This weekend I had one of the most exciting and thought-provoking experiences of my academic life to date. I got to speak about my research in the presence of intelligent and enthusiastic academics, industry experts and the engaged public during the University of Sheffield’s Festival of the Mind. I enjoyed the event so much that I wanted to do a little write up, which I hope you’ll enjoy!
During the symposium I held at Sheffield Hallam University with the PG CWWN* back in June, entitled ‘Representations of Romantic Relationships and the Romance Genre in Contemporary Women’s Writing’, I met a great number of smart and inspiring academics whose work focused on romance and romantic relationships. One of these academics, Val Derbyshire, had an infectious passion for the romance genre. It was no doubt this passion that led her to host an exciting panel about the romance genre which asked the question: Why Read Harlequin Mills and Boon Romances? I was delighted to be asked to join the panel for this event. Also contributing to a sort of symposium reunion were scholars Dr Laura Vivanco, author of For Love and Money (2011)**, and Dr Amy Burge; the keynote speaker at our romance symposium. Alongside the academic attendees there were three Mills and Boon industry experts: Senior Editor Flo Nicoll and authors Heidi Rice and Susan Stephens.
This crossover, between the editors and writers of the romance genre and the academics who study it, led to a great deal of challenging questions and an impassioned debate. Early on the audience questioned diversity in the romance genre, and as Senior Editor Nicoll highlighted her disappointment that more diverse characters do not always sell as well as Mills & Boon would hope, Dr Burge acknowledged the lack of a diversity as a real concern of romance scholars. I raised the names of prominent romance authors Beverly Jenkins and Radclyffe as acknowledging this absence, and endeavouring to address it.
One audience participant asked about the progress of Mills & Boon since its inception, and queried whether improvements had been made in terms of diversity and equality between male and female characters. Here, Dr Vivanco was able to give a detailed background on the history of the publisher and the ways in which the organisation had developed. Author Rice emphasised that as a 21st century author, she is writing about 21st century romantic relationships for a 21st century audience. It was wonderful to hear from both Rice and Stephens on their intention as authors.
Of course, as is the case whenever the romance genre is discussed the subject of feminism was a key part of the conversation. One audience member asked “Do women ever save themselves in these novels, or do they always need a man?” Rice responded with an expansion on the depth of romantic relationships in many Mills & Boon novels, and emphasised the ways in which romantic relationships change both the female and male characters in many romantic novels.
The most pertinent question which rang in my ears, long after the event was over, was “Will there ever be a time when women can admit openly that they buy these books, without feeling judged or ashamed?” Reasons behind the snobbery all too often associated with the genre were touched on throughout the event. The presence of sexism, where by some people suggested that as these are books written mostly by women, for women they are considered by some as texts not to be taken seriously, was widely agreed to be existent. Other possible explanations for this criticism, such as the influence of the genre’s popularity and a belief that the popular cannot also be skilful, and the fact that the majority of snobbery and judgement appears to come from those who have never actually read a romance novel, were also considered. Whatever the reason, be it one of these factors or a combination of them all, the panel were unanimous in their hope that there would indeed be a time when buying, reading and even writing a romance novel would not be considered a reason for embarrassment or shame.
In terms of my research, prize-winning, critically acclaimed authors such as Jeanette Winterson and Ali Smith often have the romance elements of their novels overlooked and altogether ignored. Personally, I hope that through work like my own we will one day be able to see romance and skilled literature not as entirely separate, but instead acknowledge them as often inextricably linked. A romantic novel is not contained to Mills & Boon, and Mills & Boon should not be contained to ‘low-brow’ literature.
**Dr Vivanco wrote her own account of the event, which you can read here.