Tuesday, 26 September 2006

It would be dreadfully churlish of me to be negative about the BBC devoting three hours of prime time (albeit digital-only) programming to a discussion of the Romantic Novel, but I feel that Reader, I Married Him could be doing so much more.

The second episode was broadcast last night (and will be repeated a few times later this week, including immediately after Jane Eyre next Sunday night). It focused on the Romantic Hero.

In fact for 55 of the 60 minutes it focused on just four heroes. The usual suspects: F Darcy, E Rochester, H Heathcliff* and R Butler.

While there was nothing wrong with what they said about any of them (except perhaps for poor Daisy Goodwin swanning around Atlanta in a Scarlett O'Hara dress, oh, and the cringe-making e-fit Mr Darcy bit) I couldn't see why the programme needed to spend so much time on just those four. Of course there was plenty of opportunity to show clips from the various film and television adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, but this programme was supposed to be about romantic fiction: books, not films and television programmes. Goodwin even made the point that Austen gives virtually no physical description of Darcy, and part of his success must be the scope he gives readers to picture him however they like (the point of the e-fit segment). She then completely undermined her argument by tracking down Andrew Davies to talk about Colin Firth's wet shirt.

I cannot deny that I found Goodwin's views on Heathcliff absolutely spot on, but did we need all those clips, and our Daisy strolling out on the wiley, windy moors? Did we need so many writers gushing over Darcy and Rochester? For having spent all of those 55 minutes on analysing these four old warhorses, there was no time left, for, for instance, a discussion about how the romantic hero has (or has not) evolved since the days of Jane Austen and the Brontës (I have to confess to having little time for Margaret Mitchell, whose book, had it not been made into such a sumptuous film, would probably be long-forgotten by now).

Given that she was talking to Jilly Cooper, Goodwin could have considered with her whether Rupert Campbell-Black was simply Darcy/Rochester/Heathcliff in modern dress, or something new. Talking to Maddie Rowe of Mills and Boon, Goodwin could have explored why, when Darcy/Rochester/Heathcliff are very English, Mills and Boon Modern heroes (the real Alpha males of the genre) are nowadays almost always foreign. Having talked to Sophie Kinsella and Marian Keyes for the first programme, they could have asked them how the chick-lit hero (or indeed the hero of romantic comedies of all sorts) gets away with not being an Alpha male, and what that says about readers' relationship with romantic comedy as opposed to straight romance - particularly given the "having an affair with the hero" concept that Katie Fforde talked about during the creative writing workshop that Goodwin attended.

All in all I came away feeling that this was a bit of a missed opportunity to explore the romantic hero of today, rather than just wallowing in the same old same old.

* "It was the name of a son who died in childhood, and it has served him ever since, both for Christian and surname." Wuthering Heights, Chapter IV.

Tuesday, 19 September 2006

It's been a while since I mentioned Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth. For the last few of months it has been going out from Anne-Marie, my excellent agent, to a select number of editors, as is the way of these things, and, as is the way of these things, a few rejections have come back. Nothing like as many as J K Rowling received at this stage in her writing career, though, so I still have a way to go.

Today's update from Anne-Marie brought a very positive rejection:
"very impressed with the fluency of the writing ... there's a huge amount of potential here for his career as a writer"
but a rejection nonetheless. Anne-Marie also alerted me to news in the Bookseller that Harper Collins had just picked up a first novel about a search for treasure buried with Alexander the Great. Its title: The Alexander Cipher.

So it looks like I will need to find a new title sooner rather than later - and certainly before Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth is submitted to Harper Collins.

Sunday, 17 September 2006

Jojo Moyes (left) commented on my last post to say that Daisy Goodwin did have a valid point when she said:
"female readers of romantic fiction were still generally dismissed by the men who run literary papers."
And a similar point was made by Debbie Taylor (below), the editor of Mslexia, in a piece in today's Independent.
"Men simply don't like women's writers," Taylor says. "When men buy fiction they won't go near women's fiction." But with more women becoming publishing editors and newspaper literary editors, some of the hurdles women writers face are being removed. "It's not that they prefer books by women but situations that were actively hostile to women in the past aren't any more," she says.
The first quote there is something of a sweeping statement. Looking back at my holiday reading, I find that five of the six books that I read were by women. I would also challenge the way that Taylor switches between "women's fiction" and "books by women" as if these were the same thing.

I have had a look at some recent broadsheet book review sections. Friday's Independent has five proper reviews of novels (I am ignoring short stories, poetry and children's fiction for the purposes of this exercise):There is also a mini-review of Caryl Phillip's Dancing in the Dark (just out in paperback).

Saturday's theguardian has four full reviews of novels:Maxim Jakubowki provides four mini-reviews of recent hardback crime fiction by Dorothy Hughes, RS Downie, Andrew Klavan and Laurie R King, and there are paperback mini-reviews of novels by Nicholas Evans, Katherine Bucknell, JM Coetzee, Simon Ings and Maj Sjowall/Per Wahloo.

What does this tell us, if anything. One thing that struck me was that all the Independent reviews (with the exception of the Caryl Phillips mini) were written by women, but that is not immediately relevant.

Of the seven books given full reviews, four were by women and three by men. Of the paperback minis, four and a half were by men and one and a half by women (Maj Slowall is a woman and Per Wahloo a man). Of the crime minis one was by a man and three by women.

This is of course far too small a sample to draw firm conclusions upon, but it does not suggest an overwhelming bias towards male writers.

There is of course the fact that Crime is widely seen as popular fiction for men, and there is a crime round-up but no equivalent Romantic round-up, but that does not seem to have disadvantaged female writers per se.

But I said above that I did not accept that "books by women" and "women's fiction" are the same thing. Of the books reviewed, can any be considered "women's fiction"? I think that two of them can be. Sandra Howard's Glass Houses fits very comfortably into the category and so, arguably, does Vocational Girl (behind that Rosa Mundi pseudonym lurks Fay Weldon).

Glass Houses is given a very positive review ("Howard weaves the varied strands of her ingenious plot into a smooth and exciting narrative"), Vocational Girl less so ("fearful tosh"), but it appears that this week at least, two broadsheet newspapers have given over space to publish proper reviews not just of books by women, but of women's fiction.

Does two reviews out of nine reflect the relative sales of women's fiction when compared to fiction as a whole? Of course not.

But should the balance of books reviewed in broadsheet book sections reflect the overall pattern of sales? Now that is a question that I will return to at some later date.

Wednesday, 13 September 2006

Apologies for the gap in posting. It's the shock of going back to work after a long break.

In a diversion from what I did on my holidays, I thought that I would mention Reader, I Married Him, coming to BBC4 on Monday. If you watch you may even get a glimpse of Wenlock himself. I took part in a creative writing workshop with Katie Fforde that was filmed for the programme, and Daisy Goodwin interviewed me during a break in proceedings. I also answered a few vox pop questions at the RNA Awards dinner at the Savoy. Of course these may well have ended up on the cutting room floor.

Or maybe not. Perhaps my appearance will be used to support the apparent thesis of the programme, that men cannot write romance.

Whether or not I can write (good) romance is a matter of opinion, but the suggestion that "you can't have a really seriously-written romantic book written by a man" because male writers "lack insight into the ways of women" is patently absurd, and here's why.

If the only way to write credible female characters is to be a woman, then it must be because there is some aspect of being a woman that is fundamentally different from being a man. And this must be something that all women have in common with each other (within the fiction-reading world, at least), or else women couldn't write characters that were credible to all other women.

Now I know that there have been a few books published recently in the US that claim that male and female brains are indeed fundamentally different, particularly in terms of development through childhood and adolescence. Leonard Sax's Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know about the Emerging Science of Sex Differences is one of these, and Louann Brizendine's The Female Brain is another. Both books have been used to argue for single sex education, and they are both full of claims about fundamental differences between male and female brains, backed up with meaty looking citations of academic studies.

The trouble is that the studies do not actually support the claims in these books. They have been neatly debunked in places such as Language Log (here, here, and indeed here). There are no studies that do lend any support to there being significant differences between men and women in this respect. These books - and the Daisy Goodwin hypothesis - appear to rely on something akin to interpreting "men are taller than women" as meaning that all men are taller than any women.

ANd there's more. Goodwin is quoted as saying "female readers of romantic fiction were still generally dismissed by the men who run literary papers". Now, if men and women are so different that only women can write credible female characters, it is surely the case that only men can write credible male characters. Now most of the time this is not an issue, because female readers ("lacking insight into the minds of men" we must assume) would not spot the lack of credibility. But these mysterious "men who run literary papers" (what is a "literary paper"? Does theguardian count, or is it just the London Review of Books (edited by Mary-Kay Wilmers) and the TLS?) obviously do. Perhaps the whole image problem that romantic fiction has is due to the inability of female authors to write male characters?

Clearly this is rubbish. I would like to challenge Daisy Goodwin to read two or three romantic novels written by men and two or three written by women, without knowing who the authors are, and to declare which are which.

Not that this is really necessary, as women buy books by Jessica Stirling, Gill Sanderson, Jessica Blair, Emma Blair and many others without complaining that the authors - all men - "lack insight into the ways of women".

And if you do see me on the programme, remember that the camera adds pounds. And years. And the lighting can make almost anybody look as if they are losing their hair. You'd get a much better idea of what I look like over at Julie Cohen's site.