2nd March 2004
Imagine you are playing one of those word association games and someone says "romantic novelist". What image is most likely to pop up? Middle-aged, middle class, pink hat, string of pearls?
Romantic fiction, more than any other genre, has suffered from stereotyping of the most unflattering kind. It is all too often seen as vulgar and second rate - at its best, escapist and opiate; at its worst, downright risible.
Yet it is a far wider, richer and more honourable literary tradition than it is ever given credit for. It includes some of the greatest novels ever written - Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice, and Wuthering Heights. Yet when people think of romantic fiction do they think of the Brontës, Austen or Tolstoy? No. They think of Barbara Cartland and Mills and Boon.
Romantic fiction is uniquely unfortunate in that no other literary genre is judged by the worst examples, rather than the best. No one feels the need to sniff at historical fiction or science fiction, however dubious the quality - those genres are accepted for what they are. But it's hard to get romantic fiction reviewed or discussed in a way that isn't patronising, which is a problem that, say, crime writers don't have.
"People are incredibly insulting about romantic fiction," says Penny Vincenzi. "I'm often told by complete strangers at dinner parties, 'Oh, I'd never ever read any of your books.' If I was a fashion designer, I don't think they'd say, 'I'd never wear any of your clothes.'"
I recognize Vincenzi's frustration all too well. My own novels are romantic comedies. They're about women who are in the throes of relationship problems, or facing huge moral dilemmas. Comic on the surface, they are, at heart, love stories - and that's precisely what I want to write. I am proud to be writing romantic fiction.
I write about the tangled affairs of the human heart. After all, the search for someone to love, and who will love us in return, is the most important - and difficult - adventure of our adult lives. Yet I cannot keep count of the number of times people have said to me, "Of course, I don't normally read that sort of book," and then add with an air of impertinent surprise, "But I really enjoyed it."
I often wonder at this dismissive attitude. Part of the problem, undoubtedly, is the simple fact that the genre is so huge. Romantic fiction accounts for 70% of all paperbacks sold in the UK; thus, there are bound to be a proportionally larger number of books that are simply no good.
I suspect the chick-lit boom has not helped either. Chick-lit, with its emphasis on thirty-something, urban romance, could have been a shot in the arm for romantic fiction. But the variable quality of many of the books, and the concomitantly bad press, has had precisely the opposite effect.
The problem is also one of perception, says Nicholas Clee, editor of the Bookseller. "If you say you write crime or thriller novels everyone knows what you mean. But if you say you write romantic fiction, then people have a mental image that is more limited than the genre actually is. They won't necessarily think immediately of Philippa Gregory, Jilly Cooper or Anita Shreve, although those are all romance authors in one way or another. They'll probably think of Mills and Boon."
Nor, sadly, will they think of Brideshead Revisited, an intensely romantic book, or the brilliant Music and Silence by Rose Tremain. They won't think of Far from the Madding Crowd, or of Georgette Heyer, or Rebecca; they won't think of the marvellous Gone With the Wind.
I suspect, too, that the problem is one of gender. Perhaps the reason that romantic fiction is given insufficient respect is that it's almost exclusively written by, and read by, women. More importantly, its storylines offer women emotional fulfilment (that is the premise of romance), as if to say that that is what women deserve.
However, if a man writes a romantic novel then a very different attitude prevails. Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong, to my mind, is no more than a piece of excellent romantic fiction. So is Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernières. Had they been written by women I suspect they would not have been heaped with the literary praise that they were.
I remember writing about the negative stereotyping of romantic fiction as a journalist in 1996. Now, eight years on, and on the other side of the industry, I can see that nothing has changed. Romantic fiction will carry on being dismissed in literary and academic circles, and its detractors will still characterise it as fluff.
But, on the flip side, it will also continue to be the biggest selling genre both in the UK and around the world, and I am delighted to be part of that.