Thursday, 28 January 2010

Writing 'that sort of thing'

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.


Paul Mcgill said...

Writing is a form of creative art and only few can maintain a good level throughout. I have thouroughly liked the ways you have represented different ideas. Congratulations of maintaining such a wonderful site.

Jane Henry said...

Couldn't agree more, Sarah. I like fish pie too(-: Someone has compared my books to drinking hot chocolate, which I am perfectly happy with. I think there is HUGE snobbery about what people should and shouldn't read, and it has a disastrous effect when teaching kids to read. Instead of teaching them to read for pleasure, there's a painting by numbers approach, as if a kid who hasn't tackled Harry Potter by the age of 10 is some kind of failure. It has always baffled me. We don't expect everyone to be good at sport, so we should we expect everyone to read Dostoevsky?
Which isn't to say you can't enjoy fish pie and haute cuisine. I like both and am proud to say so!

Anna Lucia said...

Well said. The idea that our choice of reading is something to be ashamed about (or smugly superior about) is an idea I have no time for...

Reading as comfort food... I love the analogy. And it doesn't have to be junk food (although an occasional portion of chips can't hurt). I'd love to write a good roast chicken dinner. But with all the action and drama, it's probably more like a good curry!

Lesley Cookman said...

I'll have the gutsy Merlot, thanks, Sarah, and no shellfish in the fish pie. Oh, and no cheese at all, thank you.

How true, how true. I should think mine are looked down on even more, being a bit like granny's old shawl (do grannies have old shawls these days?). Do I care? A bit. I still find myself apologising for them sometimes.


Jan Jones said...

I may like red wine, blue cheese and mushrooms, but I also completely agree with you on this, Sarah.

It almost calls for a "Read What You Like - as long as you read!" campaign.

Oh, I like fish pie too.

Olivia Ryan said...

Hi Sarah. I've just popped over from ROMNA to read your blog and I SO agree with you! I write books that are sometimes sneeringly referred to as Chick Lit by some people, and I always say that I don't care what anyone calls them as long as they enjoy them! (If they don't, I can't do anything about it anyway!).
There's such a lot of pretentiousness involved in some people's reading preferences. Sad.

Sarah Duncan said...

Paul - thanks for your comments, I'm trying to write the blog I'd like to read. Glad it's working for you too.

Jane - Hot chocolate is a lovely description, you obviously write more glam books than me!

Anna Lucia - You're making me think - roast chicken, curry - there are so many more things I love to eat. And the analogy still works.

Jan - Sounds a good campaign idea...

Olivia - Drives me mad when people sneer - especially as most of the time they haven't even read the genre so don't really know what it is they're talking about. Sloppy thinking if you ask me.

Lesley - oh, surely not granny's old shawl - maybe more like my lovely cashmere stole I wear to write when it's really cold. I don't like cheese on my fish pie either.

Blossom said...

Years ago, on an Arvon course, I said that I wanted to write books that people found easy to read, with engaging characters that would entertain them for a few hours. There was one of those tumbleweed moments. After that, I very rarely told people what I was writing.

So great post, Sarah. I'm very happy writing that sort of thing and eating fish pie. I like prawns in mine.

Z(Aasiyah/Nolwynn) said...

Hi Sarah

Lol, I read and write 'that sort of thing' too, and 'that sort of thing' is my preferred form of reading.

People will sneer, sadly, but there's also a large chunk of folks for whom you'll make the day. That's what should keep us going.


Sarah Duncan said...

Sadly, literary snobbery is alive and kicking in cw teaching as well as 'the establishment'. But Aasiyah is right, you have to think of all the people who love 'that sort of thing'.

Think I'm going to have to collate recipes for the perfect fish pie - opinions on the addition of hard boiled egg anyone?

Kristin Harmel said...

This is fantastic! Thanks for making such a great point -- and doing so in such an eloquent manner!

Liz Czukas said...

This post is balm to my soul, thank you. Especially as an unpublished writer, I struggle with the notion of writing the "right" thing. But, like you, women's fiction is what I want. If I read it, why the devil shouldn't I write it? It's good to know I'm not the only one who feels this way.

Thanks again,

Sarah Duncan said...

Blimey Liz, you must write what you want! It's essential to write from the heart, not what you think you 'ought' to write. And there are many, many people who love women's fiction - it's the biggest selling genre in both the US and UK.

And Kristin, thanks for the compliment. I'm trying!