This is where it all began; with a paper delivered at the PGCWWN Representations of Romantic Relationships and the Romance Genre in Contemporary Women’s Writing Conference.

Busting the Mills & Boon Myth:  Category Romance as an Instrument for Change

When preparing for this conference, I knew I wanted to present a paper that focused on the category romance and its place as a subgenre within the romance genre.  As much as romance genre writing is “mocked” in literary circles, the category romance – usually between 50 and 70 thousand words long – is often seen as its poor relation, despite impressive sales and the sheer scope of output. The most renowned of category romance publishers, Mills & Boon (or Harlequin, as it’s known in the US) is very often seen as a by-line for formulaic writing without literary merit.

As someone who works with category romance authors on a daily basis – I edit an online webzine where all of the columnists are published Mills & Boon authors – and having read a startlingly large number of them, both for research and just for pleasure , I’d argue that there’s far more to these books than just clichéd happy ever afters.  Being situated, as they are, within the very heart of popular literary culture, they offer us a unique insight into society.

And it is the way that they address social issues that particularly interests me.  The shorter word count of the category romance, coupled with the fact that they must have a “happy ever after” means that authors must approach social issues in a unique way.

Caitlin Crews (a writer for the Blaze imprint) argues that ‘because category is so intense it can, in many ways, do the work that more in-depth portrayals can’t. Category books have to dig deep, fast, and then solve the problem. They have to make a deep and resonant emotional sense. My goal as a writer isn’t to lead readers point by point through every stage of processing an issue. It’s to leave them with a bone-deep emotional belief that the issue can be solved.  I think that’s incredibly powerful.‘ [1]

And Intrigue imprint writer Barb Han highlights the fact that category romance authors ‘still have to go deep with emotion, [they] just have fewer words at [their] disposal to use to express the issue and/or fallout.‘ [2] She continues, saying that ‘Category romance is all about overcoming internal obstacles that keep us from truly finding happiness, whether that is derived from issues as complicated as being molested as a child to a war veteran still suffering from the effects of P.T.S.D.’ [3]

Whilst researching this paper, I spoke to over forty Mills & Boon category romance authors, and when asked whether they thought that category romance could successfully address and engage with issues, the answer was an almost overwhelming yes.

So now to return to the title of my paper – category romance as an instrument for change.  With the public perceptions of romance being what they are – I was particularly infuriated by an article in The Guardian back in April, entitled Are most romance novels badly written? [4] – I regularly find myself fighting in the much-maligned category romance’s corner.  There are many arguments made against them, including the very patronising statement that they encourage women to have unrealistic expectations about love, but I find fewer arguments about the realism within these novels.  Yes, there are elements that are less realistic – for example, there seems to be a large number of billionaires who are so struggling to find true love that they have to trick someone into a marriage of convenience – however they are works of fiction and are meant as entertainment.  I don’t see many people complaining about the existence of dragons in Game of Thrones.

In fact, realism and the engagement with social issues is at the very heart of many category romances.  In Val Derbyshires’ paper today, she looked at Penny Jordan and the way in which some of her novels reflect economic change.  And I’ve chosen, for the purpose of this paper, to focus in on Tara Taylor Quinn’s Where Secrets are Safe series.

The series is published as part of the Superromance imprint, described on the publisher’s website as having ‘relatable, true-to-life characters in high-stakes emotional situations—ones with genuine obstacles that require them to reexamine what they truly want from life. Harlequin Superromance books focus on the romance between the hero and heroine while also exploring the community and relationships around them.’ [5]

They’re a little longer than the average category romance but this means that we’re able to get to know secondary characters in a way that isn’t always feasible in other lines, which is perfect for Quinn’s series.

Also, these books can be hard hitting, featuring characters that you wouldn’t necessarily expect of category romance.  One of Quinn’s books from the 90s, Her Secret, His Child [6], features a heroine who is a child abuse survivor, as well as previously being a prostitute – Quinn doesn’t shy away from big issues, and she addresses them with sensitivity and without judgement.

So why this series?

Tara Taylor Quinn was herself a victim of domestic violence, and Where Secrets Are Safe is set in a women’s domestic violence shelter, with characters ranging from staff members such as nurses and lawyers, to the women and families that they work with; so when her editor (knowing of her passion to spread the word about domestic violence) suggested developing a women’s shelter and setting her next three books there, The Lemonade Stand was born.

She says that her editor ‘trusted [her] to [set the series there] in a way that would benefit, not preach or push.  And that would be, above all, entertaining, intense, emotional fiction.’ [7]

So in some ways there’s something quite unique about this series, in that it sets out to really create something with a purpose (though there are many examples of category romance authors using personal experiences to inform their writing).  This isn’t just storytelling for storytelling’s sake; it’s a very personal response to personal experience.  Quinn says:

I love the time I spend at the Lemonade Stand.  I created a place I wish I’d had at my disposal.  A place I wish I could have run to.  Being there now…it feels like even if I’m only giving women a few fictional hours there, it’s a start.  It plants the seed of hope.’ [8]

So we have our series.  But can it really be seen as an instrument for change?

When reading these books, they seem to engage with social issues in three different ways:

–  through the primary characters – the hero and heroine stalwarts of the romance genre

–  through secondary characters – often the children of the hero and heroine, or their siblings

–  and through the books’ paratext – primarily, the Dear Reader foreword.

I intend to use examples from this series to analyse each of these different methods of engagement, and it should be said upfront that some of the issues I’m going to be talking about may be distressing for some people.

Let me start with primary characters.

Over the last twenty years, or so, the focus on the heroine’s point of view within category romance has shifted, so that we get to see events and past memories from both the hero and the heroine’s perspective.  This gives us a unique ability to truly empathise with these characters at moments of heightened emotional intensity.

At the same time, it means that we experience situations at the same pace that they do – and sometimes their own understanding of events is skewed by their experience.  For example, in His First Choice, Jem, our hero, is visited by counsellor Lacey when his son is highlighted as a cause for concern at his kindergarten.  As his relationship with Lacey develops, we begin to understand the complicated relationship he has with his ex-wife Tressa, as well as getting to know their son Levi.  He’s a strong, intelligent man, who owns his own profitable business.  But it isn’t until the last fifty pages of the book, when an emotionally volatile Tressa smashes a window at his house, that it becomes clear that he has been emotionally abused by his ex-wife for years.

   “You need to get a restraining order, Jem.  You’d be granted one immediately just for what happened here tonight.”

   “I’m telling you she didn’t mean to break the window.  And even if she did, she’d say she was going for the door handle, and how are you going to prove she wasn’t?”  He’d been through this so many times it was old hat to him.  But he had to slow down and understand that it was all new to Lacey.

   Tressa could be…alarming…at first.

  “She wouldn’t abide by it, Lacey.  The best way to deal with Tressa is to handle her exactly as I’m doing.  You’ll see.  She’ll get used to the idea of me and you just like she got used to the idea of the divorce.  And Levi living with me.”

   “You went through this each time?”

   Now she was getting it.  He almost smiled.  “Yes.” [9]

When Lacey spells it out in black and white – “You are a victim of domestic abuse, Jem” [10] – it suddenly hits the reader.  We’ve been so focused on our concern for his son Levi that it doesn’t occur to us – just as it never occurred to Jem – to think about what the emotional toll of a clearly toxic relationship would be for him.  He’s strong.  He’s an alpha male hero.  But he’s still a victim, and it’s only through delaying this knowledge until the latter end of the book, that Quinn highlights – and indeed educates us – about how domestic abuse can occur without the realisation of the victim.

Standing in contrast to this is the hero of The Good Father.  Brett Ackerman is a survivor of child abuse and he couldn’t be more aware of the impact that it has had on his life.  So when his ex needs his help with a family crisis, he’s forced to address all his fears about the impact that it has had on him.

   “I’d dream about things that had really happened.  About times my dad had come at me.  But in mid-dream his face would change to mine.  And the boy in the dream would be my son, and I’d be lifting my hand to hit him.  I’d see the fear on his face.  And in those eyes, the love he still felt for me.  I’d want to stop my hand from coming down, but I just couldn’t.  Not ever.  Not one single, damned night…”

   “When I found out you’d lost the baby…my first conscious feeling was…relief.  I’d been saved from what I saw as my fate-finding out too late that I was like my father.”  [11]

Whereas Jem is in denial about his relationship, Brett internalises his fears to the point where he cannot function within a father-child relationship for fear that he will continue the cycle of violence started by his father.  As readers, again we are faced with the heroine – in this case his ex, Ella – who knows that he can be more than this, but these narratives demonstrate how it is through a personal journey of self-actualisation that these heroes overcome adversity.

The subgenre of category romance places a huge importance upon internal conflict, as within a confined word count, it is the best way to delve into the depths of a character’s psyche, and as such, primary characters allow the author to confront issues head on.

But characterisation isn’t limited to just primary characters.  And at this point, I think it’s important to highlight the fact that almost without exception, primary characters in category romance will deal with issues as part of their internal conflict; it’s just that secondary characters do so in an additional, and different way.  Many heroes and heroines in category romance have responsibilities for other people – whether to their own children, to siblings, or to those they work with.

In the Where Secrets Are safe series, not all characters are victims or survivors of domestic abuse (Quinn rightly points out that it is only one in four women [who] are victims of domestic violence, and that there are many many women who … have healthy loving relationships.)  In fact, there are some whose only connection with this sort of violence is through their jobs, and act as a kind of mediator, through whom issues can be addressed.

Two such characters are the hero and heroine of Mother by Fate – counsellor Sara Havens and bounty hunter Michael Edison.  Their story is twofold – there is the plot that focuses on their blossoming attraction to each other, and all that that brings with it; and there is the plot that focuses on finding runaway Nicole Kramer.  Michael has been hired to find Nicole by her husband as she’s absconded with their son, and Sara meets her when she appears at the Lemonade Stand, bearing all the traits of a victim of domestic abuse.  We hear about Nicole through both the hero and heroine’s eyes – each of them seeing something different due to what they’ve been told.  Sara meeting her as a counsellor:

   Sara knew about victims being manipulated to the point of feeling as though their abusers were the rulers of their worlds.  But she’d never come up against a victim whose abuser truly was that powerful.

   Nor had she ever counselled a victim who not only had low self-esteem due to abuse, but who also valued herself less because of her cultural environment.  To white supremacists, women were second-class citizens… [12]

And Michael hearing about her from her husband:

   The only way for him to keep all of them safe was to get his job done as quickly as possible.  The women and children at a women’s shelter weren’t Nicole’s target.  Her own two-year-old son was.  But desperate people took desperate measures.

   Nicole would be in need of a fix soon.  And that would make her desperate. [13]

Throughout the novel, Nicole is someone who we almost exclusively get to know via other people; through her estranged parents, through the doctor who attended her after she was beaten so badly she miscarried; and through reports from her husband.  It doesn’t always make for easy reading – especially as Nicole is also a flawed character – at the end she points out that she has a shitload of conditioning to undo – but Quinn is completely non-judgemental about the issues that Nicole and her son Toby will have to face going forward.

It’s also interesting to note that the storyline following Nicole, her son and her previous forced miscarriage, goes hand in hand with the primary characters’ own issues about parenthood.  Michael’s wife was murdered whilst their daughter was asleep down the hall, and Sara has no visitation rights with a child that she brought up and loved as her own; Nicole’s issues underscore the concerns and worries about parenthood and children that the primary characters deal with.

But though characterisation of both primary and secondary characters show us how issues are engaged with an addressed, it fails to identify whether this is done purposefully – namely, with the intention of “educating” their readership.

This is where the paratext comes in.  Paratextuality, according to Gerard Genette, refers to that which literally binds the text together and include titles, acknowledgements, copyright information, blurbs, and in this case, the “Dear Reader” forewords.

The presence of the “Dear Reader” forewords is one that’s caused much discussion on Twitter recently as Val, myself and Dr Laura Vivanco have been discussing when they first started appearing, in which imprints they always occur, and which they rarely, as well as whether they appear in both paperback and digital editions of books.  I’m using my own – often digital – copies of these books for reference, so any references come from there.

The “Dear Reader” foreword is a fairly candid letter from the author to the reader, usually placed directly before the title page.  Its contents vary from author to author and book to book, and might include anything from the comments on the characters, to personal experiences and inspiration for the novel.

Roland Barthes said that the author is dead, but I’ve always been interested in engaging with authors as well as examining my own responses to texts; and so I always read the “Dear Reader” foreword before reading a Mills & Boon novel.  For me, it is as much a part of the category romance experience as the happy ever after.  There’s something about entering into a conversation with the author that lifts the book out of just “escapist fantasy” and makes it a very personal experience.  It’s also incredibly powerfully to be directly addressed by the writer.

In the foreword to Husband by Choice, Quinn talks about feeling trapped and how we can survive those circumstances.  She goes on to say that:

‘Husband by Choice is the story of one such situation.  And the woman who thought herself weak, but who’s actually strong enough to listen to her heart, to act on the instinct inside her, even though it drives her straight into danger.  This story is fiction.  I don’t recommend that any woman face violence on her own.  I do, however, fully embrace every woman’s right to live by her heart.  To fight for that right.  And to know the ultimate joy.’ [15]

The fact that Quinn addresses head on the fact that her heroine puts herself in danger, and the fact that this isn’t a recommendation, highlights the fact that she’s acknowledging the novel’s power.  In the rest of the letter she uses “us” and “we” to align herself with the reader, and underscore the fact that they’re not alone in their journey through the narrative.

And in the foreword to Once a Family she openly expresses why she’s created this world:

‘Sometimes we need a safe place in which to take a time out.

The Lemonade Stand, Where Secrets Are Safe, is one of those places.  The Stand is going to be around for a long time.  You’ll have many opportunities to stay here with me.  And to experience some perfect moments while you do-you know the kind, where you escape into a story, experience a whole other world, maybe find some meaningful titbits that somehow apply to your life, all without leaving your chair.

I hope you’ll also see the perfection in messiness.  The value in the struggle.  Families are tough.  Maybe more, than anyone else, we trust our family members to have our backs.  To love us no matter what.  And with that trust comes the capacity for great pain – if our trust is broken.  If family members aren’t who we think they are.  And we understand, too.  We know that family is heart.  And heart is the one thing we can’t ever completely walk away from.

So we run to a place like The Lemonade Stand, Where Secrets Are Safe and pain can be healed.  Come on in.  Get comfortable.  And be prepared to find family and love!’ [16]

There’s something quite special about being able to connect with an author on this level; to be able to understand why they’re writing what they’re writing.  The changes from reading books like this may not be on a political scale, may not even affect change in every reader, but if they help one person, then surely that is change enough.

Besides, category romance itself seems like the perfect place to affect small changes like this.  In a genre where a happy ever after is not just expected, but guaranteed, it is safe place to experience catharsis.

As Quinn argues, ‘Our readers will allow themselves to be taken to tough places because they go there with the cushion of knowing that I won’t wring them out and leave them there to die.  Or leave them feeling hopeless and depressed.  If they stick with me they might get the same topic they’d find in the news, but they also find a possible solution or even the hope that a solution might exist.

And since these books are emotionally-based, they touch the hearts of their readers.  In today’s world there is so little that gets past our defences.  We all have huge walls.  But these books, women feel safe with them.  They open up to them.  Hearts and minds.  And THERE is your opportunity for change.’ [17]

Finally, I think it should be clarified that as my research developed, the limitations of this paper became more obvious to me.  In focusing on one series, by one author, for one category romance imprint, I severely limited my findings.  It was necessary to do so for a twenty minute presentation, but as a result I found myself becoming frustrated at times – especially after reading so many other category romances that address social issues just as skilfully.  Therefore, I’m expanding this paper into an online project that I’ll curate, called The CatRom Project.  Its primary objective will be to create a collection of analysis of individual novels, as well as interviews with authors and editors within the genre on the subject of issues within category romance, and develop a masterpost which would allow readers to find books by issues.  It is very much a work in progress, and shall be for some time, but I simply couldn’t leave this research topic here!  Thank you.

References:

  1. Caitlin Crews, Interview.
  2. Barb Han, Interview.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Alison Flood, Are most romance novels badly written?, (https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2016/apr/18/romance-novels-badly-written-curtis-sittenfeld-eligible-pride-and-prejudice).
  5. Harlequin, ‘Harlequin Superromance’, (http://www.harlequin.com/articlepage.html?articleId=834&chapter=0).
  6. Tara Taylor Quinn, Her Secret, His Child (Richmond, Surrey:  Harlequin Mills & Boon Limited, 1999).
  7. Tara Taylor Quinn, Interview.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Tara Taylor Quinn, His First Choice (Where Secrets Are Safe, Book 8), (London:  Mills & Boon 2016).
  10. Ibid.
  11. Tara Taylor Quinn, The Good Father (Where Secrets Are Safe, Book 6), (Richmond, Surrey:  Mills & Boon, 2015).
  12. Tara Taylor Quinn,  Mother by Fate (Where Secrets Are Safe, Book 5), (Richmond, Surrey:  Mills & Boon, 2014).
  13. Ibid.
  14. Gerard Genette, Palimpsests:  Literature in the Second Degree, trans. Channa Newman and Claude Dubinsky (Lincoln and London:  University of Nebraska Press, 1997).
  15. Tara Taylor Quinn, Husband by Choice (Where Secrets Are Safe, Book 3), (Richmond, Surrey:  Mills & Boon 2014).
  16. Tara Taylor Quinn, Once a Family (Where Secrets Are Safe, Book 2), (Richmond, Surrey:  Mills & Boon 2014).
  17. Tara Taylor Quinn, Interview

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