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.
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!
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For more rants from the Soapbox click here.