x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

The problem with romance novels, from Sheikh Romance to Fifty Shades

One common criticism of the genre is that, as well as traducing the Arab male, it glamorises the subjugation of women.

Rudolph Valentino starred as Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan in The Sheik. This adaptation of the romance novel continues to define the Desert Romance long after its release. Courtesy of Everett Collection
Rudolph Valentino starred as Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan in The Sheik. This adaptation of the romance novel continues to define the Desert Romance long after its release. Courtesy of Everett Collection

It may not be something that appeals to you - but if it isn't something that at the very least intrigues you, then you are in a very small minority. We all have our guilty pleasures, and it turns out that an awful lot of women have one particular guilty pleasure in common.

The key is escape, according to Sandra Marton, one of romance fiction's most successful practitioners. Which is somewhat ironic, given that the vehicle to this escape almost invariably features a woman held captive - figuratively, literally, or both.

Romance fiction comes in a variety of hues, each tightly formulaic, satisfyingly predictable and with a happy ending guaranteed. For close to a century, one of the most popular and enduring models has been the so-called Desert or Sheikh Romance.

Its beginnings are often traced to the works of Robert Hichens and books such as The Garden of Allah (1904), The Spell of Egypt (1910) and The Call of the Blood (1906). There were others, of course, but most authors working in the genre today point to British writer EM Hull's 1919 work, The Sheik, as the one that truly put the romance of the desert and the figure of the Sheikh on the map.

This was the book that defined the genre and largely actor Rudolph Valentino's career, too. He starred as the hero, Sheik Ahmed ben Hassan, opposite an apparently constantly trembling Agnes Ayres as the heroine, Lady Diana Conway in the film adaptation.

Today it may be impossible to read the book or watch the film without a sort of instinctive cultural cringe brought on by a spasm of ingrained political correctness. In the most basic sense, it is all terribly dated. Valentino is forever waggling his eyebrows, clenching his jaw and flexing his Hollywood muscles. Ayres barely makes it through a scene without clutching her necklace or threatening a faint. As for the plot, it comes uncomfortably close to painting kidnap as a sort of advanced dating technique: Lady Diana rejects the security of a respectable marriage in favour of a month's journey through the desert and is swiftly kidnapped by Valentino's Sheik.

After an unspecified time in helpless captivity, apparently having abandoned all hope but not, mercifully, her curling irons, Lady Diana is rescued only to realise she has fallen in love with her former captor. Meanwhile, the Sheik - a man, we are informed, caught between two worlds - realises he has fallen in love with his former victim. Cue happy ending.

Even at the time of the film's release, its star showed a certain discomfort with the prejudices that the tale fostered. Asked by one reviewer if he thought that Lady Diana would have fallen for a "savage" in real life, Valentino replied: "People are not savages because they have dark skins. The Arabian civilisation is one of the oldest in the world … the Arabs are dignified and keen-brained." In fact, his character was neither Arab nor dark skinned - he was the son of a Scottish earl and a Spanish princess and was educated, as his loyal valet is keen to point out.

The film, like the book that inspired it, was hugely popular and controversial. That same rather conflicted combination could be said to define the general reaction to the legion of Sheikh books that have followed from it and to romance fiction in its broader sense.

After all, year on year, the sales of romance imprints outstrip all others, constituting 35 to 40 per cent of all mass market paperback sales. More than one out of every four books sold is a romance. Harlequin Enterprises, the Toronto-based company that is the world's largest romance publisher - it owns Mills & Boon - posted a revenue of more than 585 million Canadian dollars last year. Yet the books themselves could hardly be accused of being fashionable. If half the women devouring these books were actually admitting to it and talking about them, then the conversation between their devotees would be as dominant as the heroes between their covers. But for many woman, romance fiction exists as the literary equivalent of a secret stash of chocolate - there to be dipped into in moments of quiet indulgence and hastily hidden away if disturbed.

For that reason alone, the cultural phenomenon that is the overwhelming popularity of romance fiction has been easy to ignore - until now. One book has changed that - or more accurately, three books. The Fifty Shades trilogy teeters at the extreme and, thanks to spectacular sales figures, most exposed edge of the romance spectrum.

In the past three months, author EL James has sold more than four million copies through her British publisher Random House and 15 million in America and Canada. It makes the book the fastest-selling adult novel of all time, or as one commentator put it: "It is the fastest selling novel of all time that isn't Harry Potter."

The general reaction to the books seems to have been one of tea cup-rattling shock at both their content and their success. Which doesn't really bear much scrutiny. Almost a century and a multitude of cultural tropes separate The Sheik from Fifty Shades but there are an awful lot of common bonds that tie. Put bluntly, readers, most of them women, have been enjoying shades of Fifty Shades for years.

Because although Sheikh romance has evolved and the detail and setting of Fifty Shades is far removed from those of its literary cousin, the basic mould remains common and unbroken. Rich, powerful man, exotic and repeatedly referred to as "different" in appearance and outlook from other men, overwhelms trembling heroine. At its most dilute, he does so by force of his personality alone but, one way or the other, she is caught.

One common criticism of the genre is that, as well as traducing the Arab male, it glamorises the subjugation of women.

With 24 million books currently in print in more than 20 languages, and 75 romance fiction titles to her name - her latest is Sheikh Without a Heart - it is an argument with which New England author Marton is familiar. It is also one which she dismisses out of hand. "By creating my own Sheikh-led kingdoms, I can advocate for women by never, ever, making my heroines submissive," she says.

"Best of all, I can show how a relationship with an independent-minded woman can influence a man, and his thinking, for the best. We all see how the world is changing and women are a potent factor in that change."

Jayne Ann Krentz, a best-selling author who writes romance fiction under seven pseudonyms, agrees. Whatever the details, she insists, "The woman always wins. With courage, intelligence and gentleness she brings the most dangerous creature on earth, the human male, to his knees. More than that, she forces him to acknowledge her power as a women."

Marton pinpoints the attraction of the Sheikh figure as the fact that he is "a man with one foot in a traditional world, one who wields great authority while, at the same time, sees the need to move firmly into the 21st century. It's an attractive combination."

And let's face it, whether you admit it or not, the sales show that, on some level at least. Romance, whatever that means, sells. Because like junk food or music that's so bad it's good, these books and this genre tap into something most contemporary readers, and more specifically most modern women, feel they ought not to like. But the simple truth is, they do.

Laura Collins is a senior features writer for The National.