Friday, January 29, 2016

Confessions of a Romance Novelist

Before I share my thoughts on Confessions of a Romance Novelist, a quick note about Mansun. As a big fan of Mansun, I was naturally very excited when, last year, it emerged that their former frontman Paul Draper was to co-produce the debut album from somebody called The Anchoress. That album came out two weeks ago, and in a few moments I'll be typing out my take on it.

First of all, though, I'd like to make a promise: I promise not to spend this entire blog post talking about the parts of
Confessions... that remind me of Mansun songs. Sure, I could waste paragraphs and paragraphs pointing out that What Goes Around bounces along in the same kinda way as My Idea of Fun, or that Doesn't Kill You puts me in mind of both Cancer and Television, but I'm not going to do that because a) it would do The Anchoress and her album a grave disservice, and b) I realised that I'm only hearing Mansun because I know that Paul Draper was involved. If someone had told me that Confessions of a Romance Novelist was co-produced by Neil Hannon, or P!nk, or the keyboardist from Nightwish, I'd probably be hearing their influence instead of Mr Draper's, when really the overwhelming majority of ideas on show here came from The Anchoress herself (a.k.a. Catherine Anne Davies). This is a dramatically chameleonic album; one minute you're thinking it sounds like The Dresden Dolls, then you come across a bit that sounds like Evanescence, and eventually you realise that it's kind of futile playing the 'sounds like' game at all when the album you're dissecting skips across so many different styles in so little time.

So, once this italicised introduction is over, I shan't be using the word 'Mansun' for the remainder of today's blog post. If I do, you have my permission to come to my house and kick me in the shin.

I don't read a lot of romance novels myself, but my girlfriend Vicky has been researching this market a lot recently and she informs me that writers who work within the romance genre have to stick to a pretty strict formula if they want their books to sell. One of the most important rules, as I understand it, dictates that romance novels must always conclude with a happy ending; if, by the final full stop, your lead couple aren't living happily ever after (HEA), or at the very least happily for now (HFN), your book is almost guaranteed to flop. Rulebreaking and bittersweetness apparently don't play well at all in the world of Mills & Boon.

It is this stubborn rigidity that gives Confessions of a Romance Novelist its central conflict: our narrator is a (presumably somewhat successful) romance author, and yet she herself is the polar opposite of all the oppressively formulaic love stories that spill from her pen. She doesn't want to get married; she doesn't believe that finding a partner is the most important thing in the world; and she knows from bitter experience that, for every HEA, there are DORTEB - dozens of relationships that end badly.

Rare, I imagine, is the best-selling romance novel that ends with the words P.S. Fuck You.

The various 'confessions' secreted within this CD can basically be boiled down to one crucial revelation: I know I make a living off these stupid, saccharine love stories, but I don't believe that they're any reflection on the way relationships really work, and in fact I personally disagree with practically every lesson they teach.

Or, as the title track puts it: "You don't know me!"

It's worth remembering that, just because you've read someone's book (or indeed listened to their album), that doesn't mean you really know them. 

That line - "You don't know me!" - is an interesting one, because it could just as well be directed at The Anchoress's listeners as at her protagonist's readers. I mean, it's easy to assume that everything you're told about the romance novelist - her subversive attitudes towards relationships, her fears that she may be no more than some 'second-rate writer', the vengeance she dreams of visiting upon her former lovers -  also applies to Catherine Anne Davies, but by the time you've heard that defiant refrain for the umpteenth time, you kind of have to realise that she's spent most of the album singing in character. "You don't know me, 'cause I only text you when I'm drinking," she sings, and you're reminded that this is all performance; albums, and the songs of which they're comprised, aren't obliged to tell the truth any more than a badly-spelled text from some hobbling drunkard. When Davies sings about her "bedroom shrine to Margaret Thatcher", she's basically just fucking with us.

Come to think of it, this album's title track - in the way it makes you question all that came before it - is quite a lot like An Open Letter to the Lyrical Trainspotter, the hidden track that lurks unlabelled at the end of Attack of the Grey Lantern by, um, a certain left-of-Britpop band from Chester. Both that song and Confessions of a Romance Novelist arrive just as you're trying to piece together precisely what all the preceding songs mean, and both of them deliver, with grinning nonchalance, the most devastating 'confession' of all: They don't mean all that much, really. You probably shouldn't read too far into any of this.

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