Tag Archives: writing

A writer of great literature, or just a great writer?

Today, an article was published in The Guardian written by Jonathan Jones, an arts correspondent. I’m not going to link to it, because I don’t want to increase that man’s hit count but you should read it, just to see how ridiculous this man is.

In brief, The Shepherd’s Crown was published this week. This is Terry Pratchett’s posthumous novel, the last in the Tiffany Aching series. I have read it and, although I wouldn’t rank it as one of my personal favourites due to MASSIVE SPOILERS, it is a good Pratchett book. It deals with death, and what happens to the living once somebody you love has died. It talks about how to forge your own path when you live under the shadow of somebody great. It shows the importance of accepting the faults of others, and how sometimes you have to learn to band together, even with people who irritate you, when a bigger threat occurs. It’s also about six inch blue men who like thievin’, fightin’ and drinkin’, Horace The Cheese, a Lancre Blue who has a very vicious streak indeed and the importance of garden sheds. It is, in fact, very much a Pratchett novel

I read the first few chapters through blurry vision, crying as much for the death of an author I loved as for the death of the character that he decided to let go. I’m biased, I know. I love his work. I have since I was thirteen. His work varies in quality – there is a Golden Age of Pratchett, coming after the first few where he was cutting his teeth and before the later books, where he was writing in a different style, either deliberately or because of the “embuggerance”, the variation of Alzheimer’s disease that robbed us of him. I’m not a fan of the later works, particularly – I’m not really fond of Moist von Lipwig, if I’m to be honest. I’m a Golden Age girl, and always will be. My personal favourite is Lords and Ladies, although I’m always up for a bit of Soul Music. I prefer my Sam Vimes in Guards, Guards! than in Snuff, but I also like the books that seem to be out of continuity, like Small Gods.

I will, however, take one of his works that I’m not so fond of over any other writer in the genre, though. I love him and his books that much.

That’s just me, however. That’s my opinion. You’re allowed not to like him. You’re allowed to have read one or two of his books and thought, “Sorry, not for me.” That’s fine. That’s what it should be like. Everyone is entitled to their honest, informed opinion.

But writing an article for a newspaper – a big newspaper, one of Britain’s best sellers – saying that Pratchett is not a good writer, that the fans that mourn his death are venerating somebody who doesn’t write great literature when you haven’t read one of his books yourself is just not on. If Jonathan Jones had read a book and disliked it, that would be fair. But he hasn’t. He says so in the very first paragraph of his article!

How can you criticise a book – or over forty, actually – if you haven’t bothered to read one? Can you do that? Can I write an article criticising, oh, I don’t know, a series of paintings by an artist that I haven’t bothered to view myself? Of course not. It’s the same as saying “I hate chocolate ice cream” when you’ve never tasted it. It’s stupid, and beneath somebody who claims to be educated.

Because Jonathan Jones is educated, you know. In the article he goes to great length to point out that he knows what Great Literature is, because he’s just finished Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. Austen wrote Great Literature, Jones assures us. Why on earth are people mourning Pratchett and claiming that he is a modern day genius when there are people like Austen around, creating books like Mansfield Park?

Oh dear, Mr Jones. Oh deary, deary me. And probably lawks.

Let’s start with the fact that nobody ever sits down to create Great Literature. Writers write to tell a story. Some writers, like Austen (and Pratchett) use satire as a method to tell their story. Some writers, like Austen (and Pratchett) use humour to tell their story. Some writers, like Austen (and Pratchett) attack commonly held ideas about how society works, and how people are unfairly treated. They shine a light into dark areas. They hold a mirror up to the world. And, if they’re Pratchett, they make us laugh as they make us open our minds. Oh, wait, Austen did that too.

Silly me. As a Pratchett fan, I can’t possibly understand how Great Literature works.

But when Austen sat down to write Pride and Prejudice or any of her great works, she didn’t know she was writing Literature, with a capital L. No other writer did either. Let’s be honest, when Shakespeare was banging out hit after hit for the Globe, it’s not like it crossed his mind that half a millennium later teenagers would be trying to puzzle out the dirty jokes in Romeo and Juliet under orders from the Department for Education.

It’s other people who make stories into Literature, not the writers. It’s the fans, and the critics, and the teachers who put the books onto school and university syllabuses.  It’s the people who won’t shut up about how great this writer is. It’s the other writers who have been influenced by them.

If a writer can make a story speak to people, even people born long after they themselves have died, that makes it Literature.

I think that Jonathan Jones picked an Austen book as an example of great Literature because he gets to show that he’s a modern, enlightened man if he picks a book by a female author. What a shame he chose Jane Austen, because I think that if she was alive today to read the article, she’d be quickly creating a character for her next satire; that of an arts critic who writes pompously and scathingly about an author he proudly admits to never reading. Actually, I take that back  – I’m not sure she’d take something handed to her so easily. Jonathan Jones has made himself too easy a target.

It’s the ultimate irony- in showing his proud Literature credentials, Jonathan Jones reveals himself to be clueless about the author he holds up to be a master of the genre.

I think that she’d be howling with laughter about this ridiculous article. I think Pratchett would find it amusing, too.

So no, Jonathan Jones, when people think of the canon of English Literature, most people wouldn’t put Pratchett there with Austen, or Swift, or Pope. The thing is, though, when Austen, Swift and Pope were writing, they weren’t considered great writers of Literature either. That’s what time is for.

Come back in a hundred years, and we’ll see where history ultimately lands on where it puts Terry Pratchett – beloved comic fantasy writer and satirist, or guilty of committing acts of great English Literature.

I know where I put him, though, and I suspect it’s where his millions of devoted fans put him too – on their bookshelves, and in their hearts. And at the end of the day, I suspect I know where he would have wanted to end up.

A Room Of One’s Own

I must admit that I’m a little bit afraid of Virginia Woolf – residual damage from being forced to read To The Lighthouse in the Upper Sixth, I think. All that fuss over a major character, to kill her off in a paragraph and not mention her again. Oh, groundbreaking literary style, I know, but oh Lord, so difficult to understand! I would rather have read more Chaucer and if that isn’t a searing enditement of my struggle with that damned book literary masterpiece, I don’t know what is.

(Looking back, I may have disliked my A Level Lit syllabus far more than I realised at the time. But hey, Don’t Look Back In Anger…oh wait, I didn’t like that one either….)

The one thing that I do agree with Virginia Woolf on is her idea that to write fiction, a woman was in need of a “room of her own”.

Now, I’ve benefited from the sort of education that Woolf was challenging the world to give to women. Because of that education I have a job that allows me to support myself independently of a husband. Of course, that job isn’t best-selling novelist, more’s the pity! But that job lets me borrow a shockingly large amount of money from a bank to buy my own late Victorian house brick by crumbling brick. In that house, I have a room of my own to write in, although I don’t tend to use it. I’m far more likely to be found on the couch downstairs with my netbook on my lap than in the spare bedroom where the desk and The World’s Oldest Computer live. Perhaps it’s because there are so many bits and bobs related to my job in there that I just don’t feel comfortable writing fiction in it. Perhaps it’s the dusty vibration plate machine staring balefully at me from the corner of the room sending me – hah – bad vibes.

I think I’m going to have to do something with that room – repaint it, perhaps, or move the job-related junk to another place. I could certainly shift the furniture around. I’m a dab hand at that, a gift from my loving mother who isn’t happy unless she’s rotated the living room furniture three times a year.

I can’t stay on the couch for much longer – my back is killing me! I’m certainly going to have to accept Woolf’s idea and create a room of my own.

If I had been alive in the nineteenth century, they’d have locked me in an asylum

Feminism and the historical romance novel:  two concepts that I’ve found are pretty hard to reconcile with each other, if I’m going to be completely honest.

I am a feminist; I believe totally that men and women should have equality in all aspects of their lives. However, I choose to write about a time period where women were very much not equal.

Women were not educated in the same way that men were. Upper class ladies were taught the feminine arts – a foreign language (usually French) how to sing and play an instrument, drawing, painting or embroidery and perhaps, if their mothers valued it, enough mathematics to manage household accounting. The richer the lady, the worse her education often was; why bother to stuff your daughter’s head full of knowledge she’d never use as the wife of a man who could afford servants to run the house, write his letters and manage his accounts? Instead she practised her handwriting for placement cards and memorised the orders of precedence so that she did not commit a social faux pas.

In the UK, women did not get the vote until 1928. Some could vote beforehand if they met the property qualifications, but it took the efforts of the Suffragist movements and the social impact of the First World War to get men in power to understand that women were capable of taking a full role in the political life of the nation. They could hold drawing rooms and salons hosting famous politicians, they could even canvass for votes and appear on the hustings, but they could not enter a voting booth until 1928.  How utterly ridiculous.

Rules about divorce and child custody changed during the nineteenth century but they were always weighted heavily in favour of the men. In 1857 a law was passed allowing men to divorce their wife in court without needing an Act of Parliament if one case of adultery could be proved. Married women were not allowed to divorce their husbands. Custody of the children of the marriage was granted to the husband, who could ban his wife from seeing their children.

It wasn’t until 1882 that a woman was able to keep control of her money, property and earnings after marriage. If she married before then, her father would have had to do some nifty legal footwork to protect them from becoming the legal property of her husband.

A woman’s body was not her own – it was not seen as possible for a man to rape his wife, as consent was deemed to have been given from the moment of their marriage vows and could not be retracted by her. A woman disappeared as a legal entity once she married.

Who would want to have been a woman then? And why on earth would a committed feminist like myself write at all positively about the time period?

I find it difficult, I have to admit, to write female characters in a Victorian setting that do not set my teeth on edge. They would have been brought up with very strict ideas about what was correct and proper, and what women should and shouldn’t do. My heroines have to be defiant and ahead of their times for me to even think about liking them. I cannot write passive, submissive women, content with their lot in life as a second class citizen. It goes against every feminist bone in my body! I also cannot read a book with characters like that. Why do we like Elizabeth Bennet so much? Because she stands up to herself to Mr Darcy, that’s why. Politely (just!) and within the rules of early nineteenth century society, but she’s no pushover. Why has Jane Eyre lasted so long as a famous heroine? Because she would only accept Mr Rochester on her terms, not his. She may have been following the rules of society in not willing to be a mistress, but she stood up for herself against a strong and domineering character. It’s only once he is maimed and blinded that she takes him as her husband – note the word order in that famous line, “Reader, I married him.” I know who wears the trousers in that household!

I love nineteenth century writing. I grew up with the What Katy Did books, Little Women and Eight Cousins. I moved onto Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice and Middlemarch.  All these books have strong female characters in them. Who among us did not admire brave Jo March, who cut off her hair to raise money for the family? Who didn’t cheer when young Jane Eyre told evil Mr Brocklehurst that the way to go to heaven was to stay in good health, and do not die? Who didn’t love Elizabeth Bennet for popping Mr Darcy’s balloon of priggishness?

These characters were all strong despite the awful restrictions placed on their lives. Although my writing can’t hold a candle to Eliot, Bronte, Austen or Alcott, these great authors have shown me that it is possible to create female characters that can be admired and respected despite their terrible context.

So at my keyboard I sit, trying to create a few fictional women who won’t let a few stupid laws and the ideas of a stuffy, overly-moralistic society stop them from being strong, independent and clever. And being somebody I wouldn’t mind having a drink with!

All done! 

I’ve been working like a crazy person for the last two weeks, and finally it’s finished. I’ve written the final draft of what I hope will be the first in a new series of books for the lovely people at Blushing Books!

I think it’s the most concentrated period of writing I’ve ever done. Time restraints have forced me to sit down and bloody well write this thing. No sitting and pondering the deep meaning of every single word choice – just prop myself up in the corner of the sofa, move the cat from my notes, open up Word and go for it. I edited as I wrote, often going back mid-chapter to tweak, re-word and often hit the delete key with so much force that I think it won’t work properly now.

Previously, I had a completed, imperfect MS and then went back to redraft the whole thing as a unit. This time, it’s been a constant process of editing as I went along. I’m not sure which is the most useful way to handle editing and re-drafting, or whether I can manage this editing style when I have to return to a 5000 word a week schedule, rather than 40000 words in 50+ hours of one week like I’ve done this time.

I’m glad this book is done. It works as a stand alone story, as well as leading into a bigger cast of characters. I have 20000 words of the second in the series, which had been intended to be the first. That’s been sitting on my hard drive for about a year and will need a bit of a re-write to make it fit with what I’ve established in this, but it does give me an impetus to finish it now. I was stuck – it’s far more sexually explicit than the stuff I’ve written before,a nod there’s a big shift away from just spanking to more bdsm and power exchange stuff. I think I needed a lead-in to it, which is what the first novel is.  What that toys with, the second will jump straight into.

I’ve popped my bdsm cherry, so to speak, and now I’m ready to explore!

How does it feel to be an author?

For as long as I can remember I’ve had my head in a book. So much so, in fact, that my father lovingly called me Edna for the majority of my childhood. You know – short for Edna Book.  (It was better than his first nickname for me, which was Kojak. Both Telly Savalas and I suffered from a distinct lack of hair in the late seventies.)

I read anything and everything I could get my hands on – pulp sci-fi, nineteenth century children’s books, murder mysteries, autobiographies, historical non-fiction, backs of cereal packets; you name it, I read it.

What at made me think I could write a novel? Is it because I read so many that the next natural step was to write one myself? Or is it true that all of us have a novel inside us, and mine just found an easy way out? There was none of Hemingway’s opening up of a vein and writing – all I needed to do was open a Word document.

Blushing Books have given me the biggest compliment anyone could – they looked at my silly little story and thought it was good enough to be made into a proper book. I’m still not quite sure how I managed to fool them into thinking I, or the book, was something that people would like to read.  Either they’re very stupid, or the book must be fairly good.

You don’t last long in the business world being stupid, and they’ve been around for a while. I suppose that means the book must be fairly good!

It’s a strange concept, that the words buzzing around inside your brain will be buzzing around in somebody else’s very soon.

I’m not sure I’m quite ready for it – but it’s too late now! The release date for Spanking The Governess (guess what it’s about, go on, guess) is September 11th 2015.  On that date I’m going to turn into one of the people that have brought me so many hours of pleasure over the years! I lurch between excitement and pants-wetting terror on an almost hourly basis.

Is that how a real author feels? I’m not sure. But it’s how this author feels.