Sunday 15 November 2009

A Question of Taste or a Question of Sex?

Last week, invited by writer Peg Gardner, I spent a delightful afternoon with Blyth Writers and readers. This group has the excellent idea that they should meet to support each others’ writing on three Thursdays, then meet as a reading group on the fourth Thursday.How great. I’m always telling writers that they don’t read enough. It’s like aiming to be a chef and not bothering to taste.

An even greater pleasure was that they had all read one of my novels – The Lavender House – and some had read several of them. They seemed to enjoy my deconstruction of the writing of Lavender House and generally yarning about writing and the process of publication. They asked shrewd and insightful questions and the time raced by.

Within a day I had a lovely letter from Peg, full of humbling praise. She goes on. ‘Even the men, who say LH is ‘not their kind of novel’ all agree that it is very well written and they very much enjoyed your talk.

Even the men! There we have it – sex rearing its inevitable head on relation to taste in reading. We’d touched on it in the afternoon when we were discussing the research I do for my novels (lots…)

That was when I came out with my mantra of how much I hate to see research hanging around in novels like washing on a line.

I love the hard work of research whose purpose is to inspire my imagination into a subtle apprehension of a particular time, a place or a culture, so that I can hear my characters’ voices in the proper register, so that I can share their concerns about the wide and narrow worlds in which they live.

The purpose of research for me is not to put wadges of pre-digested historical or technical information on the page for my readers to learn something without the pain of study. I did mention to the group that I thought that male readers rather went for that kind of thing: just how a gun or a chemical process works; how the neglected Gnostic Gospels tell us more about early Christianity; how men sailed warships in the seventeenth century…

A couple of the men nodded when I said that. Perhaps it was not quite the compliment they thought.

I think there are wonderful sources in history, religion, science and technology. There are amazing real life letters, diaries and biographies of great (and terrible!) men and women which give us all the information we could wish for, in a logically reasoned context. I read these in my research and for fun. Some of my readers go to such sources when aspects of my story have piqued their interest. But the novel is not a learning tablet. It’s not a proper place for these chunks of information.

Novels are about the dilemma and intricacy of human relationships. They are about the impact of events on the human soul. They are as intricate as a ticking clock and reverberate with the challenges of crossroads and paths not taken. They make a virtue of surprise and a vice of what is left unspoken. This is as true of novels labelled historical as it is of more contemporary novels where the motivations are perhaps more familiar.

And if this is what women write and women read, fair enough. I love my readers. (In passing, it’s worth noting that are very good male writers who share these ‘womanish’ traits – E M Forster and Ian McEwen come to my mind at this moment.)

I’m delighted to say that I do get nice letters from male readers - some say my novel was lying around because their wife or sister had it in the house – who seem to get what I am about and don’t worry that I omit 'important' information about the particular spec of the warships during the fall of Singapore, or the savage technicalities of crime in 1960s London.

I wouldn’t have brought all this back to mind had I not had that delightful afternoon in Blyth.

Thank you for that, Peg.


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