In which I wonder whether romantic fiction can be feminist

The same question has come up recently in three different conversations – is romantic fiction feminist?

So I’ve been thinking about just that, and I’ve concluded Yes. At least it definitely can be.

So that was good. All cleared up. Unfortunately clearing up tricky questions speedily does not make for good blogging, so I shall muse a bit on the topic anyway.

I think the idea that romantic fiction is somehow anti-feminist comes from the idea that romance is about a woman being rescued by a man, or a woman needing a man and a relationship to, in some way, complete her and make her a proper member of society. Now, neither of those things are in any way necessary or desirable features of romantic fiction. You can just as easily write ‘Man who feels incomplete without woman’ (although that would probably be merely different rather than actually better). I try to write ‘man and woman who deal with their own issues and then decide to be together’, although I try to do that with jokes and ideally at least one comedy sword fight.

I actually have a heroine in one of my books who ends up deciding that maybe the available man isn’t going to be the right ending for her (and I’m not telling you which book – if you don’t know you’ll just have to read them all to find out).

Of course, that’s just the content of the books, and fiction is much more than that. Fiction is a whole industry, and actually, ‘is the romantic fiction industry feminist?’ is a more difficult question. In some ways very obviously yes – it’s massively dominated by female authors and editors. I’m proud to be part of the Romantic Novelists’ Association which is a UK professional association for writers of romantic fiction. It’s predominantly female and you’d have to go a long way to meet a more forthright, intelligent, capable group of women.

But.

We do still work in an industry where ‘women’s fiction’ is a thing, distinct from proper mainstream fiction, and where female authors write ‘chick lit’ and male authors just write comedy. We also have a publishing industry where certain sorts of women are far more likely to feature in the stories we see published – young(ish), white, straight women. There would certainly seem to be room on bookshelves for a bit more diversity.

And in terms of content of books, can erotic romances centring around domination of a female partner be seen as feminist? Projecting the idea that physical or psychological domination of women is normal, or even an ideal, seems really worrying, but if you’re writing for predominantly female readers who enjoy reading a fantasy of giving up control, then surely those women have the right to their fantasy, and telling them that they’re not fantasising right is also worrying territory.

So, can romantic fiction be feminist? Yes. Definitely.

Is romantic fiction feminist? Well, yes, sometimes. It’s complicated.

I’m genuinely just thinking aloud (or at least on screen) now. Would be fascinated to hear more thoughts in the comments…

In which it is Christmas and there are even more kisses

*Clears throat in preparation for grand announcement*

Ladies and Gentledudes, please be most excitable for the great and wondrous news

*small drumroll*

I have a new book out!

Ok, so it’s not that great and wondrous. I’m a writer the having a new book out is very much to be expected, but still, I spend a lot of time at home staring at a blank page. This is what passes for excitement in my world.

Jessica’s Christmas Kiss, the third in the Christmas Kisses series is available to order from today, and will be out in the world and potentially winging it’s way to a kindle (or kindle app) near you from Saturday.

It has a gorgeous Christmassy cover (courtesy of the very clever Berni Stevens).

Jessica Cover

And here’s what it’s all about…

Real Christmas miracles only ever happen in the movies – don’t they?

When Jessica was fifteen, she shared the perfect kiss with a mystery boy at a Christmas party. It might have only lasted a moment, and the boy might have disappeared shortly afterwards but, to Jessica, it was just a little bit magic.

Fourteen years later, and Jessica is faced with a less than magical Christmas after uncovering her husband’s secret affair. And, whilst she wouldn’t admit it, she sometimes finds herself thinking about that perfect Christmas kiss, back when her life still seemed full of hope and possibility.

But she never would have guessed that the boy she kissed in the kitchen all those years ago might still think about her too …

So, in conclusion… New book! Yay! Please feel most very welcome and encouraged to buy, read, and, I hope, enjoy.

In which I have a lovely new book coming out

I’m absolutely delighted, pleased, chuffed and gladdened to be able to officially announce that I have a new book out – well not quite ‘out’, technically just ‘available for kindle pre-order‘. It’ll be properly out for kindle (or kindle apps) in June, and hopefully in other formats sometime after that, but still I feel like having an excited author moment, and frankly you can’t stop me.

This is my fourth book, and second full length novel, to be published by Choc Lit. Midsummer Dreams was the first new book I started from scratch after contracting my first one, Sweet Nothing and, in all sorts of ways, it was the classic difficult second novel. I had the idea of ‘a contemporary rom-com inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ months before I started writing, but translating that idea into words on the page was tougher than anything I’d written before. Suddenly I found myself wracked by doubt. Was the first book a fluke? Could I do it again? What if the publisher thought it was terrible? What if they were right? What if I’d broken too many ‘rules’ of the genre? What if I’d gone too far?

Happily the Choc Lit tasting panel, who read all the submissions before they go to an editor, didn’t share my concerns, and so earlier this year I found myself with my nose deep in the manuscript again making edits and revisions to polish the story up into a finished novel. And while I was doing that, somehow, I managed to fall in love with the story and the characters all over again. So here is my lovely new book baby. I hope you will buy, read, enjoy and love these four horribly messed-up people as much as I do.

MD Final Cover

Four people. Four messy lives. One night that changes everything …
Emily is obsessed with ending her father’s new relationship – but is blind to the fact that her own is far from perfect.
Dominic has spent so long making other people happy that he’s hardly noticed he’s not happy himself.
Helen has loved the same man, unrequitedly, for ten years. Now she may have to face up to the fact that he will never be hers.
Alex has always played the field. But when he finally meets a girl he wants to commit to, she is just out of his reach.
At a midsummer wedding party, the bonds that tie the four friends together begin to unravel and show them that, sometimes, the sensible choice might not always be the right one.

In which I have an actual book cover for the actual (virtual) book what I wrote

Ta dah!

So there is it. The cover for my first novel. The astute amongst you will also notice that it has a new title. The book formerly known as ‘Well it’s the book  I wrote; it’s sort of about love and maths and stuff and it’s based on a play,’ is now officially titled, Much Ado About Sweet Nothing. Weirdly, my publisher felt that worked better. Curious.

Anyway, there it is. My first book cover. Huzzah!

(BTW, if you want a bit more of me wittering about romance writing related stuff, I’m on the Choc Lit authors’ blog today talking about What makes a hero: http://blog.choc-lit.co.uk/?p=5145)

The Unromantic Romance Writer

So here’s a curious thing, dear internet, a much adored friend of mine recently pointed out to me how odd it is that I’m currently writing romance, because, she said, I am the least romantic person you could hope to meet. She’s not the first person to observe that I’m slightly lacking in the hearts and flowers department. My sister-in-law, much more recently married than my husband and I, oftens makes fun of our habit of marking shared emotional triumphs with a high five. She considers this unemotional in the extreme. She is equally bemused by the fact that she will share a heartfelt reminiscence from her wedding day, and then ask about memories of my wedding, only to be met with a blank face and a vague excuse about it having been a frightfully long time ago.

We don’t do Valentine’s Day. We don’t do anniversary gifts. For the first 2-3 years we had a competition to see who could buy the other the most ghastly wedding anniversary card, but that petered out after I refused to spend a fiver on objectively the most hideous card ever produced (about 8 pages of “rhyming” verse, much glitter, many badly drawn flowers). It would have been a surefire contest winner, but it cost five whole English pounds, which might otherwise have been spent on important accessories.

The most romantic gift my husband has ever bought me was a dictionary and thesaurus. The most romantic gift I’ve ever bought him was… no, actually I’ve got nothing to offer there.  He’s bought me flowers about three times in 15 years. If he started buying them regularly I’d probably think about getting him checked in for a brainscan. And flowers are wasted on me. They’re lovely when they’re fresh, but the following 3 weeks, where they slowly die and then begin to rot in the vase before I get around to chucking them out, does rather take the shine off.

However, I don’t think any of the above means I’m not romantic. I’d argue that it just recognises that romance isn’t something you can buy off the shelf in a one-size fits all package. To be truly romantic a gesture has to be individual. So, in our special little world, high fives are romantic. The act of mildly winding up people who think we should be more lovey-dovey is a personal, specific shared joke. The dictionary and thesaurus present really was romantic, because it was based on a very vague comment I’d made months earlier about wanting a nice dictionary and thesaurus, because I thought that maybe one day I might like to try to write stories, and a dictionary and thesaurus seemed like the sort of thing a Proper Writer ought to own. That’s personal, and personal, I think, is romantic.

So in a very individual way, maybe I am romantic, but even if I wasn’t I don’t think that would preclude me from writing romantic stories. It’s so common for writers to be asked whether they base stories on real people and real situations, and the answer, if we’re honest, is probably both “Of course,” and “Of course not.” In the bigger sense, you can ultimately only write from the brain that you have and that is entirely conditioned and created by the life you’ve led and the influences you’ve been exposed to. Having said that, I’ve never sat down and conciously based a story on a person or situation from my own life.

As a writer I don’t want to be tied to only writing about what I’ve directly experienced. I want to make stuff up. So even if I’m not romantic, there’s nothing to stop me from writing a character who is. In the story I’ve just begun my heroine is uptight, has an overblown sense of duty and is terrified of losing people she cares about. My hero is impulsive, loyal and focussed on living life to the full. When I write about those characters, I’m not thinking, how would I react in this situation? I’m thinking, how would this character react in this situation?

Your characters aren’t you. You don’t have to live their lives. If you did, there would be no fantasy novels, no historical stories and scary crime fiction would be even scarier, knowing how many people the writer had to dismember for the purposes of research.

So, in conclusion, I don’t need to be romantic to write romance. And anyway, I do think I’m romantic, but probably only in a way that 1 other person on the planet would appreciate, and in real-life, as in fiction, you only need 1 other person to make the romance work.

Reading that last sentence back I’m finding it a bit uncomfortably mawkish, so I think that’s a good place to stop. You can scurry off and follow me on twitter, or subscribe to the blog, or leave a little comment – are you romantic or does the notion induce a mild nausea? If you write, to what extent do you draw on your own experience? Or you could not comment and run along and crack on with the day. I shall go and do something bracing and emotionally unengaging. Good-day to one and all.

Another review… The Last Letter from your Lover

Well, three posts in, this seems to be turning into a reviews blog, which wasn’t really what I was intending, but these are the thoughts that are popping into my brain, so I’m going to go with the flow for the time being. Although, that in no way implies the adoption of a definite theme – I totally reserve the right to mainly be thinking about Marmite by this time tomorrow.

So, another review, but a book this time: The Last Letter from your Lover by Jojo Moyes. This was the Romantic Novellists Association’s Romantic Novel of the Year at their Pure Passion Awards, and they were right. It’s a great book. Go out; buy it; read it. That is all.

Now anyone who is feeling in a hurry can depart at this point, having gleaned the central elements of the review. For the rest of you, here’s a bit more detail, and a (slightly belated) attempt at a bit of critical balance. The book is one of those wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey narratives with a present day bit and a historic bit, and a bit of a literary device with a newspaper and some letters to marry the two halves together. In the past, the story centres on Jennifer, suffering from amnesia after a car accident and, somewhat inconveniently, losing all recollection of her ongoing extra-marital affair. In the present, Ellie is a journalist who’s currently dating a married man. Both narratives have elements of classic romance, but also explore fidelity and, more to the point, infidelity.

I should state up front that I loved this book. It drew me in and made me laugh. It didn’t quite make me cry, but I’m a hard northern bird and it still came pretty damn close. I believed in the characters and I had to keep reading to find out what would happen to them. This should serve as a health warning on this review, because  it’s tricksy to critically analyse something you simply love. It’s like being asked to evaluate your own baby. Objectively, they may look a bit Gollum-y, but they’re still your baby and you (hopefully) love them despite, as well as because.

I think the love is more because than despite in this instance though. What I liked, more than anything, about this book was the intelligence of the storytelling. Very often romance stories are so tightly bound to the necessity of a happy ever after, that the jeopardy along the way doesn’t work – you know full well that Girl always ends up with Boy. It’s like watching the bit in Grand Designs when Kevin tells you it’ll never be finshed – we believed him in series 1, but now we know that he says that every week. The “Girl loses Boy” bit of most romance stories is much the same deal. This book manages to undermine those certainties, and is, in many ways, as much about the ends of affairs as their beginnings.

A lot of the plot and structural ideas are ones that have been seen before, such as the deployment of amnesia as a plot device, but here they’re just done better. The books feels like the Jojo Moyes crafted it, and cared for it, and kept tweaking and polishing until she achieved her just-right Goldilocks novel. At least I hope she did. If I hear that she wrote it all in one go without shifting out of first gear, then Moyes might actually manage to make me cry.