From radical research to Mills and Boon; an eclectic life

Return of the Stranger by Kate Walker

Mills and Boon landscapes are places where alpha males strut and lesser females submit. M&B were about submission long before 50 Shades of Grey turned domination into a supermarket sex word. In the literature world they might not always be taken seriously but there’s gold in them there pages.

I was given a M&B for homework. The genre being romance, I expected Bridget Jones meets Catherine Cookson. ‘The Return of the Stranger’ by Kate Walker was more the visceral stuff of archetypes. All the classic M&B ‘ingredients are there. Lust. Revenge. Money. Power. Men portrayed as testosterone driven heroes. Women submissive. ‘The words shrivelled on her tongue as she saw the dark frown that snapped his black brows together over his blazing eyes, the sudden ferocity of his anger shaking her.’

M&B men have control over women who appear to want to be controlled. ‘He could have her now. Kiss her into submission….one day she would leave all her pride in the dust and she would beg for his touch’. Scary stuff. Women in M&B might have careers and social status but underneath they’re quivering psychological jelly.

I’m reminded of the heroes of ancient Greece who cared only about themselves. Theseus – who promised to marry Ariadne in return for a ball of thread to guide him out of the labyrinth – then snuck off in the night abandoning her. Odysseus – who took ten years to return from Troy, having affairs with Circe and Calypso on the way while Penelope kept house, weaving tapestry through the night to deter her suitors. When Odysseus came home he had all her maidens hung in the yard for the crime of sleeping with the suitors’ servants. Arrogance on legs. Plato’s utopian idea of a Republic contained three categories of people – the philosopher, soldier and artisan. All male of course. Women didn’t get a mention. It looks like patriarchy continues to thrive on a 21st century M&B booklist.

I turned to the M&B company for the advice they give to authors. There is acknowledgement the alpha hero has become somewhat politically incorrect yet the message given to M&B aspirants is ‘the success of Modern Romance proves that many women still fantasize about strong men’ The woman is the heroine but only as primary she-character rather than another Lara Croft or Grace Darling. An M&B heroine only finds her destiny or what M&B call her  ‘journey of fulfilment’ via the hero. More scary stuff.  ‘He takes control and drives the story; he has the power to make things happen! He is the key driver of the romance – he is the aspiration of the story’s heroine (and the reader) The Alpha Male is a celebration of strength!’  [their italics]

Glossing over the stereotypical images and clichés (I hate clichés) it’s my M&B had a story (albeit a reworking of Wuthering Heights). The author was skilled with the formula. For me there was too much description of what the characters were thinking in between their sentences. Many pages were all thought and not enough action. Descriptions of eyes like ‘shards of black coffee ice’ were original (at least to me – I may need to read more M&B to make an accurate judgement).

The best stories are those with space for the reader’s imagination. Writers need to show not tell and there isn’t much showing in a M&B. You’re given all the detail rather than the space for producing it yourself and in most places the detail is too much. M&B is primal stuff – driven by power and desire. M&B call this genre Modern Romance but it could equally well be Fantasy.

Veronon God Little – DBC Pierre at Hull University

The Mann Booker Prize came to town last night. DCB Pierre  visited Hull University as part of the Booker Prize Foundation University Initiative.   Under this banner, prominently displayed on stage, copies of Booker prize books are distributed free to first year students across all disciplines. A selection of authors then visit a selection of universities to meet the students and anyone else who’s interested. Last night DCB Pierre met students at Hull.

When the book Vernon God Little won the Booker prize in 2003 I didn’t really get it. I found it hard to align with the narrative viewpoint of a 15 year old US male  being accused of murder and VGL was consigned to the unread list. It has helped to listen to questions and answers about the background to writing the book. Setting it against contemporary capitalism and its continual need for profit regeneration, alongside media manipulation of public opinion, all had the Althusserian effect of instant recognition. I could identify with the bigger picture informing the narrative in a way I’d missed first time around. I also liked how Pierre talked about his relationship with his readers. Two separate entities coming together through a third medium of the book or shared experience of the story. Meeting the author is like joining up the circle.

I’ll try reading Vernon God Little again. Usually I say read the book before the film. In this case, I think it’s helped to listen to the author before reading the book.