Who says romance is dead?

A surfeit of pink-jacketed 'chick-lit' might be hazardous, but women's fiction remains in rude health, says Alexandra Heminsley

This summer has seen a rash of analysis into a dangerous threat to the nation's womenfolk. It is not domestic abuse, breast cancer or even orange-peel thighs: it is romantic fiction. A report by the founder and president of LDS Life Coaching, Kimberly Sayer Giles, includes a five-point plan for tackling "romance novel addiction" and includes worried comment from the Christian psychologist Dr Juli Slattery, who sees increasing numbers of women "clinically addicted to romantic books", and states that these books "really do promote dissatisfaction with their real relationships".

The article prompted ridicule and a satirical #romancekills game on Twitter. So far, so chucklesome. But hot on its heels was an essay by the British relationship expert Susan Quilliam in the peer-reviewed Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care, breezily discussing research which she believes indicates that romance novels are hazardous to their readers' sexual health: condoms are rarely mentioned, so women simply lose their minds and neglect to use them.

It is surely not necessary to point out what a ridiculous claim it is that any reader unthinkingly adopts the behaviour of their favourite novel's hero. Despite begging me to read Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus every time I see him, my godson has yet to attempt a career on the No 19, any more than my boyfriend behaves like Jack Reacher after an airport indulgence in a Lee Child novel.

But what was most striking about the response to these essays was the insidious manner in which "romantic fiction" became "chick-lit", which in turn referenced commercial women's fiction in general. Why is this entire section of the market so often lumped together, tarred with the same pink glitter brush, and dismissed as mere fluff for shoe-fixated airheads? A recent piece in The Telegraph on the re-issue of Rona Jaffe's The Best of Everything stated that "commercial women's fiction no longer yearns for guilt-free lust or an exciting life. Instead, it depicts a perverse mirror image. Everything is just a distraction from the main event: Mr Right." I actually yelped when I read it – nothing could be further from the truth.

The difference between a classic Regency romance and a slice of current commercial women's fiction is enormous: recent titles dismissed as "chick-lit" have tackled subjects as varied as substance abuse, grief, ambition, female friendship and terminal illness. It's not all cupcakes and cocktails – and even the books that do include cupcakes and cocktails can also contain some of the best comic writing on the market.

The assumption that readers stick to only one genre is equally bizarre – why would avid fiction fans stick to a diet of pink book jackets any more than fashion fans would restrict themselves to nothing but pink Chanel jackets? Readers of Louise Mensch (née Bagshawe) are just as likely to enjoy reading her work on a sun lounger as they were to enjoy watching her work during the Parliamentary select committee last month. We can do both, just as highly qualified male professionals can put in a good day's work and relax on the commute home with a Jeffery Deaver book.

Yet, while critics are often guilty of dismissing the genre as a homogeneous mass – rarely deigning to review them properly lest they sully themselves with sparkly pink frosting – publishers have also confused their potential readers. Anyone who has wandered into a women's fiction section to be confronted by a wall of pink covers knows that it is baffling at best and off-putting at worst. If the unashamedly romantic novels of David Nicholls or Nick Hornby had been written by women, what would their jackets have looked like? Why are publishers not doing more to clarify what lies beneath the jacket?

As Harriet Evans, formerly both Bagshawe's and Penny Vincenzi's editor and now a bestselling author in her own right, explains: "We're at a game-changing point in terms of the market, and the slight laziness and patronising attitudes to women's tastes that have got us here. Every major women's fiction author this year is down, sales wise – even super-popular ones – so the bottom of the market is going to shrink. That's no bad thing if it means that really good commercial women's fiction is allowed to flourish again"

Joanne Dickinson, the fiction publisher at Sphere, backs this up, and it looks as if cover design might be in for a little de-pinkification. She says: "Women's commercial fiction has become saturated over the past few years, and suffered declining sales. More than ever, it could benefit from a new energy and vision. It's an ongoing process to change cover perceptions, but one that is vitally important to long-term success."

One of Dickinson's key authors this summer is Eleanor Moran, whose Breakfast in Bed is one of the funniest titles of the year. Its cover is less pink than blue, but this wasn't always the case, as the hot-pink proofs revealed. Dickinson confirms: "We wanted to create a jacket that would feel fresh and modern and striking ... there were negative comments about the initial bright pink background colour." The final, bluer version does a fine job of representing an author who has a razor-sharp sense of humour as well as recognising that "you have to raise your game in an environment where mainstream women's magazines such as Grazia are recommending Siri Hustvedt".

If the genre wants to garner the respect that it deserves, this thoughtfulness needs to continue. Romantic fiction won't ruin its readers – the bigger worry is that its patronised readers might ruin it.

Breakfast in Bed, by Eleanor Moran

Sphere £6.99



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