I have an excellent blog for you today from my fellow Accent author, Tom Williams.
Over to you Tom…
I write historical novels. So, I hate it when people say “Oh, I never read Historical Novels.” Why not? “Because they are all too romantic.” But I don’t write Historical Romance. No matter: the conversation has moved on.
Or perhaps they don’t read Historical Novels because they’re not interested in the Tudors, or knights in armour? But my stories are set in the 19th century. It makes no difference: they don’t read Historical Novels and that’s that.
It’s annoying, but don’t we all have these gaps in our reading experience? For me, it’s Historical Romance. I can’t face it. I’ve tried – I’ve really tried, but I just can’t make it through to the end. She notices his well-turned calf, the sweat glistens on the muscles of his arm or her heart beats at the thought of his tender yet manly kiss and I give in and read no further. And the awful thing is that the author may not even have used any of these clichés, but there’s something about this particular genre that has me imagining them whether or not they are there on page. I admitted this in public and was taken to task by a Historical Romance writer who pointed out that her stories are well researched, nicely written and featured often quite complex characters in interesting social situations. She was right and I’m wrong. I am going to give her books another go, but I suspect that, once again, I will give up.
Why do we all have genres that we just don’t read? The obvious suggestion is that it has something to do with “books for men” and “books for women”. In my case, though, this is far from being the case – I love contemporary Chick Lit. I’ve even been known to tackle a book by that Jenny Kane. Perhaps it’s the background to the stories? But I write historical novels myself and I read other people’s historical novels set in all sorts of periods. So why this mental block with Historical Romance?
The problem does seem to be with the genre and not the book. This is particularly clear with people who sniffily announce that they would never read, for example, Harry Potter because “I don’t read books for children.” Publishers responded by putting an “adult” cover on the Harry Potter series and, lo and behold! adults were suddenly happy to read them. The same result can be achieved more subtly: my wife, for example, doesn’t read Science Fiction, unless “it’s someone like Ursula Le Guin, who’s writing really good books – not really just Science Fiction.” Well, yes, Lord Copper – up to a point. What, I think, the most honest of us will eventually decide is that if the book is a “good” book but placed in a genre that we don’t read, will simply reclassify it. So Bridget Jones is not Chick Lit, it’s Social Comedy; John Grisham doesn’t write rubbishy Crime Stories, he writes the altogether superior Legal Thrillers.
Part of the reason that we are so strict about what genres we will and won’t allow ourselves to enjoy is, I think, that the books that we will admit to reading – proudly displayed on our bookshelves, unlike that rubbishy thing consigned to the bedside table – say something about us. In a world where mass entertainment is, arguably, increasingly democratised, books are still one of the great class markers. I have a friend who runs an online group where people can discuss their reading matter. Apparently all these people read massively more James Joyce, Chekhov, Peter Ackroyd, HE Bates, Guy De Maupassant, and Albert Camus than they do Agatha Christie or Dan Brown. (I swear I’m not making this up and nor are members of the group all graduates from an English Department.) Admitting to liking a particular genre makes you a member of a particular club. The genre is far more important than the book. We see the same applied to individual writers. “Oh Dickens is such a wonderful author.” Well, many of his books certainly are fine examples of English literature. It doesn’t take a particularly critical reader, though, to see that some of them are definitely better than others. But to explain that you consider this or that book to be deserving of critical approval and another one to show signs of having been written to a deadline on a bad day, calls for more discussion and analysis than we can tolerate when deciding whether people do or don’t fit into our social group. What we want in social markers is a straightforward way of deciding whether we are in or out of the Magic Circle of social acceptability.
As an author, Jenny provides an interesting (and surprisingly common) example of the importance of keeping our genres separate. Jenny Kane writes Contemporary Romance – Chick Lit if you will – where we follow a young woman through the unfolding of her relationship until we reach, hopefully, a happy conclusion. But Jenny has a dark side. She also writes about young women whose romantic journey is accompanied by whips and chains and practices that we do not discuss in polite society. So important is it to keep these two genres completely separate that she produces the more lively novels under a different name. Mills and Boon, faced with the same problem, put their – actually rather well-written – erotica under a completely different imprint. After all, when my maiden aunt tells me that she really enjoys Mills and Boon, it’s important that I know exactly what sort of Mills and Boon she is into.
I suspect, then, that this is at least part of the answer of why we will respond warmly to some genres and reject others out of hand. Like so many things in England, it’s a matter of class. And now I am aware of that, I hope that I will try to restrain my prejudices. If I’m faced with a Historical Romance in which credible characters form realistic relationships against an authentic historical background, I will persevere. I might even come to love it. Perhaps we should all try to read things outside the genres that we are comfortable to say that we like. Reading, after all, should be about broadening the mind. So let’s try to broaden our own minds.
Perhaps I should try something by that Kay Jaybee…
Have you ever noticed how many authors are described as ‘reclusive’? I have a lot of sympathy for them. My feeling is that authors generally like to hide at home with their laptops or their quill pens and write stuff. If they enjoyed being in the public eye, they’d be stand-up comics or pop stars. Nowadays, though, writers are told that their audiences want to be able to relate to them as people. I’m not entirely sure about that. If you knew me, you might not want to relate to me at all. But here in hyperspace I apparently have to tell you that I’m young and good looking and live somewhere exciting with a beautiful partner, a son who is a brain surgeon and a daughter who is a swimwear model. Then you’ll buy my book.
Unfortunately, that’s not quite true. I’m older than you can possibly imagine. (Certainly older than I ever imagined until I suddenly woke up and realised that age had snuck up on me.) I live in Richmond, which is nice and on the outskirts of London which is a truly amazing city to live in. My wife is beautiful but, more importantly, she’s a lawyer, which is handy because a household with a writer in it always needs someone who can earn decent money. My son has left home and we never got round to the daughter.
I street skate and ski and can dance a mean Argentine tango. I’ve spent a lot of my life writing about very dull things for money (unless you’re in Customer Care, in which case ‘Dealing With Customer Complaints’ is really, really interesting). Now I’m writing for fun. If you all buy my books, I’ll be able to finish the next ones and I’ll never have to work for the insurance industry again and that will be a good thing, yes? So you’ll not only get to read a brilliant novel but your karmic balance will move rapidly into credit.
Can I go back to being reclusive now?
Many thanks Tom- what a fantastic blog! If you do try some of that Jaybees work, make sure you have a cool drink to hand…
You can find Tom’s latest novel, here-