Catherine Robertson on novels women want to read (and write)
I’ve often wondered – if I had read differently when I was young, would my first novels have been different? My theory is that there’s a period in everyone’s early life when the books you’re exposed to become imprinted on your DNA. It can start at any age but ends at 25, when your brain is finally fully developed and begins to question the written words instead of absorbing them directly into your being. No matter how your literary tastes and political leanings evolve from then on, a little corner of you is forever what you read during that time. And its influence can persist.
I turned 25 in 1991 and my formative period began when I was a toddler. My family were keen on books, but they had what I’d kindly call old-fashioned tastes. Our bookshelf held Everyman’s Library hardbacks, the Yates Garden Guide and dated encyclopedias. The books my mother read to me came mostly from her own childhood: Milly Molly Mandy, Winnie the Pooh, Little Grey Men. By the time I started school, I was already middle-aged.
And I was primed to continue reading British authors. Folklore fantasy from Susan Cooper and Alan Garner. The supernatural: Marianne Dreams, Charlotte Sometimes. Joan Aiken, The Secret Garden. The magic of Diana Wynne-Jones. If I ventured across the Atlantic, it was for writers of the past: LM Montgomery, Laura Ingalls Wilder.
By age 14, I’d binged every Agatha Christie and Miss Read, and graduated to Jane Austen and Nancy Mitford. The first television adaption of Love in a Cold Climate came out that year, 1980, with Judi Dench as Aunt Sadie and the late Jean-Pierre Cassel as Fabrice, Duc de Sauveterre, one of literature’s sexiest romantic heroes. (The sexiest, of course, is Chrestomanci.)
My essential atomic structure was by now 50 per cent genetics and 50 per cent cowslips, bluebells, fauns, a stone Gothic mansion, a travelling fair on a village green, teacakes, marmalade, hounds, wolves, owls, dry humour, and an unnecessarily detailed appreciation of the British class system. I’d been conditioned for a specific type of fantasy, and by that I don’t mean it had to contain elements of the fantastical. All it had to do was take me to a time and place that was as far from my everyday life in dismal Wellington* as my imagination could stretch. In 1983, the year I turned 17, Black Swan launched. I was ready at a cellular level to receive it.
Let’s back up and set the scene. It’s the 1980s. There is no internet. If you’re not a member of a mail order book club, you find books in shops and libraries. The literary fiction market is dominated by overseas writers. New Zealand fiction is still overcoming local resistance, and our women literary writers, such as Fiona Kidman, Keri Hulme, Barbara Anderson, are only starting to make their mark. Out of 62 finalists in the decade’s Booker prize lists, 24 are women, and only three women out of ten take home the big prize. A few women authors of colour are becoming famous, Alice Walker, Amy Tan and Toni Morrison, but apart from the likes of Haruki Murakami, Salman Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro, the male literary lions of the decade are predominantly white.
Marlon James griped that publishers were risk-averse because they still felt a need to “pander to that archetype of…older mother or wife sits down and thinks about her horrible life”, He may as well have added, “published by Black Swan”
At the other end of market, blockbuster fiction is almost entirely written by white authors (Alex Haley the exception) but more evenly spread between male and female. Judith Krantz, Jackie Collins, Danielle Steele and Jilly Cooper share airport bookshelves with Tom Clancy, Ken Follett, Robert Ludlum and James Michener.
In between is the bread and butter of publishing houses, middlebrow women’s fiction. Running down the list of ‘A selection of fine writing also available from Black Swan’, with titles like Guppies for Tea, The Highly Flavoured Ladies and Tell Mrs Poole I’m Sorry, I don’t feel it’s a stretch to say this is the market Black Swan was designed exclusively to target.
In 2015, Booker prize-winner, Marlon James, griped that publishers were risk-averse because they still felt a need to “pander to that archetype of the white woman, that long-suffering, astringent prose set in suburbia. You know, ‘older mother or wife sits down and thinks about her horrible life’.” He may as well have added, “published by Black Swan”.
His complaint is fair in that publishers are definitely risk-averse, but it erases a long line of women authors who struggled for decades to be taken seriously. Rupert Croft-Cooke, in The Sound of Revelry (1969), called them, “A generation of women in literature who had earned for themselves the term woman novelist, or simply novelist, as distinct from ‘lady-novelist’ or ‘authoress’.” They were denied value because they wrote about women in their everyday lives, in town and country, and this was seen to be trivial. What they were really writing about were the burden of social expectations on women, and the effects on them of war and economic upheaval. A few, such as Rebecca West, openly called themselves feminists. But all these authors were exploring a feminist theme – how hard it was for women to forge an independent identity within the social and financial constraints imposed by the first half of the 20th Century.
Founded in 1973, Virago rescued many of these writers from oblivion. Today, Grey Ladies and Persephone are doing the same. Black Swan took a different approach. It published brand new middlebrow women authors and turned several of them into global bestsellers.
If you’re my age or you hang out in second-hand bookshops, Black Swan means paperbacks with white covers featuring soft-hued watercolour paintings, and typeset in Melior, a serif font that is unique, according to TypeWolf, for having “letter shapes based off a squared-off circle.” They also used Mallard, which as far as I can tell, is identical.
There’s very little information online but having pulled every Black Swan I own off my shelves and checked their copyright pages, my guess is that the first book launched under the imprint was Brother of the More Famous Jack by Barbara Trapido. The first edition of that novel was published by Victor Gollancz, but from 1983 it’s all Black Swan. Trapido jumped ship to Michael Joseph with her third novel, but in her time with Black Swan, she became internationally famous, and so did Mary Wesley and Joanna Trollope.
Of the three, Trollope is probably the best-known today, mainly because she hasn’t been dead for 20 years (Wesley) or stopped publishing over a decade ago (Trapido). But she’s not my favourite. I mean, I wouldn’t slag her off the way Will Self did when he called her “A lower-middlebrow novelist who has just enough sophistication to be able to convince her readership they are getting an upper-middlebrow product”. When she’s on form, she’s brilliant; I read Other People’s Children in one sitting. But although I came to Trollope, Trapido and Wesley for their promise of my specific flavour of escapist fantasy, it was the latter two I stuck with, and who shaped my nascent ideas of what adult fiction I should like to write.
You might object if I say Trapido and Wesley were a natural leap from Jane Austen, but for me, they flowed seamlessly from everything I’d read up until then, with their setting, character demographic and especially tone. Re-reading these books, I’m struck by the cool detachment with which everything is observed. There is trauma – dead children, war, domestic violence – but unlike today’s books, where trauma narrative and character are inseparable, the women in these novels merely shrug and move on. Their response can’t even be called a stiff upper lip, because that requires an acknowledgement of the pain. They might have a moment of sadness, a short period of self-flagellation, but lasting regrets are a waste of time. Even if you’ve just learned that your mother’s twin brother is not only your father but also slept with you while you were drunk (Second Fiddle, 1988, Mary Wesley).
I wanted to bring into my own writing…humour and female characters who had a firm grip on the steering wheel of their lives
Being likeable is also a waste of time. For Trapido’s and Wesley’s female characters independence is more important than duty or loyalty or being nice. Lovers either fit in with your life or you leave them. Wesley’s Calypso, Trapido’s Alice and Katherine, all of whom appear in more than one novel, linger with me still, though my feelings for them are ambivalent, as they should be. What I never questioned was the message that women had a paramount right to determine their life’s direction, and that even if terrible things happened to them, they were entitled to be content.
In his review of Trapido’s fourth novel, Juggling (1994), Michael Dibdin in The Independent described it as “a work of enormous charm, highly entertaining…which handles serious matters lightly and treats light ones with proper respect”. This sums up exactly what I wanted to bring into my own writing – humour and female characters who had a firm grip on the steering wheel of their lives. I wanted sharpness along with the jokes, a sliver of dark to edge the light.
I should have been born a decade earlier. Because in 1996, women’s fiction was transformed. Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding came out and ‘Chick Lit’ was born. Heroines became funny, flawed, ‘relatable’. Women who behaved selfishly were painted as unnatural; sad, mad or bad. I suggest that’s the reason the trauma narrative is now so dominant. Women characters are no longer in control of their lives, their subconscious is. Every unsound personal choice must be justified as stemming from suppressed pain.
When I started writing in the mid 2000s, I was still under the spell of my formative period. I hadn’t noticed the shift to relatable female characters, or at least, I hadn’t clocked its significance. My first book hit the right note but that was sheer luck, because I emphasised the humour. My second and third books didn’t bomb, exactly, but my heroines’ personalities pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in that genre. That’s why I stopped writing those books. Also, my publisher wasn’t happy about the sales, there was that.
My publisher. Yes….
Now, I know you’re quite rightly questioning every theory I’ve put forward in this essay, but let me show you this excerpt from my first novel, The Sweet Second Life of Darrell Kincaid (2011). This is what I wrote when my heroine, Darrell, recently moved to London, is fantasising about the people she might meet in her new local café: “A woman with a huge shambolic house stuffed with flowers and dogs and people. Called Hattie. (The woman, not the house.) She would be upper class and absent-minded and would call me ‘darling Darrell’. She would include me in all her mad family’s get-togethers, including Christmas. She would try to set me up with her charming wastrel younger brother, Jago, more for his sake than for mine. But while Jago and I would have a brief fling (can’t decide whether the sex should be frantic and mind-blowing or companionable and giggly), his tragically self-destructive nature would lead him away from me and possibly into either a Turkish prison or a motorcycle crash in the Mongolian desert.
“An older man with connections in publishing. He would be dapperly dressed and find me deeply interesting and charming but not enough to want to jump my bones. He would offer to read my books and would come to the café the next day brimming with excitement about my unique ‘voice’ and my intelligence and wit and humour. He would set me up with an agent friend, who would immediately take me on and win me a three-book contract with Black Swan. He would take me to tea at Claridge’s, where they do over thirty kinds of cake. Possibly, he would die and leave me his Nash Regency house and his collection of small Impressionist paintings.
“Fabrice, Duc de Sauveterre. Enough said.”
The Sweet Second Life of Darrell Kincaid was sold to Random House NZ and published in 2011 under the imprint Black Swan. Enough said.