Sunday, April 13, 2008

Romance Deromanticized

There's discussion of the romance novel - of both the Mills & Boon and the local variety in the New Straits Times today. Here are the local stats :
In Malaysia alone, distributor Pansing brings in 72,000 copies of Mills &Boon annually. To get a context of how significant this is, rival distributor Penguin Books says that any title that breaches 1,000 copies in Malaysia is considered a bestseller.

But even this giant is trumped by Malay romance novels, where individual titles can breach 150,000 copies. Local publishing giant Alaf 21, part of the Karangkraf group, sells 600,000 of these books a year, which general manager Norden Mohamed states makes up 60 per cent of its total turnover.
Some of our local literary luminaries toss in their opinions ... mostly disapproving. They might like to glance at the comments to my previous post on Mills & Boon and take note of the great affection many of my blog readers (book-lovers all!) feel towards these romances.

The worry though is that there must be a very large number of readers who don't move far beyond these books to discover what else fiction can do for them.

More about local romance novels here.


Anonymous said...

The romance genre is so popular because it panders to women’s need for escapism — and escape from the drudgery of an imperfect world - and to fill some kind of void or lack in the lives of women. It is vital that we do not confuse the romance genre (or chick lit as it is called these days) with romantic literature. The reader-friendly novels of Sophie Kinsella, Marian Keyes and Cecilia Ahern are considered chick lit while Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary are romantic literature. When we talk about the romance genre we are obviously referring to Mills & Boon, Harlequin, etc.

I agree that the romance genre builds a fantasy world for women and is misogynistic and disempowering by playing to gender stereotypes. However, not all romance novels are badly written. The novels of Georgette Heyer, Daphne du Maurier, Catherine Cookson and E.V. Thompson are quite well written and have much literary value. These romantic sagas delight a large and loyal band of women readers. If you are not familiar with E.V. Thompson, Thompson is the pseudonym of James Munro, yes James Munro, a former Royal Navy seaman who later served for many years in the Bristol police force, who writes under that pen name. Some are literary fiction packaged and sold as romance novels. Since they are quite profitable, most publishers have jumped on the bandwagon to churn out as many titles as possible to pander to this enormous demand. The bottom line reigns supreme. Quality thus suffers. Most of the titles published today are more weakly written than badly written. If women choose the better novels to read, I don’t think that’s unhealthy.

There are many subgenres of the romance genre today. The romance genre is a business and is managed like one. Breaking the romance genre into such subgenres as historical romance, contemporary romance, teen romance (Sweet Valley Twins, Sweet Valley High, etc.), Victorian romance, Gothic romance, Hospital romance, Regency romance, etc. is a perfect example of market segmentation in action. Very similar to what’s practised in the selling of pop music as well. Market segmentation is the breaking up of markets into distinct homogeneous segments that behave in similar ways or have similar needs and attitudes. Such segments are likely to respond similarly to a given marketing strategy. All these are meant to lead to the optimisation of profits. Marketing is about pandering to the lowest common denominator. Sadly, the world being what it is, if that’s what the market demands, I think it is only logical or viable for businesses to cater to the taste of the mass market. If they want trash, we’ll give them trash!

I believe reading to be an evolutionary experience. It is all right to read the romance genre when you are young, but one must graduate to novels that are more challenging as one grows older. I am thinking of literary fiction here. Books must both entertain and educate at the same time. Otherwise, what’s the point of reading?

bibliobibuli said...

thanks. very nicely said.

i believe (and i keep coming back to this) that there is a very large population of "marginal readers" (in malaysia as in britain ... as i suppose elsewhere). people who read what they can cope with in terms of language and will not reach the next level unless there is some intervention

Anonymous said...

Didn't the NST article have pretty much the same points ? :)

Anyway I'm all for trash as long as it's cheap and there's a lot of it :)

bibliobibuli said...

yeeees ... because that's what i linked to *duh*

Anonymous said...

Sometime ago, I had a "Duh" moment ... "Pride and Prejudice" is a romance/chick lit novel!

Not in a Mills and Boon way, of course, but it does serve the same purpose - escapism and fantasy. I mean, how many Mills and Boon's / chick lit heroes have since come out of the Mr. Darcy mold? :P


bibliobibuli said...

i'd agree! and doesn't "bridget jones diary" (film and novel) bring it up to date beautifully!