Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Harlequin Presents: Capitalism and Competition

It seems as though Harlequin Presents must be selling very well, because there are plans to increase the rate of publication from 8 to 12 per month in the US. Harlequin is therefore holding a competition to find new authors for the line (details here).1

What particularly interested me were a couple of the descriptions of the line which were given in Tessa Shapcott (Executive Editor, Harlequin Presents)'s "Tips on Writing for the International Market":
The successful writer will be able to tell a story that contains universal emotional truths [...] What are universal emotional truths? You need to think of the emotions that bind all of us together, for example, love, death, birth, renewal, trust, betrayal, happiness, jealousy, lust, hurt, loss, loyalty…

And remember, too, that basically every person the world over aspires to the same things: unconditional love, family, material affluence, safety, success, justice, truth, strength, contentment, passion and tenderness…
Kalman Applbaum, in his article "Crossing Borders: Globalization as Myth and Charter in American Transnational Consumer Marketing", observes that
North American transnational corporation (TNC) managers and their experts have been particularly avid consumers of globalization literature since the media prophet Marshall McLuhan (1995) augured the First Coming of the "global village." For these business people, globalization represents opportunities of boundless proportions. (258)
Despite TNC marketers' avowal to operate with sensitivity to local cultural conditions when considering how to adapt product offerings and promotions locally, my research suggests the reverse. Marketers operate within a consumption-led universalizing paradigm. They believe in innate universal psychological tendencies that transcend local culture. (260)
He gives as an example Harlequin's "foray into Poland" (265) during which the company sought "not just to reeducate a segment of Polish consumers about romance novels, but to influence the entire cultural framework for thinking about love, beauty, and romantic relationships" (265):
The firm aimed to standardize Polish taste by influencing the cultural environment surrounding the product Harlequin expected to succeed at being the experts on love in Poland because they believe that love and romance—and for that matter the means of "escape into" these—must have a single, objective, universal, global expression. It was only temporarily, under repressive communism, that this global essence had been distorted. Polish teenagers could now, with the help of bar-coded paperbacks, be liberated to the global truth of romantic love. (266)
The idea that "basically every person the world over aspires to the same things" is, it seems to me, incorrect. Certainly we can all agree that every person the world over has certain basic needs (e.g. for food, water, shelter), but, particularly when it comes to more abstract desires such as "love," "success," and "justice," it seems difficult to ignore the very different ways in which culture affects the expression of such desires. And if we think of the past as "a foreign country: they do things differently there" (Hartley), then we've pretty much circled back to the debate about historical accuracy in romance. Most readers would accept that "success" for a Roman of the patrician class during the Republic would not have had exactly the same meaning as for a medieval nun, an English aristocrat living in the first decade of the nineteenth century, a viking, a samurai, or any number of individuals from different genders, historical periods, social classes and geographical locations.

The other description in the "Tips on Writing" for the Harlequin Presents line that interested me was as follows:
The successful writer [...] will be able to create an international setting that is aspirational for readers everywhere, and that beckons them to venture beyond their own small personal worlds. [...] Remember the values that underpin the Presents series – such as, wealth, luxury, sophistication, escapism and a good dollop of passion.
It was at this point that I began to wonder if perhaps, when I last discussed her work, I hadn't given enough space to Bridget Fowler's commentary on the relationship between the romance genre and capitalism. Fowler writes of the "domestic romances of the 1840s" that often
the romance was located in the world of urban capitalist class relations. Yet however severe its critique of elitism, however much it softened the practices of a market economy with an appeal to charity or ‘caring capitalism’, opposition to the desire for social reconstruction championed by the new working class was its secret centre. One effect of popular romance is precisely to make the institutions of capitalism – urban or agrarian – seem inevitable, so that the aspirations growing out of the early Utopians’ social theory seem to be profoundly incompatible with common sense. (17)
Her description seems equally applicable to a Harlequin Presents line which is "aspirational" and underpinned by the "values" of wealth and luxury. I'm reminded too of Peter Darbyshire's analysis of what it is that makes Harlequin romances, in the words of Tessa Shapcott, "globally appealing." According to Darbyshire, "Harlequin’s success in the Eurasian sphere is actually a result of the romances’ success infulfilling an ideological fantasy for their readers, one that has more to do with the benefits of successful capitalism than it does with America itself" and
The inextricability of the Harlequin romance from the ideology of democracy and capitalism was perhaps made most clear when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Within hours of the borders between East Germany and West Germany being opened, Harlequin employees were handing out free books at the border crossings, eventually giving out 720,000 Harlequin romances. For many citizens of the former communist nation, then, their first encounter with democracy was literally in the form of Harlequin romances. Brian Hickey even seemed to recognize the ideological content of his company’s romances in a 1991 speech to shareholders, when he called the books “propaganda” (Grescoe 254). This association of Harlequin with democracy and capitalism set the stage for a pattern that repeated itself in other former Eastern Bloc nations, such as Poland. When Harlequin expanded there, for instance, the company took over an entire television channel for eight hours on Valentine’s Day (now popularly known as Harlequin Day in Poland).
The competition's deadline for submissions is, appropriately enough, Valentine's Day 2008. Darbyshire also states that
it is this narrative of capitalist success which is ultimately responsible for the success of Harlequin romances in Europe and Asia. The novels are fantasies of the ability to transcend economic class, a world where women enjoy working in privileged positions in the economic system of capitalism and men are the masters of this system, the power figures who take care of those less wealthy than themselves. Lack of money is never a problem in the world of Harlequin romances, and romance itself is inseparable from an abundance of wealth and possessions. The appeal of such fantasies to readers living in emerging capitalist markets like Poland and Russia is obvious.
Equally obviously, one shouldn't forget the appeal of a "good dollop of passion", and my favourite Harlequin Presents also have a "good dollop" of humour, but I do wonder if it's the fact that, more than any other line, the Harlequin Presents are "narrative[s] of capitalist success", that has made this line Harlequin's "most popular series" (The Book Standard, 2006). And, in the spirit of Monty Python's "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," if Darbyshire is right that "what is perhaps most threatening to Harlequin’s long-term success in these markets is not the limitations of an emerging capitalist system but the economic strength of a healthy capitalist state," then perhaps Harlequin can feel confident in the face of any possible global economic recession.
  • Applbaum, Kalman. "Crossing Borders: Globalization as Myth and Charter in American Transnational Consumer Marketing." American Ethnologist 27.2 (2000): 257-82.
  • Darbyshire, Peter. "Romancing the World: Harlequin Romances, the Capitalist Dream, and the Conquest of Europe and Asia." Studies in Popular Culture 23.1 (2000). 28 Nov. 2007 <>.
  • Fowler, Bridget. The Alienated Reader: Women and Popular Romantic Literature in the Twentieth Century. Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991.

1 The competition is actually for authors who aspire to write for one of 2 lines (though there is no distinction made between them in the US): Harlequin Presents [North America] are sold as two lines in the UK and Australia: Mills & Boon Modern Romance™/Modern Heat [United Kingdom] and M&B Sexy/Sexy Sensation [Australia and New Zealand]. The Modern Heat line actually has a very different tone from the Modern/Presents line. The ones I've read seemed to me to be less like Presents/Modern and more like a more sexually explicit version of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance line (and plenty of HM&B Romance line authors have been trying their hands at writing Modern Heats).


  1. Great post. The other interesting snippet I picked up when I looked at the various posts on the Harlequin site about their competition was this:

    "Also, our writers and editors strive to maintain ongoing appeal by reflecting current, relevant trends, so that Presents is a microcosm of society’s love-affair at the moment with wealth, scandal and celebrity."

    That is certainly reflected in the tabloid-headline-like titles used in their lines.

  2. That is an interesting snippet, and I see it was also written by Tessa Shapcott. And you're right about the titles, though that type of title does creep into other lines too, e.g. The Roman's Virgin Mistress, though, interestingly, the plot of that novel was about gossip at a high society resort, it just happened to be a Roman one rather than a modern one.

    I have done some work on the Harlequin Presents line (brief outline here) but the feminism which was the focus of that work (and which was something which a number of authors who write for the line felt was an important subtext in their novels) and the exploration of sexual problems (also mentioned by some authors and discussed here) don't seem to be themes that are being mentioned in this current set of descriptions by Tessa Shapcott.

    She seems to be very focussed on glamour, celebrity and wealth.

  3. I get the feeling that there is a 'reach a new generation of younger readers' feel to this.

    It is certainly the case that young women buy celeb magazines in huge numbers. It seems to me quite astute (if slightly alarming) of M&B to think about cashing in on the zeitgeist in this way. The question is whether they can get the celeb-mag buying demographic to walk past Heat magazine and put a M&B in their trolleys instead.

    Let's face it, certain significant themes that are used all the time in M&Bs - e.g. virginity; the 'role' of mistress - would be bewildering to many young women who read daily about the likes of Jordan and Paris Hilton. When you read a M&B you are entering as alien a world as when you read a historical or paranormal romance.

  4. "When you read a M&B you are entering as alien a world as when you read a historical or paranormal romance."

    It does depend on which line you pick up. There are so many different lines, particularly in the US, and some of them feature relatively normal people (i.e. not super-rich, and dealing with relatively ordinary problems, though of course the problems do have to be interesting enough to provide a plot).

    I get the feeling that there is a 'reach a new generation of younger readers' feel to this.

    Interesting. You could well be right. The M&B Modern Extra/Modern Heat line (in the US there isn't currently a clear distinction made between the two types of "Presents" on their covers) definitely seems to be aimed at a younger audience because it's "focusing on the kind of relationships that women between the ages of 18-35 aspire to. Young characters in affluent urban settings."

    The Modern/Presents guidelines don't have any explicit references to the youth of either the characters or the readers, but they do mention that the novels should be "reflective of contemporary, relevant trends" so perhaps the editors are hoping that despite some of the themes being rather "alien", an interest in celebrity will nonetheless be a hook to catch the attention of younger readers.

  5. When you read a M&B you are entering as alien a world as when you read a historical or paranormal romance.

    Tumperkin, I think that it depends on which line you're reading. M&B Romance and Medical Romance deal with real life issues and many of the books deal with infertility, broken marriages, divorce and adoption amongst others.

    I think that if M&B want to reach a new generation of readers than they've got to address this market directly and make them realize that M&B have moved on with the times.

  6. I have always felt sorry for the "poor little rich girls"--heiresses who get dumped over and over again and have to buy off men who only married them for their money. They always seemed to me like a Harlequin Romance waiting to happen.

    But then I went through a phase of reading biographies of women like Barbara Hutton and Doris Duke, and I was surprised to learn that in a sense, they WANTED it that way. They weren't necessarily looking for "true love"; they wanted a man they could control with money. When Barbara Hutton was married to Cary Grant, a man more famous than she was, who didn't need her money, the marriage eventually failed because she couldn't control him. This also explains why so many heiresses have married the kind of man who makes a career out of marrying heiresses.

    Doris Duke used to buy lavish homes in various parts of the world, remodel them, and redecorate them, until they became luxurious beyond the dreams of avarice. But she never LIVED in them--she just moved on to the next one. Obviously, the creation of these homes was where all her emotional energy went. Also, these women were brought up from childhood with the idea that just about everyone they met would be interested in them ONLY for their money--so it may have been a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    I don't know about modern heiresses--not the likes of Paris Hilton, but the ones who live like real people and don't make headlines. Did anyone here happen to watch the deservedly short-lived TV series called something like SO YOU WANT TO BE A HILTON, where Paris's mother was teaching a bunch of unpromising wannabes ("This room is bigger than my whole trailer!" exclaimed one in the first episode) the ways of high society?

    It would appear that there is a very wide gap between the realities of life at the top and the way it is imagined in category romance.

    Yes, Mr. Hemingway, the rich ARE different.