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)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on