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Zine review: How To Write A Mills & Boon-esque Bodice Ripper Novel

July 2, 2010

During English A-level classes a few years ago my classmates and I were once asked to re-write a page of a Mills & Boon novel each, only replacing every instance of ‘him’ with ‘her’ / ‘he’ with ‘she’ and visa versa, as a kind of satire on the reductive gender stereotypes inherent within the genre. To be honest, the results for my allocated page weren’t particularly unusual and hence not as damning re: the novel’s blatant sexism as our teacher had hoped. At one point when the male character  (now transmogrified into a girl obv.) picks up something slightly heavy in a display of both strength and bravado, his / her arms ripple and the watching female / male character whimper with lust. To read about a girl picking up something heavy and her arms muscles flexing didn’t really make it seem ridiculous; if anything it was slightly sexy.

Where this exercise failed, the wonderful new handbook ‘How To Write A Mills & Boon-esque Bodice Ripper Novel’ by the exquisitely-monikered Leopoldina Van Wowser-Ainwright pinpoints with remarkable and hilarious aplomb all the laughably reductive, patronising and worryingly popular motifs that provide the backbone to every trashy paperback you’ve pretended to not have borrowed from a mobile library. While arguably an easy target for anyone able to cope with a plot that has more than one twist and characters that have at least two dimensions, the execution of the cheesy romance novel’s undermining in this instance is one of the funniest pieces of literary criticism i’ve read in ages – a backhanded compliment, but a compliment nonetheless. I even alarmed a train carriage full of footy fans when i guffawed involuntarily at the idea of a book being called ‘The Billionaire’s Naughty Fitness Instructor’ without a shred of irony, and that’s the sort of situation i thought was invented for cliched literature reviews in Sunday supplements.

There are however some points of conjecture that, your outlook on this publication’s aims permitting, could mean that it’s not done its job properly. If the goal is to satirically highlight the unimaginative and borderline offensive way in which these books target their audience, only hilariously, then yeah it’s succeeded. But if the purpose is to put the reader off the idea of actually giving one of these tomes a go by showing up what flaccid, dull fiction pottage it is – and it is – then i’d argue that it’s failed. There’s a reason why, if you ever find a copy of a Mills & Boon languishing all yellow and crumpled at the bottom of a 10-for-a-dollar Salvos bargain bin, it looks like there’s about three pages near the middle and another three at the end all dog-eared and over-thumbed while the rest appears pristine and, frankly, unread: because it is. Although there’s the perceived notion that these books are chock full of softcore shenanigans for housewives and ‘closets’ – remember this is idiots saying this, not me – if anyone actually read anything other than the half a dozen pages of he-entered-her-she-ravenously-accepted-him two-backed-beasting rompage they’d not only be turned off through boredom but they’d also feel the idea of humans ever thinking of procreating in order to write more of this depressing shit-lit tripe is a terrible idea and not to be undergone. Thing is, the examples written by ‘Van Wowser-Ainwright‘ seem bloody great.

Yes, we all know that anything brimming with overblown prescribed stereotypes can be unintentionally amusing (cf. every eighties video ever / Diagnosis: Murder) and that parody milks these caricatures to potentially hilarious effect – the reason why, for instance, Darkplace* is utterly ace while actual sub-Stephen King trashy horror writing is often just dull. But there’s something about the excerpts from this zine that, despite my better judgement (and the content of the rest of the publication itself) makes me think, well, maybe i should re-consider the genre. The tantalising section of Fangs Aflame And Ravenous In The Dark is pretty good, and at one point i’m sure the writer basically outlines the plot for Shaun of The Dead; but best of all, one example given sets up a situation where a lovers’ tryst is unfolding on a space shuttle that’s experimenting on a monstrous new hybrid combining a possum and a praying mantis. Who wouldn’t want to read, or indeed write, something like that? Hopefully like the romance novel equivalent of KLF’s The Manual this zine will encourage budding authors to give it a go, with hiLOLrious leg-moistening results.

You can read stuff by and be nice to the author via here.

* see:

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 3, 2010 7:21 pm

    Yay, thanks for the review Thomas! It’s thoughtful and engaging in its own right. And just for the record: despite spoofing the entire genre, I LOVE Mills & Boon-style stuff against my better sanity, and I encourage everyone to read and/or write them. In that way I really wanted my zine to both celebrate and parody that type of fiction, hence the reason why it’s a “How to” zine, not a straight up “All the reasons why we should hate and ridicule Mills & Boon” zine.
    Anyway, happy blogging and zine-making — I look forward to your future posts!

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