Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Thursday Soapbox. Catherine Jones: Pride in the Face of Prejudice

On the Soapbox this week we have Catherine Jones, Chair of the Romantic Novelists’ Association (a.k.a writer Kate Lace) about assumptions and prejudices towards romantic novelists.

*I actually had to raid my own Flickr account for this rather strange picture of a foxy-looking beast alongside a heart and some flowers.

Pride in the Face of Prejudice by Catherine Jones

There is a story, probably apocryphal, that most authors have heard about a very famous female writer at a party. (The story has been attributed to both Beryl Bainbridge and Margaret Atwood.) She is introduced to a man and they chat. After a few minutes she asks him what he does and it transpires he’s a brain surgeon. In return he asks her how she earns her living. On hearing that she’s a novelist he replies, ‘I’ve often thought I ought to write a book when I retire.’ Quick as a flash she retorts, ‘How amazing. I’ve always planned to take up brain surgery when I retire.’

It is a truth universally acknowledged that writing a book requires no skill and no talent whatsoever. Obviously it takes a bit of time and effort but nothing more than that. As a result, it seems everyone thinks that knocking out a novel is something you do if you have a bit of spare time. I have been told on countless occasions that the person to whom I am talking is planning on writing a novel when they’ve ‘got a bit more time’. When I wrote my first book I was in the middle of moving house six times in five years (my husband was in the army) and giving birth to my three children. Time was an unheard of luxury but I still managed to squirrel away enough precious minutes each day to get the job done.

I think that some people will accept grudgingly that writing a heavy non-fiction work will require some research and that the authors of some of the more obscure literary novels have a handle on the English language which is enviable. However, the ability to write a page-turner … Well, where’s the skill in that? Anything that is easy to read must, by definition, be easy to write – and obviously any woman with an IQ slightly higher than that of a budgie can write a romance.

Myths and Assumptions

The assumption that causes me the most amusement is that when I’m not writing I’m indulging in rampant sex with all and sundry in the most unlikely of locations by way of research.

Being chairman of the Romantic Novelists’ Association means I have any number of friends and acquaintances who write every sort of romantic fiction imaginable. Without exception they are bright, funny, witty women (or men) with busy lives, often juggling a day job (and no, to dispel another myth, not all advances run into telephone numbers so writing probably won’t earn you a living wage, so you can’t give up that) a family, elderly parents, outside commitments…. One of my friends is an ex-bank regulator, another an ex-treasury official, a third a magistrate and librarian, a fourth won Mastermind and a fifth is head of English at a very smart independent school. All of them write for Mills and Boon and darned successfully too.

The trouble is that most people who knock romantic fiction and its authors haven’t encountered either properly. People make assumptions about our books and us. The assumption that causes me the most amusement is that when I’m not writing I’m indulging in rampant sex with all and sundry in the most unlikely of locations by way of research. I wish! No one assumes that Baroness James of Holland Park nips out at night, armed with an axe to bump off an unsuspecting passer-by to research her next crime novel. They know she relies on her imagination. But obviously romantic novelists are too thick to be able to draw on theirs. Hurumph!

The other assumption about romantic fiction that gets my goat (and no this isn’t a goat I use for other bizarre practices for my novels) is that women who read romantic fiction never read anything else because they don’t have sufficient brain cells to cope with long words or deep plots. Tosh! I have never come across anyone who reads just one type of book. Readers read. It’s what they do and they’ll read anything they can lay their hands on that they feel will give them that escapist buzz for a few wonderful hours or days. Readers want to be swept away, to be entertained and to be given some sort of vicarious experience by someone who knows how to tell a fantastic yarn.

Books as Entertainment

Reading should make your brain ache. Why?

Okay, I’m not a huge fan of sci-fi, or westerns or thrillers. Sorry folks but there it is. But I love historicals, crime, some fantasy (Philip Pullman and Terry Pratchett inter alia) and anything that’ll make me laugh and/or cry – so that’s most romantic fiction covered. But I’ve read most of the classics, a lot of Booker winners, poetry, Shakespeare…. I just like to read and as long as it entertains me I’m happy.

However, it seems to me that, amongst those who like to class themselves as intellectuals, reading shouldn’t be used for entertainment. Reading should make your brain ache. Why? When was the last time you went to an art house to see a film? (Okay, there’s bound to be some cleverclogs reading this who went only last week but for the vast majority the answer will be either ‘never’ or ‘ages ago’.) Let’s face it most of us go to the cinema to be entertained; we want to laugh or cry or have the bejaysus scared out of us but we don’t go to have our minds improved. We all accept that and that’s fine and dandy. Going to see ‘Calendar Girls’ or ‘Notting Hill’ or ‘I am Legend’ won’t raise a single eyebrow of surprise or derision. In fact, missing out on seeing the most recent blockbusting movie is a far more likely cause for comment.

Why is it okay to be entertained when it’s a film and rubbish if it’s a book?

I have a theory… It’s because MEN run the film industry and publishing is dominated by women. And the two most successful brands of genre fiction – crime and romance – have a huge number of female authors.

So, is it all just a filthy plot to keep us women in our place? Probably not. However, I take great comfort from the fact some of my best friends are published in 26 languages and in 126 countries.

Smoke that Martin Amis!

Other Links on Vulpes

Interview with Catherine Jones
Our Review of The Chalet Girl by Catherine’s alter-ego, Kate Lace
Interview with fellow RNA member, Phillipa Ashley

For more rants from the Soapbox click here.

28 comments on “Thursday Soapbox. Catherine Jones: Pride in the Face of Prejudice

  1. Lucy Diamond
    May 15, 2008

    Great post – well-written and oh-so true… and as someone who writes children’s books as well as women’s fiction, I get double the number of patronising comments as, of course, anyone can write a children’s book, it’s a doddle, innit?!

  2. Luisa
    May 15, 2008

    I agree – great post!

  3. Sam
    May 15, 2008

    Interesting post. I have to say the only prejudice i have ever encountered has come from other writers. Without exception, anyone else i tell what i write – including doctors, teachers, people working in numerous professions – seem full of admiration that anyone would follow such a dream, regardless of what they are writing. I suspect if i moved in literary circles, my experience might be different.

    Sam

  4. rosythornton
    May 15, 2008

    Great rant, Catherine – and very funny as well as very true. I’ve had several of my (otherwise sane) male friends and colleagues say that they couldn’t read my novels in public, because of the hearts and flowers on the covers. But, as you say, going to a ‘chick flick’ wouldn’t be embarrassing for them in the same way – though perhaps only because they can go with their womenfolk as ‘cover’!

    Maybe the RNA should issue a badge for reluctant or embarrassed romance readers, along the lines of those bumper stickers on hatchbacks which say ‘My other car is a….’. It could say, ‘I also read Dickens!’

  5. Nik
    May 15, 2008

    Great post.

    Nik (who’s male).

  6. rosyb
    May 15, 2008

    Loved this, Catherine! – Very feisty and funny.

    “The assumption that causes me the most amusement is that when I’m not writing I’m indulging in rampant sex with all and sundry in the most unlikely of locations by way of research. I wish! No one assumes that Baroness James of Holland Park nips out at night, armed with an axe to bump off an unsuspecting passer-by to research her next crime novel.”

    Made me laugh out loud and SO TRUE!!

    Ok, now though this is a soapbox discussiony kind of slot so…at the risk of playing the devils advocate, I haven’t read any Mills and Boon so I don’t know what I am talking about but I did hear – I may be misremembering but it might have been Radio 4 – in between my reading Dostoevsky in the original and rushing off to the art house to see a French documentary about the opera (:):) As if!) that Mills and Boon do have certain rules. Is that right? What are they? I keep hearing that you aren’t allowed to mention abortion for example – is this true or one of those myths?

  7. marygm
    May 15, 2008

    Great post, Catherine. I’m sure you’re right about the bias being linked to the fact that these books are by and for women. But “reading shouldn’t be used for entertainment”. Does anyone really think this? Surely not.

  8. Dee Weaver
    May 15, 2008

    Well said! This is just the sort of thing a lot of people are quietly thinking without speaking up.

  9. Clodagh
    May 15, 2008

    Very funny rant, Catherine, and so true! (And Rosy, I love the idea of those stickers that say ‘I also read …’ I want one of those!)

    Rosyb, I tried writing for Mills & Boon at one stage (unsuccessfully), and they do have quite rigid guidelines. It’s a long time ago now and I’m sure the guidelines have changed – some of them used to be quite hilarious! But I gather the new rules, though they’ve changed with the times a bit, are as rigid as ever. I think you could probably get them on their website. I don’t know about the abortion thing, but I’d say it’s true.

  10. Sam
    May 15, 2008

    ‘Why is it okay to be entertained when it’s a film and rubbish if it’s a book?’

    Bit of a false comparison, that. Novels are a very different beast to film. There’s a distance involved in watching films that isn’t there when reading a book. Reading a novel is a much more intimate experience. You take the book inside you, almost. This is probably to do with the fact that a film can’t really explain character in the way a novel can – films can’t truly get inside a character’s head, whereas that’s the thing that I think sets novels apart from every other art form. Which is just another way of saying that there’s a – for want of a better word – notion of ‘morality’ at play in a novel that isn’t to be found in, say, film. So (I think people think) that the kind of book you read is indicative of the depth of your own level of ‘morality’ (I wish I could think of a better word). Basically, shallow people read shallow books (or so I think people think – not me, of course).

  11. Jackie
    May 16, 2008

    I beg to differ with Sam about films being less intimate than books. While novels can explain the thoughts inside a person’s head, truly gifted film makers and actors can do that as well. Plus there’s the visual and audio component that can be expanded upon in film.
    But I digress from the main point of my comment, which is to express agreement with Ms. Jones Soapbox post. Romance novels definitely do get no respect and I agree it’s probably mostly a gender bias. Why is everything women do trivialized? Though I never thought about “rampant sex as research”, does thins mean I’m not up to date on my stereotypes? And why do so many people think writing is something anyone can dabble in? It’s not as easy as it looks, the good authors just make it look that way.

  12. annebrooke
    May 16, 2008

    Love it – and so true! Mind you, you should hear what they say about a woman who writes gay novels!! People are always curious about the gay sex research … Funny how they never ask about the murders, torture, blackmail and other general shennanigans which also appear therein!

    ==:O

    :))

    A
    xxx

    PS I’ve always wanted to say “therein” in an email. Thank you, Vulpes, for allowing me the chance to do so. My job here is done, Carruthers …

  13. John Self
    May 16, 2008

    Hey, leave poor Martin Amis out of it! What’s he ever done to you?

  14. Moira
    May 16, 2008

    ‘Poor’, ‘Martin’, ‘Amis’.

    Now there are three words you don’t see keeping company very often. :mrgreen:

  15. John Self
    May 16, 2008

    Well there was that competition in the New Statesman years ago where readers were invited to send in the least likely titles for books, and the winner was My Struggle by Martin Amis. But it does annoy me a little when he becomes a whipping boy for any sort of literary high standards. I’m sure his books will still be read when the world has forgotten those by… by… – I was going to select a random romance novelist’s name from the Romance Novelists’ Association website, but I see they haven’t renewed their domain!*

    *at time of writing…

  16. Catherine
    May 16, 2008

    I only picked on Martin Amis because he is in translation and is sold abroad – just not quite so prolifically. (Besides, I think he’s man enough to take it from a mere woman!) BTW the RNA web is at
    http://www.rna-uk.org. It was alive and well whe I last looked – about an hour ago.

    Catherine

  17. John Self
    May 16, 2008

    That’s odd, I was (and still am) getting a renewal notice page in vivid orange under the name “SupaNames – discover better net hosting” with the heading “Renewal due for rna-uk.org.”

    Here’s a screenshot.

  18. Susie Vereker
    May 16, 2008

    Bravo, Catherine. But, John Self, some romantic novelists have stood the test of time. Jane Austen, the Brontes and Daphne du Maurier, for example.

  19. Moira
    May 16, 2008

    John – I’m getting that odd orange screen for the RNA, too …

  20. Sam
    May 16, 2008

    Jackie, I’m sure there probably are a few films out there that try to explain character but it’s not a natural avenue for film to go down, in the way it is for the novel. And studying character is more than just explaining the ‘thoughts inside a person’s head’ (which, incidentally, film’s are forced to do in quite clumsy ways, a voice-over, say, (American Beauty was a great exception, using symbolism to explain character – all those red and white petals etc – but even that strained at times)) – where was I? – oh, yeah, it’s more that explaining the thoughts inside a person’s head, it’s about an entire psychology; in fact, very often it’s about trying to explain why certain thoughts aren’t inside a person’s head! And the novel is uniquely placed to do that better than any of the other media.

    Readers read. It’s what they do and they’ll read anything they can lay their hands on that they feel will give them that escapist buzz for a few wonderful hours or days. Readers want to be swept away, to be entertained and to be given some sort of vicarious experience by someone who knows how to tell a fantastic yarn.

    Hi, I enjoyed reading your post, but I don’t think these kinds of sweeping statements do your argument any favours. Readers no doubt read for as many different and various reasons as writers write. I totally agree that people shouldn’t make reductive statements about romantic, or any other, novelists, but neither should romantic novelists make reductive statements about their, or any other, readers.

  21. Catherine
    May 17, 2008

    Valid point Sam about what readers read. You are quite right and maybe it was a cheap shot. However…. I think that readers of fiction want the story first and foremost and all the other stuff – the depth of characterisation, the brilliance of the scene setting etc – is what turns a good novel into a great one. But if the story doesn’t hold together then, IMHO, the rest is redundant. When I read War and Peace and Dr Zhivago I raced through them because I had to find out what happened to the protagonists. To be honest, as I read I didn’t think about the amazing quality of the writing. That came much later when I realised these books had got right into me and had stayed with me in a way nothing else I had read before had managed. But it was the story that grabbed me and it’s still what I look for in a novel and I think it’s the same for many others. But if novels aren’t your bag – well then ignore what I say because it probably won’t apply.

  22. Catherine
    May 17, 2008

    Oh, and BTW the RNA is on the case of the missing web site. (I must have gone to a bookmarked page when I got it to apear yesterday!)

  23. Sam
    May 17, 2008

    Thanks for replying, Catherine. I suppose I just think that in the great novels story and character are pretty much inseparable; often, the character leads the novel, pulling along the plot as if it were on a leash. Crime and Punishment does this brilliantly. (Never read War and Peace.) But then I’m sure we can all think of great books that on the face of it are all character and little plot (The Death of Ivan Ilyich, for example). I guess there will always be exceptions.

    And novels most definitely are my bag! They’re probably my only one.

  24. RosyB
    May 17, 2008

    I’m not sure I agree about the film thing, Sam, although I do see what you are saying. But I don’t think you need voice-overs etc to reveal character. Spike Lee, for example, is brilliant at revealing character and giving you an idea of why people do the things they do. I’m also not sure that you need lots of introspection to reveal character in the first place. For example, to pick one of your favourites, I’m not sure how much is revealed of Gatsby’s character – he remains somewhat of a mystery and ambiguous (in fact I have a theory that most of the memorable and great characters in books are strangely unrevealed when you go back to look at it.) I always think it is a bit like painting – that some of the most realistic techniques is all about NOT defining the whole objets but about merging it into darkness – and the eye somehow can’t avoid but see the rest. I think that kind of ambiguity or half-revealed character often works more powerfully in books – that we fill it in from our own experience and can’t help that.

    Sorry – completely off the point now!

  25. Sam
    May 17, 2008

    I really like the point about merging the object into darkness – I think that kind of obliqueness (which, you’re right, is true of Gatsby) can be very effective. Gatsby does remain a mystery. I’d call it an open mystery, though. He clearly wants to be known, but not for who he really is. And, incidentally, a lot is revealed about Nick Carraway, the actual narrator of that novel (Gatsby doesn’t appear in the book nearly as much as people think, which also adds to his mystery, I guess).

    When I say character, I do mean the psychological aspects of it; looking beyond the actions of a person and digging inside their head à la Dosto. How does Spike Lee do it? The only film of his I’ve seen is House Party (?) with the tall, cuboid Afros. I don’t recall that much character being revealed (but I was about eight at the time).

    I like your theory. Many great characters do remain unknown to us, but we are made to understand that they are known to themselves. So we might not know exactly why they are acting in a particular way, but we understand that they are aware that they are acting in a certain way. The character keeps their secrets (much as we do in real life). Which is great. And is, yes, revealing.

  26. rosyb
    May 17, 2008

    I was thinking of something like “Summer of Sam” where what really sticks in my mind is the exploration of Italian character’s (Vinny I think) disgust with his wife’s sexual needs whilst simultaneous indulging in “dirty” sex with prostitutes. And yet Lee seems to make psychological sense of these apparently incongruous attitudes- shows them as part of the same thing and makes sense of something that feels true to us. You asked how to do it in film and I think that showing people in different situations, from different povs is part of it. But you also inherently read so much from body language etc. If someone seems excessively violently averse to something in an irrational way, we are immediately attuned to think there is something behind that and the filmmaker can then begin to give us those clues…

    Not that I’m a filmmaker, mind you! Just thinking aloud here!

    “Summer of Sam” does not just explore the psychology of individuals, but of groups which – in my opinion – is even more interesting.

    Mike Leigh also springs to mind. But I don’t actually think you need stylistic “realism” to explore psychological truths/motivations etc. (Whatever realism even means – but I think we might have disagreed about this before!) If you let symbolism or other devices into the mix then surely Bergman would be a filmmaker uniquely interested in revealing psychology. I would also argue that the film Memento, although not “realistic” as such, is an exploration of psychology and our need to provide ourselves with beliefs and stories.

  27. Sam
    May 17, 2008

    I’ll try and check out Summer of Sam.

    I think Mike Leigh does (yawn) ‘gritty’ realism, but I don’t think there’s any deep psychological probing going on in his work. Secrets and Lies had the potential for much psychological interrogation, but he, more or less, played it for laughs.

    Psychology of groups is interesting. Maybe novels do struggle with that (those that try to do ‘groups’ I think tend to get called ‘novels of ideas’ which is nearly always faint praise). But then V S Naipaul often gets called ‘the great diagnostician of societies’ so maybe I’m wrong.

    Symbolism etc can be thrown in the realism mix. I sometimes think when I talk of ‘realism’ people think I mean ‘gritty’ or ‘plausible’ or somesuch, when really I mean… oh, this would be a much longer post if I start down that road.

  28. Melinda Hammond
    May 17, 2008

    Excellent argument, Catherine.

    Anyone who has actually finished a book will know that writing is hard work – and writing a page-turner is exceptionally hard work! Romantic Fiction is much maligned but it provides wonderful relaxation for millions of readers.

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