Saturday, 13 August 2005

Having criticised Blake Morrison for an unjustified and lazy slam against Mills & Boon, I feel I can't let Zoe Williams' piece in the Guardian last Thursday go by without comment.

Normally I enjoy reading Zoe Williams' articles, and particularly her short columns on Saturdays, "Is it just me or..." and previously "Things you only know if you're not at work", but this latest item supports my theory that journalists know a great deal about everything that I don't know much about, but are hopeless on stuff I do know.

Get Real claims to be about the new Mills & Boon editorial line, Next. Williams argues that for M&B to address what comes after the "happy ever after" is to miss the whole point of being Mills & Boon. This might be a fair point if it came from a passionate fan of the existing lines, but I don't think that Williams reads many. She certainly doesn't think much of the M&B readership:
my feeling about the Mills & Boon reader has always been that she's very, very idle. There is so little variance within the template that, really, you should be able to make stuff like this up for yourself.
Of course such a readership is, in Williams' view, all that might be expected given the way the books are written:
The whole reason chick lit was invented, 50 or 60 years after Mills & Boon started production (I use the term advisedly - I don't think I'd be putting anyone's nose out of joint to say it's more like a production line than a creative process), is that the heavy romance of Mills & Boon didn't quite cover the demands of all femalekind. It was definitely aimed at women, yes, but mostly at mad women, or sane women made temporarily mad by sadness, or a hangover. It was mad lit, really, writing so cravenly gooey and optimistic that it had no dialogue at all with any recognisable reality.
From where I sit it is Williams' article that is struggling to relate to any recognisable reality. Yes, M&B can be relied upon to deliver a happy ending, but so does The Wasp Factory. I rather struggle to describe that as "cravenly gooey and optimistic".

I suspect that Zoe Williams is very lucky that she lives on this side of the Atlantic. If my well-brought-up friends Candy and Sarah were to read her closing paragraph they might well put down their samplers and aim a few pointed comments in her general direction.
However woefully written it is, all other potboiler fiction has this irritating top-note of self-justification - "I'm not ashamed of this daft/ selfish/ pointless thing I did/ want/ fantasise about!" says the protagonist, in some roundabout way. "I'm only human!" Your heroine may have ups, downs and comeuppances, but you are rarely encouraged to despise her. The act of reading true romance fiction is different - it has a kernel of self-hate, that unmistakable tang, when you pick up Breathless for a Bachelor, that you're nothing, really, nothing more than a bag of ego, you don't even have the animal nobility of a libido going for you, all you really want is to be adored. Adored and rich. Self-disgust is a compelling motivator, which is why people not only buy Pop Tarts but also eat them. I think it would be a shame to lose that from the culture altogether. But who knows ... maybe nowadays we get all the self-disgust we need off the telly.

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