Monday, June 12, 2006

Whither women's fiction?

Also in today's blog

Charlotte Lamb remembered
A record number of Amazon reviews?
Half-witted heroines
Regretting £6.99 spent on £10,000 prize-winner
Andrew Brown's view of the matter

For nearly 20 years I enjoyed a weekly exchange of news and views about the book world with my Mills & Boon colleague Charlotte Lamb, who also wrote mainstream novels under her real name Sheila Holland. She died five and a half years ago and I still miss our correspondence.

Last night, after watching, on TV, an excellent film Music of the Heart, starring Meryl Streep as a violin teacher at a school in New York's Harlem district, I received an email from Jane Holland, the third of Sheila's five talented children.

Jane tells me she has organised a Charlotte Lamb blog in her mother's memory. More about this in a future blog.

Whither women's fiction?

Ten years ago this month, I faxed [as we did in those days] the following comment to another writer.

"Yesterday I bought Brayfield's Harvest which is utterly different from her previous blockbusters [including shorter] and very gripping, but has too many unpleasant or mixed-up characters so that, in the end, in spite of the lovely descriptions of life in Gascony, and the interesting behind-the-scenes on TV stuff, one is left feeling vaguely depressed."

Ten years on, after reading two current bestsellers, both written by women for a predominantly female readership, my depression about the fiction scene is no longer vague. It has developed into a serious anxiety that the kind of novels I've been enjoying all my adult life are in danger of extinction, if not already extinct.

Record number of Amazon reviews?

On Friday I skimmed through the 214 readers' reviews of Kate Mosse's novel Labyrinth posted at Amazon UK. I didn't make an exact count of the pros and cons, but the overall impression was that opinions were fairly evenly divided between loving and loathing.

For example an enthusiast wrote- "Labyrinth is a work of excellence. a book that all those who appreciate literary craftsmanship will treasure long after their first reading. A much welcome change from the histrionics if the pseudo-alternative-mystery-history makers, which it leaves several laps behind."

Someone else wrote - "As this is my subject (23 years of research) I was so looking forward to reading this book. I'm sorry now I wasted my time. This work has been badly researched in some major areas, but also has silly, avoidable mistakes, which I found irksome. Two examples drawn at random are : brass didn't appear as a metal until the 16th century, and it would take two drivers a minimum of twelve hours to drive from Toulouse to Chartres…"

A third reviewer had mixed feelings - "A lovely wee surprise of a novel. It's essentially a jolly good yarn in the mould of Dan Brown with a chunk of history, myth, legend and reincarnation thrown in and I honestly couldn't put it down...One thing that did drive me absolutely mental though, was the truly awful editing and repeated lines, e.g. How many times does a reader want to read the line " the short hairs on the back of his/her neck stood up"? I counted about 7 times."

Half-witted heroines

What did I think of Labyrinth?

In the Author's Note at the beginning, I didn't like the use of "modern-day" or the three unnecessary words in the sentence beginning "During the course of the invasions…"
In the present-tense Prologue, I was put off Alice, the heroine in the modern part of the book, when, having narrowly missed being crushed by a massive boulder dislodged from a mountainside, she sees an opening and, knowing it is stupid, possibly dangerous, enters a long narrow tunnel instead of alerting the archaeologists at work lower down the mountain.
The scene took me back 45 years to the period when Victoria Holt wrote Mistress of Mellyn [published in 1961, the year Kate Mosse was born] and started a vogue for gothic romances in which half-witted Victorian heroines heard a noise from the attics in a sinister mansion and, instead of doing the sensible thing, crept upstairs by the light of a candle to investigate.
After the four-part Prologue, Chapter 1 starts on p 27. Chapter 82 ends on p 689, followed by an Epilogue to p 694. Dipping into this ponderous tale half a dozen times, hoping to come across a gripping scene, I was disappointed. Luckily the book was lent to me.
In this week's issue of The Bookseller, in the Nielsen Bookscan Top 50 list, Labyrinth is at No 11, up from No 13 last week. Total units sold since paperback publication on 6 January, 680,015.

Regretting £6.99 spent on £10,000 prize-winner

On the same chart, Gardens of Delight by Erica James was down to No 9 from No 6 last week. Paperbacked on 6 May, it has sold a total of 52,624 units. Both the hardback and paperback jackets seem aimed at the chick lit reader, rather than the middle-aged-to-elderly gardening enthusiast who, like me, has spent her life enjoying novels by Evelyn Anthony, Ann Bridge, Georgette Heyer, M M Kaye, Nancy Mitford, Rosamunde Pilcher, Mary Renault, Mary Stewart and Mary Wesley.

Many of the books on my shelves have Post-it notes inside their front covers on which I have pencilled notes of things to remember such as a scrap of poetry.

While reading Gardens of Delight, the winner of the FosterGrant Reading Glasses Romantic Novel of the Year Award 2006, I used six Post-it notes to make 66 critical comments about the story, including "Chapter Four would have been a better opening than Chapter One".

The Amazon reviewer who felt that Labyrinth was badly edited should try Gardens of Delight which doesn't appear to have been edited at all. We read "equally as", "get to see more of", "overly bonhomie manner" - hasn't the author heard of bonhomous? - "over the coming days, Lucy's cold got a lot worse", "seeing as he was so in the know", "looked like it had", "underway" for under way and "he'd" four times in six lines.

There are nine main characters in this novel, four of them women. The reader's initial impression of Lucy is formed by a flashback to an act of teenage hooliganism perpetrated at her expensive boarding school. Now, with 30 looming, she's still hung up about her father leaving her tiresome mother for an Italian woman.

Helen is a 45-year-old who used to run her own travel company but has married a rich man of 61, with sex problems, for no better reason than that he pursued her relentlessly and can solve her financial difficulties. Savannah is her obnoxious step-daughter. Until Francesca appears, late in the story, there is no female character with whom the sensible-but-romantic older reader can identify.

The men are an equally rum lot. Mac is an elderly chap recovering from a stroke, Conrad is his almost-50 nephew, driven to the brink of suicide by the improbable accident that killed his wife. Orlando is a wimp, Alessio an impossibly gorgeous Italian pianist, and Marcus is Lucy's vanished father now married to Francesca whose fatal illness looms over the end of the book.

If this is the most romantic novel published in the past year, those pipped to the post must fall a long way short of my definition of romantic. So far there are no reviews of the paperback at Amazon UK. Of the two people who have reviewed the hardback, one wrote "Erica James never fails to please me with her books, which are like old friends... good company; a bowl of Heinz tomato soup on a cold day ... comforting." The comparison with tinned tomato soup says a lot about this reviewer.

What is worrying about these two books is that Kate Mosse and Erica James write such slipshod English and no one at Orion has recognised their shortcomings and made an effort to remedy them by having the novels expertly edited.

Perhaps Andrew Brown was right when, last month, he wrote a piece headed "Bad books sell better than good ones because so many people are semiliterate."

He went on "It is not just that they are written by people who can't, in any interesting sense, write; they are read by people who have not properly learned to read. I don't mean their taste is uneducated, or that they can't spell, or that they have trouble with long words, though all those things may be true; I mean that they have not internalised the activity of reading so that it feels natural.
The links between speech and reading and writing are, in a fully literate person, so strong that all three appear to be aspects of the same activity. I really do hear the words I write as I write them, and if I am trying to write conversationally I will often say the words as I write them and sometimes make grotesque typing errors because I have said out loud the crucial words of a sentence and failed to notice that I did not write them down. It all feels like the same kind of expression. To a fully literate person, authors have voices more distinct and personal than most of the people they will ever talk to."

The piece raised a lot of comment, including, "Oh come on. Bad books sell well because there are an awful lot more indiscriminate buyers than discerning ones. No one ever lost money underestimating the public's taste."

But surely it was the discerning readers/buyers who made Patrick O'Brian a bestseller?