I Was a Teenage Romance Writer

 

In a world of continually changing icons, romance writers are a rare constant, appearing regularly in TV programs, magazine articles and newspaper features, where they elicit equal amounts of gentle satire and rueful admiration for their earning power. We all know what romance writers are supposed to be like. Either defenders of the faith or cynical exploiters – or possibly both at once. Women of a certain age with carefully coiffed blonde hair and elaborate make up, swathed in chiffon draperies and preferably clutching small silky dogs, a style that pays homage to Barbara Cartland, the icon of icons – over 600 romance novels and still counting.

In other words, romance writers and the romances that they write are conflated to an unusual degree. As far as I know, writers of horror novels aren’t expected to look like Boris Karloff, any more than thriller writers are expected to be muscled and athletic or detective story writers to have homicidal tendencies. Indeed, I’ve written novels and short stories in all three of these genres without feeling any pressure to adjust my self-image. But when I became, more or less by accident, a writer of romances, I instantly found myself part of a strange sexual subculture, the locus of all sorts of unpredictable confidences, moralities, questions and expectations.

Maybe the expectations are higher because romance has been such an enduring genre, represented among the first English language novels by writers like Fanny Burney and Jane Austen and mutating steadily ever since. For a while, in the seventies, it seemed that Women’s Liberation was going to challenge the hegemony of romance writers. Germaine Greer (1970) led the way with pronouncements like ‘The titillating mush of Cartland and her ilk is supplying an imaginative need but their hypocrisy limits the gratification to that which can be gained from innuendo: by-pass the innuendo and you shortcircuit the whole process’, while other feminists criticized the way romance confined women to the personal and domestic. But imprints such as Mills and Boon responded by incorporating relatively explicit descriptions of sexual activity and relatively high-flying career women into the formula. Before long feminist theorists were writing about the pleasures, as well as the dangers, of romance and romance writers went back to being icons again.

How to explain the ongoing fascination with this particular subculture? Does the world of the romance writer evoke a mythically simpler time when men were men, women were women and romance writers created rituals for negotiating the impasse? Is the genre subvertable or not? Is it monolithic, part of a pre-packaged global culture, or does it take on different forms and meanings in different times and places? Have romance writers survived simply by being as adaptable as the cockroach or is romance still fulfilling ‘an imaginative need’ not met anywhere else? I’d like to place some of these questions in a specifically Australian context by telling the story of the time when I was a teenage romance writer.

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As a kid, I always used to pounce on series novels, from the Bobbsey Twins and the Famous Five to Ivan Southall’s Simon Black books, because it was comforting to know that, if I liked one of them, there was a whole shelf full of similar titles ready and waiting. At the same time I’ve always been irritated by the popularity of American teenage romance series, because it bugged me to think of Australian readers fetishizing proms and cheerleaders and colleges and drugstores and homecoming queens.

So when Belinda Byrne rang to tell me that Greenhouse wanted to establish an Australian teenage romance series, I was already predisposed towards the idea. At the time I was writing children’s and young adult fiction for my own satisfaction, and educational kits to pay the rent, although I was starting to feel irked by the continual shift between fiction and non-fiction. I was also stony broke and suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Greenhouse was offering a flat fee on receipt of manuscript (later changed to half the fee on receipt of manuscript and the other half on publication but that still didn’t take as long as waiting for advances and royalties to come through). I had practical and theoretical reasons for accepting Belinda’s offer – and I had one more reason as well.

I wanted to see whether I could do it.

Some years before, I had tried writing for Mills and Boon in collaboration with a friend of mine. We’d both been dedicated feminist activists in the seventies and we were moderately annoyed that no one had ever asked us to sell out, so we decided to arrange it for ourselves. We read through a huge stack of Mills and Boon romances, constructed a plot around a heroine who cooked and a hero who was a cross between a saint and a rapist, struggled for months with the longwinded, introspective Mills and Boon house style and finally posted off our manuscript.

To our dismay, Mills and Boon wrote back to say that we had clearly done our homework but that our novel was a bit old-fashioned. I raced down to Coles, read the back blurbs of a dozen current Mills and Boons and discovered that the typical mid-eighties heroine was trying to choose between love and career and finding in the final chapter that she could have it all. Ironically, if my friend and I had decided that we were going to bring feminism into Mills and Boon, we might have achieved our ambition after all.

As it happened, writing teenage romances turned out to be a very different sort of experience/ Where Mills and Boon novels basically revolve around two characters, him and her, the teenage romance genre allows for a whole range of friends and schoolmates and parents and siblings, who share the stage with the main protagonists. What’s more, with teenage romances the readers are well aware that even if the heroine and hero are together on the final page, they’re highly likely to break up two weeks after the novel ends. Consequently, most teen romances don’t have the ‘all or nothing’ intensity of adult romances.

The process of publishing an Australian teenage romance series was also very different from the popular stereotype of multinational publishing firms with extensive marketing campaigns, intensive research and unlimited finances. Understandably, most people assumed that the Dolly Fiction series was an offshoot of Dolly, a mainstream magazine aimed at young women, but in fact the link was more tangential. Sally Milner, the publisher at Greenhouse, dreamed up the series for the same reason as I was interested in writing for it – because she wanted to provide an alternative to British and American teenage romances. At that time Greenhouse was owned by Australian Consolidated Press (ACP), who published Dolly, and the connection between magazine and series was made because it was felt that the power of the Dolly name would help to establish the series in the marketplace. However, although the staff at Dolly vetted the synopses, they played no part in commissioning or editing the books.

Dolly Fiction was launched in September 1987. In 1989 ACP closed Greenhouse and sold most of the titles on its list to other publishing firms – with the exception of the Dolly Fiction series, which it retained as a separate entity. For the next few years the series led a kind of gypsy existence, owned by a magazine publishing conglomerate that wasn’t set up to distribute books and run by Belinda Byrne, working from home as a freelance editor. Always under-resourced, its future continually in doubt, it nonetheless continued on until, at Belinda’s suggestion, James Fraser at Pan licensed the series from ACP in 1991. After a trial run, Pan decided to drop the Dolly connection and change the name of the series to Paradise Point. Twenty-four Paradise Point titles were published before the series was discontinued in 1993.

The initial print runs for the first Dolly fiction titles were a wildly optimistic 25 000 but by the time Pan took over the series, print runs had been revised to 10 000 and finally stabilized at 8000. Two titles were published every month and by the time the series ended, there were 118 Dolly Fiction titles in all. Readers were, on average, between eleven and fifteen, although Belinda Byrne received letters from girls as young as nine and as old as 24. Invariably, these readers would explain that they loved Dolly Fiction because the books offered characters and situations that they could relate to, sometimes mentioning particular scenarios that had helped them with their own lives.

Looking back over the series, Belinda Byrne comments:

“I was always conscious of treading a fine line. The books were never meant to be worthy or instructive and yet we were writing for an impressionable and, in some ways, vulnerable audience. In defiance of their genre, Dolly Fictions were resolutely politically correct and they moved further and further in that direction as the series went on and I clarified what I was trying to do with it. The earlier Dolly Fictions were probably closer to their UK and US counterparts; later books encompassed more complex issues and a bolder approach towards depicting ‘real’ teenage lives. Once the link with Dolly magazine was severed, we were a lot freer, because Dolly imposed fairly strict guidelines about what could and could not be mentioned. (No alcohol, no cigarettes, no drugs, no sex …)”

Writing for Dolly Fiction turned out to be a relaxed and collaborative experience. Although the writers never formally met together, we hard a lot about each other’s work via Belinda, which meant that we were basically writing for each other, for Belinda and for the young women who sent in letters. I enjoyed this sense of a group project from the beginning and I soon found out there were other pleasures in writing teenage romance.

Between 1988 and 1992 I wrote fifteen novels in the Dolly Fiction series and four novels in Penguin’s Hot Pursuit series, devised by Merrilee Moss and me. A lot of my ideas were the result of playing games with genre. In order to prepare myself for writing my first Dolly, I borrowed a stack of Sweet Dreams from the local library and started coming to grips with the American prototype. I followed the model – more or less – in my first book but from then on I entertained myself by seeing how far I could stretch the boundaries of the formula without moving out of the romance genre altogether.

Thus, at various times, I tested out a fat heroine and a Greek-Australian heroine, a socialist hero and a Koori hero, a male narrator and a gay subplot, as well as writing about drugs, gossip, lesbian mothers and depression. The overseers at Dolly passed all my experiments without a flicker, until they came to the synopsis of the novel with the fat heroine, when they wrote back to Belinda Byrne, saying, ‘We’re not sure about this one – but she’s written twelve books for the series already, so we’re prepared to give it a go’, which was a relief, because I’d been braced to argue my case. I wrote the synopsis for Bigger and Better after judging a competition where readers sent in their own suggestions for a Dolly Fiction plot. After scanning dozens of synopses along the lines of, ‘Betty really fancied John but John didn’t even notice her, then Betty lost weight and John asked her out’, I felt there was a definite need for a corrective – and to my further relief, Dolly passed the completed novel without changing a line.

The sticking point for Dolly was the idea that a young woman could be fat and sexy. The sticking point, as far as I was concerned, was the issue of happy endings. Despite Belinda Byrne’s constant urgings, I only once managed to write a novel where the heroine and hero weren’t together at the end. At one point I was questioned stringently by a class of very romance-literate girls, who were anxious to know whether the happy endings in their favourite light reading were the result of a publishing directive. They were satisfied when I told them, ‘It’s not because I’m ordered to supply happy endings – it’s because I like happy endings.’ But the experience left me with a few questions of my own.

I have never thought of myself as a romantic. I don’t sigh over happy couples in the street and I feel positively unnerved whenever I see anyone investing the whole of their emotional life in one other person. So what was I doing, working in a genre that – face it – focused on the manic moments of falling in love? Okay, I could tell myself I wanted to show young women that they could fall in love without falling for all the associated claptrap … but in that case, why wasn’t I grateful to be working for an editor who actively encouraged me to leave my heroines unattached and feeling fine about it at the end of the novel?

To cut a long story short, I don’t know. My parents had a classic fifties romance that came to a sticky end and I’ve sometimes wondered whether I’m trying to rewrite their story in order to make it come out right. But I’m not sure of the value of this psychobiography: it certainly can’t account for all the thousands of romance writers and millions of romance readers. At other times I suspect I’m simply acknowledging a cultural imperative – the pleasure of the expected ending, whether it’s the solution at the end of a detective story, the triumph of the white hats at the end of a Western or the kiss at the end of a romance. (Although this doesn’t explain why I’ve found myself writing romances, rather than detective stories or Westerns.)

After I had been writing Dolly Fictions for a year or so, I was intrigued to realize that I was being asked to speak on the subject of romance writing far more often than I was asked to speak about my ‘serious’ fiction. At a panel during the 1992 Melbourne Writers Festival, after Ken Methold had offered a devastating and hilarious parody of the Barbara Cartland syndrome, I pushed back my shaggy hair, hitched down my baggy windcheater and got a laugh simply by saying, ‘I’m a romance writer.’ It was all very interesting and entertaining but over time I started to get tetchy about the way people seemed simultaneously to be fascinated by romance and to feel a need to distance themselves from the genre. I’d expected teachers and librarians to be pleased that there were some Australian teenage romances to set against the American imports – but they weren’t. I’d expected reviewers to notice the little-Aussie-knocker approach taken by homegrown romance writers – but they didn’t. The books were there now but the climate, the discourse, the forbidden nature of romance writing hadn’t changed.

So what did I learn from my travels through the subculture of romance writing? First of all, I found that romance, for all its high mainstream profile, offers the lure of the forbidden. The principal agent of this taboo is the laugh. You can get a laugh in adult circles simply by saying ‘Mills and Boon’ and you can get the same laugh in children’s literature circles with the words ‘Sweet Valley High’. After listening to this laugh for a while, I finally recognised it. It’s the laugh we used to laugh in primary school whenever we heard the word ‘bosom’, as in ‘the bosom of the ocean’, or ‘poo’, as in ‘Pooh Bear’. It’s the laugh that you laugh when someone breaks a minor taboo and, just as my primary school class was fascinated by the forbidden topic of sex, so people these days are fascinated by romance. They flock to the panels on romance writing and they know all the Mills and Boon circulation figures, although at the same time they always carefully explain that they themselves don’t, of course, actually read romance.

Over time, I’ve started to get the distinct impression that writing about love, especially love between a man and a woman, is one of the unacknowledged taboos of our time. Something to do with the impact of sixties sexual liberation and the counterculture on fifties definitions of romance? Yes, probably. Something to do with the remnants of the British class system where ‘only servant girls read romance’? Yes, I suspect so. Something to do with feminism? Yes, for sure – but what, exactly?

For this particular feminist, the taboos surrounding romance have two sharply contrasting effects. The eternal deviant in me is delighted to find herself breaking the rules again and recognises that part of the attraction of romance writing is the fact that romance, unlike science fiction and crime novels and horror films, has not suddenly become intellectually respectable. The activist in me, on the other hand, is stirred by the thought that the romance genre is denigrated primarily because it’s seen as women’s business. After all, I’m a pre-modernist feminist. My mob didn’t believe in playing with mainstream discourses: we believed in taking them on and changing them.

So, at least on a part-time basis, I’ve come to see myself as a militant romance writer. I was disappointed when Pam Gilbert and Sandra Taylor (1991) analysed the way the first eighteen Dolly Fictions represented codes of femininity, parents’ occupations and girls’ and boy’s hobbies and career choices, without offering a similarly detailed analysis of the way the writers constructed the central romantic relationships. As a second wave feminist, I learned that ‘the personal is political’ and I spent a lot of time in and out of consciousness raising groups discussing straight and gay relationships – how they were and how, with a more politicized awareness, they could be. The romance genre strikes me as a logical place to tackle these kinds of issues and I would describe my own endeavor, in a phrase borrowed from feminist theorist Sheila Jeffreys, as an attempt to ‘eroticise equality’.

Given both my academic and feminist backgrounds, I made it my business to catch up on the various studies of the romance genre that came out of women’s studies and courses on popular culture and children’s literature. While some writers talked about the pleasurable subversions of romance, others assumed an inherent contradiction between romance and feminism. But neither side of the debate left me feeling any more enlightened about what I was doing. Matched against my own experience, the belief that romance was inherently anti-feminist seemed too simple, the belief in pleasurable subversions too convoluted.

The most useful article I came across during this time was ‘A place for us: adolescent girls reading romance fiction’ (1987), probably because its author, May Lam, was also trying to make sense of her own experiences. As an English teacher and school librarian, Lam had been involved in preparing a non-sexist booklist and made a special effort to promote books with ‘positive role models and an emphasis on challenging and rewarding careers’. However, she found that ‘[w]hile girls often cheerfully read and reported that they enjoyed many of the titles I recommended them, at least as many girls (and often the same ones!) would ask for romance stories’. At this point, Lam decided to investigate. Working with a group of 42 keen romance readers, she discovered that their attitude to romantic fiction was not uncritical (‘I hate the American schools with the American football teams and the prettiest girl gets the lead guy in the football team’) and that although romances could create feelings of inadequacy (‘It makes you feel sort of sad because it makes you feel “I wish I was as pretty as her and had her life and all of that” ‘), they could also encourage a sense of realism (‘I’ve learnt that love isn’t always a lot of fun, it’s probably made me be more mature with guys I’m going out with. I take love more seriously now than before I started reading romances’). Most of all, these young women liked romance novels because they were about ‘feelings’ – not necessarily romantic feelings but feelings of all kinds, placing emotional responses at the centre of the narrative. Their honest appraisal had its effect on Lam. Having begun by promoting ‘challenging and rewarding careers’, she ends by saying that ‘we need to address ways of showing how love and work do not have to be mutually exclusive’.

To Lam’s 42 young women, romances represented an accessible way to start assessing love and sexuality. In a similar fashion, romance writing has represented the accessible face of literature to women writers ever since Jane Austen and the Brontes. As a self-confessed romance writer, I had a lot of people sidling up to me at seminars or launches or parties and I was startled to find out just how many closet romance writers there are in this country. Over the past seven years I must have talked to more than 40 women who were working on a romance or had a synopsis and several chapters tucked away in a bottom drawer. None of them fitted the stereotype, ranging as they did from lesbian feminists and country booksellers to modern girls and university lecturers.

The Dolly Fiction series offered a starting point from which writers like Goldie Alexander, Tegan Bennett, Margot Lanagan, Brigid Lowry and Merrilee Moss went on to write precisely the kind of novels that critics like Sharyn Pearce (1991) regard as antithetical to the teen romance. Indeed, I’d argue that the series itself in no way fits Pearce’s description of series romances as ‘fairy stories which ignore dilemmas like divorce, the dole or single parenting’. After writing Bigger and Better (Dolly Fiction Number 58), where the heroine doesn’t lose weight and gets the guy, I was rapt to come across Gerri Lapin’s Slim Pickings (Dolly Fiction Number 84), where the heroine puts on weight and gets the guy – a characteristically iconoclastic contribution to a teen culture that spends a lot of time promoting anorexia.

Mind you, there’s more to romance writing than values or ideology. While I agree with George Orwell that ‘all art is propaganda’, my most enduring interest in writing series romances has been a literary one. I dislike the generally accepted divide between high culture and popular culture and yet at the same time I know that my own novels all fall neatly into one or other category. Hence my use of pseudonyms. I started writing as Jaye Francis and Mary Forrest by accident – I remember Belinda Byrne telling me that I had to use a pen-name, she states firmly that she said no such thing. Still, even after I’d stopped to think about it, I decided to keep the pseudonyms going because, much as I resent the high/popular culture split, I (reluctantly) accept that I can’t change the entire situation single-handed.

Nevertheless, I continue to hope that, by working on both sides of the divide, I may gradually overcome the split in my own sensibility. Maybe some day Jaye Francis, the fluent yarnspinner, and Jenny Pausacker, the meticulous reviser, will be able to get together. Maybe one day I’ll see a change in the mindset where, in Ursula LeGuin’s words, ‘The Canoneers of Literature still refuse to admit that gentrification is a political tactic and that the type of fiction they distinguish as serious, mainstream, literary, etc., is itself a genre without inherent superiority to any other.’ Maybe some day it will be intellectually respectable to say that most people, women and men alike, spend a significant portion of their lives thinking about how to love and be loved, and to value writing that deals with this directly and reflectively.

In the meantime there’s a lot of entertainment to be got from working the divide.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Francis, J. (1990) Bigger and Better. Sydney: Australian Consolidated Publishing.

Gilbert, P., and Sandra Taylor (1991) Fashioning the Feminine: Girls, Popular Culture and Schooling. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Greer, G. (1970) The Female Eunuch. London: McGibbon and Kee.

Lam, M. (1987) ‘A place for us: adolescent girls reading romance fiction’, Equal Opportunity Newsletter, vol. 6, no. 1.

Lapin, G. (1992) Slim Pickings. Sydney: Pan.

Pearce, S. (1991) ‘Growing up gender-wise: what we give to girls’, Magpies, no. 5, November.