Literary Notes: Why do women read romantic fiction?

"DO WOMEN who read Mills & Boon have just one brain cell?" a literary critic recently asked with a smirk. "It's only silly housewives who read these books, isn't it?"

The attitude is typical, and it isn't only men who talk like that. Some women also sneer at those of their sex who read love stories. But war stories, westerns, spy stories are all accepted as respectable because they are read by men. It is only women's light reading which is derided.

Virginia Woolf in her book A Room of One's Own says, "It is obvious that the values of women differ from those of men, yet it is masculine values that prevail, in fiction as in fact. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war, but this is an insignificant book because it only deals with the feelings of women."

The millions of Mills & Boon readers come from all classes and conditions of society. Many, of course, are housewives, but many also have jobs, including large numbers of highly educated professionals - doctors, lawyers, professors. Indeed, I once met a high-flying diplomat, a man, who had read hundreds of the books. He found them relaxing reading after a day spent toiling through slablike official documents. But he didn't want me to be "outed" from the closet.

How can three million hard-working, busy, capable women be dismissed as "silly housewives"? And what is it that they are looking for in a romantic novel?

In his book Archetype the psychologist Anthony Stevens says: "The masculine and feminine archetypes are fundamental archetypes which have dominated the history of our species since its emergence. To deny their profound significance is as sensible as denying the existence of the penis and the womb."

It is to this deeply embedded awareness in the female unconscious that romantic fiction speaks. A romantic novel is an adult fairy story, repeating the recurring symbols and images which can explain life to a woman and satisfy a powerful need within her. The need to love, and be loved is vital to all human beings, but especially to women. Perhaps that is why many men and some women sneer? Do they feel that the necessity of loving is a weakness, making one vulnerable to hurt? The film As Good As It Gets stars Jack Nicholson as a man whose isolation from the human beings around him is making him mad. Love redeems him; his entire world is changed when he begins to care about other people. That is an archetypal Mills & Boon storyline.

Romantic fiction is the only purely feminine art form. All other art forms were shaped and are dominated by men. Romantic fiction is written by women for women, and only concerned with a view of the world through women's eyes. Men may sense a female conspiracy - what are women talking about inside these books? they wonder. If a man reads one he is shown himself in an image he does not recognise, and retreats in panic, like someone who has wandered into a hall of distorting mirrors.

Romantic fiction explores the sexual identity of the heroine and, by extension, that of the readers. It embodies female fantasies about sex and power, views men from a female perspective, and by projecting the pure force of the masculine archetype into the hero attempts to understand and explain to the reader, within a story form, the permanently changing balance of the age-old war between the sexes.

Writers and readers are still trying to work out unresolved problems between men and women, and that is why millions of women around the world are hooked on romantic fiction. So am I.

Charlotte Lamb is the author of `Deep and Silent Waters' (Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 16.99)