Some Saturdays can be more colourful than others. Such as the one last weekend when I found myself in an upstairs room of a trendy Soho restaurant at 9.30am. A blonde woman in thigh boots sat opposite; other 50-somethings smiled demurely. Sizzle – a book whose cover featured an ice-cube melting on a woman’s bare, bronze torso – lay like a grenade on the table in front of us.
Some women had already hit the bubbly. Who can blame them? We were strangers, gathered in a very pink room, to learn the rules of romance writing. I use the word ‘romance’ euphemistically. This “Valentine’s workshop”, called Passion on the Page, had been organised by WriteStars and was being led by Katherine Garbera, no other than the author of Sizzle, who was surprisingly fresh-faced for having penned 61 such sizzling bestsellers. Many of the books she wrote were Harlequin titles – the publisher of the Mills & Boon imprint.
If you are about to sneer, I say hold your horses! Take away the hen-party set up and the compulsory homage to EL James for bringing literary erotica to the masses and a workshop such as this one is not only fascinating to attend (everyone had an interesting story) but also asks valid, and enduring, questions of how passion can be written on the page without losing its potency and imagination.
As Katherine – sweet, modest, with a genuine passion for romance writing – took us through the “12 steps of intimacy” needed for writing Harlequin-style passion, I began to see how little the blueprint for romantic heroes had changed over time, and also how little variance there was between the romantic characters of high, low and middlebrow romance literature. They seem petrified across the centuries and genres: the steely, silent types, the masterful men of power, the tormented, pale-faced outcasts who never cease to thrill modern Mills & Boons readers are the very same men that fill the romantic canon. They are the misunderstood Hamlets, the silently noble Darcys, the tormented Rochesters, the salt-of-the-earth Mellors. My own romantic hero, as I sat in the pink room and dreamt him up on instruction in the first writing exercise, was a mash-up of these archetypes. All are difficult men with high levels of the emotional inaccessibility that acts as an engine to romantic intrigue – and anguish. Of course ,you get some accessible ones – the puppy-love of Romeo for Juliet, but then something else – family feud – has to spark the inaccessibility because, as Katherine told us, the story must include a central conflict.
But while romantic heroes may stay the same, the difference lies in how writers articulate their passions. Katherine has the 12-steps formula and it clearly works for her 31m readers – the focus on voice, smell, body shape, all of which tap into genetic hardwiring, apparently. What is exciting for her, she says, will be exciting for her readers. Judge for yourself, on page 58 of Sizzle.
The rules for writing romance in literary fiction, though, appear more blurred. Many stop at the bedroom door. There are a few who dare to write it in, such as Philip Roth, with mixed results (a success, at least, in the collection of passion between the cleaner and the university lecturer in her ‘‘dance’’ in The Human Stain). Perhaps the most interesting instances of sex in literary fiction are actually the incomplete or odd moments that don’t stop at the bedroom door but don’t bust in either. There is just enough detail, and it is often discordant detail, that lends itself to the imagination: the taking off of the watch in Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, or the scene in JM Coetzee’s Summertime in a which the fictional Coetzee bumps into a woman who will later become his lover and accidentally touches her breast. It is an excruciating moment that shows the teenage nerves of the adult in thrall to barely conscious desire. These scenes should not be sexy, on paper, but they are. Lavinia Greenlaw, the poet and chair of the Folio prize, this week spoke of fiction that works despite doing things that should make it fail. She was talking about the prize shortlist, but couldn’t this rule be applied to writing passion on the page too?
Rachel Kushner’s first novel follows her brilliant second
Talking of the Folio prize, it was excellent to see Rachel Kushner’s epic second novel, The Flamethrowers, among the shortlist. It was a book that became so many people’s favourite book of 2013. Better still, her 2008 debut, Telex from Cuba, will be published in Britain this April.