Every Four Seconds a Romance Novel Is Sold Somewhere in the World — Three Readers, One Writer and a Cover Model Tell Us Why
“Five people whose lives…highlight the yawning gap…between reality and the gasping, blushing, heaving world the books describe…Old fashioned, sly but sweet, Moggan’s documentary becomes far more than a film on the ins and outs of bodice-ripping fiction.” — Damien Love, The Scotsman
Every so often the news media take note of a phenomenon so huge and ubiquitous that it is otherwise as invisible as the woodwork. In the case of romance fiction, one might as well throw in the walls. With a romance novel in any number of languages being sold somewhere around the globe every four seconds, almost all of them published by two allied companies, Harlequin in the U.S. and Mills & Boon in Britain, the genre is certainly a gigantic industry. But is it the oddball, sideshow-to-real-literature that it is often portrayed to be?
Julie Moggan’s new documentary, Guilty Pleasures, arrives from Britain to offer a much closer and more perceptive look at the world of the romance novel by profiling five people involved in it. Though their roles vary widely, they reveal the deeper personal and social meanings of the genre’s allure. Guilty Pleasures discovers not so much a business as a global community of shared imagination, a community whose yearning for romance fiction’s Holy Grail — true love — seems to know no barrier of language or culture, nor show signs of abating any time soon.
Guilty Pleasures has its national broadcast premiere on Thursday, July 12, 2012, at 10 p.m. during the 25th anniversary season of the award-winning PBS series POV (Point of View). POV continues on Thursdays at 10 p.m. through Oct. 25 and concludes with fall and winter specials. (Check local listings.) American television’s longest-running independent documentary series, POV is the winner of a Special Emmy Award for Excellence in Television Documentary Filmmaking and two International Documentary Association Awards for Continuing Series.
There is some truth to the idea that the typical reader of romance fiction is a middle-aged woman, but Guilty Pleasures presents a surprising cultural diversity. Japanese housewife Hiroko, who feels something lacking in her comfortable life; Shumita, an Indian woman who is separated from her husband; and English mother of three Shirley, who wants to spice up her marriage, could hardly be from more different backgrounds. Yet they all speak the language of true love. Among those bringing them this language, and the world it represents, are prolific English Mills & Boon author Gill Sanderson and Stephen, the incredibly handsome and well-built American model featured on more than 200 Harlequin/Mills & Boon book covers.
Hiroko and Shirley’s husbands respond to their wives’ romantic obsessions with commendable equanimity, if perhaps too much of the practicality that may have sent their wives to romance novels in the first place. Shirley’s husband is a hands-on “working man’s man,” who sees his wife’s reading habits as harmless enough, if a bit of a waste of time. He’s likely to be found reading a mechanical manual or something titled Unnatural Death in bed, while Shirley peruses a steamy Mills & Boon number. Hiroko’s husband, Seiich, is an adoring spouse, and greatly amused by his wife’s romantic fancies, which include being swept off her feet by a dashing David Beckham look-alike. He cheerfully admits he can’t fulfill her romantic dreams and sees the books as a healthy outlet. He even encourages Hiroko to take up ballroom dancing, though he wouldn’t dream of participating. But once Hiroko is at the studio, will glamour and excitement spur her to act on her infatuation with her handsome dance instructor?
That, of course, is the rub — how does one fix the border between fantasy and reality? For Shumita, the struggle for an answer is a bit more serious. She married her husband when they were both young, but he left her for a younger woman. Shumita can laugh about the books’ utopian resolutions but can’t help feeling they contain a truth about love. “Mills and Boon, you know, they create an excitement in my life,” she says. “When I look at the lovely, heady relationship…it gives me a buzz. But it’s not something I’m setting my cap on. It’s not going to be that knight in shining armor. It’s about romancing yourself in a way. That’s what will save me.”
Everyone, it seems, is a sucker for true love. Far from being cynical purveyors of the genre, Gill the author and Stephen the model are perhaps as romantic as their readers. Stephen may shrug about the ideal lover he portrays, but he spends the film searching for a soul mate. In his work, Stephen is that dark hero with the torn shirt, staring deeply into a woman’s eyes. (“You’re either wearing nothing…or you’re decked out in ruffles and puffles and truffles,” he muses. “I’m a cowboy a lot. Lot of swords. Shirtless with a sword.”) Yet, incredibly, this man who can’t walk from the beach to his Miami apartment without causing a sensation isn’t even in a relationship when the film opens. Stephen’s idea of romance is more spiritual than steamy. His worry that he may never meet his “twin flame” is a quandary that is quite real for him, if quite perplexing to most of the rest of us.
The somewhat ambiguously named author Gill Sanderson, who has legions of devoted readers across the world, is actually Roger, a pensioner writing from a trailer park in England’s Lake District. At first glance, it’s a bit of a laugh, of course, but Roger quickly displays a pride in craftsmanship and affection for his readers that dispel any sense of exploitation. He may have the objectivity of the formula writer who understands his formula (“Could you have a red-headed hero? Never done one, never will,” he says), but his fictional characters somehow get under his skin.
“At night, you know, when you go to bed, you put your characters almost to bed,” Roger says. “They’re still in your mind, and you give them not a good night kiss, but a sort of little pat on the head: ‘Yes, we’ve done a good job today, the three or the four of us and it’ll carry on tomorrow.’ I love happy endings. There’s nothing wrong with a happy ending.”
Guilty Pleasures is a delightful and touching discovery of the depths of human emotion in what may at first seem the cultural shallows. The success of romance novels, with due credit to the people who produce and market the books, would seem to stem from the power of the romantic ideal of true love and its pull on the human heart. In this surprising sense, romantic novels, despite their formulaic quality, may be more authentic expressions of human nature than more ostensibly “literary” tomes.
“After breaking up with the boyfriend I’d had since I was 17, I was left with some big questions about love,” says director Moggan. “And I came across an article stating that every four seconds a romance novel published by Harlequin or its British counterpart, Mills & Boon, is sold somewhere in the world. I purchased my first romance novel, Bedded by the Greek Billionaire, and so began a two-and-a-half-year journey.
“Looking closely at people’s deep affection for these books the world over became a way to address universal questions about the meaning of true love. Shirley and Phil, Hiroko and Seiich, Shumita, Roger and Stephen stood out to me as warm, honest and hugely likeable individuals, all yearning for something more in their lives.”
Guilty Pleasures is a Bungalow Town Productions film.
About the Filmmaker:
Julie Moggan (Director)
Guilty Pleasures is Julie Moggan’s first feature-length documentary. She has a background in social anthropology and studied documentary at the United Kingdom’s National Film and Television School, where her graduation film, Waiting for a Lift, won the Becks Futures Student Prize. Since then Moggan has directed and worked as a camera operator on a number of documentaries for the BBC and Channel 4.
Director: Julie Moggan
Producer: Rachel Wexler
Co-producers: Neil Herbert, Clairmonte Bourne
Cinematographer: Julie Moggan
Editor: Claire Ferguson
Original Music: Stuart Earl
Running Time: 56:46
POV Series Credits:
Executive Producer: Simon Kilmurry
Co-Executive Producer: Cynthia López
Vice President, Programming and Production: Chris White
Series Producer: Yance Ford
Coordinating Producer: Andrew Catauro
Awards and Festivals:
- Special Jury Award, Mendocino Film Festival 2011
- Best Documentary Feature Award, Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival 2011
- Jury Prize, Nantes British Film Festival 2011
- Nominee, Most Entertaining Documentary, Grierson Awards 2011
- Official Selection, New British Cinema, BFI London Film Festival 2010
- Official Selection, International Documentary Festival Amsterdam 2010
- Opening Night Film, Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2011
- Official Selection, Göteborg International Film Festival 2011
- Official Selection, DocVille 2011
- Official Selection, New Zealand International Film Festival 2011
- Official Selection, EBS International Documentary Festival 2011
Produced by American Documentary, Inc. and celebrating its 25th season on PBS in 2012, the award-winning POV series is the longest-running showcase on American television to feature the work of today’s best independent documentary filmmakers. Airing June through October with primetime specials during the year, POV has brought more than 325 acclaimed documentaries to millions nationwide and has a Webby Award-winning online series, POV’s Borders. Since 1988, POV has pioneered the art of presentation and outreach using independent nonfiction media to build new communities in conversation about today’s most pressing social issues. Visit www.pbs.org/pov.
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American Documentary, Inc. (www.amdoc.org)
American Documentary, Inc. (AmDoc) is a multimedia company dedicated to creating, identifying and presenting contemporary stories that express opinions and perspectives rarely featured in mainstream media outlets. AmDoc is a catalyst for public culture, developing collaborative strategic engagement activities around socially relevant content on television, online and in community settings. These activities are designed to trigger action, from dialogue and feedback to educational opportunities and community participation.
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