Is Romantic Fiction Undervalued?

lt would be all too easy to satirise the Romantic Novelists’ Association Awards (RoNAs). When I’d traipsed through central London to One Whitehall Place – a particularly English breed of hotel, all polished banisters and dense swirly carpets, once unspeakably grand and now saturated with an Alan Bennett sort of weary melancholy – been misdirected by a miserable Polish waiter in a boardroom, and finally found my way up the twisting staircase to the Gladstone Library, I was hit by a hell of a lot of pink. Pink banners. Pink book jackets. And, oh yes, pink sparkling wine.

It would not be unfair to say that the vast majority of the people drinking the pink sparkling wine were women. And that the vast majority of those women had shoes that matched their jackets, grown-up children and voices redolent of bracing Cotswold walks. The whole evening unfolded rather like a Alan Ayckbourn play about a novelists’ awards ceremony: stale canapés; awkward jokes from the podium; trembling winners who seemed frankly happy to be let out of the house; agents, editors and journos swapping in-jokes and gossip laced with sly one-upmanship barbs.

But satire would also be a lazy response, and one that underestimates the passion, skill and downright importance of the people in that room. Snobbery from the literary establishment is all very well, but sales of romantic fiction account for a huge slice of the publishing pie. In 2007, romantic novels represented 22% of all adult fiction purchased.  Crime accounts for 20%, adventure/thriller 14.5%, and general popular fiction 26%; which doesn’t leave a lot of room for all those experimental postmodern epics we’re supposed to be feeding our brains. We might read the reviews of Bolano and Roth over breakfast, but when we jump on the tube most of us have a North or a Fforde in our hand.