Happy (Belated) St Valentine’s Day! When I realised exactly what date this issue would be going live on, I instantly pitched the idea of a romance themed article to my beloved but highly dubious Editor. Their concern was, and quite rightly so, that after all the bustle and hassle of celebrating (read ‘surviving’) supposedly the most romantic day in the year, you dear Wanderers would be fed up with all things fluffy, pink and heart-related. It seems to me as I look around my family, friends and work colleagues that St Valentine’s Day makes romance something of a trial to be endured regardless of your relationship status. Personally speaking, I’m rather looking forward to it. I’ve got a date with a large glass of red and Tom Hiddleston… Before you get too jealous, it’s just a preview screening of Only Lovers Left Alive and yes Ed, you can put me down for that review.
However, for all our begrudging participation, St Valentine’s Day and indeed romance in general is pretty big business. Just think of all the books, television shows and films based on romance or involving a substantial romantic element. It’s not just sex that sells, it is also a particular conception of romantic love. Now, when you first think about this, you might very well say to me that given all the stereotypes – candlelight, flowers, chocolate and tall, dark, handsome strangers – what possible room for branding could there be in this genre? Isn’t it all pretty much the same? Hmm. Well, good point. The answer is no but yes.
Let’s start off with the ‘no’ and quite possibly one of the best known brands in romance novels – Mills and Boon. These guys are the definitive romantic brand in my opinion. They have a long history of success in the genre, they have various marketing strategies and a brand which you will instantly recognise in any library or bookshop. When you pick up a Mills and Boon book, you know exactly what you are getting. Not only that but you can get it in a variety of themes from medical romance to historical, from modern to paranormal. You will get swooning damsels in distress, the alpha male whose hardened heart can only be warmed by the love of the heroine and some rather steamy interludes throughout the plot. Rather like McDonalds, Mills and Boon have created a very successful formula which can be repeated time and time again with subtle variations. And just like their fast food counterpart, they have been subject to considerable criticism. Formulaic plots. Irresponsible behaviour by the protagonists – sexual and otherwise. Creating unrealistic expectations. These are just a few of the less favourable viewpoints on the brand of romance marketed by Mills and Boon. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Mills and Boon is continuing to thrive in the romance market.
However, no matter how dominant or successful a brand is, there will always be new challengers to their title and their readership. I’m going to briefly explore two recent, related and opposing trends which have emerged in the romance genre. Our first challenger comes in the form of a teenage girl and her sparkling vampire boyfriend. Oh yes, I’m talking about the Twilight franchise written by Stephanie Meyer. Love or hate them, the books charting the romantic relationship between these doomed lovers have been phenomenally successful. Romance has been repackaged with less emphasis on candlelit dinners and passionate liaisons and more focus on family values and chastity. You won’t find much bodice ripping in Twilight. Indeed, Edward and Bella’s decision to wait until their wedding night to consummate their relationship was perceived as something fresh and different.
In contrast, on the other end of the spectrum the Fifty Shades trilogy (ironically inspired by Twilight) is openly, unashamedly and gleefully full of sexual content. In a plot that could be viewed as a less traditional romance, a college graduate and a billionaire engage in a sexual relationship which slowly becomes a romance as they fall in love with one another. Moreover, the trilogy explores sexual tastes/desires which may appear alternative within the mainstream of romantic novels. Dubbed by some sections of the media as ‘mummy porn’, make no mistake about it – these novels are just as carefully and heavily branded as any of their predecessors. One of the most notable branding strategies was the idea that the book covers should be relatively discreet. Unlike Mills and Boon, there would be no semi-naked characters embracing on the cover and the title would be less suggestive. However, the whole idea of a discreet book cover frankly no longer makes any difference because the image of a tastefully selected mask or tie now signals to everyone exactly what you are reading! Whilst, these two brands may have initially appeared to break the mould, they are now being replicated rapidly within the publishing industry with the result that it is as equally easy to walk into a library or bookshop and find their imitations as it is to find a Mills and Boon.
And so now we come to the ‘yes, it’s all the same’ part of my answer. Sadly, the point you could have made at the start of this article remains very accurate. Despite all the bright shiny marketing and the carefully constructed differences in branding, all of the discussed romance novels have more in common than they are different. They all tend to adhere to a romantic ideal that could arguably be traced back to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The dark, brooding, misunderstood hero who initially is rather unpleasant towards the heroine but eventually we discover he has a softer side and his behaviour was only the result of his inner struggle with personal demons/emotions/desires that the heroine has evoked in the darkest depths of his soul… I tease Wanderers, I do rather like a bit of purple prose myself and I’m a big fan of happily ever after. However, the fact that this particular conception of a romantic relationship continues to thrive in the twenty-first century indicates that a real change of dynamics has yet to occur in this genre. There is the potential for a new brand of romance to be generated, one that creates realistic, healthier and perhaps more meaningful relationships for readers to enjoy as an alternative to the old stereotypes. I can’t speak for the rest of you romantics out there but I’m hoping that somewhere out there such a book is waiting for me.
Red Hamilton (can’t decide whether she would rather be the dragon or the knight in shining armour.)