proper books

I wrote this for the British Council’s site, a couple of years ago. 2006 maybe. It’s still what I think.

It can happen anywhere. In a taxi, at a party, dinner, lunch, bus queue, crammed into the corner of a train seat desperately not wanting to talk to the person beside me who desperately wants to chat the whole of the journey from London to Edinburgh. ‘So, what do you do?’ Tempting as it often is to answer nurse, teacher, plumber, foreign correspondent from war-torn climes, the truth is, I’m a writer. Mostly. I’m also an actor some of the time, and have started doing a bit of directing as well, but that gets even more confusing so I normally skip that bit.

Then – what do you write? I used to say books. I had a fear of sounding arrogant or ‘poncey’ or self-satisfied or whatever else it is that working class girls often feel when they find themselves firmly settled in resolutely middle class occupations. I got over that. Now I say I write novels. They ask if they’re published. Which is an incredibly odd question. ‘I’m an electrician.’ ‘So can you change a plug, then?’ I’m aware this may cause some upset among the creative writing class fraternity, but I believe being a writer also involves being published. Wherever or however, doesn’t matter so much, but if the writing is only for yourself, it’s a diary or journal. If it’s intended for publication, out of the bottom drawer and on to the desks of agents and publishers, then yes, you’re a writer. Next, the question that most gets me. What do you write? Books. Novels. Stories. What kind of books? And here’s where I start to expect a reaction.

I’ve written ten novels. Five of them have been published as crime novels and five have been published as literary novels. I say ‘have been published as’ because, from a writing point of view, I honestly don’t care. I read books for the story, for the writing, for the characters, for the author’s style. I don’t much mind the subject matter. I could no more survive in a crime-only library than I would on a one-food diet. Nor am I interested in reading only ‘literary’ novels. I like a mix. Both to read, and to write. I didn’t even think my first (crime) novel was a crime novel. Yes it had a dead body and a (not very successful) detective in it, but I didn’t think that plot line was the central thrust of the book. My publishers did, they marketed it as such, the shops sold it as crime, and there are now five books in the Saz Martin crime series. But I have five other novels at present too. Three of them published by Hodder’s literary imprint Sceptre, two published by (and another two commissioned by) Time Warner’s literary imprint Virago. To me it’s all about the story. My publishers can sell them as they will, and hopefully they’ll sell them as well as they can, in whatever form they deem the novel most likely to reach the most people that will want to read it, I write to be read. I don’t see any other reason. The snobbery though, that exists about any genre fiction bores me. I don’t care if the book fits into the chick-lit (now slowly eliding into the less volatile term ‘popular fiction’), crime, romantic, historical or sci-fi genre. If it’s well-written and has good characters and a good story, I’ll read it. Added to that, I firmly believe literary fiction is just another genre anyway. Just as I believe that RP (Received Pronunciation, what we used to call ‘the Queen’s English’) is simply another accent, as Manchester and London and Birmingham have their accents. There is no gold standard, there is a broad church, and any amount of eager readers ready for whatever we have to offer them – after all, what takes me two years to write may well take an avid reader just two days to read.

However, while I may have no time for the snobbery that defines my literary novels as ‘proper’ books, and my crime novels as ‘not proper’, the literary establishment – handing out prizes, allocating pages of review sections – takes it very seriously indeed. Literary novels are given half or quarter page sections, while crime novels feature in weekly, or monthly round-ups. With the exception of the most successful, the romance and popular fiction writers are almost never reviewed in the broadsheets. Yet they continue to sell, extremely well, pouring money back into publishing. Of course there are commercial authors who merely write with an eye for the sales figures, and having found a formula, stick to it, choosing safety in their style rather than pushing themselves or their readers. There are literary writers doing exactly the same, forfeiting the chance their genre offers to play with form, and style, happy to settle for what has worked for them and their readers so far. People satisfied with ‘enough’ exist in every occupation. Personally though, knowing very many current British writers, I’d say most of us are trying harder than that. Crime writers turning out astonishingly beautiful prose, literary writers crossing genre boundaries for the sake of story and adding style to substance. To name just a very few names – beautifully crafted crime fiction from John Harvey in Flesh and Blood and Morag Joss’s Half Broken Things, Sarah Waters’s historical-literary fiction Fingersmith turning on a plot twist any crime writer would be proud of, Toby Litt’s Corpsing bringing crime, comedy and literary fiction together. In the 1990s an eclectic group were spoken of as being part of the ‘new wave of British crime fiction’ – it is no surprise to me that several of us, Lauren Henderson, Nicholas Blincoe, myself, have gone on to write in other forms, other genres. The very idea of being ‘new wave’ implying the possibility of flow and change.

I consider myself fortunate to have, by accident, straddled both genre and literary fiction. Crime writing taught me to take plot seriously, that passing characters are as vital as leads, that it is important to give the reader something of what they think they’ve bought your book for and – ideally – something extra as well. Writing literary fiction allows me to experiment with pace and plot, to play with words, to enjoy form. Doing both has – I believe, and I can only attest to how well I feel I’m writing, how hard I know I’m pushing myself – made me a better writer. I might have improved over ten books anyway, I would hope any writer might do so if they were willing to learn from good editors and generous publishers and their readers. In practice not every book I write is better than the last – novel writing is an up and down kind of career, not an exponential graph where each step forward is a step up – but in intention my aim is always to do better. Taking the best from every form I work in, pushing myself to work in forms that are not necessarily comfortable for me, intentionally blurring the boundaries between genres in the hope that the establishment will also relax a little – all of these are ways to keep what I do interesting and alive for me. I hope to be still writing in my eighties, that’s another forty years, aiming to be interesting and alive in that time seems as sensible an ambition as any other.

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