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The Love and Money Post
There's a new and rather interesting book out about that most despised of generic formulae, the Harlequin Mills & Boon romance.

For Love and Money: the Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills and Boon Romance

Laura Vivanco, For Love and Money: The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance

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This book is an indignant and compelling defence of a subgenre that is typically denounced by people who have read few or even no examples, but that is adored by its fans and inspires great loyalty. It's also both clever and honourable in its approach -- a rare and admirable combination.

The cleverness lies in Vivanco's use of Northrop Frye's literary modes (from his wonderful 1958 Anatomy of Criticism) to sidestep the whole, ridiculous muddle we're all in about what 'genre' is, and about the supposed values of a 'literature' that is routinely opposed to 'genre fiction'. Instead of having to wade through casual and often ignorant dismissals of her subject (and her introduction quotes some doozies), Vivanco applies a taxonomy of mythic, high- and low-mimetic, and ironic modes, which makes excellent sense, highlights the variety HM&B authors achieve within the firm's commercially dictated formulae, and allows for consistently interesting argument by example. Within that framework there are chapters on mythoi, metafiction, and metaphors, each demonstrating a set of subtleties, allusions, and cultural values in HM&B work over the last eighty or so years. 

The honour is in the book's readability and friendliness to anyone interested. Much contemporary litcrit may have its values, but has among them an unrelenting elitism in the use of very polysyllabic and abstract jargon with which even specialists struggle and which is for the general reader usually an insurmountable barrier. Vivanco, contrariwise, makes her clever thinking seem straightforward, and writes easily and well. I wouldn't call her style belleletristic, exactly, but it's certainly far closer to the readable, generally knowledgeable, and culturally alert criticism of the mid-twentieth-century than to the ugly, intellectually clotted and narrow work that has become so common in more recent decades.

If you do read HM&Bs you'll find a lot of pleasure in this book, some welcome recommendations from the firm's enormous backlist, and nothing to put you off an 'academic' or 'intellectual' text. If you don't, but have any interest at all in romance (in any of its manifold senses), in genre/s, or in the popular culture of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, you'll find yourself substantially rewarded and left thoughtful. And whatever your own reading habits, if you know anyone who reads HM&B or has any of the other interests I mention, the PDF or Kindle editions can still be given for Christmas.

Update, October 2012: For Love and Money has had a very positive review by Maryan Wherry in the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, which you can see here.

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Being an actual fan of 'genre romance' in all its manifestations I'm definitely looking forward to reading this. I started collecting the Mills & Boon Masquerade historical romances when I was about 18 and eventually stopped at about #250 as I ran out of room. I still have about 30 of them in my library of ~1,500 books. Along with quite a few of the various other 'penny-dreadfuls' as my mother used to call them. (She introduced me to them when I was about 10 IIRC).

Excellent! You'll find some other notices and discussion of the book at Teach Me Tonight and Liz Fielding's blog, and it'll be worth googling it in a day or two as notices get posted in various romance communities. The Teach Me Tonight post also has some links, including one to a list of the HM&Bs that are cited.

'Penny dreadfuls' seems a bit harsh! I know what your mother meant, of course, but given how lurid and sensationally violent the real penny dreadfuls were (and how low their production standards), I'd bet the original Messrs Mills & Boon thought of what they were doing as being as much in opposition to such true vulgarity as to highbrow literary snobbishness. It's interesting that your ma thought otherwise -- in the early 1970s, yes? if I'm remembering your profile correctly.

It's a good time to be fan of 'genre romance', I think -- not just as the Age of Nora Roberts, or for some of the younger writers coming through and being marketed as mainstream (Rachel Hore, say), but in the activity in the generic borderlands. The interface with SF&F in particular has produced some wonderful work -- Lois, obviously, in all three of her worlds, but also Sharon Lee & Steve Miller, Patricia Briggs, Carrie Vaughn, and a lot of lesser but still very decent writers also.

In any case, hope you enjoy Laura Vivanco's book, and do please report back.

There was an element or irony in her reference, affection almost. IIRC she was really referring to the Women's Weekly Library 'books' - a slim, very soft cover format, she used to buy and let me read - if you remember those. A precursor, in the UK I thought, to the thicker more ruggedly bound MH&B. And yes, late 60s/early 70s, when she made the transition from school cleaner to teacher and we emigrated.

Mind you, she also introduced me to Mary Stewart, Georgette Heyer, Richard Adams and Anne McCaffrey. In the last 10 years of her life she made a further transition from teacher to school librarian, passing on her love of books to many more than just me.

I've ordered the book for our library. When I get my new tablet I will probably get the pdf.

I don't recall the Women's Weekly you mention -- my ma was a GP, and more likely to be found reading The Lancet or the BMJ -- but I know the sort of thing you mean. Historically speaking, I don't think they could be considered precursors of HM&B, M&B having been founded in 1908 IIRC, but I can see that within an individual's reading life they could be a stage leading to mmpb romances -- something, perhaps, as those 64-page graphic novels of wartime escapades led many people (myself included) on to the likes of Alistair Maclean, Hammond Innes, and Desmond Bagley. The thrillers of that kind were almost all Pan or Fontana, and time was there seemed to be a rack of them in every newsagents, usually right next to where the comics and graphic novels were shelved.

We have a lot of reading in common! I also read Mary Stewart in the 1970s, using my mother's copies, and after my older brother sprang Dragonflight on her one year, Anne McCaffrey. (RIP -- not unexpected but saddening news.) I also remember vividly finding her Dragonsong and Dragonsinger in the school library once, searching for summer reading, and devouring them both in a day, so I too will cheer for school (and other) librarians. Richard Adams I think everyone in the family read when Watership Down came out, but I can't recall if anyone besides me went on to Shardik and The Plague Dogs. Georgette Heyer wasn't a parental author, oddly, though I'm pretty sure my brother read some; much later I discovered her for myself and read all the Regencies as well as some others -- a great pleasure, that stood me in good stead doing the Reader's Companion to A Civil Campaign.

Tablets are wonderful things, and the PDF is certainly recommended for them. We've had some feedback from purchasers of the Kindle edition, praising the layout on smaller screens, which is pleasing -- but I confess that I don't really understand why anyone would choose to read any substantial text on a G3-size screen. It certainly makes consulting any of the footnotes a slog, and many of Laura Vivanco's are well worth attending to. Ah well. In any case, all feedback on the various editions is very welcome, and I do hope you enjoy the book.

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