How the world fell back in love with romantic fiction

“It’s vitally important that stories of love depict a wide range of characters,” says author Sareeta Domingo, who has published a collection of love stories by British women of colour, called Who’s Loving You. “Love is a universal human experience. The way a love story is told says so much about society, and so we need to see all types of people within them.”

Even industry stalwarts are embracing change, with Mills & Boon launching a competition for romance novels featuring LGBTQI+ protagonists. Quite a departure for an imprint that was founded more than a century ago and has been the butt of jokes for almost as long. With titles like Rent a Wife and The Billionaire’s Captive Bride – in which young helpless women swoon at the attentions of powerful men – it’s not difficult to see why. The stuff of feminist fantasy this certainly isn’t, and by the 1980s the appetite for these skinny, florid volumes was starting to wane. Little wonder that, in 2003, 2.5 million pulped editions were mixed with tarmac and used in the construction of the M6 ​​Toll.

Yet the sneering has never affected sales. The romance novels (it started out publishing books on subjects like travel and craft as well) have long been a roaring success, with the earliest examples selling thousands of copies and propelling their authors towards fruitful writing careers, some – such as Jean MacLeod who wrote 130 Mills & Boon books between 1939 and 2011 – nipping at the heels of even Barbara Cartland, who authored 723 romance novels in her lifetime.

By the 1970s, the paperbacks had a reputation for being “sensual” and their handsome English heroes had attracted the attention of foreign readers. Today, the imprint has more than 1,500 writers worldwide. According to its website, a new Mills & Boon book is sold in the UK every 10 seconds and, even today, 700 new titles are published annually – including one by the Duchess of York last year.

But Mills & Boon were pretty chaste compared to what was happening in the real world, as sexuality became more explicit in everyday conversation and films and TV started to leave little to the imagination. Into that vacuum stepped the “bonkbuster” – with Jilly Cooper, Jackie Collins, Danielle Steel and the Black Lace series giving readers something to really get hot under the collar about. And of course, “chick lit”, whose “modern” and “relatable” female characters started with Bridget Jones and went on to dominate romantic fiction in the 1990s and early 2000s – with book covers featuring lipstick, bags, stilettos and cocktail glasses.

While it might have attracted a wide readership, the reviewers were less than kind. “Romantic fiction has always been loved by readers and has powered the fiction industry and bestseller lists – it is just not acknowledged by the literary establishment,” says Amanda Ridout, who founded commercial fiction publisher Boldwood Books in 2019.

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