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.
This is a severely condensed and ironed-out transcript of a much more rambling talk enthusiastically delivered by Kirsty McCluskey, aka Ticky Dogge-Hare, at the Romantic Novelists’ Association annual conference on 14 July 2012.
Before I start, I’d like to be a good historian and define my terms. Throughout this talk I’ll be using the term romantic fiction to include everything from so-called chick lit to bonkbusters to category romance and historicals. This seemed the least loaded term, and most in keeping with the ethos of the RNA.
When I was invited to speak at this year’s Romantic Novelists’ Association conference I was, naturally, over the moon. I told all and sundry about it. On the whole, the responses I got tended to fall into one of two distinct camps. Some people understood immediately; they knew I loved romantic fiction, whether or not they read it themselves, so they understood exactly why this was so exciting for me. Others, however, were less enthusiastic. Over and over, I heard the same phrase:
“Oh. But you don’t read that stuff… do you?” Or, alternatively, “I didn’t think you read that stuff.”
I even had this discussion at my wedding, when two very serious guests asked me about our honeymoon plans, and I proudly told them that we’d managed to arrange it so that we could travel back from our hotel in the Highlands to our home in Germany via Penrith.
“But that isn’t your kind of thing!” they said.
“Yes, it is,” I replied.
“No, it isn’t.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Are you going to talk about some terrifically obscure bit of Russian literature?” was the next question.
“No,” I said.
“Oh, but you really must,” they replied. “It would be hilarious.”
“No, I mustn’t.”
“Yes, you must.”
You get the idea.
Now, before I go further, I should point out that I do cause astonishment in certain quarters on a near-daily basis. I don’t know whether it’s some pervasive idea about academic women or whether I exude some kind of indefinable aura, but people are forever falling over with shock when I do the most basic things. Wearing nice shoes, putting on makeup, brushing my hair… essentially, anything that might be called “frivolous” by the standards of a medieval Cistercian nun. So it might just be me. I think it fair to say, though, that romantic fiction attracts a fair amount of negative feeling; a degree of scorn that is quite out of keeping with its broad and lasting popularity. It seems that the majority read it in some form, but relatively few of us are willing to stand up and admit to it.
I, for one, am willing to stand up and talk about my relationship to romantic fiction; and I’d like to kick off by talking a bit about my personal journey. Normal people start out by reading Jilly Cooper at school. I didn’t do that, though, because I was a horrid little swot. [Audience politely tries to feign surprise.] When I got to University to study Russian and German, though, it was another matter. I loved my subject, but the pressure was intense; I urgently needed some entertainment. I started off by reading obsessively through Jill Mansell’s entire back catalogue, and branched out from there. If I saw anything even remotely similar, I seized it and devoured it whole. I matriculated in the late nineties, so that meant day-glo covers with legs on them, or photographic ones with a model looking terribly arch. I was still a horrid little swot, but I was a horrid little swot who could appreciate the value of a good bit of escapism.
Being a horrid little swot, I went on to do a master’s degree, choosing to write my dissertation about the memoirs of Lev Trotsky. By the time I finished, I not only had a fairly good handle on Trotsky’s representation of his childhood traumas, adolescent angst and early sexual awakening, I’d also worked my way through Louise Bagshawe and started on Katie Fforde. I had even tried to write a chick lit novel of my own, but sank three chapters in. I don’t remember much about the plot, but I do remember that the romantic antihero was a management consultant called Tarquin, so I think the world is probably better off without it. (I was just as socialist in those days but even more po-faced about it, so I suppose Tarquin the management consultant was the ultimate bad boy.) Career prospects for Trotsky experts being what they are, I went on to work in a series of unsuitable jobs across several countries, including a particularly badly-judged attempt at being a high-powered bilingual legal assistant. That lasted three months: I cried in the toilets every day and then quit before they could fire me.
After that, the most natural thing seemed to be to go away on holiday; as far away as possible. Accordingly, I fled to Chile and stayed there for a further two-and-a-half years, translating legal documents from Spanish to English—I didn’t actually speak Spanish at that stage, but I learned fast—and then training as a dance teacher. It was in Chile that I received an email from Leena Heino, VL’s founding Fox, asking me if I would consider writing a few book reviews. I accepted straight away, thinking it would be a nice little hobby to while away my spare time. (How little I knew.)
At this point I had been reading romantic fiction for a good seven or eight years, but I had never written about it. That was about to change. The first book I received for review through Vulpes Libris, back in the summer of 2008, was Elizabeth Hanbury’s The Paradise Will, which was the first contemporary Regency romance I had ever read. I greatly enjoyed the book, but I’m not sure I didn’t make a hash of reviewing it. I certainly showed my roots when I wrote that the novel could have done with “more and better-drawn workers.” But I am happy to say that Elizabeth was extremely understanding, and that I have given up trying to critique things that are beyond my ken.
Not long after that, I was lucky enough to obtain an interview—my first for Vulpes Libris—with Katie Fforde, in which I didn’t ask nearly as many questions as I would now. Katie schooled me on the definition of romantic fiction in that interview and, as you can see, it has stuck. Feeling bold, I went on to gently rock a very small corner of the litblogging world with an opinion piece entitled “Five Things I Hate about Chicklit,” which was all about the five Ss: Sex, Stereotypes, Snobbery, Slapstick and Shopping. [Pause for gentle titters at Connery-esque pronunciation.] Obviously, I never thought I’d have to read that list out loud. I re-read this piece recently, and while I stand by most of my points even now, I see that I arbitrarily dismissed several authors I have subsequently come to appreciate. Like many people who read a genre avidly without having written in it, I was very, very definite about my ideas and all too willing to declare something unacceptable when I didn’t like it.
Over the next three years or so, I continued to write about romantic fiction periodically for VL, reviewing books by Kate Lace, Sophie Kinsella, Harriet Evans, Louise Bagshawe, Rosy Thornton and Jill Mansell, who was kind enough to accord me an extended interview in 2010. And then, earlier this year, an odd sort of thing happened. It hasn’t exactly changed my views on romantic fiction, but it has made them evolve pretty speedily.
You see, I’d just read Jilly Cooper’s Riders for the first time—[expressions of shock from audience]—and I wanted to review it for Vulpes. But I was already into the third year of my PhD and getting to the stage where I needed to promote my academic and history outreach writing much more aggressively, and this meant that I also needed to draw a distinction between that and my fiction reviewing. Not because one is worth more than the other, but simply for the sake of clarity. Besides, I had mixed feelings about Riders—strongly mixed ones, in fact—and it would be hard to write a straightforward review when what I really wanted to do was argue with myself about it. I’d already met this problem when reviewing non-fiction, and resolved it by writing a dialogue between my academic and non-academic selves, which I swear was more entertaining than it sounds. This time I decided to invent a fictional character who would narrate the review, and I called her Ticky Dogge-Hare because… well, I don’t know exactly why, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. I intended her to be a simple pastiche of the posh gels who populate Jilly Cooper novels, and I had no idea she was going to stick around.
But she did stick around, and I wrote several more reviews as Ticky before foolishly deciding to try again and embark on another full-length fiction project. This time, for better or worse, I did make it beyond the third chapter. In fact, I finished an entire draft, coming in at just under 60,000 words. Whether this is a good thing or not, only time will tell, but it certainly taught me a few things. I’d like to go over these briefly now, in no particular order.
I already knew that it was incredibly hard to write an easy read, and I’ve already harped on this theme in a number of my reviews for VL. But I hadn’t anticipated exactly how all-consuming the writing process can be, when your brain ticks over 24/7 and every minute not spent at the computer seems like wasted time. Anyone who knows me even slightly well will tell you that I’m absolutely potty about my research, but for the first time I met something that could not only challenge but even eclipse it. It was scary, and compelling, and wonderful, and I must ask you never to tell my PhD supervisor.
I’d also heard plenty of writers say that their characters came to life, that they would do things and say things that the author would never have planned. And I had always thought that this was—oh Lord, how can I put this politely—touchy-feely, creative bullshit. But now I found that my characters did exactly that. I’d set out to write one scene, and end up with something quite different. In my previous efforts, I had never had this sense that my characters somehow existed independently of myself; and that, I now realise, was my loss and my failing.
Between the compulsion to write and this new, mutable relationship with my characters, the process of completing a first draft was not only exciting but exhausting. No sooner had I typed that last full stop than I felt elated at having achieved something so significant as writing an actual novel; and then I felt depressed at having such a huge job still ahead of me; and then I started to get paranoid, because everyone says that first novels are always terrible, and this was my first novel, so clearly it must be terrible. You see the kind of logic. I’d always dimly suspected that the really good books, the ones I gobbled up in an afternoon, were the product of intensive reworking and polishing and refining. Now, looking at a rough and ready draft that had taken me three months of backbreaking effort to complete, I had never been more aware of how far I was from the final product.
I was also intensely aware that the draft in front of me had not, in fact, conformed to some of my most basic ideas about what I wanted to write, or indeed read. I’d grumbled, endlessly and in private, that I longed to read a book containing a female lawyer who wasn’t a bitch. It seemed that every chick lit author I read used “lawyer” as shortcut for “tragic, unpleasant workaholic, neglecter of husband and children, implicitly to be condemned for her lack of traditional (i.e. 1950s) feminine mentality”; I shuddered every time I came across yet another evil suit-wearing virago. And yet, lo and behold, I went ahead and wrote an extremely bitchy female lawyer into my own draft; all I can say in my defence is that the logic of the story demanded it. By the same token, I swore I’d never send my heroine racketing from one man to another—no time, no space to be happily single in between—and of course I did exactly that in the end, didn’t I? Come to think of it, I only ever intended Ticky to be a throwaway character in the first place and an unsympathetic one at that: I had no intention of writing a whole bloody novel about an idle rich girl whose biggest problem is… oh wait, no spoilers. Anyway, when I read something that irritates me profoundly on some ideological or personal level, I’m even more reluctant to assume that the author intended to endorse the message I find in the text. Rather, I try to focus on why it might make sense for the protagonist to say, or do, or think as he or she does: and sometimes I still don’t see the logic of it, but more often I do.
With all this in mind, my ethos as a fiction reviewer has somewhat softened since I first wrote that review of The Paradise Will. No, on reflection, it hasn’t softened at all; it’s firmed up. Over the last four years I have been increasingly reluctant to write an entirely negative review of any work of fiction, unless—like Tolstoy—the author is big enough, loved enough and/or dead enough to take it. This is a personal scruple rather than a general principle: I do not believe that bloggers should be anything but honest, and I certainly see no value in the meaningless five-star review. In fact, most of mine are mixed rather than unambiguously positive. But while I have no problem taking apart Civilization or the newest Trotsky bio, I am less and less willing to review a novel about which I cannot be partly or preferably mostly positive. I can engage with a work of history on a different footing because I am also a historian, albeit a very junior one; because the author and I are at least theoretically united by a set of methodological and ethical parameters, even if those are endlessly open to debate. But writing fiction for the first time, and hearing those around me respond to my writing in a variety of encouraging and discouraging and sometimes outright baffling ways, I am even more acutely aware that how I myself respond to a novel is fundamentally shaped by whether I like it or not. Creative writing is a discipline, as is history, but it’s a discipline I’m not qualified to discuss: my experience of creative writing, compared to anyone in this room, is practically zilch and my theoretical grounding non-existent. So as long as I remain primarily a reader, one with little experience of the writing end of the business, all I can offer is my visceral, subjective response. And unless that response has something useful in it, unless I can say with conviction that the book is at least worth reading, I see no real use in offering my opinion. I leave the negative reviews to more experienced practitioners.
As you can see, then, this first experience of writing the kind of literature I’ve been reading and enjoying for so long has brought me a deeper and, I hope, a slightly more intelligent connection with romantic fiction, its writers and its readers. I don’t know why some people are so baffled by my affection for the genre, or genres; I don’t know if it’s my background, my other interests or just my face. But I am immensely glad to have discovered romantic fiction, gladder still of the privilege to review it for Vulpes Libris, and positively overwhelmed to be here at the RNA conference, my first, in the company of the authors whose books I know and love as well as those whose books I don’t yet know.
I’d like to end on a polemical note. I think that the very thing that earns dismissal or even scorn from certain quarters is the same thing that makes romantic fiction so wonderful: that ease of reading, that all of us here know comes not from ease of writing, but from blood, sweat and tears. Romantic fiction can be as serious and as shattering as Me Before You; it can have the lightness of touch necessary to explore serious issues in the best possible way, and when it does, those sparkly pink covers do it a huge injustice. But it doesn’t have to address serious issues. Entertainment is also necessary and worthwhile, and it should not be dismissed as a lesser artform simply because it is easier on the spirit. As PG Wodehouse understood very well, even at the darkest times we sometimes need happy stories; and those stories are no easier to write than any other. It is time that we—readers, writers and reviewers—took that seriously and accorded romantic fiction the respect it deserves.