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



" 'I knew it. You made me feel like I was going mad, but I knew it. How could you, how could you let me feel like that?'

'Nothing had happened when you asked me. I swear to you.'

'So how long? How long has it been going on?'

It turns out that it is impossible to talk about adultery without turning into a Magic FM playlist."

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own