You Read That Trash?

Last week I gave a library talk on the romance genre titled “You Read That Trash?” as part of a heritage talk series. Romance novels of course are loaded with fabulous heritage aspects, from the amazing covers themselves, to the social history of women through the century.

One fascinating aspect was the popularity of medical romances and how, according to one commentator, it was because many of the writers were nurses, and as the National Health Service came into being in the 1950s, these women were keen to promote it amidst the changing landscape of health.

On the cover art front, several of the covers were designed by artist Jack B. Faulks who produced a lot of pop-culture covers. He often had the man standing just behind the heroine, as in the Nora Sanderson cover and the Essie Summers.

It was also an opportunity to look into the Mills and Boon company and see how they came to be publishers of romance novels; originally they were general fiction and non fiction publishers. They were the English publisher for Jack London, for example, and in one of the books I read there was mention of a letter Jack sent to Messrs Mills and Boon saying how happy he was with them marketing his books in England.

It was by the 1950s that Mills and Boon became a predominantly romance publisher. As Alan Boon apparently once said – we publish a very specialised list. Even Shakespeare would have trouble getting on it!

It was an absolutely fun talk, some good questions were asked, and I think I got behind all the crap about romance and the appeal of it, to present it as a genre that in no way should ever suffer the disdain (or as the kids would say – hate!) that it still suffers from today.
As one of the women said afterwards in the Q & A – I might have to give romance a try, after believing all the propaganda for years!


Jane Austen, Harry Potter, Fifty Shades, Tolkien and the Luminaries

In a nutshell, I have not read Pride and Prejudice, Harry Potter, The Luminaries, Lord of the Rings or Fifty Shades of Grey. (That’s a pretty spectacular list, I must say.) This post was originally written for a different blog but being that “content re-purposing” is the in thing, I present it here. 

A friend was reading some fiction I’d written the other day and after telling me what she did like about it, commented, “But you’re no Jane Austen.”

I believe this is the book she was reading.

I once read a Jane Austen.  It was Emma. It was read under duress at university. I consider myself a person of not massively low intelligence, but it took three reads to get my head around it. Interestingly, that paper was not only my first and only complete Jane Austen experience, but my first and only experience of analysing English literature. I did get an A but not without suffering a degree of depression as a result. Yes, I gained an appreciation for some things (Elizabeth Barrett Browning sonnets, oh my gosh!) but analysing Emily Dickinson was enough to sap the will to live right out of me. Fortuitously, at the end of that semester, I watched the movie Stargate on TV,  and promptly un-enrolled myself from Shakespeare, signed up for Egyptology, and all became well again. The literature of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom? Now, that I could get into.

It would be dishonest to say I never tried to read Jane Austen again. I have read the first page of “Pride and Prejudice” many, many times, and the second page a few less. I believe one year I may even have finished the first half of chapter one. Another time I got “Northanger Abbey” out of the library and looked at the cover for quite a while. I can’t recall actually opening it, but that’s not to say I didn’t.

But it got me thinking about those books that are acclaimed either for their literary merit or their popularity, and the ones I’ve never read. All the other Jane Austens, of course, but what else comes to mind?

Harry Potter 
I did start the first one, but when Harry arrived at Hogwarts, it lost me. I have actually vowed on many occasions to read them all but since the first book came out in 1997, it’s looking unlikely unless I’m in prison or somewhere with nothing else to do.

The Luminaries 
I feel I should run away and hide for a few months after admitting this but the truth is, I will never read it. I did read the first six pages or so but the thought of making my way through it all when I can barely make it to the end of a 70,000 word romantic comedy… No. I feel no guilt over this either because Ms Catton doesn’t need me to like it.

Fifty Shades of Grey
I once gave a talk related to romance publishing and got asked what I thought of the trilogy and when I said I hadn’t read them, it felt a bit like when people used to say ‘I read Playboy for the articles’. Like I was lying, or something. A lot of the criticism over the books seems to be due to the writing-style, and given that I’m no Jane Austen, I  must assume E.L. James isn’t either and we thus have a bit in common.  But then I tend to read more on the sweet and light side, and I don’t believe Christian Grey is at all about sweetness and light. Or maybe he is… I mean, how would I even know unless I go and read for myself? Oh, the quandary… But then there is, of course, the movie… Hmmm.

The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit
Many’s the time I’ve driven through Matamata and thought, “I must read Tolkien.” Many’s the time when in Wellington I’ve spotted the Embassy Theatre and thought the same thing. Many’s the time I have picked up an actual Tolkien book, opened it, and thought, “I’m going to finally read this genius and see what all the fuss is about.”  Every time I have gently closed it, placed it reverently back on the shelf – and reached for Bridget Jones instead.

Bridget Jones is so good , you forget to eat the chocolate anyway..