ClitLit – Women, Romance Fiction and Patriarchal Discourse

September 25, 2010

New Voices, Fresh Beginnings?

Mills and Boon is currently running a web competition called New Voices, searching for – surprise, surprise – new voices, new romance writers. Entries have closed and they received a huge amount – I’m not sure of the exact number, but it was over 800. When one considers the very small percentage of readers that actually write (I have absolutely no stats to back this up, only the evidence of my own experiences, but there it is) this is a huge amount of entries.

Category romance gets a bad name for being formulaic, and I have to say that it’s justified a lot of the time – there’s only so many Greek shipping magnates and Mediterranean billionaires and sheikhs you can read about before they all blur into one – and so I was really very pleasantly surprised to see this coming from M&B blogger Flo Nicoll:

“Don’t be afraid to give us a story we’ve never seen before. E.g. bosses and secretaries are an old favourite for a reason, but what else can you think of to get readers hooked?”

I’ve been putting together the proposal for my doctorate during the six weeks I haven’t been writing here, and the idea of the future of the genre is one I’m currently quite intrigued with. My proposed doctorate is on the dynamics between virgin heroines and playboy heroes – the eternal sexual (in)experience interaction. In the early days of romance fiction, this dynamic was pretty much an essential requirement of the genre. Now, although the virgin/playboy thing remains popular, there are many more diverse experiences out there.

However, if the virgin/playboy thing wasn’t so overwhelmingly out there, I would have no PhD proposal. And this whole New Voices thing made me think – is this constant flood of billionaires and CEOs and their timid little secretaries making the category genre stagnant? Genres evolve by nature – they grow and change. But with category, we essentially get the same thing, over and over – rich alpha male meets socially inferior young woman. Usually, she’s ‘feisty’ (oh! how I hate that word!) but he steamrolls her into sex/marriage/a relationship/some romantic outcome. And then they declare their love and live happily ever after.

It’s more complicated than that – I could go into Pamela Regis’s eight essential elements, I suppose, but I don’t know how much merit there would be in doing that – but I think that’s the bones of it. And it is, I think, the steamrolling thing that bothers me most. Cristina Nehring had a chapter in her recent book A Vindication of Love on the romance of inequality (particularly, as I read it, teacher/student relationships, which I found interesting in the context of the sexual dynamics of the playboy and virgin, which I have discussed many a time before), but I just don’t buy it.

There’s a whole other issue at play here which I need to write about in more depth – the idea that ‘alpha’ does not mean the same thing as ‘arsehole’. ‘Alpha’ is so often used as a catchall term to excuse any terrible (sometimes basically emotionally abusive) actions of the hero – ‘oh, he’s just being alpha’. Tied into this alphaness seems to be the need to dominate everyone, including (and sometimes especially) the heroine. And this gets played out with those Mediterranean CEOs and whatnot again and again and again and again. And even more agains.

Which is why I think this New Voices thing is such a good idea. In one sense, I think it’s pushing the genre forward. I’ve scanned through a lot of the entries, and while there are a whole lot of the steamroller heroes, there are some that more mellow. More chilled. More… you know, not arseholes. Throwing the genre open to change and evolution can only be a good thing, I think. I mean, people obviously love the steamroller stuff, because they buy it and buy it again and again… but why should it be the only thing available to buy?

So what I mean to say is, in a very long winded way, I think the rationale behind this competition is great. If it can breathe fresh air into the genre and push it forward… I think it can be nothing but great.

(And yes, I did enter. I’m willing to try my hand at writing anything – and it’s only fair that I walk my own talk. You can read my entry here, if you are at all interested.)



  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jodi, Jodi. Jodi said: New on ClitLit: New Voices, Fresh Beginnings? #newvoices […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention New Voices, Fresh Beginnings? « ClitLit – Women, Romance Fiction and Patriarchal Discourse -- — September 25, 2010 @ 7:13 am | Reply

  2. Re changes in the genre, I’m not sure that the New Voices competition will push the genre forward. I have the impression that something which doesn’t fit into one of M&B’s lines isn’t going to win, regardless of how good it is: in the Top Tips section one article advises that

    It really is important to understand the differences between our series, and to know what readers are looking for: each series, although they are all united by romance, have different promises to the reader. For more information check out our category guidelines and most importantly get reading!

    So I think the M&B editors are going to pick out the submissions which they think are both (a) the best written and (b) a good fit for one of the M&Bs lines.That said, M&B is itself going through a period of change at the moment. In February Mandy Ferguson, Managing Director of Harlequin Mills and Boon in the UK revealed that HM&Bs UK readers

    tend to be sort of 40, 50. I mean, they’re all women, clearly, and they tend to be sort of middle aged upwards. I mean one of the challenges for the brand is to attract in readers in their thirties and forties. […] we’re actually working on a major sort of relaunch for the autumn and the brand will get a really fresh modern look.

    Having read your entry, I think that even if it doesn’t get through to the next round you should consider targeting the new Riva line. This comment at AAR sums up the hints I’ve read in a variety of places about Riva:

    From what I can gather, the Cherish line in the UK will incorporate Silhouette Special Edition as well as those writers who tend to write more traditional Harlequin Romances (Rebecca Winters, Margaret Way, Jessica Steele etc). The Riva line will publish writers who write younger, more feel-good stories (Liz Fielding, Fiona Harper, Jessica Hart, Nina Harrington) and the usual Modern Heat writers. The Modern Heat writers will continue to be published as Presents Extra in the States and all the old Romance writers will continue to be published in Romance.

    Or, depending on the length, and whether your writing is more chick lit in tone, Headline‘s Little Black Dress imprint might be a possibility.

    Comment by Laura Vivanco — September 25, 2010 @ 11:13 am | Reply

    • I don’t necessarily think that the New Voices competition is practically going to move the genre forward that much either – but I like that it doesn’t (outwardly, at least) seem to be wedded to the status quo. Even the moniker seems like a step in the right direction – ‘new voices’ seems to imply a fresh perspective, something different, something… well, new. Though I suppose it could just as easily be read as being ‘new voices, old stories’.

      And thanks for reading my entry! It’s certainly not something I’m serious about – I wrote it in a couple of hours – but I like the idea of doing something practical to move the genre forward, as well as approaching it from a critical perspective.

      Comment by Jodi — September 25, 2010 @ 1:32 pm | Reply

  3. That’s pretty impressive for a couple of hours’ work! You have had quite a bit of experience writing fiction, haven’t you? It certainly gives the impression that you have, because the writing felt quite polished. I did wonder, though, why the heroine was so convinced her career was over if she couldn’t display her art in the one gallery in the town: couldn’t she have moved to another town, or to a city with more than one gallery?

    Comment by Laura Vivanco — September 25, 2010 @ 2:14 pm | Reply

    • Thank you! I am a playwright by trade, so I’ve had a lot of experience writing dialogue in particular.

      In regards to her career being over: I was going for a sort of melodramatic reaction to something that in the end wasn’t so bad – a sort of hyper-emotional response because of stress – but I don’t know if it worked out too well.

      Comment by Jodi — September 25, 2010 @ 9:37 pm | Reply

  4. “However, if the virgin/playboy thing wasn’t so overwhelmingly out there, I would have no PhD proposal. And this whole New Voices thing made me think – is this constant flood of billionaires and CEOs and their timid little secretaries making the category genre stagnant?”

    Is the “virgin/playboy thing” so overwhelmingly out there?

    I’m only an author and reader mind, but I don’t know that it is. Harlequin publish more than 100 titles per month, more than 80 of them category titles that fall across several different lines or series.

    Don’t forget, when you’re talking about category, you’re talking about all of those lines, not just one or two of them. Here’s the blurb from a few to get an idea of the style of the books they represent – all different flavours of romance if you like, all with different tone and levels of sensuality, all with different types of hero, from type A alpha heroes to boy next door beta heroes to everything in between. (And I’ve chosen the first book listed under each line in October releases on – I haven’t cherry picked to avoid mention of playboys or virgins).

    If the “virgin/playboy thing” as you call it, was so overwhelming, it should be pretty clear, if not from the titles, then from the blurbs you’d think.

    Harlequin American Romance – styled as “Romance the all-American way” under the Heart and Home tagline, 4 titles per month including such titles as “The Triplets’ First Thanksgiving” by Cathy Gillen Thacker. Here’s the blurb…

    The baby buggy containing the pink-clad triplets arrives at the ranch with a note… asking Kurt McCabe to step up to the plate. Being a son of that honorable, family-first clan, he’d never turn his back on a person—three miniature persons—in need. But he can’t do it alone. That’s where Paige Chamberlain comes in.

The pediatric surgeon is ready to start her own family, with or without a husband. But foster parenting the adorable infant girls, even temporarily, is an offer no woman who longs for a child can resist. Even if it means sharing baby detail with the devilishly handsome vet…Paige’s old childhood rival. 

They may or may not be his, but Kurt’s getting used to having the tiny tykes—and Paige—around the ranch. And he just thought of the perfect solution!
    Harlequin Blaze – Red-hot reads – 6 per month including such titles as “Another Wild Wedding Night” by Leslie Kelly

    Sister-of-the-groom Bonnie Campbell is certainly no groupie. But when famous, drop-dead-hottie action star Drew Ericson films his latest flick at the wedding inn, she turns into his naughtiest fan….

Jazz Wilkes is rough, tough and totally in touch with her sexual appetite. No man can withstand her desires…except proper yet wildly sexy Blake Marshall! He’ll give her a night to remember… but only if she’ll give him the rest of her life!

Passion? Abby Bauer wants some! Her fiancé, Keith, just doesn’t make her toes tingle. But the dashing masked man at the reception sure does….

    Harlequin Historical – Historical romantic adventure! – 6 per month including Western Winter Wedding Bells

    Small town Christmas—Three big proposals!

Christmas in Red Willow by Cheryl St. John
Chloe Hanley must save the town church. But only if she can convince reclusive carpenter Owen Reardon to help repair the broken heart of the community and open his own up again— in time for Christmas!

The Sheriff’s Housekeeper Bride by Jenna Kernan
Running from her past and a crime she didn’t commit, Eliza Flannery bumps into her future—all rugged six-foot sheriff of him! Single father Trent Foerster mistakes her for his housekeeper, but there’s no mistaking his desire for a mistletoe kiss from this mysterious miss….

Wearing the Rancher’s Ring by Charlene Sands
Cooper Garnett is shot and left for dead near Double J Ranch when widow Rachel Bodine comes to his aid. Could his unexpected arrival be the best Christmas gift ever— a second-chance family for Rachel and her little son?

    Harlequin Medical Romance – Trauma, triumph and love!
    6 per month in the US. Here’s the blurb from “Valentino’s Pregnancy Bombshell” by Amy Andrews
    When Paige buttons up her silk bridesmaid dress she feels beautiful for the first time in years—giving her the courage to take deliciously dangerous Valentino Lombardi’s hand on the dance floor.

Paige spends one incredible night with Valentino. Until the cold light of dawn reminds her she’s a single mom with a daughter who really needs her care. As the sun rises she creeps away.

Then Valentino arrives as the new surgeon at her hospital, with his playboy reputation in tow! But the bombshells don’t stop here—now Paige must tell Valentino she’s expecting his baby….

    Steeple Hill Love Inspired – Romance that inspires
    6 titles per month. Here’s the blurb from Jillian Hart’s “His Holiday Bride”
    Big-city sheriffs don’t belong in tiny Wild Horse, Wyoming. At least that’s what rancher Autumn Granger thinks when handsome Ford Sherman sweeps into town and sets his sights on her. A country cowgirl, she can’t possibly be his match. Like most newcomers, he’ll eventually get restless with small-town life and leave it—and her—behind. But when rustlers attack her family’s ranch, Ford helps her protect Granger territory. She finds herself hoping that he really is in Wild Horse to stay. Could her holiday wish of a happily ever after with this handsome lawman come true?
    Silhouette Desire – Always powerful, passionate and provocative

    6 titles per month. Here we have the blurb from “Ultimatum: Marriage”, by Ann Major

    Mr. October: Billionaire business man Jake Claiborne
His Quest: Steer clear of scandal
His Quandry: He’d gotten the enemy’s daughter pregnant!

It had been sheer madness to bed Alicia Butler. The beauty’s father had cost Jake’s company millions and any association with her would surely create troubling tabloid fodder. But Alicia was pregnant with his baby and he would not walk away from this responsibility. Their only option was marriage and the hope that the gossip would dwindle…even as their passion reignited.
    Harlequin Romance – Warm your heart with the ultimate in feel-good romances. 6 (or 7 in October) releases per month, including such titles as Margaret Way’s “Cattle Baron Needs a Bride”.

    If only the society beauties jostling for the bouquet, hoping to become Mrs. Garrick Rylance, knew that the dashing best man in question has eyes for only one woman…. 
Bridesmaid Zara was his friend, his lover—but that was five years ago, before she flew to the city and out of his life, and Garrick cordoned off his heart.
So now, seeing Zara again, Garrick is wary. But there’s one thing he’s certain of—he won’t let her run this time!
    Harlequin Presents – Seduction and passion guaranteed! – 6 releases per month with 4 Presents Extra mid month including 2 titles from Modern Heat editorial, and featuring such titles as Helen Bianchin’s “Public Marriage, Private Secrets”
    Four years ago Gianna made a whirlwind marriage to the man she loved—Raúl Velez-Saldaña was the father of her baby. But, tragically, her pregnancy didn’t last and neither did their marriage. Discovering Raúl’s infidelity, Gianna left. 
But the Spaniard who stole her heart has returned!
As far as Raúl is concerned, his marriage to Gianna was simply postponed—now he wants his wife back! In public they are the perfect society couple; in private the secrets of their past still haunt them both and their desire is just as strong as ever….

    Of course, there’s 11 lines I haven’t even touched on, but it’s certainly worth doing the exercise to see that even from the 8 listed above, we have what, a count of one playboy and he could only manage a single mum. Overwhelming? Really?

    “Throwing the genre open to change and evolution can only be a good thing, I think. I mean, people obviously love the steamroller stuff, because they buy it and buy it again and again… but why should it be the only thing available to buy?”

    Well, I think the examples I’ve given from the various lines above shows that last line not to be true. There are many different kinds of stories within category romance to buy, so many in fact, that I really don’t understand why someone would keep on buying books they don’t like. It’s beyond me. Life’s too short.

    “Genres evolve by nature – they grow and change. But with category, we essentially get the same thing, over and over – rich alpha male meets socially inferior young woman.”

    Do we? Again, that wasn’t obvious from the blurbs I read. But I do agree that genres evolve by nature. Just as the romance genre and Harlequin Mills & Boon books have evolved. Mills & Boon have been around (and excelling) for longer than 100 years. Harlequin doing likewise in excess of 60. Does it make any kind of sense at all that they have done so without change? No. Harlequin Mills & Boon books have changed with their readership and with the times.

    There’s more I could address in your blog, but I have a book to write. All the best with your doctorate. It should make for interesting reading.

    Comment by Trish Morey — October 18, 2010 @ 5:54 am | Reply

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