Men writing about love

/Cover of The Course of LoveFirst some facts:

  • There is only one male Mills and Boon writer – and he writes under his wife’s name
  • and four grudgingly recognised female writers of Westerns (and they are accused of bending that particular genre in more ways than one).

In-between these gender outliers, it’s a bit of a free for all. Nevertheless, despite the fact that all men will have loved, far fewer men write romantic fiction, or books about love.

And I’m not including here books where there’s a sprinkling of lurve on top of a mountain of general bad behaviour and savagery. I’m talking about contemporary authors who truly attempt to reveal what they understand about love. Authors who lay themselves bare, who wrestle with love, whose hearts have (in all probability) been broken. Those men.

Cover of BullfightingAnd they do exist, but let’s just get the following man writers out of the way: Tony Parsons (with books like Man and Boy), David Nicholls (One Day and Us) and Nicholas Sparks (anything romantic that has recently been filmed, like Message in a Bottle). They are all popular, they all write well, but they feel to me like observers, one step distant from real involvement. They tell stories about men and women in love, but they don’t dig that deep.

My “Men who write about love” do it in a way that is very revealing to women, in books that will make you look differently at male bravado, and with characters who are almost certainly based on their own experiences. Authors like this:

This is a terribly Non-PC blog, I know. After all, why even bother distinguishing the gender of writers? Why not include gay writers and those who are transgender? But it gets worse, because  what I think I am really trying to say here is that men write better books about love than women do.

Prove me wrong.

Film Festival fever

CoverIt’s been a famine and now it is a feast. Two really good Press Christchurch Writers Festival events in the last two weeks and more to come, tickets booked for the Arts Festival and last night the opening of the Film Festival.

The theatres were full at 8.15pm for that show-offy Palme d’Or winning The Tree of Life, which officially opened the festival, but a small and select audience was there at 6 for a little gem of a documentary.

Guilty Pleasures was an affectionate look at those pieces of pink perfection –  Mills and Boon novels. There’s one sold every four seconds somewhere in the world  and the film followed some of the product’s more far-flung fans.

Hiroko, from Japan, was so transfixed by the ball-room dancing of Dana and Savannah, the protagonists of one M&B novel, that she spent huge amounts of money learning how to quick-step. Shumita perused piles of titles in the Number 3 Library in Delhi, a shop so full of books it resembled a pink cave, and that wasn’t counting the chest high stacks on the pavement outside.

For those of you who think anyone can write a Mills and Boon novel, Roger has news for you. He writes under the pseudonym Gill Sanderson and would never feature a hero named Roger, or a hero with red hair. So now you know.

If you do think you’ve got what it takes to be a successful romance writer, there’s lots of help out there. The titles are works of art in themselves; try Love writing, or Heart and Craft, or a subject search under Love Stories – Authorship.

And on the subject of Guilty Pleasures – what’s your favourite Mills and Boon? Go on, you know you’ve read at least one in your life – Share!

The billionaire’s secret mistress at the family planning clinic

A UK psychologist has declared that a “huge number” of problems dealt with in family planning clinics have their roots in romance novels.  She goes on to say that:

our lessons are  falling on deaf ears when compared to the values of the Regency heroine gazing adoringly across the Assembly Rooms to catch a glimpse of her man.

So the problems of unwanted pregnancy and failed relationships are all down to Mills and Boon and the like?  Who would have thought?  Perhaps this psychologist hasn’t read A night with consequences or  Stranded, seduced – pregnant.  Both sound like they could sit in any family planning clinic bookshelf as a dire warning for irresponsible coupling.  I am also rather taken by the title: The librarian’s secret scandal, but purely for professional reasons of course!

For those of you interested in book covers, The art of romance : Mills & Boon and Harlequin cover designs by Joanna Bowring gives a wonderful  visual record of romance and love over the years.  Published since 1908, Mills and Boon and its heroes and heroines have certainly seen a lot of change.

  • What’s your favourite romance book or film?

Celebrating Essie – a New Zealand romance

Love is in the air, yes even in New Zealand, and nobody did more to promote Aotearoa as an island of lurve than Christchurch born writer Essie Summers. Essie wrote 55 romance novels, sold 19 million copies and right from the outset used New Zealand’s dramatic landscape as the back drop for her tales of triumphant amour. Often set in the windswept high-country, her couples overcame initial misunderstandings and obstacles to find true and enduring love. Bless them!

To celebrate kiwi romance Central Library is having an Essie Summer’s display, so come in, feel the love and borrow some marvellous Essie Summers.

But as wonderful and romantic as the stories themselves are, I’m almost more smitten by the covers. The women are young, delicate and beautiful, and always immacutely turned out, while the men are all strong-jawed and über-manly. Moon over the alps published in 1960 has a rather tasty blond chap clad in skivvy and swandri, casual and macho but the exception to the romance cover man rule who at least in the 50’s and 60’s would normally be wearing a shirt and tie, if not a formal suit.

Mills & Boon turned 100 in 2008 and Harlequin celebrated 60 years in 2009 both providing an opportunity to look anew at the romance novel, its enduring success and what the romantic fads and fashions reflected in these titles tells us about the dreams and romantic aspirations of real women. The art of romance by Joanna Bowring and Margaret O’Brien charts the history of romantic fiction and includes loads of book covers from Mills & Boon and Harlequin novels from the 1920’s through to the current day. “The Heart of a woman”, a recent 60th birthday display of Harlequin cover art held in New York showcased the work of artists such as Norm Eastman, Paul Anna Soik and Jack Harman. Beautifully curated by Elizabeth Semmelhack, click here for some fantastic images on flickr.

And to prove that romance is still alive and kicking in New Zealand we have an interview with writer Natalie Anderson, keeping the romantic genre sizzling and sexy from her Timaru love-nest and scaling the heady heights of USA Today’s top 150.

Where the men are always tall and have a full head of hair

Mills & Boon, why just the mention brings to mind powerful, ruggedly handsome men sweeping winsome, earnest women off their feet.  Although I’m not a reader of romance fiction (not that anyone ever admits to it anyway) I will confess to a juvenile fascination with not only the cover art but also the titles of these novels.

It seems obligatory that the women pictured must always be gazing upwards through heavily mascaraed eyes at a square-jawed Adonis with unfeasible amounts of thick wavy hair.  Words like “tycoon”, “millionaire” and “ruthless” are used in combination with “virgin”, “mistress” or “wife”.  “Engagement”, “affair”, “wedding” and “marriage” also seem to feature quite heavily.  It almost seems as if there should be a formula by which you could generate the most typical title by finding the ultimate combination of the above.  Though why bother making them up when the actual titles of recent library acquistions such as Forbidden: the billionaire’s virgin princess and The sheikh’s rebellious mistress are so delightfully overboiled?

Fantastic new book The art of romance : Mills & Boon and Harlequin cover designs reproduces some terrific examples of romance cover art and presents them in full, glorious colour.  Earlier titles had yet to latch on to “The Ruthless billionaire’s virginal secretary” formula and instead had titles like “The wolf man” or “The lumberjack”.  Simpler (and more woodsy) times perhaps?  The cover art, tells its own story, as you can clearly see the change in hairstyles, fashion, and “pose”.  Earlier art might picture the heroine looking thoughtful with the suitor in the background.  Later art has them in much closer proximity and with the lady looking decidedly “swoony” which probably reflects the move to more “racy” stories.

If the actual cover art isn’t silly enough for you then I recommend checking out this site where the cover art has remained but the titles have been changed to rather comedic effect, or if you fancy yourself as a hunky hero or breathless heroine plug your name in here to find out what your character name would be.

Meanwhile I, Amanda Hardaway, will be applying some mascara and then trying to find a wind machine to stand swoonerifically in front of.

Romance is dead: Sex sells

One of the ironies of The Press Christchurch Writers’ Festival was that the star guest, Robert Fisk, works for the main sponsor’s opposition. Tony O’Reilly, who owns The Independent that Fisk writes for, also owns Australian Provincial Newspapers, which in turn owns The New Zealand Herald, The Star in Christchurch and most of New Zealand’s commercial radio stations. Anyway, it’s The Independent you’ve got to thank for this post.

The Independent has reported that Mills and Boon, the venerable romance fiction publishers who have reached 100 years in the business, have turned the heat up a notch. Gone are the days of emotional attachment between hero and heroine – from 2009 in the UK (and already in the US) it’s “sex for enjoyment” as their marketing director put it, in a series called Spice.

It is part of a continuing pattern for the Mills and Boon books – once upon a time they published sports and craft titles, before moving into escapist romances. They’ve been getting gradually more explicit ever since. All this begs the question: If Mills and Boon books have got progressively raunchier, does the audience, ah, keep pace?

One thing’s for sure: the title writers will have a field day… if they weren’t already!