Friday, 24 January 2014

So is my book promo helping to destroy the publishing industry?

It's my first blog post of 2014, and so far January has been extremely kind to my new novel, Unfashioned Creatures, which came out in November. Sales figures on Amazon have shown in regularly in the Kindle top 20 for literary fiction - hooray! (You can even check it out here! http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00F0L12XS/ref=s9_simh_gw_p351_d0_i1?pf_rd_m=A3P5ROKL5A1OLE&pf_rd_s=center-3&pf_rd_r=1CAGX3RFWV09P2BPVZB8&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=455333147&pf_rd_i=468294)

But before I sell myself even more shamelessly, or pop the champagne corks, I have to remind myself that these sales figures are the result of a Kindle promotion - my book is on sale at 99p for the month of January. As a result, the e-book has rarely stepped below 700 in fiction altogether.

When my book first came out, I got some lovely print reviews and I wrote a piece about Mary Shelley and being inspired by the book's central character, Isabella Baxter Booth, for the Independent on Sunday (http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/mythology-monsters-and-mary-shelley-the-enduring-fascination-of-frankensteins-creation-8958012.html?origin=internalSearch).

It received 659 online shares - quite a feat for a literary article, I promise you. Did that visibility translate into online sales of the printed or e-versions of my book? Not according to my Amazon ranking it didn't, which moved not a jot. The newspaper reviews I received didn't shift it a lot either, neither did appearances at book festivals. Then suddenly the e-book was offered at 99p to Kindle readers and - whoosh!

It presents a writer with some ethical issues. For many, the Kindle promotion is simply ensuring the demise of traditional publishing, proper advances and experimental work.If you're selling your book at 99p, I've been informed by others that you'll earn back about 20p as the author. So in order to make just £2000 you'll have to sell 10,000 copies. Not hard in the early days of the Kindle promotion, perhaps, when unknowns could suddenly make it big, shooting to number one on the back of hundreds of thousands of discounted e-book sales. Now, with more competition, it's more difficult, but it's not impossible. £2000 is hardly enough to live on, but if it's not impossible to sell 100,000 copies, that figure suddenly becomes £20,000 and look - you can finally afford to give up the day job and be a full-time writer.

What such promotion also means is that people are buying books not according to what they like, or what is recommended to them, whether by an online blog or a newspaper review - they're buying according to what is cheapest. No real revelation there, perhaps. But it's possibly also contributing to the decline in professional reviews (as a professional reviewer I'm aware that I'm being hit several times over - by newspaper revenues declining which means less money for books pages; by people reading me even less than before to see what books I might recommend they consider checking out because they've got the likes of Goodreads to go to instead; by people buying according to price not recommendation).

So am I, by agreeing to the Kindle promotion of my novel, simply ensuring my own demise as a book reviewer, and harming publishing into the bargain? I have had to ask myself several hard questions, and what it's boiled down to is this: I'm with an independent Scottish publisher that doesn't have vast resources for massive promotional campaigns, so how are enough people going to know my book is out there? If I take a more noble stand and refuse the promotion, and my book sells less than a thousand copies in a year, will any other publisher touch me with a barge pole? (considering that sales figures are now all-important?). Do I want to write just to be read by my friends and family? Or do I genuinely think I've got a story to tell that people need to hear?

The publishing industry has seen various methods work in terms of sales - Richard and Judy's book club, following on from the phenomenal success of Oprah's, became one sure-fire way of garnering best-seller status for a while - at the cost of all those other writers who didn't make it on to their lists. In the last couple of years, it's been e-book promotions, though as I said, there are starting to be less effective and more competitive, the more writers that are signed up to them. And at a cost of driving down prices and therefore publishing advances.

No doubt, when that runs its course, something else will come along. As a writer, I just want people to publish my book, buy it and read it. Reviews give you a bit of status; prizes even more so, and both can help with sales, although neither are a guarantee of them. But only when publishers (and by 'publishers', I guess I also mean agents, editors, marketing depts) stop assessing everything in terms of sales figures will writers feel they really do have options. Last week the Erotica writer Sylvia Day received an eight-figure advance. Eight figures! The idea that big publishing doesn't have the money to pay its writers properly is therefore farcical - the money is there, all right. But what are they - and by extension, we - investing in?

I guess I'm trying to say I don't feel I have a choice. If I want to be published again, I have to demonstrate that my book can sell. And to demonstrate my book can sell, I have to accept whatever current ways there are of doing that. Or do I?      

 

Thursday, 28 November 2013

How subversive is detail in historical fiction?

At the beginning of this week, I shared a library event with another author, J. David Simons, whose historical novel, An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful, is published by the same company as my own Unfashioned Creatures. The talk had turned to the question of 'detail' in historical fiction, and David read out a letter written by a woman to the family planning campaigner Marie Stopes, about her onerous child-bearing obligations (she'd had numerous children, too numerous to manage). He asked us first what detail in this letter might catch the eye of a novelist looking to fictionalise - and he alighted on the reference in the letter to a commemorative plate, handed out by the News of the World no less, to mothers of ten children or more.

What struck me most about this exercise, though,  was that that wasn't the detail that stood out for me! The detail I jumped on was about a whooping cough epidemic that the letter-writer makes a passing reference to - I immediately thought, ooh, now that was going on, was it? How many people were affected by that? How would that fit into a story? It wasn't directly related to the issue of too-many pregnancies but I could see how it might be.

Which just goes to show that details are mighty subjective - as we kind of expect they might be. What sparks one writer's imagination isn't necessarily what sparks another's. What we can agree on, though, is that detail is important. But subversive? How exactly can detail be subversive in fiction?




In Naomi Schor's book Reading in Detail, she explores the history of the 'detail' in art, showing that detail was long considered 'feminine' because it was extraneous, it only filled in the background, and it could be thoroughly frivolous (all things associated with the feminine). But, she argues, this 'feminine' can be subversive, too - when the detail is foregrounded, when something that should be in the background comes centre stage, when the extraneous becomes the most important thing in a painting.

I've long wondered how this might relate to fiction-writing, and with historical fiction it seems particularly important. How often have we read a historical novel where details seem to have been shoe-horned in, just for the sake of it? To demonstrate the author's expansive research? After all, do we really need to know the exact process of making cider in the seventeenth century, for example? Do we need to know, say, the right mixture of herbs and potions that make up a life-saving poultice? (One of the the things I love about the way Hilary Mantel uses historical detail in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies is that she uses it doubly - when we hear Thomas Cromwell reflect back on his time in the kitchens in Belgium, say, she doesn't just name all the different foodstuffs he used to give it an authentic 'feel', she also tells us something psychologically important, and to the story as well, by the way she does it).

At first glance, these details might fit the conditions that make up the 'subversive' category - they've been brought in from the background (someone from that era wouldn't need to spell out these things or make a feature of them as they'd be part of their everyday lives). And knowing them usually doesn't advance the plot in any way (the poultice saves a life, not knowing what goes into it) or change our perception of a particular character, so these details could be considered extraneous.

But what might they be subverting, if that's indeed how they're working? It seems far more likely that they're working to establish authenticity. These details have been brought centre stage to convince the reader of a story's essential reality. It's an easy way - some might say a lazy or obvious way - of establishing that reality, of convincing a reader to suspend disbelief.

Perhaps then they could be considered subversive - they're telling the reader that this isn't a story at all, it's true (when the reader knows, of course, that it is a story). But what if all this 'authenticity' is too centre-stage, too noticeable? What if the cider-making process distracts us from the other events taking place? Is that a mistake on the part of the writer, an example of details being subversive by challenging the author's authority?

The late Angela Carter once pooh-poohed the idea that an author's characters could take on loves of their own, run away from their creator. Nonsense, she said. The author is always in control. Or should be. In a similar way, the author should be in control of the details he or she is using, they shouldn't run away with the story. Because then they really are being subversive.

    

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Show me the money! Yes, it's National Freelancer's Day

It's been something of a trying time for literary editors of newspapers. I only heard last night that Amanda Craig, Children's Books Editor at The Times, had been let go, to be replaced by someone 'in-house'. The same day, David Robinson, literary editor at The Scotsman, told me he was taking voluntary redundancy and leaving the paper in March. I was also told this week by Boyd Tonkin, former literary editor at The Independent, that he was now a columnist and feature writer.

Does this mean anything in the wider world, beyond a change of faces in newspapers whose readership is in decline anyway? Will anybody care that Amanda is no longer guiding reading in children's books, except for children's writers themselves and their publishers? Do readers at large even notice when the books pages of a particular newspaper are cut by half?

Paid reviews by newspapers are getting cut back, just as publishers' advances decrease and bookshops 'streamline' their workforce (and in many cases, if the latter could offer less than the minimum wage, I'd have no doubts at all that they'd do it). The way that writers earned extra money in the past (or perhaps their main money, given how low advances can be) - some book reviewing, a bookshop job, as an inhouse publishing editor - are fast disappearing.

They are being replaced by other ways, though, if you're flexible enough to jump across the great divide that's taking place. We're moving from 'critique' to promotion, and I'm not sure if that's a good thing. But if you can't beat them, you have to join them - as a freelancer, you have little other option.

And so, you look around and what do you see? You see literary festivals that are bursting at the seams, and need people to chair them (preferably other authors or journalists who are good at asking questions). You see creative writing courses that are over-subscribed and in dire need of teachers of all literary colours to cope with the increasing student load. You see Amazon trouncing the High Street bookshop but it needs those reviewers to keep adding or detracting stars for books to get noticed and sell.

It's all about what generates income, of course. And so, in the spirit of flexibility rather than desperate financial need, I've been trying some new ways. I've started chairing more literary events, which is something I now really enjoy. The 'critique' aspect is no longer there, and I do miss that, but it does get you out of the house (never something to be under-rated when you're a book reviewer for a living) and most writers are pretty good sports, making your job a pleasant one.

I've also signed up to more editing consultancies, which I guess is my way of participating in the creative writing boom, as it's all about giving advice on manuscripts and writing reports. I've resisted the request to be a mentor in the past and am still not sure how I feel about that aspect of it, but time will tell.

And I also sell review copies of books on Amazon from time to time. I have too many to keep in my flat, and I don't always want to give them to the charity shop right next to the indie bookstore. I'm not helping the latter with that method either, I can see that. But there have been many occasions where an Amazon payment or two has meant food shopping for the week, shopping I couldn't have afforded.  

It's all even more haphazard, payment-wise, than freelance reviewing, of course. You have to pay your own travel expenses to an event then claim those expenses back later, which means having the cash to pay for travel in the first place. I spent my last pennies on petrol for one event, only to be invited to the pub afterwards which I felt too embarrassed to attend - I didn't have enough on me even for one drink. Same goes with selling on Amazon, as you have to have the cash to post out the books first. Editing consultancies at least tend to be fast payers and there are no upfront costs, which is a real bonus.

But do I want things to go this way? I worry that more creative writing students means more disappointed hopes. I worry that more promotion means less criticism and that the art of criticism (and yes, there is an art to it) will gradually disappear, or only be kept up with those lucky few who have a private income (does such a thing still exist in the 21st century?). And I worry that I'm not helping the local indie bookstore (though I do have to ask how much they're helping me, as a local writer...).

Freelancers get used quickly to ducking-and-diving, and spreading their skills as widely as possible. But we're losing something culturally valuable, in this current process. We're losing excellent literary critics to arts admin jobs, we're losing good writers to marketing or sales positions. As I asked earlier, does anybody in the wider world really care? Possibly not. And there might not be anything they could do, even if they did.  

     

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Why wasn't Freud a Scotsman?


I'm asking that question because, after all the research I did for my historical novel, Unfashioned Creatures, I came to the conclusion he really should have been. My heroine, Isabella Baxter Booth, is on the verge of a nervous breakdown in 1823, and her husband is suffering bouts of madness. When I first began telling her story, I hadn't planned to have a doctor as a narrator and character as well. But as I uncovered more in the course of my research, I realised that I had to. There were just too many Scots working in the field of psychiatry at the time to ignore them, or have them play a minor role.

Just look at the roll-call of names and you'll see why I believe Freud should have been a Scot, would have been a Scot. I don't mean he should have been transported from Vienna as a baby and brought up in Leith, exactly. Just that the 'father of psychoanalysis' really ought to have come from Scotland.

So here are just a few of them - fathers to the father of psychoanalysis, if you will. We'll kick off with the grand-daddy of them all, William Cullen (1710-1790), who named the nervous system, which kind of helps when you're looking at what upsets people.


William A. F. Browne (1805-1885) was the director of the Royal Montrose Lunatic Asylum (which features in my novel), and innovator and author of What Asylums Were, Are and Ought To Be (and his controversial son, James Crichton Browne, (1840-1938). George Combe (1788-1858) was the founder of the Phrenological Society. His brother, Andrew Combe (1797-1847) wrote extensively on 'mental derangement'. John Ferriar (1761-1815) wrote 'A Theory of Apparitions' where he argued that ghost-sightings were workings of the brain. John Abercrombie (1780-1844), who followed the Edinburgh philosophers of the mind, with an emphasis on observation and instruction ("Inquiries concerning the Intellectual Powers of Man and the Investigation of Truth"). And Sir Charles Bell (1744-1842) was an authority on the nervous system.


All of them were Scots. Without their pioneering work - even the faulty 'phrenology' theories - you wouldn't have psychiatry and you wouldn't have psychoanalysis. The fascination with the mind coincided, of course, with the Enlightenment in which much more famous Scots like Adam Smith and David Hume played a crucial part. Hence philosophers like Thomas Reid are becoming interested in how the mind works, and what makes a human being human is being discussed everywhere.

And what makes a human being not a human being - what makes a sane person go mad - is inevitably equally fascinating. It was a Scot, Alexander Crichton (1763-1856), who became personal physician to the Tsar of Russia for a time, who advocated 'analysis' of a mentally ill patient and more:


"In order to conduct analysis with success, much depends on the previous knowledge of the person who conducts it. It is evidently required that he who undertakes to examine in this branch of science in this way, should be acquainted with the human mind in its sane state, and that he should not only be capable of obstructing his own mind from itself...he should be able to go back to childhood and see how the mind is modelled by instruction...."  

I first read this in one of Crichton's books, still held at the University of Glasgow. I was quite amazed - I knew Freud didn't come out of a vacuum, he didn't just suddenly appear at the end of the nineteenth century with theories about women and hysteria that came from nowhere. Decades of work on the mind - which began when experiments on the brain separated the two (producing the 'duallists' of the time) - had existed before he began producing his writing on the subject. But I didn't know how much of it came from Scotland, and from Scottish physicians. That Crichton should be advocating those dealing with the mentally ill should 'go back to childhood' - although not in a Freudian sense that we would understand it today - was extraordinary to me.

And so I read more, and discovered more. And what I also found out was that while Edinburgh was the centre of medicine at the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth - by the end of the nineteenth, it was known better for forensics, thanks, ironically enough, to another Scottish physician who would become very prominent but in another field altogether: a certain Arthur Conan Doyle.


I tried to find out what had happened - where did all those pioneering researchers go, what happened to their work? What I found was a host of unsure answers by academics who themselves could only speculate - perhaps it was the rise of institutionalised 'madness', as asylums and hospitals grew bigger and bigger, that put people off entering the profession. Perhaps it wasn't seen as a good career move for a young doctor. Perhaps the best brains simply started going abroad. Whatever the reason, the mid to late nineteenth-century saw the dominance of the asylum and the authority of the "mind doctor" absolute over the patient - not necessarily what those early pioneers, many of whom really thought they could 'cure' madness, had envisaged.

And so those pioneering Scots vanished, and with them any celebration of what they had done and the discoveries they had made. Their chance to be the greatest mind-doctor the world has known disappeared with them. And Freud took their place.

For anyone who wants to read more, I recommend Allan Beveridge's 'On the Origins of Psychiatric Thought: The Contribution of Edinburgh 1730-1850'.




Thursday, 17 October 2013

How we write about women writers

Some years ago, the female editor of a broadsheet arts and culture section commissioned a short piece from me about the rising numbers of women writing crime novels. I had some lovely quotes from Val McDermid, but the editor asked if I could possibly ask Denise Mina for some too. I duly - and unwittingly - did so. Mina said about the same as McDermid so I put their quotes together. I presumed my editor just wanted some extra voices. When I asked after I'd presented the finished article, she said, no, that wasn't the reason. It was for photographs, and Mina was 'more photogenic'.

This was a serious piece for a broadsheet newspaper. I didn't write for her again, needless to say. Today, Eleanor Catton's Booker win has been slightly overshadowed by a description of her hair in the Times newspaper, and her 'user-friendly' Geek-nerdiness (whatever that means) above a headline proclaiming the death of 'chick-lit'. Presumably because 'chick-lit', that ever-offensive term, is deemed 'stupid' and Catton's work is 'clever' (look, she even wears glasses! She's the daughter of a philosopher and a librarian! Thank god she's also 'photogenic'!). In her interview with the Guardian, Catton says the following:

"I have observed that male writers tend to get asked what they think and women what they feel," she says. "In my experience, and that of a lot of other women writers, all of the questions coming at them from interviewers tend to be about how lucky they are to be where they are – about luck and identity and how the idea struck them. The interviews much more seldom engage with the woman as a serious thinker, a philosopher, as a person with preoccupations that are going to sustain them for their lifetime." http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/16/eleanor-catton-male-writers-female-luminaries-booker-2013

I find it hard to disagree with her, based on my own experience. Editors like 'personal' information, and I'm lucky with author interviews that they're less focused on the personal than some others kinds of interviews. But it's still demanded and we journalists still have to provide some of it. And yet, time and again at literary festivals and author events, audience members ask about technique, what influences the author had, how they write. Nobody ever asks about their love lives, or where they got their outfits from. So why mention it in an interview, when it's not what readers want to know? Does it really enhance our understanding of who they are and what they do?

The other crucial point about the Times article is, of course, the pitting of one kind of women writer against the other. The 'literary' against the 'popular', the 'serious' against the 'comic', the 'photogenic' against the what? 'Less photogenic'? Many years ago I also tried to pitch a feature about older women writers, featuring among others, the wonderful writer Agnes Owens. It was a tough sell. At that time, 'youth' was all, and pitted against 'age'. One other editor, when I suggested a review of Jane Smiley's latest novel, took a look at her author photo and made a face. Yet nobody worries about Salman Rushdie's looks.

The long-held complaint made by women is that male writers are never plagued with such dichotomies. Nobody cares what they look like, how old they are, whether they're serious or commercial. They're simply not assessed in the same way. But women are seen in these time-honoured 'madonna/whore' splits all the time, both personally and in terms of their work. It's little wonder that publishers are so nervous of cross-over literary formats when the media world has trouble enough dealing with socially-constructed divisions.

What has interested me about Catton's win isn't so much her age and gender (although I am pleased to see a young woman winning, just for the wonderful example she can set other young women writers who may be doubting themselves and their ambitions - we're a long way from Robert Southey telling a young Charlotte Bronte to stop her writing, but as Catton says in her interview, it was largely older male reviewers who didn't like her book and seemed to think she had a cheek even writing it), but that another historical novel has won the Booker. Historical fiction at the moment is crossing all sorts of boundaries, getting messed up in fan fiction, crime fiction, literary fiction, all the genres. It's proving ever-fruitful, this cross-over business, where traditional lines are blurred and you get the sense that this form could go anywhere. I was worried for a time, after the 'death' of postmodern histroical novels, when we'd all had enough, it seemed, of parallel present/past narratives, when The French Lieutenant's Woman could no longer surprise us and Gabriel Garcia Marquez had exposed the unreliability of historical sources. Were we just going to go back to 'solid' history, as though postmodernism never happened?

But I needn't have worried - and it's women writers like Hilary Mantel and Eleanor Catton who have shown the versatility of the new form. Women will probably always be scrutinised for their looks, and always be commented upon for them. But as long as they keep winning the prizes, and challenging existing formats, that's what really counts. One day, hopefully, the media will catch on.          

Monday, 5 August 2013

The literary 'mean girls' we're not supposed to like but do...

After last week's blog post on 'black-hearted heroes and why women fall for them', I thought I'd take a look at the women we're not supposed to like. I was thinking also of Claire Messud's recent interview with Publisher's Weekly: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/interviews/article/56848-an-unseemly-emotion-pw-talks-with-claire-messud.html. She was asked about the 'unlikeability' of the main character of her most recent book, The Woman Upstairs, and pretty much exploded over the idea that we should be 'friends' with the women characters we read.


Which made me wonder about those women we're meant to dislike but perhaps, deep down, have sneaking admiration for. we wouldn't want to be their friends necessarily, but we admire their verve, their daring. Perhaps we feel sympathy for their frustration that makes them act badly. First up was that Machiavellian manipulator Choderlos de Laclos' Marquise de Merteuil from Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Glenn Close did a good job of her in the film - she came across as pretty irrevocably evil. But it also kept some insights into her state of mind: a frustrated, clever woman, ignored by her husband and unable to have a career, channel her intelligence into something meaningful, who in another time might have been a force for something better.


Number two is Sandy from Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Yes, she does betray her teacher but only because she sees right through her. Her speech on the death of Mary Morrison is superb, and whilst she might also be petty, spiteful and full of bile, she's smart and she hates lies. For the same reason, I quite like Mary Crawfurd from Austen's Mansfield Park. Mary's exposed as lacking the morality that anchors Fanny - she's like an amoral Elizabeth Bennet, what Elizabeth might have become in another universe. But she has great life about her, she wants to have power. She's another woman held back by not being able to invest her energies in a career.

The lack of a career is maybe why most of these 'mean girls' hail from an earlier time, a century when women were still struggling for the vote, the right to have a job, the right to own their own home. Did the social and political conditions make them the creatures they became? I wouldn't want to be friends with Max de winter's first wife, Rebecca, but she's quite a life force, especially compared with the nervousness and insecurity of 'The Girl' of du Maurier's eponymous novel. Rebecca, forever having dalliances and wicked parties, might just have been happier with a bit of focus!

And don't get me started on Miss Havisham. Oh, the wicked old besom who ruins Estella and Pip's love in Great Expectations just because she was jilted at the altar! It's hard to like her - like all the women in this post, she's dangerous and out to ruin other women's lives if she possibly can. But that danger comes from a more troubled place that perhaps deserves our sympathy. Besides, there's something slightly delicious about watching the ever upright and saintly Pip being manipulated.

 
Being pitched opposite a too-good-to-be-true figure helps these mean girls - we 're less likely to loathe them unequivocably if the hero/heroine is just too perfect. We like a bit of a flaw in our characters; we like a bit of badness to offset the good. Ford Madox Ford understood this best, I think, when he cast the cheating Sylvia Tetjiens opposite his saintly Christopher in Parade's End. Sylvia is vile in lots of respects, and the poor soul gets pitted against the lovely young Valentina Bold just to sink her even further. But she's a highly intelligent woman who feels trapped and doesn't know how to turn that frustration into something better. We recognise that, I think, and still have sympathy for her. Ultimately, we don't have to like the mean girls, but they serve a purpose and I'd be sorry to see them disappear from our fiction.


Friday, 2 August 2013

Black-hearted heroes and why women fall for them



Yes, literature is full of them, isn't it - those black-hearted men, those anti-heroes that female characters and women readers find irresistible. They don't have to be murderers like my own personal teenage favourite, Maxim de Winter in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca.





And they don't have to be sadists like Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, or control freaks with a dark secret, like Rochester in Jane Eyre - what did those Bronte sisters think of men, really, one always wonders. They can just be cold and sneering like Darcy in Pride and Prejudice (and incidentally, Laurence Olivier played three of these four roles in his lifetime, making him pretty much the go-to guy for smouldering sadism). They can even be comically nasty like Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of....and there we are, raiding bookshops by the crowd, screaming with lust for them all.

It's amazing that that's all they need to be to have women swooning over them. A touch of the unapproachable; a reinforced shell that can never be penetrated. With a hint of nastiness - hanging a pet dog, for instance (which for me would out-do anything the feeble Christian Grey could come up with). What they also have in common, though, and this is crucial, is a lack of an interior life. We know these men only through the women cast opposite them. It's the girl in Rebecca who depicts Max for us; we see Heathcliff as he appears to others (we don't even know what kind of life he had as a child before the Earnshaws took him into their home, although countless stories have speculated on it). Rochester is viewed only ever through Jane's eyes, and the same goes for Darcy with Elizabeth Bennett. The staple rule for a romance hero is that his inner life must never be revealed. You might suggest an inner life at the absolute most, but you better not reveal it.

Why should this formula work so well? Angel Clare in Tess of the d'Urbervilles has an inner life - most of Hardy's 'heroes' have them. And guess what - we don't rate Angel as a hero at all, he's judged scarcely better in the end than the rapist Alec d'Urberville. Women readers don't swoon over Swann in Proust, and they don't cry out for Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment either. Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome doesn't provoke sighs of desire, and neither does David Copperfield. What they all keeping us from them is an inner life, of course - we get to see what they're thinking, how they're feeling. It's not a question of seeing their vulnerabilities - Heathcliff has those by the bucket-load, and so does Rochester. It's more a matter of being inside their heads. Access to the inner life, it would seem, thoroughly spoils romance.

Which is quite a problem for an author if he or she wants to depict a male character who isn't one-dimensionally good or bad, but who wants the reader to connect, possibly even romantically but certainly emotionally, with that individual. Modernism didn't help us much - nobody wants to 'be' Leopold Bloom, far less connect with him romantically; maybe Mellors in Lady Chatterley's Lover had a chance but then, we don't get inside his head for him to be the fully three-dimensional character we need him to be. And when it does come to three-dimensional - well, Tetjiens in Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End fits the latter bill certainly. But though we might feel sympathy for him, even frustration at times, as a romantic hero, he falls far short. we just see too much inside his head. Contemporary 'heroes' are even worse - we're forever inside their heads and what we see there is usually pretty undesirable.


So is desire at an end with the contemporary literary 'hero'/'anti-hero', relegated only to one-dimensional romances or historical novels that can gaze back at a glamorous and more unknowable past?   I was pondering this because I faced the dilemma with my own male lead in Unfashioned Creatures. Alexander Balfour wants to make his name in the new 'science' of psychiatry but he's from a troubled background himself. He's selfish and manipulative, he lies and he corrupts people, especially women. So far so good in the 'black-hearted hero' stakes. But I wanted him to be someone that readers could emotionally connect with, and whose inner life they had access to as well - is such a thing possible? I've been racking my brains trying to find a 'hero' in literature who might appeal to me, for all his evil ways, and whose inner life I feel I know. It's not easy to find, and it's even harder to create - the two impulses war against each other. the best I could do was to make my highly fallible anti-hero a hero on two occasions, when he rescues one young girl from a fire she has set herself (thank you, Jane Eyre), and my heroine from the clutches of another man. Balfour is highly flawed but he is capable of moments of heroism - will that be enough to make readers care about him?

I don't know. I do know that as I've gotten older, the need for a 'hero' in my reading has lessened, and the desire for a sympathetic figure whose inner life I have access to has increased. But sometimes, I do occasionally miss those inaccessible brutes who were capable, nevertheless, of making us love them, however misguidedly.