I’m going to a friend’s house for dinner next Satuday, and she’s just sent me an email to check she’s remembered correctly that I don’t like mushrooms. I don’t. I don’t like blue cheese either. Or red wine – the very thought of it makes my mouth pucker with the remembered taste. I don’t feel ashamed about these likes and dislikes. I have no guilt that I prefer a chilled Pinot Grigio to a gutsy Merlot. It’s just my taste. My personal quirks are part of what make me myself and I see no reason to apologise for them.
So why is reading different?
There can be no doubt there is an underlying feeling that what you read is not simply a matter of taste, as if you might judge someone’s intelligence or moral probity by their choice of reading material. I’m sometimes told by a reader how much they enjoyed one of my books, before slipping in a guilty let out clause that they ‘don’t usually read that sort of thing.’
Because, yes, I write ‘that sort of thing.’ I write – I hope – the sort of book you can pick up after a hard day’s work and be transported to a place that’s fun to be in. For a short time you can forget about the essay that needs writing, the bills that need paying, your overdraft, your shitty boss/colleagues/customers, your demanding husband, children or hamster, and instead become part of a world where characters may struggle and make bad choices but it will all come good in the end. Some of my novels are more romantic than others but they’ve all got happy endings, whether that comes with a kiss or not. I write popular fiction, and I don’t think writing unpopular fiction would be in any way better for me, or you, for that matter.
Maybe it’s a hangover from the Protestant work ethic that means reading cannot be viewed simply as entertainment, but has to be educational or improving in some way. The more difficult it is, the more educational or improving it must be. Weetabix without sugar, or cod liver oil come to mind.
I like to think my novels are the equivalent of fish pie: cheering at the end of a tiring day, neither empty calories nor exquisite haute cuisine, but tasty nourishment that slips down easily. Perhaps that’s part of the problem. We confuse the ease of reading with the ease of writing and therefore value the novel less, but it takes skill and hard work to write something that reads effortlessly.
I prefer to read books about subjects that appeal to me, and because I’m interested in relationships and how people work together in situations that reflect my own experience, I tend to read books by women with women characters placed centre stage. That’s not to say I can’t, won’t or don’t read books by men or women about other subjects, or books that challenge, or stretch me. Of course I do. But when I want to read for relaxation or sheer entertainment, I prefer women’s fiction.
There should be no guilt or shame attached to that choice. Choosing fish pie at home tonight doesn’t mean I won’t appreciate a gourmet meal at a five star restaurant tomorrow. It’s about preference, about personal taste. So, pass me that glass of Pinot Grigio, and happy reading.