Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Hundred Years of Happy Endings

I've only ever read one Mills and Boon romance, and that was out of desperation.

I was on Pulau Tioman and about to face a long trip on an uncomfortable fishing boat back to Mersing. Damn it, I needed something, anything to distract me from the pain of my sunburned limbs and would have read a cornflake packet if I could have made it last the whole voyage. This was the only novel I could find, left behind no doubt by another traveller. I can't remember the story, but I do know that of course there was a tall dark handsome hero and a happy ever after ending of the kind that real life just doesn't do. (Tell me about it!)

It's the 100th anniversary of Mill & Boon which, according to Karen Robinson in the Sunday Times, publishes 50 new titles a month and is selling a book every five seconds in the UK alone.

The stories are translated into 26 languages and sold in about 100 international markets, with at least 1,300 writers pounding the word processor to keep up with demand.
There can't be that much to writing a formulaic romance novel, can there? Kathryn Hughes in the Guardian muses on her own rejection slip, and the way the novels have evolved in changing times. The formula has apparently changed a bit:
... there are now 12 distinct strands to Mills & Boon (in literary publishing, they'd be called "imprints"), ranging from the kind of classic romance I tried to write 20 years ago to ones set entirely in hospitals, or in crinolines. And then there is the Desire series. The Desire brand comes as the biggest shock to anyone who lazily thinks they already know what goes on in Mills & Boon land. In these books, the hero has an erection by chapter three and isn't afraid to use it. In fact, he "thrusts" and "explodes" so often in the course of exactly 55,000 words that it's amazing he finds time to run a finance company/a ranch/a whole desert kingdom.

The heroine in a Desire book, meanwhile, won't be a virgin because that would be weird (if no one else fancies her, then how can the thrusting, exploding hero?), but she will be a born-again celibate. Some trauma - the death of an earlier love, even a divorce - will have left her in sexual limbo for months, if not years. It's the hero's job to guide her back into a full erotic life, which ends, if not with marriage, at least with something that feels very like it. And if this still doesn't strike you as quite saucy enough, then you're probably a candidate for Mills & Boon's latest addition to the stable, the Blaze imprint, in which the hero and heroine barely have time to swap a bit of witty banter before getting down to business in a variety of locations culled from a reading of Hello! magazine.
Mills and Boon have plans for expansion the Indian market which they believe will be their biggest after north American. There is also a plan to create a new imprint with Indian characters in Indian settings and the first title The Virgin for the Billionaire's Taking featuring a billionaire property dealer hero who happens to be the brother of a Maharaja will be released later this year.

In Malaysia, Mills and Boon appears to be pretty popular judging by the racks of them in local bookshops. But we also have our own local romances, written in Malay and along similarly formulaic lines, although perhaps without the steamier versions. (Although, yes, I have seen some of those too! They did my command of the written language no end of good.)

As I once told readers on this blog before, we also do have a very successful Mills and Boon author living in KL, and I must try to persuade him (yes, him) to appear at Readings sometime.

Anyway, if this post has whetted your appetite for more, Mills and Boon have generously put some of their novels online for your reading pleasure. Enjoy!

And if you feel a rabid attack of book-snobbery coming on, you might like to read Amanda Craig's very interesting defence of it, published some time ago in the Telegraph.


Anonymous said...

There's very little love in them actually, they're all the same. Here's a mini guide :

1. Hero is called some exotic name (Damien ? Rance ?)

2. Throw them together via some silly plot device (hero knocks her down in car or better still dark stallion.)

3. They have copious amounts of sex.

That's basically the plot of pretty much every book.

Bib, how do I shed my integrity ? I want to be rich too.

lucid frog said...

I've never read Mills & Boons, but I do know someone who's aunt wrote for them. I am amazed at the number of books they put out, the market must be ginormous! A M&B author living in KL? I never knew!

bibliobibuli said...

a bloke and a cynical one at that writing as a woman!

anon - there was no sex at all in the traditional m&b's. the climax was the passionate kiss and the rest was in the reader's imagination. maybe we've lost something here?

Catalina said...

Oh you can't possibly talk about the romance genre without naming the annual vote for worst romance covers of the year!

It's now organized by The Cover Cafe, but was initially run by All About Romance:

And all right, they have a whole lot of categories for good covers -- but it's the worst that's the best ^^.

Anonymous said...


I'm sure I read some of them that them. Yahoo says there were :

"It was a time when mores were changing. Other shelves in the book shop first began groaning with newly published sex. Mills & Boon caught up, but slowly.

By the mid-1960s, its books had sex scenes between married couples, and by the 1970s unmarried couples got their chance too. But the scenes remained tame and couched in euphemism."

- From

I think we may be reading from different generations of M&B, maybe ? I don't know. I know they weren't in detail, but IIRC there seemed to be a lot of it. I mean how much detail do you need to go into ? :)

Anonymous said...

Okay, I confess I used to read these in the '80s at my piano teacher's house whenever my father was late to pick me up. Curi-curi, of course -- I would slip them under a scatter cushion whenever the piano teacher walked into the room, or she might have been horrified to be corrupting her little pupil.

But I don't remember any sex -- just kissing, as Sharon says. So, maybe, yes, the sex was a liberty the company began to take later?

I also used to read these far more racy books my brothers had -- by Eric van Lustbader? Does anyone remember him? I opened to the naughty sections so often that the books would just automatically fall open to those pages when you picked them up.

-- Preeta

Bonnie Jacobs said...

I've given you a little award, which you can pick up here:

savante said...

But that's so utterly cool! I mean they might be escapist fantasy but hey, we all need those once in a while. i can't have grim reality facing me all the time, even in my books after all.

But I am amazed that we actually have a male M&B writer! Malaysia's turning out to be quite happening. :O

saras said...

Sharon, I wrote a comment but somehow it got lost in cyberspace so this is another attempt to post it:
Hey, don't knock M&B! I have the fondest memories of reading the books in class, carefully camouflaged inside a school book; hiding them from snooping nuns with eagle eyes; swapping them with friends after school. M&B books were often our only connection to real-life romance, restricted as we were to shyly watching the boys from the all-boys school from across the road. Gosh, we led such restricted lives!
Almost every woman in town who could read English, read M&B those days: teens, working girls, housewives, even the dour-faced straight-laced girl from next door. In fact, when a book rental shop opened up in town, she was its single biggest customer - for its M&B collection!
I remember those books as sheer romance. They were very chaste too. I am sure they must have improved our language no end - though we definitely did not read them to improve our English! saras

KayKay said...

Preeta, Eric van Lustbader was my intro to the world of thrillers. Luuuurved his blend of exotic Asia spiced up by dollops of martial arts mayhem and copious amounts of graphic coupling.
I recall a sex scene in one of his books that went on for 4 pages!!

Yeah, scanned an M&B once, think it was my sister's. No hot,naked Jap/Chinese/American babe shagging mysterious half Western Half Asian Ninja Assassin found within its pages. Promptly discarded as it was taking precious time away from my LUST-BADERS:-)

bibliobibuli said...

wouldn't knock them, saras. anything that gives a reader pleasure and we all need to escape sometimes.

lil ms d said...

you forgot harold robbins!

Anonymous said...

in my scientific observation i notice that most M&B readers are generally beautiful but rather silly and empty headed girls (just the way i like them) and the ones who read literary fics(yawn) are often brilliant but sometimes not so hot.

and if there are men who read M&B they are a hundred precent pansies.

ah pong

animah said...

Ah Pong, I used to read M&B years ago, and at the same time read the literary fics. So how would you classify me?

animah said...

Just to add to my comment above. I read M&B mainly at university - they were in my room mate's pile, naturally. I generally read them in between cramming for my law papers, and always, always would finish an entire book in 2 hours the night before an exam.

Anonymous said...

Ms Animah, you're not very choosy are you? (at least during your university days.)

Women, i can never fanthom them.
they will read the best of writings and yet at the same time they can ENJOY rubbish.

I find that difficult to understand.

ah pong

Anonymous said...


I'm not female and I enjoy rubbish too. I'm also suprised that some people think it's not sex if it's not described in graphic detail. But then again I guess it all depends on what you classify as "rubbish". M&B was just something I read because it was lying around. But there's a lot of cheap fiction which I really do genuinely enjoy, mostly novelizations of movies and games.

Anonymous said...

Dear anon @11.40 pm.

If you're an aquarist you perhaps know a fish which most people here call 'ikan bandaran' or Ikan DBKL etc?

It's the one that looks like a stealth bomber and sits quietly at the bottom of the tank and pick up anything the the other fish drop. It's the best way to clean the tank as it eats everything left behind.

Well, you're somewhat like that. You enjoy everything and that's good for book publishers because they can produce any old crappy thing and they know there will always be demand even for these.

In my opinion, if you're still young, you'll grow out of it and become more discerning in your 'taste' as you grow a bit older and wiser.

And by the way, I don't understand how people read something just because 'it was lying around'.For me, I can find better ways to waste my time.

ah pong

Anonymous said...


Now you can. But if you're really young and stuck in an third-floor tenement with no TV set, what would you do ?

Well the "ikan bandaran" eats for free. What's so bad about free food ? that's a good thing right ? it means bad writers make money. And money as you know means recognition, which means more money. Ever heard of this director called Uwe Boll ? made a fortune from bad movies. Same thing could happen (and has happened) here. It's just a case of keeping them coming.

If said crappy writer had a clue, he'd follow it with other books. These are easy to write, just watch movies and write down the quotable stuff. Then read a lot of self-help books, stick that stuff in between and you've got a book. No respectable publisher would get near it, but you can self-publish. You can get publicity at readings and such places.

It can and has happened. If I was totally devoid of integrity I'd have done the same thing myself. Unfortunately, if it was me, and I turned out a first edition full of grammar and spelling mistakes, I'd have done a free replacement program. I'd have replaced every copy returned to me, and probably actually lost money writing the book.

It takes a great man to say "you should be glad to receive a badly edited copy because it will be worth a lot in future."

This is why I'm poor and he's going to be rich.

And so one day he's going to retire, and read some really good stuff because he can afford it, and that will be good for literature in the long run, because someone's got to buy those too.

If I grow out of it where will I get the money ? I would loved to read for instance the really cool stuff they have behind lock and key at Kino, that would just be an incredible experience, but hey beggars can't be choosers can they ?

Anonymous said...

My dear anon@4.45PM;

I'm not sure what you're grumbling about above. What's all this about ..." first edition full of grammar and spelling mistakes.." and all the rest?

You have some axe to grind with some local authors dishing out crappy books? By all means let it out, name names and let them shout and holler in defense! it'll be fun and a riot I'm sure!

And you know what? my theory is, the reason why we don't have a reading culture here in Malaysia and why we don't have too many good authors is because most of us are probably brought up by reading rubbish like all these Mill & Boons stuff.

Anybody that lives on a diet of these craps will soon get tired of reading and even if they go to bookshops they will probably just go on to buy those business books and do it yourself books , you know , seven habits or books for dummies etc.

No wonder Malaysians are pretty backward when it comes to reading culture.

But anyway, you sound like an interesting guy.

ah pong

Anonymous said...

Hah Pong,

Name names ? well if the shoe fits.. that way it's more general and you can maybe catch more fish with the same net :)

I suppose someone who's "brought up on a diet" (brought up on a diet ? surely M&B is something you feed yourself ? I can't imagine some mother saying to her seven-year old "Here dear, read some M&B, they're good") of "good quality" books will still end up saying "craps" (which, if I'm not mistaken, is a very nice game, but has nothing whatsoever to do with the subject at hand)

Another thing is that there are so very few good books.