Writing romance: why is loneliness still a taboo?

When I first started writing fiction, it was with a definite ‘literary’ slant. Although I did get a few short stories published in women’s magazines (a market I would heartily recommend, since they actually pay far better than most literary mags), my first novel and collection of short stories fit most comfortably in that most vague of categories, which tends to be a catch-all for any fiction that isn’t obviously genre-based or mass market.

However, having mysteriously having failed to win the attention of the Booker judges (I know – outrageous!), when I came to write my next book, I fancied a change.

As a big reader of genre fiction, I was frustrated at the direction a lot of urban fantasy seemed to be taking post-Twilight (ie, drippy, moping women, borderline abusive men) and wanted to create the kind of book I, as a fan, wanted to read. The kind of book my favourite genre authors – writers like Jim Butcher or Kelley Armstrong – wrote: where the characters were people you cared about, could relate to. Characters who, no matter how magical or fantastical their worlds, you could imagine yourself sharing a pint with down the pub. The result was Dark Dates, and I was thrilled with the positive reception the book – and its follow ups – got from readers who seemed to feel the same way I did!

So it may seem somewhat perverse to be switching genres again, this time publishing what can only be described as a ‘chick lit’ book – because, apparently I love writing in the genres that people get most snotty about. But in some ways it’s for the same reason. Although I can’t stand those snooty critics who loudly decry romance novels as trash (often with an unpleasant tinge of thinly-veiled sexism – ‘look at all those silly women with their silly books’!), I did find I was increasingly frustrated by some of the trends in the genre, and wanted to write something that felt more like ‘me’ than a lot of what I was coming across.

I must stress this is just SOME books: there are a ton of incredibly talented women (it’s mostly women) putting out immensely readable novels in this field (and writing something that’s easy to read is actually bloody hard), and a plenty a good romance writer – like writers in that other much-maligned genre, YA –  skillfully weaves a romance around more serious topics, such as love, loss, ageing, politics, depression, alcoholism, social change etc. Authors like Marian Keyes and Jennifer Weiner (who is less well-known in the UK, but whose novel Good in Bed was revelatory to me in how it wrote about fatness and romance and all the complicated, messy emotions that it evokes.)

But I found myself fed up with seeing the same old tropes: of action that almost exclusively seemed to take place in London, Paris or New York and involved women who have (or miraculously obtain) jobs in impossibly glamorous professions (which, often, they manage to be incredibly successful at, despite having no experience or training) being wooed by fantastically rich men. (I admit one of the reasons I got into the writer Joanna Bolouri’s books was because her first, the uproariously filthy The List, was set in Glasgow.)

There’s a place for fantasy and wish-fulfillment in fiction, obviously (and I have devoured enough of these books myself to recognise how much fun they can be).  The world would be a much poorer place if we couldn’t occasionally – or, hell, frequently  – enjoy a romp about becoming a rich woman’s personal shopper in New York who just happens to catch the eye of an off-duty movie star*.

I respect and even envy the writers who can spin such high-blown fantasies into gold, and I think the world would be worse off without them and the escapism they offer (again: I think most criticism of the genre of romance, and romance readers, isn’t anything to do with their veracity or quality of writing; it’s just plain ol’ sexism).  But as a pasty Northerner who has never had a remotely glamorous job, I would occasionally like something I can relate to a bit more.

There’s also, sometimes (again, before you paint me as a romance-hater – stress on “sometimes“!), a lack of emotional truth in romance books that disappoints me. It’s fun to envision all single women as floating around like Carrie Bradshaw with a plethora of dates – even if they are ultimately unsuitable – but how many single women really have that experience, especially once you hit your thirties and all your friends are married and staying in at weekends? I think this is improving – the last few years seem to have brought more stories about being older, not living anywhere glam, and maybe finding love but still having to settle for a kind of ordinary life – but I think we could bear to have a lot more of these kinds of stories.

My favourite romance writers are the ones who address the reality that being single can, in fact, be extremely lonely and boring and there’s nothing to be ashamed of in that. It’s not anti-feminist to suggest that a lot of single women don’t actually want to be single, and don’t spend their lives in a blissful, giggling frenzy of shopping and cocktails. One of my favourite rom-coms is While You Were Sleeping, because you get a real sense of how properly, long-term lonely Sandra Bullock’s character is, which is surprisingly rare in a rom-com: it’s odd that even in a genre that is all about finding love, it’s still taboo to admit that being without it can make you miserable.

So – that’s what I wrote my book about.  I wanted to make it funny, I wanted it to feature hot men (because who can resist a hot man?), but I also wanted to write about life as I knew it could be as a single woman who has almost given up on love, or at least worries sometimes that it has given up on her. A woman dealing with the same daily grind most of us face, in a job she only sort of likes, and who can maybe improve her circumstances but who won’t wake up one day and find an email inviting her to be a columnist for Vogue. A woman, in short, a bit like you or me. (Well, let’s be honest, mainly me). Only with a hotter boyfriend, because there are some tropes I’m not willing to abandon for the sake of realism…

So please do check out Bridesmaid Blues and let me know what you think!

Bridesmaid cover 1

*Somebody has to have written that, right? Send it my way!

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