, she defies all expectations, and earns far more than all the men in the US.” And maybe that is part of the problem too. Romance is popular, and growing more popular by the year, whatever the critics may think. Last year, sales of romantic titles rose by more than £6m to £16.6m. It is a statistic that the winner of today’s award should take on board, because even if she feels embarrassed by the word romance, there are a hell of a lot of women out there who feel proud to read it. It is about time romantic novelists were equally proud.
· Danuta Kean is chair of the RNA/Foster Grant Romantic Novelist of the Year award.