Saturday, August 16, 2008

Will Mills and Boon Publish Crime Novels?

There are no happy endings
By Fay Weldon

Once, love leading to marriage was the answer to a poor girl's dream. No longer. Mills & Boon, we hear, proposes to branch out into crime novels.

Passion takes a back seat: romance titles account for just eight per cent of the adult fiction market in the United Kingdom, while the crime/thriller market is three and a half times that size.

Interest shifts from who loves whom to who kills whom. The pages still turn feverishly, but to a different end and satisfaction.

advertisementHappiness is no longer to be found in the lover's arms, but in justice done, evil punished and the cosmic balance righted.

The crime novel rests on a kind of morality, though often only by way of the forensic lab, and the gruesomeness of a dead female body. The disfigured corpse of the pretty girl starts many a crime novel today.

Once it was the body of the high-status man who tended to be found dead in his luxury apartment, while the pretty girl is found dismembered and tumbled in to a ditch.

Body-wise, of course, plain girls don't get a look in, any more than they did in the romance novel. As it is not in real life, so must it be in escapist fiction. That's the point of it.

But can it mean that instead of identifying with the pretty young heroines, readers now simply want their rivals dead?

The creative writing students whom I teach these days find it hard to write happy romantic endings.

But surely, surely, it could end with a kiss, I ask? No, it must go on from Saturday night's embrace to Sunday morning, when he stumbles from the bed and leaves without a backward glance, or a "Sorry, must get back to the wife".

And she suffers dreadfully, or preferably is feisty enough to leap lightly from the bed, saying: "There are more fish in the sea than ever came out of it." (Which, taken literally is not, one fears, true any more.) The iron has entered the young female soul.

Girls still want boys, quite desperately. Current research shows us that being sexually desirable to men, or at least to prove to other girls that they are, motivates them at the cost of all feminist ambition.

Perhaps this competition between women is hard-wired? A remnant of the old days when survival itself meant pleasing a man, when a girl was dependent on a man - father, husband, brother? Before men became optional extras? When she couldn't earn enough to support herself, let alone her children too, and the race was to get the highest-status man?

Jane Austen, who never married, and her mother too, widowed, ended their lives dependent on Jane's wealthy brother. No wonder Mr Darcy, the wealthy high-status man, archetype for the Mills & Boon romance novel, was such a prize.

Today's girl is not after the pleasure of sex, it seems - that is a means to an end. She is not after romance - she is too realistic for that - but after the status of the partnered girl.

She needs to be seen to be wanted; she craves the envy of others. "Look at me, I'm thinner than you, you can see every rib I have. What's more I have the most expensive handbag in the world. Look at me, look at the man on my arm, the would-be lovers grovelling at my feet."

It is not the man she wants, or needs, to impress; it is other women. I know a girl who tried to sell a kidney in order to buy a designer jacket.

Today's girl, I fear, impervious to romance, too often sees the man as another consumer desirable. The worry is more about what he looks like on her arm, than the other way round.

For his part, he knows he is nowhere without a car, a flat and trendy clothes. But somewhere in her nature lurks the old idea that a girl marries a man a little older than herself, a little better educated, and of a higher social class. As Mr Darcy was to Elizabeth.

But where is he to be found? She begins to go off romance novels.

Feminism has worked, though she will deny it: she can think of nothing more pathetic than waiting for a Mr Darcy, that proud, prejudiced person, to turn up. She would rather read a mystery novel in which his sister, Miss Bingley, gets the fate she deserves, that is to say, death.

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