Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Price Of Pleasure

2008 sees the 100th anniversary of Mills & Boon – we’ve been sent a special display at work, commemorating said fact, along with displaying the M&Bs. The fact that I never see anyone pick up any of them, or serve anyone buying one, forces me to wonder how precisely the company has survived all these years; the total lack of subtlety (titles such as The Boss’s Christmas Baby abound), crude boilerplate prose and cheap design (“Three Great Stories Of Seduction In One!” a cover with the trademark bad photography and icky colour swathe) has made them less competitive in a market now dominated by the likes of Nora Roberts and Jayne Ann Krentz (who are, as their covers never cease to remind us, New York Times Bestselling Authors.) I should note here that I know about most of this stuff because my mother has vast numbers of the things – she probably reads more than me, and has read, at a conservative estimate, over a thousand, now scattered in various places; these days it’s mostly the more faux-sophisticated Romance-Crime crossover works pumped out by the likes of Roberts than the sweating, clumsy potboilers of M&B/Jackie Collins/Connie Mason, etc. she would be caught reading.

The people I see browsing around the Romance section at work are almost exclusively women of, uh, ‘a certain age’: past the mid-40s, and looking it – hair going thin, weak and grey, everything really beginning to droop – stretching on to the early-to-mid ‘60s, and definitely looking it (one customer, trailing the bags-on-wheels one often sees in this neck of the woods, smelled rather badly of urine.) This isn’t meant as a slight against them: for the most part they can’t help it. Romance novels, in fact, seem to feed on this kind of deprivation, this existential rot: they function as a sort of temporary portal out of these women’s situations. Actually, not quite, it isn’t mere escapism, as such – that implies the possibility, at least in fantasy or illusion, of the things described in these books (being ravished by ultra-handsome strangers, for the most part) happening to them. What it actually seems to represent is a completely separate world (which explains the popularity of historical and ‘paranormal’ (i.e. with werewolves and vampires doing the ravishing) romances), a means of enjoyment that is utterly vicarious. As opposed to the chattering-class Rachel Allen maternal types who supposedly don’t read such things (well they wouldn’t – they supposedly have, um, yr actual sex), the sheer poverty of life demands some other (or Other) object to which the attention might be temporarily directed, away from the usual mind-numbing tasks that make up the majority of each day; an idealised portrait of somewhere to escape to, deriving its power precisely from the fact that it can never be realised. The sort of women who read these books are hard-nosed and practical, never romantics: my mother, who came from a rural working-class background, was forced to raise two children, and pull herself, and my father, into the middle-class by sheer force of will. It’s a way of temporarily negating the quotidian; my mother says it’s a way of “switching off my brain.”

Romance novels form the archetypal template for all reactionary art: religion is no longer the “opiate of the masses” – that’s the entertainment-industrial complex, which continues to colonise our lives (not necessarily a bad thing, so long as it’s good pop culture). Every single one I’ve come across has been completely heteronormative: the archetypal whore/Madonna heroine meets the bulky (and the covers almost always show an enormous macho piece of meat masquerading as a person), and engages in shenanigans, is the brief summation of every plot ever written (or outlined and ghostwritten) for these things; any novels with gay and lesbian relationships are classed as ‘erotica’ and banished to the ‘Gay/Lesbian Writing’ section. They hide an essentially reactionary attitude behind apparent liberation - consider what the reaction would be if any of these novels were written by men, namely they'd be revealed as the misogynistic fantasies they are. They don’t represent the usual reactionary template of hetero relationships (married domesticity), but instead conform to the usual orthodox Freudian or Reichian notion of an unleashed pleasure principle as inherently liberating, with 'repression' as the only real block to enjoyment. Foucault, of course, blew this entire notion out of the water in The Will To Knowledge; the book was essentially a reaction to 'fucking is liberating' attitude of the trendy fringe of 1960s leftist theory, revealing this attitude as oppressive in itself; the only difference between it, and the world of romance novels, is the gap between reality and fantasy. Actually, that's not quite true: I don't think it's a stretch to say that most people's notion of relationships, and actual relationships, are based on the constructs of culture plotted most explicitly by romance novels, exercising power over biology just as much as Foucault's 'sciences of sexuality' - it's simply a matter of one (for example, bohemian/hipster society) managing to make a concept more solid than the other (misery-drenched working-class women), through the extra possibilities of privilege.


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