My mother loves to read and loves watching films, yet she hates smut and (whisper it) s-e-x in these media. She prefers nice BBC period dramas where everyone keeps their frocks on or books that follow a family dynasty but leave the copulation behind closed doors. This year, for Christmas, she asked for a few "nice books" to read and it was with great difficulty that I located some smut-free works. This involved a bit of censorship: I skim-read one or two to make sure the smut was at a minimum. I found a couple that look relatively mother-friendly, and failed tragically on another. The Smut Fail book is one called Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, - it's been out quite a few years, apparently, and there are half-a-dozen sequels. On the surface, it seemed okay: 700 pages of historical romance. But I was wrong. The smutometre went off the charts, dear readers, off the charts!
It tells the tale of a 1940s nurse who goes for a wander around some standing stones, faints and wakes up in Scotland a couple of centuries ago. As you know, I recently had a few fainting episodes myself and I am now sorely thankful that I came to my senses among the contents of my husband's toolbox because this lady quickly finds herself scooped up by a band of be-kilted Scots, one of whom she marries for some spurious reason, e.g. in order to gain protection from someone or other. The pair of them then fornicate up and down the Scottish highlands and lowlands, whilst getting to somewhere or away from someone. Disgraceful, readers, that's what it is: absolutely disgraceful. (And, on a side note, I would like to comment on the depiction of the Celtic peoples in popular fiction. I understand that it can be difficult to recreate a Scottish or Irish accent in print, but it's amazing how much we sound like pirates when an author tries: "Aye, arrrrr me lassie! Let's hop on me horse and ride to Edinburgh, arrrrr!") But I feel I owe it to my mother to finish this filthy tome, in order to establish for once and for all that it really is not suitable for her little eyes.
Wallowing in the pages of Outlander, I was reminded of my own short-lived foray into romantic fiction. When I was 15 or 16, my best friend at school was an avid reader of Mills & Boon books. Mills & Boon, in case you are not familiar with them, are popular romance "novels" (cough), sold at newsagents and in supermarkets, as well as bookstores and in train stations. My best friend used to read them voraciously, swinging on the back legs of her chair with her novel hidden behind her geography book. When she got to a particularly saucy bit, the chair would flop down on to all four legs again with a resounding thump, startling Sr. Frances in the middle of her explanation about how a glacier is formed.
Nowadays, Mills & Boon are far racier than they were twenty years ago. By today's standards, what we read was terribly tame. But the basic premise of many of these books has not changed. We had the formula figured out and if it were not for the odious chore that was our university-entrance exams, we might have made our fortunes writing popular romances. Witness our research:
- 1 chaste young woman named after a classical deity (Persephone) or foodstuff (Oregano)
- 1 lonely, misunderstood millionaire named after an item in a DIY store (Wrench) or a random selection of vowels and consonants (Kytz). If he has a title, all the better. Counts are particularly popular: there's apparently nothing quite like being ravished by minor European royalty.
- 1 implausible career for young woman (pottery designer, kite maker, full-time sweater knitter)
- 1 dramatic scenario (woman washed up on man's private island with amnesia; woman taken prisoner by man for trespassing on his massive estate; woman forced into marriage to please dying father who always wanted to see her married off before he kicks the bucket etc.)
- Add a selection of euphemisms for body parts: members, mounds, rosebuds, cusps - all popular choices.
- Mix in a liberal smattering of obscure adjectives for afore-mentioned body parts: glistening, heaving, turgid, tumescent (which, by the way, is not to be mixed up with fluorescent. It was a sad day when I discovered - many years later - that tumescent members do not glow in the dark.)
- Wrench and Oregano need a variety of interesting verbs to express how they communicate:
"Come here," rasped Wrench. Oregano trembled, her bosom heaving. "No!" she murmured, "You cannot force me to marry you, Count Wrench von Tuchenstein! I will not be your wife!"
Get the picture? Wrench will do a lot of rasping, growling, barking and snarling, whereas Oregano will probably go for murmuring, whispering, pleading and cajoling.
- Finally, you need a resolution: in other words, the reason why Wrench was being a big ol' uptight meanie was that he was actually mentally tortured by his ex-wife!!! He didn't intend to be such a rapscallion - he just wasn't in touch with his feelings!!! When he admits that he really loves Oregano, their love can truly grow and their marriage blossom and she can give birth to their twins!!!