PLAY­ING THE FIELD

Pub­lish­ers are con­duct­ing an ar­dent af­fair with the much ma­ligned ro­mance genre, writes Rose­mary Neill

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

NIKKI Lo­gan thought long and hard be­fore telling her col­leagues she was moon­light­ing as a ro­mance writer. Af­ter much hes­i­ta­tion, the West Aus­tralian pub­lic ser­vant ‘‘ came out’’ sev­eral years ago about her covert lit­er­ary life.

The au­thor of 14 ti­tles in­clud­ing Lights, Cam­era . . . Kiss the Boss, Wild En­counter and Ship­wrecked with Mr Wrong re­veals that ro­mance authors com­monly put off telling friends and fam­ily about their writ­ing ca­reers rather than face their scorn and scep­ti­cism. She says: ‘‘ We kind of re­fer to it as com­ing out, when you come out to peo­ple about be­ing a ro­mance writer. It’s not on the same scale as com­ing out about same-sex sex­u­al­ity, but it’s hard. It’s a hard thing to do to come out to peo­ple when you fear that they might have a very loud and pub­lic, neg­a­tive re­ac­tion.’’

Her voice sub­dued, she re­calls how, ‘‘ for me, telling peo­ple in the work­place was chal­leng­ing’’. Still, with one or two ex­cep­tions, the re­ac­tions of Lo­gan’s work­mates in the small gov­ern­ment agency where she still works part time were pos­i­tive.

Now pres­i­dent of Ro­mance Writ­ers of Aus­tralia, Lo­gan be­lieves ‘‘ we are see­ing a turn­around’’ in at­ti­tudes to­wards the Western world’s big­gest sell­ing yet most mocked fic­tion genre. (Ger­maine Greer once ac­cused Mills & Boon read­ers of ‘‘ cher­ish­ing the shack­les of their bondage’’.) Lo­gan says: ‘‘ It’s such a re­lief to be able to talk about what you do with­out hav­ing to do it in code. Be­ing a ro­mance writer is not some­thing that peo­ple laugh at any more.’’

Cer­tainly, in the wake of E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey spank­buster, there are com­pelling signs that ro­mance — we’re talk­ing a Mills & Boon aes­thetic rather than Anna Karen­ina or Brid­get Jones’s Di­ary — is no longer a dirty word. Nov­els fea­tur­ing pretty, feisty hero­ines on hus­band hunts, and hand­some al­pha males who ex­ude ‘‘ un­bear­able mas­culin­ity’’ are be­ing em­braced as never be­fore by read­ers, blog­gers and, es­pe­cially, main­stream pub­lish­ers.

Pen­guin has just launched its Destiny la­bel, an e-book ro­mance im­print. It is kick­ing off the se­ries with four e-books — Wish is a ru­ral ro­mance by es­tab­lished au­thor Kelly Hunter while the other three ( The Con­ve­nient Bride, Small Town Storm and Har­bin­ger) are de­but nov­els. Pen­guin is plan­ning to re­lease a fur­ther two e-ro­mances each month. ‘‘ It’s a pretty big pub­lish­ing pro­gram,’’ says Carol Ge­orge, who is over­see­ing the Destiny se­ries with her col­league Sarah Fairhall. ‘‘ We don’t want to just pub­lish them [the new authors], we ac­tu­ally want to help them de­velop as writ­ers and as names.’’

Fairhall agrees that, un­til re­cently, ro­mance fic­tion was derided here. She says: ‘‘ Cer­tainly in Aus­tralia I think there’s been a bit of a stigma at­tached to ro­mance. That hasn’t been the case in the US, and I think Aus­tralia is now fi­nally em­brac­ing ro­mance and re­al­is­ing what big busi­ness it can be.’’

She and Ge­orge point out that they were work­ing on Pen­guin’s ro­mance im­print be­fore the first vol­ume of James’s bondage and sub­mis­sion tril­ogy started de­mol­ish­ing sales records. ‘‘ Fifty Shades has fo­cused at­ten­tion on what was al­ready a re­ally suc­cess­ful genre,’’ they con­tend.

This turbo-charged best­seller was re­cently de­scribed by a British jour­nal­ist and self­con­fessed sub­mis­sive as ‘‘ Mills & Boon with butt plugs’’. In fact, it was pub­lished by Ran­dom House and last month be­came the big­gest sell­ing book in Aus­tralia since Nielsen BookS­can start­ing track­ing re­tail sales in 2003. James’s de­pic­tion of an af­fair be­tween a naive young woman and her ty­coon boyfriend, who wants her to be his sex slave, sold 1.28 mil­lion copies here in print and e-book edi­tions be­tween May and Au­gust.

As Fifty Shades and its two se­quels rock­eted up best­seller lists faster than you could say ‘‘ red room of pain’’, pub­lish­ers sought to cash in. They have re­cently pub­lished a plethora of erotic ro­mances with bondage and sub­mis­sion themes in­clud­ing Bared to You (Pen­guin) and Des­tined to Play (HarperCollins). Buf­feted by the rise of the in­ter­net and de­cline of

Ally Blake

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