Mills & Boon (also known as Harlequin outside the UK) have reached sixty years in the industry and have released sixteen free ebooks representing a good selection of their lines; this offer can be found here.
Of course, this has occasioned commentary on category romance, some of which can be found here*. One quotation in particular drew attention:
'Like some sort of love-peddling drug dealer, the company often gives away free books, hoping to get readers hooked.'
This sentence describing a sensible business model used by every industry reveals an attitude to the these books that I can't say is uncommon. Have you come across a reference to a publishing houses peddling classics like they're some sort of drug? There's this image of addiction to category romance as if it's a horrible drug of abuse that poisons the mind. The implication is: surely you have to be stupid, wanting a cheap thrill or helplessly addicted to "want that stuff".
The image of series romances and the people who read them isn't pretty, especially here in the United Kingdom. This isn't helpful especially since as soon as you mention 'romance', 'The Millionaire's Virgin Mistress's Baby Surprise' pops into the person's mind. There seems to be a prevalent pride in the country's literary heritage and thus a lot of emphasis on maintaining an image of taste and discernment; literature and literacy are closely bound to class. Who reads category romance in the eyes of the English public? The elderly population, which the pervading culture has much contempt for.
Of course, it's simply not true that it is the province of the elderly. Romance is a vastly appealing genre and I've seen my share of young women "secretly" indulging; you could get an M&B romance for 25p at charity stores if you wanted. I went through phases where I'd buy several at a time during my schooling, at my local charity stores.
There are two important points I want to bring across. Firstly, whatever genre or publisher a person reads implies next to absolutely nothing about their personality or their tastes. You have no clue what they're reading for: is it for a happy ending, for reading about the dynamics of forming a relationship, for the thrill, for the tension, for the author's writing style, for curiosity or for the hero? It doesn't even imply if they're heterosexual or not.
It's a rare thing for someone who reads M&B publications to read that alone. Because I read M&Bs or even the romance genre as a whole, it doesn't mean I don't appreciate 1984's groundbreaking ideas. It doesn't mean I'm allergic to conventionally 'good literature'. It may mean that UK bookshelves have been absolutely bare in the romance section except for some barely qualifying chick lit and M&Bs until very recently. Seriously, I'd go to my library and all I'd find in romance would be M&Bs and Nora Roberts.
If you read a certain genre or publisher, I do not automatically assume that you love everything about the genre and that publisher. I expect you to find books you absolutely hate or are completely indifferent to; if you didn't, that's when I would suspect that you lacked taste. A person who loves all romance is just like a person who loves all the classics or all sci-fi; they're equally undiscerning. It's amazing what newspapers and magazines some people read while snobs about other people's reading choices: You're reading The Sun, The Daily Mail or Take a Break; yet you have the gall to criticise?
Secondly, these books are diverse. There will be some that are terribly written and some that are brilliantly descriptive, dealing with sensitive subjects and even controversial ones. Like everything, there's a bell curve to the quality of these books. There will be a following for a certain author on the imprint: take Penny Jordan or Carole Mortimer. Every time I buy one, it's a risk, and one I'm willing to take because it doesn't take me long to finish the thing. It's a wonderful medium for authors to push the boundaries of the subject matter and explore topical issues; buying cheaply in bulk allows this creative freedom. There were category romances set around Hurricane Katrina, for example. Category romance is often the launching platform for an author to publish romance novels in the more traditional novel formats; relying on their name rather than the publisher's imprint. Examples off the top of my head include JR Ward (as Jessica Bird) and Nora Roberts.
It's all about looking for that new turn of phrase, that new plotline, that new issue, that new hero, that new setting and that new hero instead of sticking with well-known, well-worn, well-tried (frankly boring?) conventional literary formulae which focus on the negatives and the supposedly deep symbolism of smoking marijuana while hanging upside down from a tree above a bloodred river in India, while embarking on a soulsearching expedition provoked by the protaganist's uncle who has declared to his estranged wife and five children that he is gay. (Summary: writers going for 'high literature' can be very crap and pointless)
Despite all the subtleties of the romance genre and its core influence on English literature, all its variations and the fussiness of its readers -- despite all this -- the continuing perception that all romance is just porn for women, will probably just continue...
* [props to Smart Bitches for highlighting this article]