Why does reading Mills and Boon have to be a dirty little secret?


When I was in my early teens, I devoured every Mills & Boon book I could get my hands on.

You know that age. The one where you read all those illicit and steamy romances under the covers because you’re curious but you also don’t want your parents to catch you.

I remember doing an article a couple of years back about books we’ve all read in secret and while Clan of the Cave Bear was certainly a title that cropped up, more people confessed to having bought, read and collected titles from the Mills & Boon range.

It really got me thinking about the romance genre as a whole and the annoying and persistently snobby attitude that exists within the professional literature sphere as well as amongst readers who only read “high-brow” fiction.

I’ve often thought that a lot of this literary elitism stems from the fact that they assume the following:

1) that romance novels are fluffy and have no substance and

2) that because it looks that effortless it must be easy to write and therefore not worth the time because it means the author is too lazy to write more intellectually driven literature (the implication that romance can’t be sexy or clever).

Here’s the thing though – have you ever noticed that the people who often talk smack about romance as a genre are the very people who actually haven’t read any?

Or that they use one bad romance novel reading experience as a benchmark to decry, denounce and vilify the genre as a whole?

Sex scenes are quite possibly the worst to write because it’s not just a case of writing two characters whose bodies are simply slapping together.

Like most books across every single genre, you’ll find your good, bad and bestselling (regardless of whether it's palatable to literary elitists).

I also usually find that those think pieces about how romance is destroying the industry is, are written by men.

If sales figures are to be believed, the romance genre is one of the bestselling ones in fiction. In fact, sad news for the book snob brigade out there, according to The Guardian, literary fiction sales are actually on the decline and while I do believe that there is a place and a need for this genre, it’s clear that the landscape is changing.

And yet, still people continue to shame romance readers.

READ MORE: What's a girl to do when her blesser can no longer finance her lifestyle?

In various conversations that I have with my fellow book addicts, many of them are relieved at the prospect of being able to buy books digitally because they feel that they at least wouldn’t be embarrassed at being caught reading salacious and erotic reads.

With various E-readers and e-reading apps for your phone available from either the iStore or Google Play, it’s easy to understand why many readers – particularly women – resort to going digital.

They can’t be shamed for something others can’t see.

And that’s the problem I have here because reading romance shouldn’t be treated like a dirty little secret.

Why can’t women read escapist and fluffy romance reads? And who says it’s wrong to want to indulge in escapist (albeit sometimes unrealistic) plotlines where the hero or heroine get their happily-ever-after?

And, most of all, why should women feel ashamed to read smutty bodice rippers that joyfully celebrate the agency women have over their own body, desires and sexual needs? We already struggle with acceptance in real life so now we can’t even enjoy that when we’re reading about a woman in control of her own sexual agency?

To quickly get back to my point about people assuming that writing romance is easy, when I think of the romance hit and misses for me I realise that what I look for in a book that’s well written is this:

- character chemistry and unresolved sexual tension (which is later resolved obviously)
- build-up between the characters and a series of events that create anticipation in the readers
- the squee-worthy first kiss (for me a first kiss is really a make it or break it moment in a romance novel)
- and of course, it does help if the love scenes and happily-ever-afters (or hints thereof) are a factor.

The above-mentioned points? Contrary to popular belief, it’s not easy to write at all. Some of my writer friends have gone as far as to say that sex scenes are quite possibly the worst to write because it’s not simply a case of writing two characters whose bodies are simply slapping together.

It’s not just about boobs, naked bodies and unadulterated smut

Not only does it need to be sexy, sensual and spicy but it also needs to be believable, because you’re creating a moment of intimacy that’s both physical and emotional.

Every year the lit industry has a field day with the bad sex awards – and romance novels almost never feature on that list. Just saying.

Another excellent point raised on Hypable.com is that most romance novels, unlike in TV and movies, are catered to and centred around the female gaze and that sex only forms part of the larger story and isn’t the inherent idea in itself.
Which means it’s not just about boobs, naked bodies and unadulterated smut (although if you want that, then the erotica genre is your go-to fix for that) but a story where women are more than the sum of their body parts.

And frankly, that alone is reason to celebrate reading romantic reads, don’t you think?

With romance novels continuing to dominate bookselling charts, it’s no wonder that Mills & Boon has jumped on an opportunity to give their books a bit of a face lift.

Publicity manager for Jonathan Ball publishers, Nkanyezi Tshabalala says that we can look forward to some seriously sizzling romance.

"Mills & Boon has a reputation for being a thriving brand. The brand has just undergone a glamourous makeover, so readers can expect a more modern look and feel as well as stimulating new content which delivers the romance and escapism that fans look for." – Nkanyezi Tshabalala

WATCH: Steamy romantic reads recommendations

Of course, I’m not denying that the genre doesn’t have issues.

I mean there are tropes that really need to die and there are still many books that still showcase women as being damsels in distress but there are plenty of romance reads that should be read widely and without shame because they’re well-written, tell a good (and often fun story) and are more deeply layered and complex than you realise.

Do you love romance novels? Tell us about your favourites!

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