(Originally posted on Blogger – some formatting glitches remain and need to be fixed)
Last weekend saw the annual Australian Romance Readers Awards.
Other authors present at the awards dinner included AWW challenge participant Helene Young, whose book, Shattered Sky, won Favourite Romantic Suspense, multiple ARRA award-winner Kandy Shepherd, Lisa Heidke, Rachael Johns, Sharon Archer, Beverley Eikli, internationally best-selling author Keri Arthur, and witty guest speaker Paula Roe.
But how many Australian readers and booksellers have heard of these talented, successful Australian authors?
Of all the women writers in Australia, romance writers are among the most under-recognised, despite their success internationally.They are victims not only of gender bias, but also of genre bias. In the lead-up to International Women’s Day (March 8) and The Stella Prize discussions on the nature of women’s writing (whether it differs from men’s), maybe it’s time to question why romance writers and their chosen genre have yet to achieve the respect they deserve.
In recent years, the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR) has been established in an effort to address this very problem. The first IASPR international conference was held in Brisbane in 2009. Since then, the association has flourished, attracting an increasing number scholars, including some notable Australians such as Juliet Flesch and author Bronwyn Parry who insist on taking romance writing seriously.
One independent scholar writing in the romance field is Laura Vivanco, contributor to the influential blog, Teach Me Tonight. Laura kindly sent AWW an overview of Australian romance fiction, gleaned from For Love and Money, her study of popular romance writing. It’s published here in honour of St Valentine’s Day and the official launch of the National Year of Reading.
Laura Vivanco’s guest post:
Australian romance fiction has often touched on issues affecting Australian society. For colonial women writers, for example, “the themes of romance fiction must have resonated with their own predicaments in a new country” (Gelder and Weaver 1) and “colonial romance provided a crucial site for the struggle over the model of womanhood that seemed best to express the aspirations of an emergent nation” (2).
In the 1940s, weekly women’s magazines
had short story features in every issue, and in the last years of the war and the early years of the post-war period the overwhelming bulk of short fiction in these magazines concerned the problems of returning soldiers. [...] In most stories the men returned embittered, angry, broken, jealous, moody and in many respects unwilling or unable to resume their former roles. The women they love are required to coax these men back to the path of love and faithfulness, and in most cases, after many travails, they succeed. (Garton 59)
[Joyce] Dingwell’s The Girl from Snowy River (1959) was published, a tale of an English woman emigrating to Australia, [Alan] Boon [of Mills & Boon] sent a copy to the Hon. A. R. Downer, MP (then Australian Minister of Immigration), at Australia House, with the message, ‘We feel it is good propaganda for immigration.’ (McAleer 103)
a based-on-fact book, gleaned from my Aboriginal History course in 1999. [...] I read that [...] the Australian Government had regularly given fake death certificates to members of the Stolen Generation (Aboriginal kids taken from their families) for their parents, so they wouldn’t go home and look for their heritage, and blend into white society. Those same kids (the girls) quite often lost their children – told they were dead, and the government adopted them out to white families. And many of those boys ended up in prison, on real or fake charges. I had to write the story then. I studied up the subject, checked facts, finished my course and wrote the story of Tessa and Jirrah. A few people have condemned the book as implausible and unrealistic, even ridiculed it. But it is fact. (Sova)
Juliet Flesch, in her history of modernAustralian popular romance novels, while she acknowledges that “not all Australian romance novelists set all their novels in Australia nor do they all attempt a distinctively Australian idiom” (250), goes as far as to argue that “They do [...] speak with a voice that is distinctively Australian [...] in general they endorse qualities of openness, inclusion, egalitarianism, community spirit and self-reliance” (296).
Be that as it may (as a non-Australian I feel unqualified to judge the Australian-ness of all Australian romance novels, but I’m wary of generalisations), I did notice that although [Australian romance author] Marion Lennox’s Princess of Convenience is set in a fictional European principality, the patterns in the Australian heroine’s weaving recall the waves of the seas surrounding Australia, while the novel’s treatment of time and death may have been influenced by Aboriginal attitudes towards journeying (see For Art and Money pages 183-193).
Like Marion Lennox’s heroine, Australian romances have often had to travel abroad to find a home. Hsu-Ming Teo has observed that:
conditions of national and international Anglophone publishing in the twentieth century [...] shaped Australian popular fiction in such a way that women’s romance novels remained tied to the apron strings of empire, attentive to the demands of British editors and an overseas market even as a distinctive postcolonial ‘Australianness’ was asserted. (qtd. in Sarwal xi)
Joyce Dingwell, “Mills & Boon’s first native Australian author” (McAleer 102) was first published by the company in 1955 but it was not until 1974 that the by then Harlequin Mills & Boon “established an office in Sydney, Australia” (McWilliam 6) and not until 2006 that
the company hired its first Australian Commissioning Editor, signaling its tentative shift away from a branch office operation, which distributes products created elsewhere, and towards a creative branch, which distributes products it has created. While Australian authors had featured among Harlequin-Mills & Boon’s most successful authors for years, they had, until 2006, been commissioned through the publisher’s North American or British editorial offices. (McWilliam 8-9)
This would appear to have been a short-lived experiment, however, because Mills & Boon’s Australian website currently states that “the Australian office is a sales and marketing office. All of our editorial staff work through offices in the UK and North America”. It remains the case that, as the Romance Writers of Australia acknowledge:
Most of us are first published in Nth. America or the UK and our books are imported or reprinted here. Australian publishers publish very little romance [...]. [...] Our authors are published by Avon Books (Harper Collins), Bantam Books, Harlequin (Mills and Boon), Hodder & Stoughton (UK) NAL and Berkley Books
(Penguin/Putnam ), Simon & Schuster, Transworld, Robert Hale (UK), Virgin Publishing, UK.
A few are published mainly within Australia/NZ: Pan MacMillan, Random House, JB publishing. Many more are published in e-book format, which is a growing international field.
Unfortunately, despite the international success of Australian romance authors, their novels have not tended to be treated with a great deal of respect. Ann Curthoys and John Docker summed up the situation:
romance fiction [...] has been high literature’s Other, a negative icon, what not, what never to be. Newspaper critics in reviews, journalists in their columns, good professional-middle-class people in their conversation, would casually snap at a book or passage by saying things like ‘it unfortunately smacks of Mills and Boon’.
Australian romance authors, though, have been known to snap back.
In Nicola Marsh’s Contract to Marry there’s a secondary character who reads and defends romances (see For Love and Money page 115) and the dedication of my book, “To every Harlequin Mills & Boon romance author who has ever been asked ‘When are you going to write a real novel?’,” was inspired by a conversation in [Australian romance author] Valerie Parv’s The Love Artist, in which a cartoonist describes a common, prejudiced, response to his work. I’ll give the last words, though, to [best-selling Australian romance author] Anne Gracie:
In every genre, there are novels that are clichéd and poorly written, and some books that are wonderfully written with unforgettable characters and prose that sings. Romance is no different. It’s a huge genre, with an enormous range and variety. Don’t judge a whole genre by a few books.
Laura Vivanco is an independent scholar, a member of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance and a regular contributor to Teach Me Tonight, a blog devoted to discussing romance fiction from an academic perspective.
—— Notes for Laura’s Post ——
If you want to pick up an ebook bargain for Valentine’s Day from an Aussie bookshop which supports the AWW challenge, you can buy Anna Campbell’s Courtesan trilogy for under $15 from The Book Shuttle, Avid Readers Bookshop, or Pages&Pages Booksellers. Australian Online Bookshop also has a tab for Australian Women Writers on their ebook website, but Anna’s collection doesn’t appear to be available from them. All of the bookshops have Anna’s other titles, however, for well under $10. One best-selling Australian romance author, whom Laura doesn’t mention in her post, is Stephanie Laurens. Her ebooks can also be found at these ebookstores.