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Revisiting Thrills and Swoon: Can Feminists Enjoy Mills and Boon?

10/07/2015 16:35 BST | Updated 10/07/2016 10:59 BST

I admit to being something of a literary snob. I know my Austen from Amis, Rushdie from Roy, Morrison from Marquez. Sometimes my inner voice even sounds a bit like Will Self, which is always terrifying because even I don't know what I'm saying, so wordy becomes that particular monologue. I'd make myself a ClipArt certificate for being unbearable if I could tear myself away from the purist paper format long enough (does Microsoft even do ClipArt anymore?).

But with the recent behemoth of success of the Fifty Shades trilogy and its sequel Grey, coupled with the anonymity granted to readers by the success of Kindles, romance fiction is very much at the forefront of popular tastes and our conversations. With traditional gender roles still very much prevalent in the majority of our cultural products, romance fiction has always seemingly represented the pinnacle of 'accepted' escapism for females, a consolatory prize for females being secondary in all other media and at total odds with feminist ideology. Having recently sat down and waded through Fifty Shades, because I'm a staunch believer that you cannot criticise a piece of work without experiencing it, I found it duller than ditchwater, less sexy than a wet sock with googly eyes and troubling in its controlling, abusive portrayal of a relationship between two non-equals. This couldn't be representative of the entire romance canon or the world might as well turn off the lights now. So I started looking at the big guns.

No name echoes more in the production, distribution and consumption of romance fiction than Mills and Boon. The image that most of us have of that is a short, flimsy paperback, most probably from a library or a grandmother's bookshelf featuring a long haired, busty heroine, about to have a wardrobe malfunction that will see her unceremoniously blocked by Instagram, staring into the wild eyes of a bare-chested Adonis, possibly on a shipwreck/beach/castle or other glamorous location. Formulaic, dated, predictable. Yet is that truly fair to say these are a product of the past?

Mills and Boon produce over 100 titles a month in a variety of ranges which range from the hospital romance to traditional historical romance to their Blaze series which is decidedly more sexually risqué. As of 2008, over 200million Mills and Boon books were sold per annum which still understates the number of regular consumers because it does not take into account library users or readers who lend their titles to friends.

What is interesting, beyond that of the content, is how Mills and Boon have embraced new technologies and trends to diversify their output and engage with their readers. They were an early adopter of Kindle and have performed spectacularly well on e-readers. Romance is the fourth most downloaded genre of book on Amazon, most likely because the Kindle affords a certain degree of camouflage for the consumer and a knockdown price. Long before Netflix and other subscription-for-content sites were popularised, Mills and Boon encouraged readers to subscribe to get the newest content in their preferred genre series, of which a minimum 6-8 books are published per month.

In 2014, Mills and Boon embraced an entirely revolutionary digital format for their genre based storytelling. They launched the Chatsfield Hotel website, a digitised fake hotel where several concurrent romance stories played out in real time, utilising video blog footage by actors and social media updates broadcast across a plethora of platforms from Facebook to Twitter. Users were able to get email updates when there was a new development in the story, watch interviews with the cast, check the Facebook/Twitter accounts of the characters as well as read their personal emails as the characters received them. This utilisation of a multi-channel immersive experience is groundbreaking as a storytelling device and as customer experience.

But does this matter if they're still putting out the same out pap? A closer look at the available story arcs would challenge that. Whilst there are still strict guidelines for authors on the website - there must be a love story, there may not be too many characters which detracts the audience attention from the central conflict, of which there must be a source - one can explore a great deal of taboos and issues whilst still remaining firmly within that remit.

What I was surprised to find from their website is the sheer variety. For instance, they carry paranormal ranges where the heroine and not the hero is the supernatural force within the book, turning the Twilight trope squarely on its head, a theme which echoes throughout the subset. The hunter becomes the hunted, so to speak. Their more erotically charged output features pre-marital sex, BDSM and even the search for a teenage girl to lose her 'V-plates', not to a pre-decided perfect man but just anyone who can rid her of her virginity. They carry crime and thriller novels, which intrigues me because of the existent connection between crime and romance fiction - famous novelist Nora Roberts being one of many writers who have straddled the two genres. A possible explanation for this is the expectation in horror/crime/romance for the depiction of extreme emotions.

Other readers describe how Mills and Boon novels have explored themes of eating disorders, of LGBT issues, of mental illness, infertility, severe disability, terminal illness and body image issues. Not all Mills and Boon characters are neatly white, thin and English - there is an Indian fiction subset and in 2007 Harlequin purchased "BET" BOOKS which was the largest producer of African American women's fiction, now subsequently released by Mills and Boon under their Kimani range. Authors/characters of a variety of ethnicities are represented both as heroes and heroines. Their physicalities range to represent every weight on the body spectrum. Their output defies age expectations also, with titles aimed at everyone from the traditional grandmother down to their Young Adult series which defies tradition by asserting every woman at every age's right to love, affection and sex, of which Germaine Greer would certainly be proud.

In creating a supposedly "women only" space - and it's worth remembering that according to the Romance Writers of America Association, 16% of Mills and Boon consumers are male - what Mills and Boon have done in the twenty first century is create a safe space where women can explore women's issues. In writing fiction for women, the authors have created women they recognise. In the narrow remit of the restriction of extraneous characters, it is easy to create a dynamic between people that is more egalitarian so many of the newer books feature sexually assertive women in a variety of job roles from menial workers to social media queens (how modern!) seeking to satisfy the gamut of needs we experience as women and to which society hasn't quite caught up, all whilst promoting safe sex. Not all the female characters end up with their man and many find an inner feminism which is the resolution of their conflict. Women have taken that narrowly defined space and used it to celebrate what it means to be a woman at any age and in their cultural zeitgeist.

That is not to say there isn't a darker history behind the more traditional Mills and Boon - one famous quote from Violet Dearheart who wrote for the publisher in the 1980s stated that she wrote her male characters "as if they were capable of rape". There are more than a few housewives being seduced, perhaps a few swept off their feet from temporary jobs. However, more than any other medium, romance appears to have evolved into a newer age, accepted the growth of position of women and feminism and created characters that are resistant to the expectations of the patriarchy. Perhaps then, to consume output with a daring and modern view of women and their needs, we are directly challenging that patriarchy.

We are not bad feminists for reading Mills and Boon in the same way we are not bad feminists if we watch the gratuitous depictions within Game of Thrones. It is the manner of depiction, the intention behind the character's conflict and our own responses as to whether we assimilate the dogma behind the cultural product that dictate whether one woman takes a piece to be feminist or otherwise. In exploring what Mills and Boon means to its readers, I find myself shedding some of my preconceptions and acquiring the willingness to explore a bit of harmless escapism and less likely to categorise the worth of literature to such a narrow standard.

This does come with a caveat however for the Fifty Shades of the world, you can be released into a genre that is moving and challenging the times, however, there is still no polishing a turd.