May 12, 2014

Mills & Boon “turns storytelling on its head,” keeps all the same characters


It's not love unless it's in 3-D. And also on Twitter. Image via Wikipedia.

It’s not love unless it’s in 3-D. And also on Twitter. Image via Wikipedia.

Just a few days after the announcement that its parent company, Harlequin, had been bought up by HarperCollins comes word of a new venture from one of Harlequin’s UK imprints, Mills & Boon. The new venture is an example of “transmedia storytelling,” according to Mills & Boon marketing manager Jo Kite, and a “global first.”

For those who eyes immediately glaze over at the words “transmedia storytelling,” it’s basically the following: Mills & Boon have invented a fictional hotel (though the videos and images of it that appear in the “storyworld” are of the real St. James’ Court Hotel in London) called the Chatsfield. Within the Chatsfield, a number of narratives unfold, with a lot of social media appendices: YouTube channels, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, blogs, and general 21st century interactivity.

Your primary guide to this world is the fictional personal assistant, Jessie Loe, who has taken on a fictional challenge posed to her by her fictional BFF, Katie Jones, to stay fictionally single for three whole months. Despite the presence of a hotel-load of temptations in the form of mixologists, media moguls, and other gentlemen. Where is it all going??? I don’t even know. Nor, apparently, do the Mills & Boon executives—says Tim Cooper, managing director at Harlequin UK, “We don’t really know how this project will end or where it will take us – but isn’t that the whole point of a great story?”

This is intriguing, but I have my suspicions, because for all its transmedia-fication, the Chatsfield appears to hew close to romance novel norms, which themselves are pretty hoary: daffy dames, screwball set-ups, dashing playboys. And above all, encouraging you, the reader, to idealize wealth, and, crucially, to spend money yourself—the Chatsfield already has a store and a bunch of corporate partners, including slick, hook-heavy cosmetic, lingerie, and cocktail companies (yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as a cocktail start-up: Shaken Cocktails, which will send you the ingredients for a classic cocktail every single month).

So, for all the possibilities that a multiplatform, non-linear, polyvocal narrative seems to promise, here are a few things I’m betting don’t happen:

–no discussion of shoes whatsoever. None. No Blahniks, no Choos, no whatever they call those ankle-breaking bastard versions of the espadrille everyone was peddling last summer.

–also, no talking about chocolate. (Two incredibly boring chocolate references have already occurred on Jessie’s Facebook page in the course of this barely-launched enterprise, goddamn it.)

–conversations between female characters about politics.

–shame and confusion about sexual interactions. Non-cute confusion, that is.

–men that lack either a) “strong jaws”, b) “six-pack abs”, c) “sea-green eyes”, or d) “whiskey-soaked voices that tiptoe down your backbone and all the way into your finger-tips.” Or just money.

–a decided absence of cufflinks.

–exes that aren’t exasperatingly adorable, just exasperating.

–love that is not, binarily, either physically satisfying and emotionally unsatisfying, or vice versa.

–five minutes where someone doesn’t say something blatantly offensive, in a stunning variety of ways, about online dating.

My standards, I realize, are perhaps unrealistic for a Mills & Boon venture. They know their audience, they know it wants a certain finely balanced combination of working-girl realism and Pretty Woman bunkum. Who am I to argue with a multi-billion pound enterprise that claims it sells a book every 6.6 seconds? They are, after all, selling books under all this po-mo trickery: the 8-book Chatsfield series, which includes Sheikh’s Scandal and Playboy’s Lesson and other titles employing the innovative rich-person noun + possessive + sexy noun formulation.

And yet, if I can’t have a chocolate-free narrative line in this brave new world, is there any consolation? A way to comment on the course of events in a project that is ostensibly so open? In an article for the Telegraph on Chatsfield, Sophie Curtis reports that “Harlequin plans to develop the characters that the consumers interact with most.” Which means it’s time to get to the phone — someone’s got a little subverting-of-the-system to do.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.