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.)

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