So in love with love stories
A hundred years ago, Mills & Boon set the trend. A century on, the romance genre is the biggest in fiction and perhaps the entire book industry, a trend that’s reflected in Malaysia as well. SHANNON TEOH writes in the New Sunday Times
IT WAS NOT until the 1930s that British publisher Mills & Boon began to become synonymous with romance, but prophetically, its first book after being founded in 1908 was of that genre.
As it celebrates its centenary year—now under the ownership of Harlequin, formerly its Canadian distributor—it boasts of selling a book every two seconds, and has 1,300 authors producing 70 titles a month.
But its success, like any product in a capitalistic market, is due to an engorged demand for romance fiction. Half of all paperbacks in the United States are romance titles.
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 best-seller.
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.
While there may be a variety of reasons for the genre being so popular, the escapist nature of romance fiction seems to be the hook that keeps readers, nearly all female, coming back for more.
Back in the 1930s and 1940s, amidst the Great Depression and World War II, Mills & Boon continued to set sales records.
One of its authors, the late Ida Cook, recalled: “Of course, we all like make-believe, particularly when things aren’t going particularly well.”
But it is this element of escapism, so cherished by its proponents, that has drawn the most flak from the literary camp.
“It builds false expectations. Those who read it from a young age expect the world to work that way, but they’ll end up disappointed with life because of the illusions they’ve built,” claims Eric Forbes, editor of Malaysian literary magazine Quill.
“If say, it perpetuates gender stereotypes for women, then it’s not right. I don’t even quite agree with escapism itself. Yes, life is hard but one should find the solution to life’s problems,” advises Janet Tay, a book editor with MPH Group Publishing.
In the other corner, author Dina Zaman believes that readers are smart enough to know the difference between fantasy and real life.
“What’s wrong with fantasising? Even sci-fi, adventure or detective stories are forms of escapism. I’ll never say that books are harmful, there’s nothing more harmful in it than watching TV.”
The British Council came up with a philosophical defence: “Is it the job of a novel to prepare a reader for real life?” asks Mina Patel, its English language services projects manager.
“There’s nothing that a book should or shouldn’t do. People have their own lives to teach them.”
She concedes, however, that books are powerful and can be used to send messages.
Not surprisingly, Professor Lim Chee Seng, head of the English Department at Universiti Malaya, agrees with Patel and insists that books should have instructional value.
“Of course, life is so miserable that we all need forms of escape. I don’t take issue with that. But there are some forms which are more helpful in life, and I don’t see this as particularly helpful.”
Most observers would agree it is better to read than not to read at all, but Lim insists that one should graduate to “red meat” instead of sticking to “soupy, porridge stuff.”
“Some escape literature helps you think, like the late sci-fi great, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, who gave us wonderful concepts like the geosynchronous satellite. It has helped us develop frontiers of knowledge.”
But the lumping of all romance fiction into a convenient box would be disingenuous.
This is not lost on certain fans of the genre, who while avoiding the formulaic Mills & Boon variety, enjoy classics from Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen and even Georgette Heyer.
Etta, a Heyer fan in her 40s, points to an intricacy of wit and authenticity in Heyer’s portrayal of the early 19th century Regency period.
“In fact, Charlotte Brontë’s books, especially Jane Eyre, was controversial and caused a furore because the heroine would not submit to social and religious norms, reflecting the frustration of women at the time,” she adds.
This, however, is a case of stretching the definition of romance fiction, in the opinion of Lim.
“In that case, then you can say William Shakespeare and Leo Tolstoy wrote romance. Even with Austen, there’s so much going on in the use of strategies of language, irony and currents of social interaction which are not to be found in formulaic romance fiction.”
Raman Krishnan, proprietor of independent bookstore and publisher Silverfish Books, believes that if a romance reader progresses to other love stories, say, My Name is Red by Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, then it would be “fantastic.”
“When you’re 16 and reading Mills & Boon, okay. When you’re 60 and still reading it, it’s a bit sad, isn’t it? There’s no progress, so to speak.”
Which brings us to the question of whether there should be a prescriptive approach when it comes to choosing books which might seem counter to ideas of free will and civil liberty.
Patel notes that while the British Council promotes contemporary British literature, it tries not to undermine the classics, hence, its recent backing for Manga Shakespeare, the graphic novelisation of the Bard’s classics.
But in the face of immense marketing savvy, governments like our own have launched anti-smoking or anti-drugs campaigns or even programmes to encourage reading.
So the case for guidance has some precedent.
“It’s like selling cocaine,” is Forbes’s frank assessment.
“You start them young, capture the market, and if you can get them hooked until 60, you’re basically selling the same product for decades.”
One newsstand, which claims to sell about 300 copies a year, says the same middle-aged single women are the ones who come back every month.
Norden has a less acidic description of romance’s addictive nature: “It’s everyone’s experience. It’s the rollercoaster of life and the world around you starts to spin.
“You cry when you throw up. But the next instant you want to ride again!”
Raman believes this works simply because it’s “easier to read something that’s written in the lowest common denominator,” adding that Silverfish customers don’t come to get “rice and sugar,” as the store leaves that to the “supermarkets.”
He admits it’s terribly snobbish but Lim would probably find nothing wrong with this.
“Snobbery can save you from a lot of nonsense,” he says bluntly although he tempers this by adding that as a teacher, by default, he believes that there is a place for intervention and advocacy.
“If it makes you feel that instead of Mills & Boon, you must display the complete works of Shakespeare or the novels of Austen on your shelves to avoid negative stigma, that’s fine. Life is too short for rubbish.”
Article first published in the New Sunday Times, April 13, 2008