in defence of romance: an audience with ‘jessica gilmore’

By Tia Byer

Sub-editor Tia Byer reports on ‘The Art of Romance Today’ event, featuring York St John’s very own Mills & Boon author Jessica Thompson, and panel participants Drs Naomi Booth and Anne-Marie Evans.

Jessica Thompson a.k.a the Romance novelist ‘Jessica Gilmore’.

“Guilty Pleasure Reading” refers to those books that are enjoyable to read but are not necessarily held in high regard. However, for many of us, though we might not want to admit it, the love we feel for our guilty-go-to texts is undeniable. It may even be that these so called ‘low-brow’ pieces of literature actually fostered our now mature reading habits. This certainly was the case for myself.

During my adolescence I used to devour Cecily Von Ziegesar’s Gossip Girl series. Spoilt, rich, reckless teenagers in New York, getting up to no-good at their elitist Upper-East side private school and frivolously spending their billionaire parent’s money like there is no tomorrow- what more could a teenage girl want entertainment-wise? After that, my Star Wars obsession reached a new level. My discovery of James Luceno’s Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader became another foundational reading experience.

For Jessica Thompson, York St John’s Fundraising and Alumni Manager, a guilty pleasure read was more than a mere adolescent fancy – it became a life choice. Jessica first became interested in the Romance novel when she read Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High series. After this initial discovery, Jessica would soon embark on a life-long passion for reading romance that would later inform her writing as a one-day romance novelist herself.    

‘Heart Breaker’ by Francine Pascal.

On Monday 23rd April, Jessica Thompson spoke at York St John University about her intriguing double life and subsequent dual identity. In her everyday life, she calls herself Jessica Thompson, but as authoress takes the pen-name: Jessica Gilmore. Jessica writes for the publishing house Mills & Boon. Renowned for publishing romance fiction, Mills & Boon is founded upon the ethos of discovering writers from among their readership. Jessica is contracted to write 3-4 books a year and so far has 15 titles to her name. Her novel A Will A Wish… and A Proposal, was even nominated for the 2015 Reviewers’ Choice Award.  

‘A Will, A Wish… A Proposal’ by Jessica Gilmore.

Listening to Jessica was incredibly eye-opening. To hear about the potential struggles and demands a female encounters in working and raising a family, whilst simultaneously retaining one’s own creative interests, was reassuring. It was nice to see a woman doing it all. But of course and not surprisingly, burning the candle at both ends does not always come easy. In fact, Jessica mentioned how the rigorous process of submitting a draft in the hopes of getting it approved can be a very “terrifying process”, and at times disheartening. Jessica admitted that occasional “hearing criticism can lead to despair”.  After years of feeling as if she was “not getting anywhere”, in August of 2013, Jessica received a two book contract with Mills & Boon.

The event’s panelists: (left to right) Jessica, Dr Noami Booth and Dr Anne-Marie Evans.

Drs Naomi Booth and Anne-Marie Evans then joined Jessica in a panel discussion about the romance novels’ relevance today. As author of The Art of Sinking, a novella about swooning, Naomi  opened the discussion talking about the infancy of Romance scholarship. Drawing on her PhD research tracing the history of swooning practices in literature in medieval times, to contemporary erotica such a 50 Shades of Grey, Naomi analysed some enduring criticism of the romance genre. Anne-Marie Evans, discussed her research looking at the American Civil War Romance Fiction and the under-representation of the role that women played in the war.

The discussion concluded with the ever present literary concern about the unequal scrutiny with which female authors’ work comes under in comparison to males. Jessica in particular discussed the feminisation of the romance readership and the difficulties the genre faces as repeatedly branded sensationalism. Writing, producing and existing as a romance writer and advocate is no easy ride. The inherent snobbery associated with literary scholarship can sometimes be darn right scathing. Despite this, Gary Gutting, in a 2012 New York Times article, states: “the sign of a superior text of whatever genre is its ability to continue rewarding—with pleasure—those who work to uncover its riches”. So bravo Jessica, for keeping the romance alive and enlightening us all to the intricacies involved in creating literature for the reader’s enjoyment. You truly have uncovered the riches of both producing and consuming romance fiction in the 21st century.