Tag Archives: literature

Who has the right to write?

Just lately, I’ve been thinking about gay romances.

I read them. I also read heterosexual romances.

The reason I read the romances I do, and the reason I like reading them, is because both characters are intelligent, sensible human beings. None of this crap about the whole storyline basically being the result of one of them not telling the other one something important. No wilting. No getting pregnant by accident on a one-night stand. (Yes, I know it still happens despite the availability of contraception since the 1960s, but really do you expect me to respect a heroine who has sex with a stranger without using protection?)

Strangely, this pretty much limits my MF romances to historicals – most of the contemporary heroines seem to be wilting violets who run away a lot, or get themselves into stupid situations that require them to be rescued. By a man. It’s the historical heroines who do interesting things, who stand up for themselves or someone else, who won’t be pushed around.

On the other hand, in M/M romances, I don’t have to cope with one of the two protagonists being someone I want to slap some sense into. I like some vulnerability, but M/M romances tend to be a lot better at avoiding wimpy.

So, a story with two guys in it is a lot more likely to have two characters who are my kind of person.

And, a lot of M/M romances are written by women.

But if you look about on the internet a bit, you find that there’s quite a bit of debate about whether women have the right to write M/M romances.

This sounds awfully familiar. Nobody is saying “gay writers have no right to write about straight women”, but, hey presto, we’ve got a bunch of people trying to limit what women are allowed to do… again.

This isn’t universal; gay male opinion seems to be pretty much divided between “Women – get thee to the kitchen/get thee to Mills & Boon” and “I don’t care who is writing romances about gay couples as long as someone is; let’s have some books about gay characters who don’t die in the end.”

Because, let’s face it, until recently, writing realistic fiction about gay couples, whether male or female, probably wasn’t going to be very cheerful – but particularly for men. Not only was there AIDS to contend with, but society has always been much harsher on male homosexuality than female (usually because female homosexuality just gets ignored). But everyone needs some feel-good fiction at some point, and I’ve read several posts from gay men, basically saying that M/M romance may not be incredibly true to life, but they wanted a happy ending. Which gay fiction written by gay men wasn’t providing, being – as far as I can tell – the equivalent of literary fiction, which is not known for being bright and upbeat.

I wonder whether gay men, being men, have the same hang-up about reading romances as straight men? As in, real men just don’t . So although 16% of romances are bought by men (according to Romance Writers of America), gay men were – once again – deprived of something that straight men had. Not only the opportunity to openly have a relationship with the partner of their choice, but also to read about romantic happy endings that featured people like them.

OK, so a lot of M/M romance is read by heterosexual women. Why is that a bad thing? Gay men read about straight couples. Why shouldn’t everyone read what they want? Reading about people who are different from you is supposed to broaden the mind, isn’t it?

Then, of course, there is the politicisation of writing. That straight women shouldn’t be allowed to write about gay men, because it’s not their story.

So how come Oscar Wilde was allowed to write The Importance of Being Earnest? Which, as I recall, was all about straight couples. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander – unless we’re trying to say that gay men can write what they like, but straight women have to do what they’re told? (Again.)

Of course, set against this, we have the calls for ‘diverse books’.

So, on one hand, straight female authors are being told that they should restrict their writing to straight characters; on the other hand, they are being told that the world needs more ‘diverse’ characters, i.e., gay and ethnic minorities (bearing in mind that everyone is an ethnic majority somewhere).

Both cannot be true.

We cannot say, on the one hand, that a straight white author is only allowed to write straight white characters (because anything else is not their story), and on the other, lambast that author for not writing gay or ethnic minority characters.

What is wrong with an author simply writing the story they have in their head? If a character in your head is gay, then they’re gay. You can’t suddenly swap their gender or sexual orientation – it just doesn’t work like that. Why should I have to censor my writing because I’m not gay? And why should I be made to feel guilty on the one hand for including gay character, and on the other hand for not including them?

The “you shouldn’t write about that because it’s not your story” idea, though, is worse than just making writers feel guilty for writing. It means that it limits who is allowed to write about what – it’s censorship under the guise of ‘respect’ and ‘political correctness’. And what happens, when only gay people are allowed to write about gay characters? Well, since gay people are a minority, how many books with gay characters do you think we’re going to get if we rely on gay people to write them all? An awful lot of gay people would have to give up their day jobs in order to write the requisite number of books.

Or, maybe, we should just let people who already want to write get on and write them. Maybe, just maybe, we shouldn’t worry about political correctness, and whether the author is male or female, straight or gay, human or robot or dancing bear. Maybe we should just think about the quality of the writing. Maybe we should just be happy that somebody is including gay characters. Yes, m/m romances are cheesy a lot of the time – but then so is pretty much every m/f romance! The whole point of the romance genre is that it’s boy meets girl (or boy meets boy, or girl meets girl, or whatever), boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, happy ever after. It’s a fun read. It makes you think that there is happiness and love in the world, and that sometimes, love does conquer all.

It’s not meant to be politically correct, it’s not meant to send any kind of message other than ooh, that’s so lovely, and it’s meant to be fun.

Remember fun? That thing you had before you had political correctness? Before you had to worry about diversity and who had the right to write exactly what storylines?

And, to be topical, why, why, why are we praising Charlie Hebdo for publishing nasty, racist, disrespectful cartoons which mock a minority’s culture and religion and calling it “freedom of speech” when at the same time people are trying to argue that women should not be writing books that portray a minority in a generally positive (even if not exactly realistic) light?

I think I’ll let them all go to Hull and I’ll write whatever I like.

Gay fiction vs m/m romance

Today, I came across a blog post written by a gay male author, bemoaning the proliferation of ‘m/m romance’ (which is, apparently, a very different thing to ‘gay romance’). The reason for this is because he considered that ‘m/m romance’ was written by heterosexual women for heterosexual women, and was totally unrealistic. Furthermore, Real Men Don’t Read Romance.

I wrote a very long reply, which I then decided not to post. Firstly, because the original post was written in 2011, and secondly because contradicting someone’s cherished opinions is never a particularly good idea, unless you enjoy arguments.

However, the very long reply did contain some things I didn’t want to lose, so I thought I’d put them here. The coward’s way out – stick your contradiction somewhere else!

I found it interesting because the whole tone of the blog post was that women had no business writing gay male characters (or possibly male characters at all) because they were crap at it. And women certainly shouldn’t be writing about gay male couples for a female heterosexual audience.

I’m old enough to know that being a member of an oppressed group does not make you sympathetic to other oppressed groups. In fact, it often makes you oppress other people all the more because at least it means that you’re not at the bottom of the pile. It’s a very human, although not very praiseworthy, trait.

Likewise, there is the tendency to think that if you are a member of an oppressed group, every other member of that group should toe the line you set, or they’re doing it wrong, just as feminists have a history of insisting that women should do things their way – instead of women being allowed to make their own choices.

There were several distinct points, which made for interesting thinking:

  1. Heterosexual women are invading gay men’s literary territory.
  2. It’s not OK to write about gay characters if you’re heterosexual.
  3. The characters in ‘m/m romances’ are not realistic gay men.
  4. M/M romances (written by and for heterosexual women) are taking over and squeezing out real ‘gay fiction’.

So, taking it from the top, there is a – natural – tendency for minorities to build a wall around what they perceive to be “theirs” and attempt to keep everyone else out. So it’s not OK for a heterosexual woman to write fiction with two same-sex protagonists, because, hey, you’ve got the whole rest of the bookshop, why are you invading our section too? Where do you get off writing about things you’ve never experienced? (Especially when the experience has been acquired at such a cost for so many of the people who have it.)

In doing this, we forget that if we demanded personal experience before novel-writing was allowed, Tolstoy wouldn’t have been able to write Anna Karenina (on account of not only not being female, but also having not thrown himself under a train).

There is also the problem of expectation and familiarity. You complain that m/m romances are unrealistic? Do you think heterosexual genre romances are true to life?

Looking at the blurbs for a lot of heterosexual romances, several thoughts come to mind:

  1. If any real woman acted like heroines in many romances, she would never have reached adulthood. She would have died of terminal stupidity by the age of eleven.
  2. If any real man acted like that, the woman wouldn’t go all gooey over him: she’d slap his face and stalk out. Or at least, she’d dump him. Or run away to a shelter. (Alpha males, like alien invasions, are cool on the page but less attractive in real life. In real life, we call them assholes, because they’re dictatorial, inconsiderate and controlling.)
  3. Possibly, the alpha male wouldn’t get the chance to be dumped, because by the time he was old enough to have a girlfriend, his little playground friends would have beaten the snot out of him for being such an insufferably arrogant little… something.
  4. From my own observation, love-at-first-sight where two people know they’re going to get married/spend the rest of their lives together from practically the moment they meet, and are sickeningly lovestruck from then on, does exist. But it’s not very common. But going by romance novels, you’d think there was an epidemic of it.

You think gay men are written unrealistically? Have you read any of the many, many romances starring ‘desert sheikhs’ lately? (And let’s not get into the little details of massive historical inaccuracy and general implausibility of plots.)

Having read heterosexual romances and m/m romances, the male characters in both seem to be at about the same level of realism. That is, they’re idealised rather than realistic. The gay guys in the m/m romances weren’t much like any of the gay guys I’ve met in real life – but the same applies to the straight guys. Yes, any young gay person picking up an m/m romance isn’t likely to get a very accurate idea of what a gay relationship is like. But the same is true of a young heterosexual person picking up the average Mills & Boon romance. At least we have equal-opportunity inaccuracy.

Romances are not meant to be realistic. If they were, there would be a lot less soulful gazing into each other’s eyes, and a lot more about whether leaving your underwear on the bedroom floor is more, or less, disgusting than forgetting to remove the pantyliner from your knickers before putting them in the laundry bin. Even the relationships themselves are unrealistic. There is almost always a large ‘power gap’ between the protagonists: billionaire/secretary, lord/poor girl. It’s nice to be able to imagine being swept away to a life of pampered ease – less nice to think that you’d spend the rest of your life being called ‘gold-digger’ behind your back and having your husband remind you what a favour he did you by marrying you. Even the romances with a less-obvious power gap often have the man coming to the woman’s rescue in some way.

Yet we don’t question this, because that’s the way romances just are. Alternatively, maybe we don’t question it because we really believe that all women are silly creatures who can’t cope on their own and really need a man to take care of them. Surely not.

Romances are the ultimate in escapism, because – like the lottery – it could be you. Probably it won’t be, but for the span of a few hours, you can pretend that a desert sheikh will sweep you off your feet and whisk you away to his seraglio where you will not have to do any ironing or washing up or attempting to reason with your appalling boss. You don’t need to think about the implications of such a life (or even the fact that the word ‘seraglio’ is actually Italian), such as the lack of personal freedom.

And a romance, by definition, has at its centre two (or however many) people who end up in a committed relationship. Furthermore, what makes a book a romance isn’t just the getting-together, it’s how they get there. If it’s dealt with in a serious way, it tends to get filed as ‘literary fiction’ (or ‘gay fiction’ if the characters are both the same gender). If there isn’t much mushy stuff but there are spies and murders, then it’s a thriller. ‘Romance’ is what it gets called when the mushy stuff takes priority over everything else.

Alternatively, I’ve heard it described as, if it’s aimed at women, it’s a romance – if it’s aimed at men, it’s a thriller/mystery/etc. The example I read was the Bourne Identity. Because it’s aimed at men, it’s a thriller. If it was aimed at women, it would be marketed as ‘romantic suspense’.

If we are talking about reader expectations, then the problem is not that a bunch of heterosexual women are horning in on gay men’s literary territory (and really, given that men who write romances tend to do so under female pseudonyms, this is not an entirely safe assertion to make), and nor is it that there’s a difference between the ‘real’ gay fiction written by real gay men and the dodgy fake stuff written by heterosexual women – it’s bad blurbs and covers.

Bad blurbs is not a problem confined to the non-heterosexual book market. If you pick up a romance expecting a thriller, or a literary novel, then of course you feel disappointed, regardless of whether or not you are gay. Likewise, if you’re after a romance and you end up with Great Expectations you are justified in feeling peeved. But is that because the romance novel or the literary novel is inherently bad? No – they just haven’t been marketed to the audience that wants to read them.

By the ‘audience’, I do not mean people being classified by their sexuality, or even by their gender. Why should a gay man not want to read a romance (according Romance Writers of America, 16% of romance-buyers are men)? Why should a straight woman not want to read a thriller? Why, in fact, should a person be put in a box dictated by who they have sex with?

It is also a mistake to use classifications in mainstream media and databases that are only accessible to the ‘in-crowd’, or mean one thing to the ‘in-crowd’ and another to everyone else. If ‘m/m fiction’ means ‘trashy romances written by heterosexual women for other heterosexual women’, and ‘gay fiction’ means ‘proper books written by gay men about and for gay men’, this may be a distinction that is plain to the gay community, but if it’s not plain to everyone else, there is going to be confusion. Confusion is not good when constructing databases.

It may now be time to recognise that there are enough books about non-heterosexual characters that ‘gay fiction’ just isn’t specific enough to contain them all – just like ‘heterosexual fiction’ isn’t. And why should it be? I came across in a tweet from a gay man the other day, regarding ‘gay marriage’, or, as he calls it, ‘marriage’. Because he doesn’t have ‘gay lunch’ or ‘gay park’ his ‘gay car’. Maybe he doesn’t read ‘gay fiction’, just fiction that might include gay characters.

That is the thing about being socially acceptable. You start becoming part of the mainstream, rather than a segregated minority. Losing the in-crowd, exclusive-club feel is the price of not being excluded. You can’t exclude everyone else while expecting to be included yourself. If being gay is OK, then people who aren’t gay start writing about gay characters. Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad (a bit like heterosexual characters). And, shock horror, people who aren’t gay start reading about gay characters.

I think the thing to do, when classifying a book, is to think: Where would I file it if the characters were heterosexual? And file it there – with an extra tick-box for straight/gay/whatever. Anything that is about the trials and tribulations of being gay can therefore be left in ‘gay fiction’ which becomes a specific home for that kind of thing, like ‘feminist fiction’. It may make it hard, initially, to find ‘books with gay characters’ in bricks-and-mortar bookshops where a book can only be filed in one place, but it’s easy enough online.

Personally, I see it as a sign of hope that non-heterosexual characters are increasing in frequency. The more variety we have, the more minorities we include in books – in roles other than cartoon villains (like the Jews in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century fiction) – the more chance we have of beating prejudice and ignorance. Yes, reading m/m romances might not give you a very accurate idea of a gay male relationship (particularly not if it includes werewolves, which I’m pretty sure that most gay male relationships don’t), but at least if people are used to thinking gay = fun/sexy/decent, they aren’t thinking gay = lock up your sons.

You don’t increase your visibility in society by preventing people from including you in the narrative.

We Need Diverse Books…

I came across the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign recently. Two thoughts sprang to mind:

  1. I really hate this use of the word “diverse”. Hate it hate it hate it.
  2. This is not as simple as people who start campaigns think it is.

The word “diverse” means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “showing a great deal of variety, very different.” We already have diverse books. There are books on quantum physics, geology, embroidery, vampires, sailors, aliens… how much more diversity do you want?

Of course, the campaign for Diverse Books doesn’t use the word “diverse” in that way. They have limited the definition of “diverse” (stripping it of most of its diversity!) to mean only racial, sexual or disability diversity. This annoys me because it seems to imply that the only diversity that counts is racial, sexual or disability. And, following from that, that a book character’s race, sexuality or ability status are the only important things about them – and hence, about real people. Whatever happened to the concept of concentrating on a person’s character rather than their race?

It seems to me that by saying “we need more black characters so that black people will identify with them”, we are one step short of saying “black people only identify with black characters”, which is one step short of saying “black people aren’t like everyone else”, which is one step short of saying “segregation is better because then people will spend time with people who they feel comfortable with” and then just “segregation is better”. (Insert whatever “group” you like.)

It’s worrying to think that we are being encouraged to concentrate on differences rather than similarities, and to think that differences overpower similarities.

On the other hand, books are an important way of introducing people to things they haven’t encountered before. And since a book allows you to look into a character’s mind, you can find out things about being someone else that you could never learn by  talking to a real person (because there are some things you don’t ask even if you know a person very well!).

Which brings me to the second point.

It’s not as easy as the people running this campaign seem to think.

Taking race as an easy example, you can’t just take a character in your story and decide “OK, I need a black character… I’ll make her black.” If you make a character black, then you are not just changing hair, eye and skin colour: you are changing her family background, her culture, and probably her outlook on life as well. And what will that do to how she relates to the other characters and how she acts within the plot? If you change a character’s race, you could end up wrecking your whole storyline (and the same applies to any other characteristic with a major impact on a person’s life). For instance, if your main character is a wizard, then your character’s cutural baggage will become very important. A white person from the fairly secular UK would react differently from a white American from the Bible Belt, or from a Catholic Nigerian or a West Indian Episcopalian or an Asian Muslim. Even if a person does not practise the dominant religion of their culture, the cultural baggage will still inform their reactions.

Then, of course, there’s the avoidance of stereotypes. If you’re writing fantasy, you have an easy ride here, because culture is what you make it. If you’re writing in this world, you need to get it right. The more important your character is, the more detail you will have to give on their background and worldview – and the more chance you’ll get it wrong if that character has a background you’re not familiar with, or that you’ll end up writing a cringeworthy stereotype. And if you get it wrong, even slightly, you will not be given the credit for trying – you’ll be savaged. You will not get “Thanks to the author for attempting this” – you will get “This is patronising/insulting/demeaning”.

I’m relatively lucky in that regard; in one of my jobs at the moment, I’m the token white girl in the office so I’m exposed to Indian, Pakistani, West Indian, and Kurdish culture, plus a range of takes on Islam. In a previous job, one of my colleagues was an African nun (Catholic). But even so, I’d hesitate to write a main character who was black or Asian, because I just don’t know enough to be sure I’d get it right. I’d have to do an awful lot more research, and it would be the sort of thing that reference books wouldn’t tell me – the day to day detail of life.

Then, of course, there’s the story-believability of adding in characters of multiple races. If your book is set in a contemporary rural English community, a non-white character becomes less believable. Not only is 90% of the population of the UK white, but the non-white 10% is mostly concentrated in the cities. That’s not to say you couldn’t have a non-white character in a little English village – but you’d need a better back-story to explain it than you’d need for the same character in London.

If you’re writing medievalesque fantasy, the problem is different again: you’re writing about a period when travel is difficult. Immigration is likely to be rare, so your communities are going to be racially homogenous – unless there’s a very good explanation why not.

Even writing historical fiction, you have to be careful; if you are writing a character who is not native to the setting, where would your immigrant have come from, and why? And what opportunities would be open to that character, as an immigrant, in that time and place?

Moving on from race, there is the problem of sexuality. I tend to take the view that a person’s sexuality is only important if you actually want to have sex with them. Otherwise, it’s irrelevant. Likewise, in books, the author knows which way a character swings – probably – but a lot of the time it just isn’t relevant to the story, so why include it? In real life, you don’t know the sexuality of everyone you meet. Taking a real-life example, I’m doing a univerity course; I’m in the second year now. Only this year have I discovered that the guy who runs the coffee shop and (I think) one of the lecturers are gay. Not because they “look gay”, or because they said “by the way, I’m gay”, but because – in conversation – both mentioned their “partner” and used a male pronoun. And I’m not sure about the lecturer because he could have meant “partner” in a business sense.

We tend to make assumptions about people – usually that they are like us. I’ve had someone assume that I was male, for instance, because I was using a non-gendered internet handle and talking about swordplay to a guy. Alternatively, we assume someone conforms to the majority unless proven otherwise. However, we should bear in mind that assumptions are not reality. If a character’s sexual orientation isn’t specified, then why assume they are heterosexual? In fact, in the author’s mind, that character might be gay.

And there are problems with revealing a character’s sexuality. Whatever you do, whenever you do it, people are going to complain. If you make it known in the book that the character is gay, then it’s accusations of putting in the “token gay”. If you only reveal it later (should you be so lucky as to get a media interview) you are accused of keeping it secret to protect sales, or, conversely, revealing it – or making it up – to increase sales. If none of your characters are revealed as gay, then your book is not “diverse” enough.

Moving on to disability, this can be even more problematic than sexuality. In some ways, a disability acts like Chekhov’s gun – if it isn’t important to the story, why include it? And if you do because you want to be “diverse”, then you get accused of being patronising by including the “token disability”.

However, if you’ve decided your character has some kind of disability, this means more research if you are going to do it right. How do blind people make coffee? How do deaf people know when the postman is at the door? Then there’s the logistics of being wheelchair-bound – when travelling, do you ring the train station in advance so they’ll know to have one of those ramps ready? Or do you just buttonhole someone when you get there? How does it feel to self-propel a wheelchair, and how difficult is it to learn to do it?

The invisible disabilities are even more difficult, because they’re usually not something you could experiment with. It’s one thing to try to make coffee wearing a blindfold, but how can you really understand depression unless you’ve experienced it – or had a very detailed discussion with someone who has? How do you understand way someone with Asperger’s Syndrome sees the world?

Then, of course, there’s the difficulty of emphasis. Are you writing about a guy who saves the world (who just happens to have a disability), or are you writing about the disability? If you’re not careful, your story ends up like one of those awful Improving Books that adults give to children, to teach them what adults want them to know about death and divorce, and why Drugs Are Bad – all preaching and no entertainment.

But, of course, in the final analysis, none of this is as important as the fact that a story come from the writer’s imagination. If in the writer’s mind the character is white and male and heterosexual, making that character black and female and gay is unlikely to improve the story. In fact, forcing the character into a shape that doesn’t fit the author’s vision is likely to damage the story because that character will no longer be “natural”, and it will pull the whole story out of shape. I’ve experienced this myself: I had one character that I simply couldn’t make come out right. She always seemed to be slightly out-of-focus, and she didn’t fit into the character’s assigned place in the plot. Then I reimagined her as black – and suddenly, she fit perfectly. Not only did she come into focus, but her entire family did too, and so did her timeline going forward. That character is black not because I wanted to include a black character, but because it was right for that story.

So, in conclusion, “diversity” is all very well and good, but it’s not as easy as “just add some black/gay/disabled characters”. Characters are part of the story, and the nature of the character affects the nature of the story. Every author has a right to tell their own stories as they see them – however they see them.

Yes, “diversity” can help people to understand other people’s lives and experiences. But we also need to take care that the emphasis on “diversity” does not become an emphasis on “difference”, and then an assumption that the colour of a person’s skin is a measure of their worth as a person, or that the gender of a person’s life partner is more important than whether or not the relationship is a loving one.

Strong Poison, by Dorothy L. Sayers

Strong Poison

Strong Poison, by Dorothy L. Sayers

Strong Poison is the fifth of Dorothy L. Sayers’ full-length murder-mystery novels featuring aristocratic amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey. This is the novel in which he meets the love of his life, Harriet Vane, under adverse circumstances – she is being tried for the murder of her lover.

Lord Peter is convinced that Harriet is innocent, but unfortunately he is the only person (other than Harriet herself) to think so; indeed, the evidence is overwhelming. But Lord Peter is determined to prove Harriet innocent, and to woo her at the same time.

Both of this objectives turn out to be rather difficult; the real murderer is diabolically clever, and Harriet herself has been hurt by her appalling lover (a young man whom I consider to be very much better off dead) and by her ordeal. Lord Peter’s proposal falls sadly flat: it’s only one of many she’s had since she was arrested, since notoriety is attractive to some. Her opinion of men, therefore, would require deep-shaft mining equipment to be lower, and her opinion of herself is hardly better.

I’ve read this book many times; it’s one of my favourites in the series. Not only is Sayers’ plotting beautifully, devilishly, clever, but she is an excellent writer of character. Lord Peter comes across as rather dramatic and affected, but as you get to know him, you realise it’s mostly a pose to hide his real feelings from the world. After all, if the world is going to laugh at him, he is damn well going to be in control of what they laugh at, and when.

Harriet, on the other hand, is a clever, middle-class young woman who got involved with a young man who tricked her into becoming his lover – in a society where sex before marriage was still shocking – by declaring that he, an avant garde novelist, didn’t believe in marriage. Now she’s agreed, and damned herself into the eyes of society thereby, he is ready to reward her sacrifice with marriage. She sees right through his hypocrisy and dumps him, thus beginning the chain of events that ends with her in the dock.

The pair of them are real, complex people. They’ve both been hurt in the past; they’re both ferociously intelligent (Sayers herself was one of the first female Oxford graduates, and she does the reader the courtesy of assuming they are just as intelligent as she and her characters are) and they’re both proud, although of different things. They are clearly drawn to each other, but Harriet can’t bring herself to trust anyone, certainly not someone to whom she owes a debt of gratitude. Right from the beginning, though, you know that they are meant for each other – it’s a union of minds, not a union of bodies. It’s a refreshing change from so many of today’s novels where lust takes the place of love, and authors write characters who are physically attracted to each other but seem to pay no attention to each other’s personalities.

Anyone, moreover, who expects that Harriet will fall into Peter’s arms at the end of the book is doomed to disappointment: why would she? She has her life back, given to her by Peter, but does that mean that he now has the right to dictate how she will spend it? No, it does not, and Harriet is determined to make sure he – and everyone else – knows that. Poor Peter is going to have to do a lot more digging, and Harriet is going to have to forgive him for being the person to get her out of a humiliating hole – and forgive herself for being fool enough to fall in love with an unworthy man, which got her into the hole in the first place – before she can regain the emotional strength and equilibrium to make a new start.

Harriet and Peter are real; they are hurt, and they occasionally hurt each other, either intentionally or accidentally. They each want what the relationship promises, but they are also afraid of it. Their relationship begins badly on both sides, and it takes a long time for them to repair the damage. And we get to see it happen, not in one book, because it’s too complex a process for that – such problems are not so easy to solve. It takes several books, but the wait is worth it.

The Lord Peter Wimsey books are classics of detective fiction; it was first published in 1930 and is still in print. How many of today’s novels will still be in print in seventy years’ time? But unlike many classics, Lord Peter has stood the test of time. Yes, in some ways he is dated – the way he speaks, the way he dresses, his whole world, is gone. But his humanity, the relationships he has with his beloved (eccentric) mother the Dowager Duchess, his huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ older brother the Duke of Denver and the appalling Helen, the Duchess; his valet – not only manservant but also right-hand-man and, in a way, trusted friend – these are still very relevant.

The Lord Peter Wimsey books are some of my favourites; I’ve read all of them over and over. If you like a well-written story with excellent characterisation and some fiendish plotting, then you will enjoy these books too.

Reading – what makes a good book?

Today’s post was going to be something reasonably witty about blogging. That is now going to be tomorrow’s post. The reason for this is that it is now nearly 10pm and I haven’t done anything about it. And the reason for that is that I have been reading.

You know a book is good when you can’t stop reading it, even when you know you really have things you should be doing. Just another chapter… just another page… or two.

Since my last proper post, I have read the last two in the Jesse James Dawson series (A Shot in the Dark and A Wolf at the Door) and also Dark Currents, which is the first in Jacqueline Carey’s Agent of Hel series, only just out. I’ll review them all properly in due time (i.e., starting tomorrow) but the fact that I read them one after the other and neglected some things I really should have done should tell you all you need to know about the quality.

Which makes me think, what makes a good book?

For me, the final measure is, what did reading it make me fail to do that I should have done?

The good books are the ones that you stay up late to finish even though you have to get up at 5.30am, the books that you read while walking (especially up and down stairs), the books you sneak a page or two of even when you’re at work and your boss will not be happy if they catch you at it.

For me, it’s not about felicity of style, or beautiful imagery. It’s about the writer telling a story in a way that means you can’t just stop reading. Scheherazade is the classic example of this – her stories were so compelling that telling them kept her alive. The Sultan was so desperate to hear the end of each story that he couldn’t execute her – and once she’d finished, he was so hooked that he wanted another story immediately.

To me, a successful writer is one who causes people to get in trouble at work, fall down the stairs, and walk into lampposts. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t won any prizes – Scheherazade, as far as I know, was not awarded the Booker Prize, or whatever – the real measure of a good author is that people read his (or her) stuff. These are the books that you lend to your friends, and that you maybe buy a second copy of so that you can lend out and still read it over and over again until the spine gives way and it’s been dropped in the bath three times.

I wonder about these literary prizes; I’ve read a couple of books that were nominated, or that won, and quite frankly, I thought “Well, I’m glad that’s over. I can say I’ve done it, and now I can go and read something that I enjoy.” Who actually, really, likes these books? Deep down in the bottom of your soul, where the truth is, did you really enjoy The Life of Pi or Beatrice and Virgil? OK, I admit, those two I didn’t actively dislike. In fact, they’ve kind of stayed with me in a way that proves they were OK (i.e., not the kind of nothing-book where by 24 hours after you finish it you can’t remember the plot or any of the characters) but I won’t be reading either of them again. Beatrice and Virgil, particularly, was rather heavy-handed. I may not be a genius, but really, I don’t need to be beaten over the head with a message to get it to sink in.

But they did not make me laugh out loud, or cry.

Terry Pratchett, now there’s a man who can write. He’s funny, and is it not written, that he is so sharp he will cut himself one of these days? Take Going Postal, for instance, which centres around the post office and the new Clacks system (a sort of system of semaphore towers). Working the towers is dangerous, and workers are not infrequently killed in the line of duty. When that happens, their name is added to the ‘overhead’ – messages about the clacks system itself, and kept permanently moving from one end of the line to the other.

“I know about Sending Home,” said Princess. “And I know the souls of dead linesmen stay on the Trunk.”
“Who told you that?” said Granddad.
Princess was bright enough to know that someone would get into trouble if she was too specific.
“Oh, I just hear it,” she said airily. “Somewhere.”
“Someone was trying to scare you,” said Granddad, looking at Roger’s reddening ears.
It hadn’t sounded scary to Princess. If you had to be dead, it seemed a lot better to spend your time flying between the towers than lying underground. But she was bright enough, too, to know when to drop a subject.
It was Granddad who spoke next, after a long pause broken only by the squeaking of the new shutter bars. When he did speak, it was as if something was on his mind.
“We keep that name moving in the Overhead,” he said, and it seemed to Princess that the wind in the shutter arrays above her blew more forlornly, and the everlasting clicking of the shutters grew more urgent. “He’d never have wanted to go home. He was a
real linesman. His name is in the code, in the wind, in the rigging, and the shutters. Haven’t you ever heard the saying ‘Man’s not dead while his name is still spoken’?”

Pratchett’s skill is to keep you jogging along with a fun adventure story, then suddenly smack you in the face with a turn of words or an image that goes straight to the heart. He doesn’t have to keep labouring his point; he gets it right first time and then moves on. You get just enough time to recover – then he does it again.

Yes, I pretty much remember what went on – more or less – in Yann Martel’s books. But I had to look up the title of the second one. Pratchett, however – not only do I remember the titles, I also remember the contents. He writes words that stick in your heart, not just your mind.

That’s Scheherazade-standard stuff, that is.

But if you add magic, or fun, to a book, then it seems that automatically you get pigeon-holed as ‘genre fiction’ which is code – in some circles – for ‘trash’. Stella Rimington caused a small riot in literary circles by suggesting that ‘readability’ might be a good thing to look for in a prize-winning book.

Er… well, duh?

What is a book for, if it is not to be read?

While deathless prose is to be admired, what do we mean by this? Many people think that it means prose that’s been polished to within an inch of its life, so that it looks beautiful from every conceivable angle and displays the author’s literary prowess. Like Yann Martel. Hey, I recognise good prose when I read it.

Or do we mean words that convey an image that makes you cry in public and then you can’t forget? Words that stay in your heart so you can quote them years after you read the book? Words that you don’t remember because of the perfect balance of the paragraph, but because of how they made you feel?

How many people read these ‘prize-winning’ books only because they won the prize, or because they were short-listed? And then force themselves through to the end, discuss it at their book club, and gladly turn to something else for real pleasure? How many of us have books-to-read, and books-to-impress-people-with? You know… the Biggles books and the Mills & Boons are hidden on the shelf in the bedroom, and the Booker prize-winners are given pride of place in the living room. Books as status symbols. Look at my books and be impressed. I read Literature.

To go back to Stella, and her comments about readability, surely this is an essential component of a really good book? Yes, you need structure, characterisation, plot, etc. But if it’s all so sterile and polished that it’s deathly rather than deathless, then surely that’s not a good thing? Surely the best writing of all is the kind that you don’t even notice because you’re so wrapped up in the story and the imagery?

To say that readability and writing quality are mutually exclusive is, I think, not only wrong but also unforgivably snobbish. In fact, I would say that if a book is not readable, or if you would have no trouble putting in down to go and do the washing up, then the quality is poor. Because it is not performing the function of a book – which is, to be read.

So, I would challenge you to think of the next book you read (or write), in terms of the Scheherazade-quotient: what would you give up just in order to hear the story?

[OK, end of rant. And, for the record, I don’t have anything personally against Yann Martel. He was just a convenient example, kind of like eating a chocolate biscuit because it happens to be within reach.]

Give the kid a book

There was an article in the Independent today about how children are reading less nowadays, and how this is a bad thing, and giving suggestions on how things might be improved.

Well, I have to say, it was a breath of fresh air, because for once the writer was not demanding that schools, and teachers, take responsibility for yet another failing of parents. Interestingly, the author also recommended buying an ebook reader – because more than one person can read the same book at the same time, they’re easy to keep tidy, and you can adjust the font size.

I agreed with everything she said – reading is a habit that you have to get into, and children do have to be introduced to books.

But I would go a little further – let’s just have a look at the kind of books we’re introducing kids to, shall we?

Have a think about what books you were given to read at school in English lessons. Mine, as far as I can remember were:

Moonfleet, JM Faulkner.
Smith, Leon Garfield.
Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens.
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte.
The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde.
Macbeth, William Shakespeare.

All important literary books. All pretty heavy going, if you’re not a reader. You could say, yes, I was in the top set and could cope – but then, not being a reader is not wholly the province of the less intelligent. Are these the books that would persuade a child who was not usually a reader that reading was a fun thing to do? Personally, I don’t think so. My sister certainly didn’t think so. I remember her saying “If they picked a book that some people liked and some people didn’t, it wouldn’t be fair. So they pick books that nobody will like.”

What a comment on the education system’s book choices for children!

I remember the bottom set got to read The BFG (Roald Dahl). Oh, how I envied them. I remember thinking that it really wasn’t a great encouragement to work hard: work hard, get into the top set, and they’ll make you read Moonfleet. On the other hand, if you doss about and end up in the bottom set, they give you a fun book like The BFG!

If we have a problem with children not reading, then we should give them books that they’re going to enjoy. Yes, parents should be taking care of this, but, as usual, some parents won’t, so the only place little Josh or Molly is going to get books is school. And if they’re not readers, the only time they’ll read is when they’re made to, and that’s English lessons. In English lessons, they’re a captive audience. We can introduce them to reading books that say ‘reading is fun’; ‘reading is exciting’; ‘reading takes you to places and introduces you to people beyond your wildest imagination’.

So what do we give them? The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.

Now there’s a book that would probably put me off reading, and I’m kind of the definition of “I think, therefore I read”. Literary merit, yes, in spades, but is it the kind of book that says “You had fun with me… you could do that again – look, the school library’s just down the corridor”?

If you’re faced with reluctant readers, you need to give them something fun, something they’ll enjoy, something that’ll make them want to read more. Then once you’ve persuaded them that reading per se isn’t a bad thing, in fact, it’s fun, then you can introduce them to the more serious stuff.

Here’s my really quick list of kids’ books I think are good, in no particular order:
Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling. Say no more.
Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith, I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett. All the best of Pratchettism, but for kids. And besides, the main character is called Tiffany.
The Changeover by Margaret Mahy.
Anything by Roald Dahl.
Anything by Diana Wynne Jones.
This Place Has No Atmosphere by Paula Danziger.
Noel Streatfeild’s children’s books – a little dated now, possibly, but she obviously understood children, and remembered what it was like to be a child. And that hasn’t changed.
Juniper and Wise Child by Monica Furlong.
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken. And sequels.

I think I’ll stop there. There are also authors who usually write adult books who are now starting to write for children: Simon Scarrow is one; if his kids books are as good as his adult books, they’ll be well worth reading.

OK, so what books would you recommend for schools?

Remember, it’s got to satisfy two conditions:
1. It’s got to be fun to read.
2. It’s got to be well written enough, and deal with enough important issues/concepts, that you could get some English lessons out of it.