Reader, I Married Him

Tuesday, September 19, 2006 by

One of the criticisms of the documentaries that accompanied the BBC’s Big Read event was that, in places, the autobiography of the celebrity advocates overshadowed the books they were championing. Reader, I Married Him takes a similar approach to an entire literary genre, the romantic novel, but finds a much clearer middle ground as Daisy Goodwin attempts to convince the viewer the books she loves are worthy of attention without resorting to reconstructions of desolate nights in student bedsits or dressing up in bodices.

Goodwin is a beguiling presenter; although previously seen on screen most prominently fronting the Essential Poems series (linking films of celebrities acting out verses), she’s perhaps best known as a poet and in the television industry as a producer or editor of the British version of The Apprentice and Channel 4 property shows such as Grand Designs and Property Ladder. Like Sarah Beeny, she has the rare ability of keeping the audience’s attention without resorting to shouting – her low, slightly sensuous delivery perfectly gauged considering the subject matter.

Her interview style is infectious, reacting to answers in a pleasingly natural way, the best moments occurring when Goodwin genuinely appears to be learning something new about her subject at the same time as her audience (bringing to mind Michael Wood or Mark Moskowitz, director of the seminal film about discovering books, The Stone Reader). Her giggling during Jilly Cooper’s revelations regarding the difficulty in writing sex scenes as she knocks on in age being one treasure. She also seems to have a genuinely open mind – whilst visiting the Mills & Boon offices there is real surprise in discovering the steamy content of the books, who the readership is and how much they’re prepared to pay for their fix. Attending a writing class, she tries her hand at penning a “typical” passage from one of these novels and is self deprecating about the results, the flirty young woman meeting the shepherd.

As Joanna Trollope, Erica James and Celia Breyfield offered their opinions, some of which were oddly defensive (“I don’t write romantic novels,” said Breyfield in this documentary about romantic fiction), none really captured the essence of why the genre is so popular past the expected “it’s a bit of escapism”. The public squirming at a lurid sex scene during an author’s reading was hardly balanced out by a critic explaining that Catherine Cookson was pleased she’d treated one of her books as a serious piece of literature.

More refreshingly, the documentary attempted to treat all of this fiction on a level playing field, giving as much attention to those Mills & Boon as the classics. Two fans were seen enthusing over boxes full of books, salivating and giggling as they read the cover blurbs and the variety of different stories and product lines were revealed. This was perhaps the most interesting revelation to anyone who assumed these things were all the same.

If there was a problem, it was that even though the documentary had been billed as a passionate argument for romantic fiction, and although there was certainly much conviction, it lacked a through narrative and couldn’t quite decide the audience it was aiming for – someone in the apparent 40% of people who are already in the readership, or doubters who see a pink cover on the shelves and buy the latest football biography instead. By attempting to find a middle ground the programme lacked focus. Whilst the former will no doubt be excited to be able to put faces to the names of the authors whose novels are stacked high on supermarket shelves, the latter (of which I count myself) were left to wonder why such work had garnered a large readership in the first place.

The primary omission was in regard to the content of the books, the nuts and bolts of what to expect from the genre. Whilst the second and third programmes will concentrate on the romantic hero and heroine, this opening edition was long on experts and readers expressing the emotions and feelings they glean from the novels, but short on mentions of particular characters or situations. This might have been an editorial decision because of the sheer size of the genre, but some pointers on what to expect might have been useful. There were fragments; in one section there was some talk of how romance has crossed over into crime fiction or is smuggled into war novels.

But for something that was supposed to be challenging the received expectation of what the plotlines in these novels are about, the non-40% will still be left with the girl meets boy, complication, boy falls for girl model, when the few tantalising tidbits that did creep through suggested stories that are far more complicated than that.

Precious little could be found on the history of the genre. Although the popularity of Mills & Boon amongst war widows during the 1920s was expanded upon, the roots of the stories and key early texts could only be glimpsed on book jackets in passing. The title of the series wasn’t even explained – a web search reveals it’s from Jane Eyre, something fans might be aware of but confused this layman. Hopefully this will be extrapolated upon in future episodes.

There were also disappointing lurches into conventionality and cliché – the clip from Little Britain to help illustrate who Barbara Cartland was when a perfectly good and revealing interview between the author and Melvyn Bragg seemed to tell that story perfectly well. The first reading crept up from Bridget Jones’s Diary, which was inevitably followed up with a clip from the film; and oh look lots of extracts too from the Andrew Davies television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (oddly crosscut with comments from Deborah Moggach, credited as screenwriter for the recent Working Title film version). Another niggle was an apparent two tier approach to contributions. Whilst writers and journalists, actors and screenwriters or “the names” appeared in full screen, members of the public, the life models and students were given a tinier amount of screen space with a giant black border around them as though their opinion was less important.

One of the more bizarre passages involved Goodwin taking a science test to see if romantic fiction could actively calm her during two stressful days at work. On each day she took a saliva sample before and after an hour of either work or sitting back and reading a novel and these were later taken to a university laboratory to see if on the second day her stress hormones had decreased. Without warning, the viewers suddenly found themselves in an episode of Horizon and Goodwin’s voiceover descended into a stream of technobabble during one of the only moments when she actually seemed slightly unsure of what she was saying – and inevitably neither did we.

Unsurprisingly, the test proved that yes, indeed reading romantic fiction during that hour did show that her stress was reduced – although the likelihood of this was increased because she revealed that she’d actually fallen asleep! Problematically however, the science wasn’t questioned and although this was no doubt supposed to be a bit of fun, it had the effect of derailing the proceedings, and this viewer wondered if the same result might have happened if Goodwin had been reading any kind of fiction, simply because she wasn’t y’know, working and in fact having a break. The contribution from a psychoanalyst didn’t really seem to give too many answers either.

The programme was far more comfortable and perhaps most engaging in the section dealing with the marketing of the books. Time was spent at a jacket meeting at Harper Collins as the experts discussed, for the benefit of the cameras, the relative merits of cover ideas and how they change depending upon the author and the market. This was juxtaposed with a reader assessing covers in a branch of Waterstones, pulling books off the shelves and explaining how certain visuals such as the colour red and a beach will attract her rather than a colour photo of the author grinning out from the dust jacket.

We learned that Tesco say that on average a sleeve must attract a potential reader in three to five seconds which demonstrates why author names and titles in big lettering and simple, symbolic pictures are currently in vogue. Headline Books are rebranding the (out of copyright) works of Jane Austen with such covers and accompanying blurbs that highlight the romance (two Asda checkout workers were shown reading these and trying to guess the author), something that Moggach described as vulgar but as the Headline spokesman explained most current editions look like academic textbooks (well apart from the film tie-ins) and if they bring the classics to a new audience that can only be a good thing – something Goodwin appeared to agree with.

Despite the niggles, this was still a very appealing documentary even if by the closing moments the non-40% might not be entirely convinced to drop their “books about guns” and try something with a female point-of-view. One of the inherent problems with this type of programme is that the thesis is stretched out over a number of weeks and episodes and there needs to be enough to hook the viewer in until the end. But admittedly, on this occasion with Goodwin as a guide most of the work was done. Perhaps, however, it would have been better to concentrate more on enthusing about the key titles, particularly the modern classics of the genre, rather than shoehorning in so many gimmicks.


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