Recently, I joined the Romantic Novelists’ Association. As expected, there are rather more women than men. I thought that the ratio might be 85-15 or 90-10. In fact, it’s more like 99-1, and a few of the male card-carrying members use female pseudonyms. There is a similar story in the readership profile. The extent to which the cover and other aspects of marketing of my first novel Close of Play, a romantic comedy, have been tilted towards the expected female audience has been a fascinating learning experience, as my publisher applies the finishing touches.
If you read the mini-biographies on the Romantic Novelists Association’s site, many relate how they grew up as bookworms, typically devoted to fantasy tales and romantic melodrama. My CV is very different. I didn’t read Jane Austen or Jean Plaidy as a boy. I played sport, read about sport, made Airfix kits and watched war movies. The books I enjoyed usually had a male lead figure and a fair amount of sport or danger. So it was a long and very indirect route by which I came to pen a romantic novel in my early 50s. My childhood influences can hardly have had any impact at all.
Or so it would seem. But if one uses an expanded definition of romantic drama, my early years were filled with the most heart-rending, achingly emotional tales, often rendered by alpha males. Their names included Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan and John Lennon. There were a lot of tears and much insecurity; probably more direct soul-baring than any female scribe would dare, until Alanis Morrissette came along. Above all, these and other singers expressed an intense longing; this desire really to know a woman as well as love her.
So what is it about songs that gives blokes permission to get in touch with our inner feelings (or any other feelings, for that matter)? And why do we struggle when it’s on the printed page or at the pictures?
I’m afraid I can’t provide definitive answers, only a few observations. There is something about the ‘will they/won’t they’ drama that struggles to hold the male attention as the main or sole story arc; especially in a movie featuring Kate Hudson or Reese Witherspoon because, of course, we know they will in the end, after a break-up 20 minutes from full time as she discovers the secret that he had kept hidden (I still enjoy them, mind – guilty pleasure).
Humour helps. I might not have struggled with Far From the Madding Crowd at O-Level if Gabriel Oak hadn’t been so dour and earnest. Or a bit of political intrigue or philosophical depth. Or at least a car chase. Somehow, the question: ‘Is he The One for me?’ is not enough to hold our interest for 90 minutes or 288 pages. But for three and a half minutes, with a soaring chorus, and a macho guitar solo to come, we can give our passion a full-throated roar. We do have a romantic heartbeat, but it’s detected in different ways.
Close of Play has many ‘romcom’ features. I make no apology. It has a slightly different slant in that it’s from the man’s point of view. The two main male characters have been a bit sniffy towards love n romance n girly stuff in their early adult years. They prefer playing cricket and drinking beer. But each of them aches for the woman they really, really want, and fear that it might all be too late. I hope the female readers will be touched by their longing and forgive them their mistakes. And maybe, just maybe, the occasional bloke will read it, disguised inside GQ magazine, as he listens to Blood on the Tracks via his headphones.
PJ Whiteley, March 2015.
- Close of Play is published by Urbane Publications, April 2015. More at http://urbanepublications.com/books/close-of-play/