Category Archives: Books

Writing Writers

They say you should write about what you know, which always makes me wonder how writers of historical fiction ever so much as get started. With the best research in the world, understanding what it was truly like to live in, say, Roman Britain, or 5th century China, is, at best, an exercise in convincing guess-work. Maybe historical fiction attracts those authors largely because no-one alive can refute their interpretation – their best guess as to what it was truly like, is as good as anyone else’s.

Joey Bettany, protagonist of Elinor M Brent-Dyer's Chalet School books

Joey Bettany, protagonist of Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School books

Today, I was struck by the frequency with which protagonists of certain types of fiction – particularly fiction aimed at girls, I suppose, that being what I’ve been reading – are carefully guided by the author into becoming writers of fiction aimed at girls. It is true in Elinor Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School, where the lead character, Joey, goes from being an unpolished but clearly innately talented writer of fairy tales, to being a producer of schoolgirl fiction almost as prolific as Brent-Dyer herself (but not quite – I imagine it took her all of her time to come up with a title and plot summary for 58 real Chalet School books, without producing a similar number of pretend ones). In Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women series, it is the similarly-named Jo who validates the author’s life choices with her writing. Indeed, there is a clear and barely disguised influence of Alcott’s lead character over Brent-Dyer’s, right down to the choice of name. Over the last few weeks, I have been reading L M Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books, and I find a similar pattern. Anne is a flighty and overly imaginative child, likeable, but widely considered to be in need of containment by the other characters. As she ages, she becomes a girl who writes rather than play-acts, and into adulthood she becomes a published author in various small-scale magazines, gaining increasing acclaim for her (short) stories. So far, I am half-way through Anne’s House of Dreams, and she has yet to produce anything in the way of a full-length novel, and has just rejected a potentially interesting writing project as being unsuitable to her talents, offering it up instead to a male writer who wanders her way, and who is seeking to produce “a great Canadian novel”.

Anne Shirley, of Green Gables fame, L M Montgomery.

Anne Shirley, of Green Gables fame, L M Montgomery.

Now, I’m not here to pick holes in the gender stereotyping that is rife in a book written over a hundred years ago, and seeking to depict the slightly old-fashioned life of a rural, colonial community, even then. Obviously, the expectations held in those books are going to jar somewhat with my modern, sophisticated(!) 21st century reading. Mostly, I am fascinated by the apparent need for women authors to validate their own choices through the similar choices of their lead, and generally clearly favourite, characters.

Is it simply an act of self-reassurance? Are they shouting, “Look! Anne is a lovely girl, and she writes stories! And I write stories, so I can surely be lovely, too?” Are they seeking to declare that their writing is a valid activity, a reasonable choice, not an act of selfish conceit in the face of real, more womanly responsibilities? Joey Bettany continues, rather implausibly, to rattle out book after book, whilst apparently producing and adequately caring for no less than eleven children. Anne Shirley, on the other hand, spends much of her life thus far being too busy to write – too busy studying, too busy teaching, too busy keeping house for her new husband. She fits it in to summer vacations, and winter evenings, and doesn’t seem to fit it in at all once she is married, although her husband seems broadly encouraging. The only time that Joey is censured by the author for her writing, it is because she has become consumed by it. Clearly, Brent-Dyer saw this a serious risk. When Joey locks herself away for weeks on end, trying to produce her first full-length novel, she is described as risking her health by her inattention to the basics of food, sleep, exercise, and social interaction, and the book she produces is dismissed as being unspeakably, unsalvageably bad, to the point that she realises her mistake, and burns the manuscript.

Anne, insofar as I can say, having only read half of the series, avoids this mistake, by always allowing her domestic responsibilities to override her desire to write. So she teaches, she helps Marilla with the twins, she cooks, cleans, sews, gardens, and has no time left over for the self-indulgence of writing.

These are the protagonists of fiction for girls. They are role models. What are they trying to say to me? That all the best people write novels, as long as they are careful not to court criticism, by failing to be all the things that nice girls should be, as well? First, even? That my role as a woman is to be there for everyone else, just as women have always been expected to be, but to somehow prove myself to the the world by also doing this extra thing?

Writing is a pretty self-indulgent activity. It involves sitting quietly, preferably, as pointed out by Virginia Woolf, in a room of one’s own, with a door that doesn’t get people banging on it for one’s attention. It requires taking oneself away from the places where one can be called upon to support everyone else. It is an absenting of oneself. And that’s really, really hard. It’s hard to justify, in a 19th century culture that views women as the oil that greases the household. If you are brought up to see your job as being to facilitate, to support, to meet everyone else’s needs before your own, the act of locking yourself away from all those needs and demands might appear like the ultimate selfishness. It might seem morally bankrupt, to actually choose to make yourself unavailable.

The thing is, even now, when we all believe that women are equal to men (in theory, at least, if not always entirely in practice), look around the women you know, the ones with children, or other caring responsibilities, or jobs, and ask yourself how many of them carve out regular time to do something that makes them unavailable to those people. It’s terribly, terribly hard. All that the alleged liberation of feminism has brought many modern women, is an even longer list of things to do. Now we work AND take on most of the childcare. Change is slow in coming, and for as long as stay-at-home-dads remain the exception, and ultimate responsibility for housework remains, in most houses, the woman’s, there is no hope of what amounts to additional leisure time. Women’s lib has only liberated us to do more than ever. There are no areas in which we are free to give roles up.

Of course, what is statistically true is not universally true. I am one of the lucky ones, in some ways. I have a thoughtful, considerate husband, who works from home, and is therefore both willing and able to take on a larger domestic role. His sheer presence has increased his parenting role with the children, and he watches me flounder with the housework, and is perfectly willing to take on jobs that will, hopefully, take the pressure off me. He wants me to have time and space to write, if writing is what I want the time and space to do. That I consider it a self-indulgent triviality, that should be fitted in after I have adequately cleaned, and cooked, and educated, or not at all, is not really his fault.
The thing is, I strongly suspect that in order to do anything really well, in this world, it has to be your priority. If writing doesn’t come first, then I will never be a first rate writer. If music doesn’t come first, I will never be a first-rate musician. If I don’t practice, refine, hone my craft, if I don’t put in my 10,000 hours, as per Malcolm Gladwell, how will I ever get good enough to succeed, by whatever terms we choose to define success (a discussion for another day, I suspect, since this is becoming untenably long already – see how much I could benefit from refining my craft?!).

I would like to write more. I would like to develop the subtle talent for creating whole worlds, people, situations that chime with the reader, that seem magical and fantastic, but no less plausible for that. I would like to somehow recapture the creativity of a childhood that never struggled to pretend, to create alternative realities, but be back in time for tea. Nothing makes me want to write more than the act of reading what others have written. If only I could do that. If only I could put you inside a special, secret world that was just ours. If only I had that power. I would love that.

But the only way to get good at writing is to write. So I intend to write. More often. More regularly. More thoughtfully.

We’ll see whether it lasts.

You disappointed me, Jane. Don’t do it again.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, than a modern woman who fancies herself as intelligent, with a love of history, and a hint of sympathy for romance, must love Pride and Prejudice. I am not here to talk to you about Pride and Prejudice.

I, as the attentive reader might have gleaned, am in possession of two degrees, both focussed wholly or in part on the study of Literature. For a person with an MA in Literature, I am horribly ill-read. I do not love Shakespeare. Actually, I rather love Hamlet, but was put off Antony and Cleopatra as a teenager by the distinctly unattractive portrayal of middle-aged, uncontrolled sexual urges, which rather too closely resembled a situation that was exploding in my own family for comfort. As a student, I read the first half a dozen chapters of Dickens’ Great Expectations, and threw it aside in disgust. I bumbled through the essay by trying not to refer directly to much that happened beyond chapter 7, which I seemed to get away with, somehow. If you are reading this from a faculty post at LJMU’s Literature department, think carefully about what is actually possible for students to get away with on your courses, I implore you.

I first met Austen in the form of Colin Firth’s wet shirt scene in the BBC’s never-to-be-bettered adaptation of P&P, in 1996. I still love it. My 8 year old loves it, too, though hopefully not for the wet shirt. 8 seems a little young for that sort of thing. But even then, I never bothered to read the book. I know. Having come to Austen through the medium of TV, why on earth would any self-respecting student of literature not go and look up the original? But I didn’t. I was grateful for the varied (well, a bit) and interesting books that I was required to read for my course, but I read very little for pleasure, at that time, and even less for extra-curricular personal improvement. Also, I read very slowly, in those days. I was 28 before an employer put me on a Speed Reading course, which revolutionised my ability to consume long texts without dying of old age before the end. I remember asking the course leaders why no-one had taught me these skills when I was ten or twelve – it would have made an enormous difference to my academic life in the intervening period.

So, in my mid-thirties, I revisited Dickens, and discovered that he was much more palatable now I had grown up sufficiently to appreciate him. A Christmas Carol is a wonderful, and mercifully short, piece of writing, most of the direct speech of which is perfectly reproduced by Michael Caine in The Muppets’ Christmas Carol – I had no idea that the Muppets were so faithful to literature. Having mastered Dickens (though I started Bleak House, and enjoyed it, but it’s been kind of paused for about three years), I turned to Austen for the first time.

Pride and Prejudice is a very readable book. Much more of the nuance of the social mores of the time are revealed by the book, and Elizabeth remains a very likeable character, whom I am genuinely delighted to see living happily ever after with Mr Darcy at the end (SPOILERS! Oops. Ah well. It’s been out for 200 years, it’s not my fault if you hadn’t got to it yet).

When I recently finished a re-read of P&P, I decided to start another Austen novel. Knowing nothing about any of them, I selected Mansfield Park, downloaded it to my phone (free books for the win!), and read.

The first thing I learned was this: Argus Filch’s cat, in the Harry Potter books, is named after an Austen character – a busybodying, interfering woman whom nobody likes, and who thinks she’s much more important than she is. Always satisfying to discover a connection of that sort – so far, so good.

Fanny is rather annoying. She’s quite pathetic, for most of the book, vividly conscious as she is that she is less than the dust beneath the feet of, well, everyone, frankly. She’s a doormat. She garners very little respect from most of the other characters, largely, as far as I can see, because she demands none. She is plucked from home, where she was presumably more of a Somebody, as older sister to string of youngsters, she cries for weeks, it occurs to no-one that she might ever like to see her mother again, and then she settles into a role of trying not to threaten the position of her older cousins by appearing more attractive, intelligent, wise or scintillating than they. In short, she is a mouse, perpetually trying to shrink herself into invisibility in a corner somewhere. Oh, and hoping that Edmund will marry her. Which he won’t, because he likes her well enough, but only sees a mouse who sits quietly enough to let him unload the contents of his own mind, tidy them into neat piles, and put them back with a decision made.

I read it. It bumbled along. Fanny grew up, there was a long and slightly tedious episode concerning an attempt to put on an amateur play, in which I was led to believe that only Fanny and Edwin were taking the correct line, that such a thing was morally reprehensible, and should not be allowed. Anyway, Fanny’s uncle returned from Antigua, and put a stop to all that, clearly being of the same mind. I’m afraid I found it difficult to place myself in the moral and ethical belief structures of these people. I was clearly supposed to side with them, and obviously, such things had a very different hue 200 years ago than they might now, but I don’t think I quite cared enough to try – or at least, to try hard enough for the effort it would take to see things from Fanny’s insipid and rather prudish point of view.

Jane Austen on a £10 note

Jane Austen on a £10 note

Anyway, it’s not great, but I’m into it, now, so I’m still reading. I don’t so much care what happens to Fanny, than wonder how on earth Austen proposed to wrap up the story suitably, when Fanny was clearly destined for Edmund (the inclinations of a heroine, even a pathetic one, generally being honoured in these situations), but Edmund was determined to be in love with some trollop from the vicarage (and who knew that Recency vicarages were largely populated with trollops? Charlotte was no such thing!).

So, Fanny is suddenly permitted to visit her family in Portsmouth, yada yada, the guy she doesn’t want to marry follows her there for the purposes of wooing, yada yada, her family barely remember her, and don’t care much either way, she misses Mansfield Park desperately, since she unsurprisingly considers the place she’s lived since she was 9 to be her actual home. Yada yada. It’s all trundling along, and I can see that I’m only about fifty pages from the end, now, so I’m getting quite involved in just how these loose ends are going to be wound up.

And then – dramatic climax, people! Tom is suddenly dangerously ill, and everyone is worried he’ll die. He doesn’t, and it doesn’t make any material difference to Fanny, so it’s almost a wasted plot device. All it does is convince Edmund that the trollop from the vicarage is too materialistic for him – she’s a little too excited by the idea of Edmund losing his older brother, and becoming next in line for the baronetcy and associated stately home.

Then, more dramatic climax! Maria, the older of the girl-cousins, who spent the play incident flirting with the wrong man, before settling down to marry the staid and boring one she was engaged to, has run away with said Wrong Man! The same man who was, incidentally, failing to make Fanny agree to marry him. Shock and horror! Her reputation is ruined, the family is reduced to pieces. Gasp, etc. Oh, and Julia has eloped, but no-one seems that bothered about that.

This crisis, rather than that of the dying older son, brings Fanny back to Mansfield Park to offer what help and comfort she can in such difficult times. Though dying older son seems to be recovering nicely now, but they were all quite sure he had been dying.

So here we are. Fanny is back at Mansfield, Edmund is no longer in love with a trollop, so now… wait, what?

The last chapter has no dialogue. At all. In one chapter, Austen tells me that Maria and the unscrupulous young man annoyed each other, that she was divorced by her husband, and that her father, being basically a nice bloke, if a bit dull, has set her up in a cottage somewhere where she can’t embarrass them all, with the annoying aunt Norris to keep her company. Oh, and Edmund decided to marry Fanny, and she let him. And that’s it.

It’s the oddest, most anticlimactic end to a book I have EVER come across, and I sometimes read fan fiction. It feels precisely as if Austen wrote herself into a corner, and became so interminably bored with them all, that she just gave up, wrote her plot notes up in proper sentences, and called it done. It was incredibly disappointing. It’s not the greatest book I’ve ever read, but I’d invested quite a lot of energy into it by that point, and I wanted her to return my commitment, damn it.

You disappoint me, Jane. We don’t have to discuss this again, but know this – I have just downloaded Northanger Abbey, and Chapter 1 is pretty readable. I do not wish to see a repeat of this debacle.

Format Shifting & the future of your bookshelf

Most people don’t know but in the UK it is currently illegal to put a CD into your computer and copy the music to the hard drive, it’s just as illegal to copy it from that PC onto your iPod but everyone does it all the time.

The government have realised that this is a bit of an oddity and have indicated that “format shifting” (the act of changing the media the music/video etc is on) is going to be allowed when the new copyright laws are framed. Continue reading

Publishers still trying to hold back the sea

It’s another self inflicted nail in book publishers’ coffins although I doubt they think so. France has passed the law allowing the publishers to set the price of ebooks.

Apparently “Signs are, consumers expect e-books to be priced considerably lower than physical books”. Well yes, I expect that the copy of the book that just required you to a digital copy of the book you already have should be cheaper than the one you have to send to print, bind, deliver and stock.

However unlike the music industry, I don’t think digital piracy will be the problem, self publishing will. Already self-publishing in the kindle store is make some people serious money and successful authors are moving away from the publishing houses.

The reality is, most of what a publishing house does is rapidly being replaced by the web. The cost of publishing has gone, marketing is now also much easier and cheaper, the wisdom of crowds is filtering the good form the bad and you can get yourself a copyeditor online.

A combination of self promotion and the fact that the author gets more of the book sale, means self-published books are often among the cheapest on eBook stores and end up at the top of the sales chart.

In the mean time, heads are still in the sand, and we are trying to protect the ‘independent bookshop’ by keeping the price of the digital copies artificially high.