Moving on from Cartland’s writing tips and technique, I now come to her thoughts on the permissive society.
‘It was perfectly obvious to me at any rate that people would soon get bored to death with all this so-called permissiveness, and certainly women don’t want to go on reading about it for ever. Apart from the fact that it degrades us, most of it is absurdly exaggerated and untrue. Walt Disney always used to say that every time they made a pornographic film, he made money, and I’m convinced that every time women look at vulgar, degrading pornography, they go out and buy a Barbara Cartland.’
in 1974 Readership patterns in America were changing – fast. Books about violence, crime, and sexual permissiveness were on the wane. Women were reading more books now than men and they were tired of books written for the male-chauvinist market. What they were crying out for was romance...As she said, ‘The one author in the world with one-hundred-and-fifty virgins lying about was me.’ And with those one-hundred-and-fifty Barbara Cartland virgins, she knew that she could sweep the market...for as Barbara knew from writing them, her books were addictive, and soon there were women queuing in the bookshops for the latest Barbara Cartland.
‘My books sold because they’re true romance, spiritual and physical, while the backgrounds are unlike real life. Most of my readers are women who are having a tough time. They don’t want to read about misery, drudgery or the kitchen stove – they see that every day.’
So what did I make of this? Well, I watched a Wogan chat show interview with Barbara Cartland and Jackie Collins talking about their books. Well, it was mainly Cartland talking about why her books were proper romance, and Collins’ weren’t romance but instead were sex, and Collins remained civilised despite quite a rude onslaught from Cartland. What is clear is that genre fiction, particularly romance (and I’d include Collins’ books in that category in its broadest sense) are about escape. Whether that’s escape from a permissive society into a romantic fairy tale world like Carland’s, or from an everyday domestic world into the glitz sex and glamour like Collins’ is irrelevant – it’s both escape.
In Reading the Romance, Janice Radway found that women read romance novels with broadly similar plots (man meets woman, they encounter obstacles, they live happily ever after) again and again for escape in two different ways: ‘literally to describe the act of denying the present, which they believe they accomplish each time they begin to read a book and are drawn into its story. [And] they used the word [escape] in a more figurative fashion to give substance to the somewhat vague but nonetheless intense sense of relief they experience by identifying with a heroine whose life does not resemble their own in certain crucial aspects.’ (Radway, p90)
I’m not criticising romance novels for having a broadly similar plot – there are, after all, only seven basic plots anyway, according to Christopher Booker. The variety in reading romance after romance is the new characters, their different motivations, vulnerabilities, goals, behaviour, relationship history, how they work with their love interest – be that a person of the same or opposite gender. These, added to the location and setting and time frame when the story is told, all add to provide a rich variety in the romance reading experience.
But the reasons readers enjoy reading romance after romance, as Radway finds out, in Reading the Romance, 1984, is the comfort in knowing the story will end well (HEA), experiencing the emotions of falling in love and identifying with the female protagonist and experiencing the emotions of falling in love with the male protagonist. These combine to give the romance reader the powerful qualities of escape, in two ways, as described above. And, given how stressful, uncertain, busy and perceived to be dangerous our lives and world is now, who wouldn’t want some of that in their life?
I'd love to hear what you made of my thoughts on this in the comments below.
Until next time, Liam Livings xx (a shameless romantic at heart)