When I was first published in the early 1990s, the glitzy Bonkbuster was riding high in commercial fiction, the Aga Saga cantering alongside. Jackie Collins and Judith Krantz vied for top slot, along with country cousins Mary Wesley and Joanna Trollope. Meanwhile Jilly Cooper alone reigned over the full-blooded rural romp with her riotous tales of rutting in the shires, a British fictional tradition dating right back to Fielding’s Tom Jones. Packed with handsome cads and feisty women, it’s a magical formula for lusty fun. Add hills, horses and lashings of humour, and fireworks happen. Sprinkle in high emotion, warmth and multiple story threads, and it makes for an addictive reading.
Whilst a few newcomers were hailed as fellow rompers – I was one, along with Catherine Alliot, later Tilly Bagshawe and others – we were soon swept away on the tide of glittery pink Chick Lit that stormed through the nineties and the noughties, eventually washing up in a seaside town full of little sweet shops, bakeries and cafes where urban evacuees find second chance love. Some Chick Lit authors jumped ship before this and went to the dark side, thrilling us with stalkerish women next door and strangers on trains that readers lapped up. And of course sex will always sell: the Fifty Shades trilogy tripled its profit by publishing what would have once been one big bonkbuster in three parts. Clever.
During this journey, the seductive glitter trail left by those erstwhile queens of glitzy fiction still inspired eager attempts at a bonkbuster revival. In the late noughties, a host of brilliant chick lit writers adopted pen names and single word titles like Luxury and Betrayal to be hailed as the new wave in the media but got little industry traction. My racy romps were also rebranded as pretenders to Jilly’s crown, although this wasn’t a great success either as readers were increasingly encouraged to escape to Tuscan villas for summer, French chateaux for Christmas or that row of second-chance seaside shops year round.
Positioning is a big industry buzzword – making books look like others so we know what to buy next – and lusty romps often rebelliously defy that. Stripped down to its elements, the big, bouncy bonkbuster blends romance, erotica and family saga, often with a dollop of thriller or social satire mixed in too. Given their expansive casts and multiple storylines, they’re also usually well over 500 pages. With so many streams and memes competing for our attention, shorter books now dominate fiction lists. We read what is commissioned after all – an industry decision – and low page count, high turnover books make sense commercially – less editing, less production, fewer manhours, less paper even. Retailers can pack more ‘units’ on their shelves, and publishers can produce more ‘content’, neatly homogenised into individual genre categories, generating more income.
Recently, direct publishing has challenged commissioning editors’ hold over positioning, with readers able to seek out what they want from independent authors. Hence Colleen Hoover has led the way for an advancing army of trauma-hearted romances. We’ve also seen a flurry of myth-inspired “romantasies” with their opening page trigger warnings about non-consensual sex. Sex always sells, lest we forget, and there’s something out there for everyone, from shared pain to horns and elf ears. The bonkbuster will never die – it is a hydra that keeps growing new heads – and now that readers are getting more choice, the future is exciting. I predict it won’t be long before the return of high-octane glamour worthy of Luck Santangelo.
As for joyful, muddy sex in wellies and wax jackets, I’ve no doubt the rural romp will gallop back to bestseller-dom one day too. Having never stopped adding as many horses, dogs and al fresco bonks as my editor allows, I still long to be the one to get it trending again. And after thirty years being hailed “the new Jilly Cooper” I’d also love to see far more of us writing big sexy books full of men in breeches and heroines with attitude. I was twenty-three when I started, so it would be wonderful for a younger generation of authors to join in the romping. It really is the best fun in the world.
Country Secrets by Fiona Walker was published by Aria in Hardback, eBook and audiobook on 17 August 2023