Wednesday, 14 January 2015

When the midlist is where you want to be

I was inspired to write this piece after being alerted by literary blogger Isabel Costello to this article on the Guardian's website on Monday:

The writer argues that midlist authors are being sidelined (ah yes - what's new?), and that's often where the interesting stuff happens. Big publishers are favouring the kind of titles that promise big branding, focusing on pushing one or two writers at the expense of the rest, because those one or two writers can really bring in the big bucks, if TV and film tie-ins are part of the package.

So far, so not-new. But the article ended on a note of hope for all struggling writers out there: "Those people with half-finished manuscripts in their drawers might take heart from the story of Nathan Filer, the mental health nurse who this week won a Costa award for his first novel. He had 11 publishers vying for the rights to publish The Shock of the Fall. The search for the new is not over yet."

Nathan Filer has become huge since winning the Costa - no midlist ignominy for him, he's set to become a 'brand' like Mantel, Rowling et al, the article suggests. In other words. the piece ends by arguing against itself - telling us the midlist is the interesting place to be, but that what you really want is headline-grabbing success.

Well - and my publishers may not like this! - I don't want that. I like the midlist. I like being there. I get published, I get reviewed, I get to speak at book festivals, I get to meet readers, and I even get (once!) shortlisted for a big prize. I don't earn enough to pay the bills from it because midlist writers don't attract those kinds of fees, but that also gives me the freedom to write exactly what I want. I don't have to worry that I'm not being commercial enough - I don't have to do things I don't want to do.

There's another aspect that's often overlooked. When my book, Between the Sheets first came out, it was published in the States first, in February 2010. Reviews started appearing, and continued right up until the end of August that year. It was hugely flattering and often exciting to get that kind of attention. It was also anxiety-inducing.

Since the death of my Dad almost eight years ago, I've suffered from mild anxiety attacks. They don't stop me performing my work, which I love doing anyway. But I think they'd increase and get worse if I did get the kind of attention that the real headliners get. Do I want the Mail launching a crusade against me, as they have done Hilary Mantel? Do I want to be in such demand at festivals that I don't get another word written for years? Yann Martel said that winning the Booker stopped him writing for 12 months, he was having to do so much other stuff.

Of course I'd love to win a major prize. Of course I'd love never to have to worry about money again. Of course 'd love to have publicists running around after me, booking the best hotels and restaurants to keep me happy. But I'm not sure I want all the other stuff that goes with it. the 'midlist' suits me, my writing, and my personality. Maybe that makes me unadventurous, too cautious about my life. But not, I hope, about my writing.  

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

On reviewing self-published work

As a writer who makes the bulk of her living reviewing for newspapers, I'm beginning to wonder if I should change my attitude to this question, or if I'm still on the right track about it.
Up until now, I have believed very strongly that only the traditionally published should be reviewed in newspapers and journals. As a traditionally published author, you've been assessed, contracted, edited and copy-edited to produce the best version of your book that you can, and the least you deserve is to be taken seriously and reviewed seriously, whether that means with a positive or negative outcome.
That's if you can make it on to the increasingly smaller books sections in newspapers and magazines in the first place, of course.
But a few months ago I reviewed Black Thorn by Aimee Chalmers for The Herald, a self-published novel about the poet Marion Angus. I was hugely impressed by it. It's intelligent and experimental, written partly in Scots, and beautifully so. Should it have been excluded by the traditional books pages because it hadn't been through the same process as other non-selfpublished titles? Surely inclusion should only be about literary merit, not about who publishes it?

But that still didn't quite change my mind. What has challenged me more is something else entirely. Like many traditionally published writers, I also work occasionally for literary advice companies reading unpublished manuscripts sent in for assessment. I've always felt it hugely important to be as honest as possible, especially as the fees for these services can be high. I would never tell someone to give up writing, no matter how bad a job they might have done - it's not my place to do that. But I have always been clear about where and how much more work was needed. That's partly because when I was first setting out on my own 'adventure' in fiction, I got stuck and sent 50 pages off for advice.
The advice I got in reply was correct (I was being too ambitious) but so gently given that I could easily delude myself, and I subsequently spent a very long time writing a book that wasn't going to make it. You could have published it yourself, I hear you cry. Horrors! That first attempt is thankfully in a drawer and it's never coming out.
I am regularly sent scripts that I think the same way about - there's potential there, but it needs work before going to an agent/traditional publisher - even more so, please don't attempt to self-publish this until it's hugely improved!
Most people take that advice well, some go ballistic.
So would it be right, for reviewers like myself, to assess work that had been self-published before it was really ready, in the same way that we would assess a novel by someone published traditionally, who had been through the rigours of editing?
Some very small publishers operate virtually as printers rather than publishers, with no editorial input at all, including proper copy-editing. It shows, and that can be tricky for a reviewer. Should I cut the writer some slack for a poorly produced book that's been printed up badly? Or treat it exactly the same way I would a book from Granta, Faber, Cape etc?
And would self-published authors even want me to review their books? 'Self-published' is an enormous category - it includes those who sell massively and those who sell only to friends and family; those who have been traditionally published and have found themselves on the rejection end of things because of a poor sales record but who have a decent following nonetheless; those who cannot write and will never be able to write but are convinced they're geniuses and it's only the metropolitan elite that's keeping them from Booker prize-winning glory.
Some of these books will be brilliant and some of these will be terrible - much like traditional publishing in fact. If the books pages in newspapers were expanding instead of shrinking, I'd say, possibly it is time to treat self-published books the same as traditionally published ones, and review them the same way. Regardless of whether they're 'ready' or not. But would that be fair?    

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Is the 'high concept' destroying voice?

Because bigger publishers are unwilling to take a risk with new kinds of writing (witness the many years it took Eimear McBride to get A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing to publication), 'literary' novelists are having to get used to what commercial writers and film-makers have known for years:  the need to 'make a pitch', to create stories with a 'high concept' (see this article for an example here:

'High concept' stories are stories that are easily marketable, but have to be 'original' or 'unique' without scaring the children - hence the popularity of fan fiction. Fan fiction, like any number of vampire or Jane Austen mash-ups, gives you just enough familiarity to make you comfortable, but also the illusion of originality to make you feel that you're reading something genuinely different.

'High concept' stories are also highly visual, they have a mass market appeal, and spawn the essential 'what if' question that works so well for book groups (see these sites here for examples of all of this: on high concept films have been around for ages but are increasingly relevant for novels ( This Amazon list suggest a top ten of literary novels that have used 'high concepts', which gives you the general idea:

What impact does this emphasis on high-concept have on the story you want to write? As a reviewer, what I've been noticing lately is a concentration on such 'high concepts' in new novels especially, often many of them genuinely fascinating. But I've noticed something else as well, which prompts another kind of question: does the 'high concept' concentration come at the expense of voice?

A few years ago, some critics complained that creative writing courses were ironing out different 'voices' (not different 'stories', to stress). A recent event I did at the Scottish Writers Centre sparked of a conversation with organiser Douglas Thompson about Eudora Welty, a writer I love, and sent me back to her books. Her story collection, The Golden Apples, published in 1949 is all about the voice. Look at the opening to her first story in the collection, 'Shower of Gold':

"That was Miss Snowdie MacLain.
She comes after her butter, won't let me run over with it from just across the road. Her husband walked out of the house one day and left his hat on the banks of the Big Black River - That could have started something, too.
We might have had a little run on doing that in Morgana, if it had been so willed. What King did, the copycats always might do. Well, King MacLain left a new straw hat on the banks of the Big Black and there are people that considered he headed west."

I adore this voice from the first word. The big concept? Well, that would be a missing husband perhaps. But there's no 'what if' question here, no big visuals. Who would publish Welty now? Probably a small publisher. My favourite writers all have strong, identifiable voices: Joyce Carol Oates is a good example, and perhaps the fact that many of her stories seem to be taken from real life newspaper reports is what gets her past the 'high concept' question (plus the fact she began her career before that was mandatory for literary novelists). I'd also put Megan Abbott into this category, too: a superb stylist whose latest novel has a high concept that would make a great movie, The Fever.

I'd also include Lucy Ellmann in any list of contemporary writers with a 'voice', and when I think to the past, I come up with names like Stella Gibbons and Dodie Smith. What voices for terrific dark comedy all three of them have! But are they 'high concept'? Hardly.

Why the 'high concept' should kill off 'voice', or style, isn't necessarily clear. After all, you could argue Robert Louis Stevenson managed to pull off both: another great stylist yet also highly visual, great 'what if' stories. But given how few names I can think up to fit both, I would have to argue that the emphasis on one has led to the detriment, or the lack of effort on behalf of, the other.

Does it matter, though, if high-concept content is triumphing over style? For me personally, it's the voice that hooks me and keeps me, not the concept. Am I in the minority?    

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

No Wealth To Leave Us: Towards a matrilineal heritage in Scottish literature

This is a copy of the talk I gave at Edinburgh Central Library on June 9th, 2014, as part of the 'Harpies, Fechters and Quines' festival organised by Glasgow Women's Library.

The full quote for the title of my talk comes from A Room of One’s Own where an exasperated Virginia Woolf asks, ‘What had our mothers been doing then that they had no wealth to leave us? Powdering their noses? Looking in at shop windows? Flaunting in the sun at Monte Carlo?’ Where is our heritage, she wants to know. Where is the canon of writing by women?

This talk looks at the past, the present and the future of Scottish women’s writing, to ask what’s happened to our heritage? What have our ‘mothers’ been doing?

In the Introduction to A History of Scottish Women’s Literature, edited by Dorothy Macmillan and Douglas Gifford, published in 1997, the editors write: “The relative absence from the official histories of Scottish writing is one thing. Perhaps more alarming and more in need of protest is the regular exclusion of Scottish women from general histories and anthologies of women’s writing...Women writers may often not have looked to ‘mothers or sisters’ but rather to ‘fathers’ and brothers’ as their literary forebears and present supporters...We can claim with some confidence that what has in the past been perceived as the ‘Scottish Tradition in Literature’ has been both male generated and male fixated, particularly on Burns, Scott, Stevenson and MacDiarmid...’
Is this tradition, this ‘Scottish Tradition in Literature’, still the same now as it was?

In an interview in The List magazine two years ago, Irvine Welsh was photographed with two younger male authors, Ewan Morrison and Alan Bissett, whom he considered were carrying on the mantle of his work. It was a generous and supportive gesture of a globally successful Scottish writer towards two much lesser-known writers, of course. But what it also was, was a father-son image, one that surely recalls the litany that Gifford and Macmillan mention: Burns, Scott, Stevenson, MacDiarmid....
Is this tradition, ‘this Scottish Tradition in Literature, still the same now as it was?

At an Event at Wigtown Book Festival in October 2103, I took part in a panel about the future of Scottish literature: the panel chair, Stuart Kelly, cited the example of a female student who wanted one day to be like Louise Welsh. Why Welsh he asked, and not Franz Kafka or James Joyce? He saw her choice as a paucity of ambition . (I saw it instead as the effect of women writers on a new generation of women writers.)
Is this tradition, this ‘Scottish Tradition of Literature’, still the same now as it was?

It looks on the one hand as though, yes, it very much is. Yet the volume, range and quality of writing produced by Scottish women today suggests a massive change has taken place, a much bigger break with the past than ever before. This question inspired me to write a feature about it for the Herald; it was a feature that got a huge number of online hits, and some of its content is reproduced here.

At the time of my article, Kerry Hudson, the Aberdeen-born author of Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma, had just won the Scottish Mortgage and Investment Trust First Book award. Perhaps not so remarkable in itself until you realise she’s the fifth woman to win this prize in the last six years, joining a mix of fiction and non-fiction writers like Sue Peebles, Sarah Gabriel, Andrea McNicoll and Jane McKie. Fellow nominee Jenni Fagan was hailed as one of Granta’s Best Young British Writers last year (and earned a selection for Oprah’s Book club and a New York Times review by Michiko Kakutani). Denise Mina topped it off by winning the Theakstons Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year award for the second year in a row.

It all made me ask: why do so many Scottish women writers seem to be dominating the awards scenes and review pages right now? Is this the beginning of a new ‘matrilineal’ heritage, poised to take over fiction, poetry and non-fiction where a ‘patrilineal’ tradition has left off? Should we even be looking for one? Does it matter?

I began to count up the ‘new’ Scottish woman writers I knew of (‘Scottish’ being those who have made Scotland their home as well as those who were born here). They emerge in all genres, of all types, and most have had a place in awards shortlists. I’m thinking of writers as various as Linda Cracknell, Lisa O’Donnell, Helen Fitzgerald, Kirsten McKenzie, Andrea Gillies, Elizabeth Reeder, Kirsty Logan, winner of last year’s of inaugural Gavin Wallace Fellowship and Eleanor Thom, winner of a Saltire First Book award. But established writers have entered new territory, like Alice Thompson, Karen Campbell, Louise Welsh and Sara Sheridan, or are consolidating their successes, like Kathleen Jamie, Ali Smith, Anne Donovan and Jackie Kay. The great names many of us grew up with, like Liz Lochhead, Janice Galloway and A L Kennedy, who we consider members of the Scottish literary canon now, can surely feel satisfied at the talent coming up behind them.

But would they be tempted to do what Irvine Welsh did? Would women writers even think of doing such a thing, and if not, why not? Welsh’s gesture of ‘anointment’ was a father-son gesture which embraced and emphasised the long-standing patrilineal nature of the Scottish literary tradition that Macmillan and Gifford talk about at the beginning of their book. The Scottish Literature departments at universities are still dominated by studies of Fergusson, Burns, Hogg, Scott and Stevenson. And so it’s a tradition that asks, regarding novels anyway, who will be the successor to Alasdair Gray and write the next Lanark, who will write the next great bench-mark in Scottish fiction? The assumption behind the question is usually that it will be a man, of course.

THE PAST: Mothers and daughters and a lack of solidarity?

But to answer that question more fully, you have to look at the past as well as the present. If you look at women novelists from the eighteenth to the nineteenth centuries for instance, you find women writers focusing almost exclusively on female protagonists. From Elizabeth Hamilton to Jane Porter, as the essays in Gifford and Macmillan show, to Mary Brunton who liked to focus on heroines who had to resist threats to their virtue (much in the vein of Richardson’s Clarissa), but who also liked to emphasise women’s need for a proper education (after Mary Wollstonecraft), to Susan Ferrier’s social satires, women wrote for a number of reasons: to get across a moral message, to entertain and where they actually published, to make money. Henrietta Keddie was one who made her living by her writing under the pseudonym Sarah Tytler, and who began by publishing short stories in Fraser’s Magazine. Her 1884 novel, St Mungo’s City, looks at the lives of three impoverished Glaswegian great-grand-daughters of a tobacco lord, important for the vision she presents of Victorian Glasgow.

By the time we reach Margaret Oliphant, who wrote roughly two books a year over a period of fifty years, usually for money to support her family as a single mother, we see a mix of heroines and heroes. As one essay on her shows, though, within ten years of her death in 1897 at the age of almost seventy, she had been “all but wiped off the record...her name survived for the wrong reasons and in the footnotes to literature.” Virginia Woolf said of her prolificness that she “sold her brain, her very admirable brain, prostituted her culture and enslaved her intellectual liberty in order that she might earn her living and educate her children.” Yet in an age of female novelists, Oliphant cited the influence of Susan Ferrier and Jane Austen on her work, said she was inspired by the example of George Eliot of whom she felt “a little envious...How I have been handicapped in life! Should I have done better if I had been kept, like her, in a mental greenhouse and taken care of...?” 
When we arrive at Violet Jacob, we see a woman writer participating fully in the Scottish literary ‘scene’, and whose work was full of ‘subversive’ women. Rebels and outsiders dominate, like the gypsy girl of ‘Annie Cargill’, and it’s been suggested she influenced the likes of Willa Muir and Marion Angus.

But for too long, we have been too used to hearing about Catherine Carswell’s love of D H Lawrence, about Willa Muir’s support of her husband, Edwin’s career, at the expense of her own. What we need is to hear much more about are the links between the women writers themselves, find a sense that they influenced or inspired one another.
Where to find that, in any large cohesive body?

The scholar Marjery Palmer McCulloch writes in one essay of the new turn-of-the twentieth-century women writers like Nan Shepherd, that “a consistent element has been the friction or lack of solidarity between mothers and daughters. Older women in these narratives are marginalised in a public sense, despite the domestic power they wield...So far as their daughters are concerned, there are no progressive role models, no recognised route to independent adult status as there is for their brothers, who move into the male world of work and power in the footsteps of their fathers. The overwhelming evidence from these novels of the 1920s and that as society organised on patriarchal principles has no means whereby young women can enter into adult hood alongside their brothers as human beings..."

McCulloch notes the lack of support these women have for their daughters, and this is not just a Scottish theme but a theme that dominated literature by women between the world wars from Scotland, England, Ireland and the US. More and more novelists were showing daughters rebelling against their mothers in their fiction. From May Sinclair’s Mary Olivier and The Life and Death of Harriet Freane to Radclyffe Hall’s The Unlit Lamp, to Antonia White’s Frost in May, to Molly Keane’s The Rising Tide and Full House, to Olive Higgins Prouty’s Now Voyager and Edith Wharton’s The Old Maid can be added work by Nan Shepherd, by Muir and Carswell. All of them, some popular, some considered ‘high art’, some banned, some hidden away, are nevertheless exposing the same theme: the unspoken battle between dominating, controlling and even malicious mothers who wanted their daughters to stay at home, and the daughters who wanted to break out and live for and by themselves in the world. These novels show what it means to be a daughter, socially and privately; they expose the status of the daughter at this time, the lack of power she has.

It’s a disturbing but perhaps not surprising thing to realise that such a dominant theme in writing by women can be virtually ignored by authorised histories of writing from the period between the wars. This theme, if it’s recognised at all, is regarded as a woman’s problem, as a domestic one, and therefore unimportant compared to the aftermath of the First World War, the glitter of the Jazz Age or the problems of the Depression. Its dominance would have ensured its place in the history books had male writers taken up the subject. Instead, it was a legion of ‘minor’ or ‘popular’ writers who made this subject their own and it lasted a long time - perhaps we don’t see the writer daughter escape her mother’s house fully until the 1950s and 60s, when Muriel Spark came to represent the epitome of the single working woman, writing and being published and holding her own. And of course, in her most famous work, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in Sandy’s ‘betrayal’ of Jean, we see what is effectively the killing of the mother by the daughter, the moment the battle reaches its pitch. After all, when Virginia Woolf wrote of killing the ‘Angel in the House’, we can be sure that Angel was a mother, and the one who killed her was her daughter.  


By the time we reach the 1980s, of course, things have changed considerably in terms of women’s freedom, but not necessarily in terms of their literary worth. One book dominated the Scottish literary scene in that decade and you might say it’s been dominating it ever since. In 1981, the year of the publication of Lanark, Alasdair Gray himself was ‘anointed’ one might say, by Anthony Burgess, who called him ‘the best Scottish novelist since Walter Scott.’ Scott -of course. Lanark was described as ‘changing the landscape of Scottish fiction’, it was ‘one of the landmarks of 20th Century fiction’. Its experimentation and its surrealism had critics likening Gray to James Joyce and Saul Bellow.

Lanark won the Saltire Book of the Year twelve months later. And yet only a further year on, in 1983, Jessie Kesson, who had been writing and publishing since her debut, The White Bird Passes, in 1958, published her novel, Another Time, Another Place. It’s described by Gifford in the history as “a turning-point in Scottish women’s writing, both thematically and formally”. It’s an ‘impressionistic mosaic’, suggesting a ‘new kind of stream of women’s consciousness-in-community’. Most crucially for the mother-daughter battles of the 20s and 30s through to the 60s, it also implies a reconciliation between women of the past and the present.

I would suggest that had those mother-daughter battles been taken seriously by the literary canon as they should have been, Kesson’s novel would surely have been the ‘breakthrough’ of the decade, because she was the one who reconciled one generation of women to another, and more than that, she did it through literary experimentation and daring. A crucial text in the landscape of 20th Century Scottish Literature, it is indeed a ‘benchmark’, a ‘turning point’ as Giifford says. Yet where are the big names exalting Kesson’s achievement? Where are the likenesses to great Scottish women novelists of days past?

There aren’t any, because there weren’t any great Scottish women novelists of the past, we are told. There are no great female traditions to call on. And yet, if we focus on the mother-daughter trials of the 20s and 30s, we see that there was at least one major tradition, a truly universal one, an international one. The likes of Susan Ferrier, Sarah Tytler and Margaret Oliphant, represent individual success stories, which can be more easily dismissed. They are often regarded as lesser when compared to their English counterparts, for example (Gifford and Macmillan write that “Even where women writers have been admitted to the canon of the academies, in the work of Susan Ferrier or Margaret Oliphant or Marion Angus, these writers have always been seen as ‘minor’, seen not merely as unequal to their male Scottish counterparts but as the junior literary sisters of English women writers such as Jane Austen, George Eliot and the Brontes.”)

It should be a great deal harder to dismiss women writers as ‘minor’ if we have a tradition we can identify and to which we can attach them. A particularly female tradition, one that is biologically linking women as mothers and daughters do, as well as socially and culturally. And so it should be possible to turn this into a kind of matrilineal tradition. Kesson’s 1983 novel ended the mother-daughter battle tradition and began something new. But what was that? It could be argued that for the next generation of women, exemplified by the likes of Liz Lochhead and Janice Galloway, for example, with the latter crediting Philip Hobsbaum’s creative writing courses, and her fellow writers Gray and Kelman for influencing her work, instead of looking to past women writers, that Kesson’s achievement was simply to push woman back into the darkness, back into where they had little impact.

I don’t think that’s true. I would argue that many of us writing today, if prompted, could cite a ‘matrinileal’ heritage quite easily. A few days ago I asked on facebook a number of Scottish women writers who their Scottish female ‘literary’ influences were. Alison Miller cited Galloway, Lochhead, Willa Muir and nan Shepherd. Linda Cracknell also cited Galloway. Katy McNair cited A L Kennedy, Julie Bartagna Muriel Spark and Naomi Mitchison. Caro Ramsay cited Val McDermid, Janet Paisley cited Kathleen Jamie and Violet Jacob. Laura Marney cited Spark, Kathleen Jamie and Agnes Owens. Debut novelist Zoe Venditozzi cited Galloway, Ruth Thomas and Agnes Owens. Shirley Whiteside cited Dorothy Dunnett. Leela Soma cited Muriel Spark. Catherine Czerkawska cited Jane Harris and Margaret Oliphant. Sue Reid Sexton also cited Muriel Spark. Sally Evans cited Jane Duncan and Annie Swan. Recently, too, authors Louise Welsh and Zoe Strachan have both been writing and performing about Muriel Spark together.

Just consider for a minute this list. Thirteen  writers – a tiny sample – cite a huge range. Yes, some of the names are the same – Galloway, Spark and Agnes Owns proving particularly popular. But there’s a mix of both new writers and those from the past, and from crime, to historical, to contemporary, to satire to short story specialists to poets. Just think also for a moment of your own favourite Scottish women writers. Perhaps you might cite the number of what is called ‘Anglo-Scots’, like Alison Fell, Shena Mackay, Candia McWilliam, Sara Maitland, or my own personal favourite Emma Tennant.

My own literary ‘foremothers’ would certainly be Janice Galloway for her historical novel, Clara, and Tennant. I want to take a moment say a little bit about them both, and their ‘influence’ on me. In 1998, I started researching and writing a historical novel about Claire Clairmont, the step-sister of Mary Shelley. I was being ambitious for a first attempt – I really didn’t know what I was doing, or how to handle to huge amount of diaries and letters she left behind, all evidence of her own writing. Then, in 2002, Emma Tennant published her brilliant novel, Felony, about an elderly Claire Clairmont and her young niece Georgina, who narrates most of the story. It did things I wasn’t used to in historical fiction, despite being familiar with the more postmodern attitudes taken up towards it by the likes of John Fowles and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It chopped up narratives, veered between viewpoints and time frames, included wills and diary entries and all sorts of non-fiction texts. It was also – interestingly – very short, at only 189 pages. Historical fiction, then and now, likes a door-stopper.

To me it felt groundbreaking, and it still does. Tennant had been breaking all sorts of rules for years, of course. In 1978 she published The Bad Sister, a feminist take on Hogg’s Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner; eleven years later, in Two Women of London, she ‘rewrote’ or as I prefer to think of it, ‘answered’ Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde with Two Women of London.  What Tennant did was to taken on the canon, directly challenge not just the ‘masters’ of Scottish literature, but also the way they were written, and what was considered, by the canon, to be the ‘right’ way of writing.

All of this had a huge impact on me, as I began to see what could be done, what liberties could be taken. It didn’t mean I then wrote my novel ‘like’ Tennant’s – on the contrary, I gave it up, and wrote something else instead. But her ‘influence’ (or is it ‘inspiration’, as Janet paisley suggested to me she preferred? I think ‘influence’ is stronger, more suggestion of power and power is what we’re talking about here – the power to direct and choose a canon, the power to ‘anoint’ a subsequent generation) stayed with me, in the sense that it pushed me to be bolder than I might have done, take more risks than I wanted to.

Similarly, Galloway’s historical novel about the German composer Clara Schumann, also came out in 2002. It is also bold and experimental, full of switches in tense (Mantel was not the first to write a historical novel in the present tense after all!) and perspective, daring you to turn away from this musical extravaganza where form and content were beautifully matched. Again, I saw what a historical novel could do, and more than that, how it could be done differently (read out page 11). There was no precedent for this kind of writing. I was being taught by two Scottish women writers. No Kelman or Gray for me.

In her book, Women Writers and the Edinburgh Enlightenment, Pam Perkins writes that in the eighteenth-century, “Scottishness came to be a type of shorthand signifying conventionally domestic femininity.” Henry Mackenzie, the author of the hugely popular 1769 novel, The Man of Feeling, which was partly responsible for that ‘conventional domestic femininity’ wrote that “Scots in general, not just women, seemed ‘remarkably deficient’ in a ‘Genius’ for fiction.” Soon, Scott’s success would challenge that view, but before that there was of course Jane Porter, whose 1803 novel Thaddeus of Warsaw is considered one of the earliest examples of the historical fiction genre, earlier than Scott. Her 1810 novel, The Scottish Chiefs, is still popular. But there are no monuments built to her in the centre of Edinburgh, just as there were no accolades of Tennant’s Felony. And no shortlisting of Galloway’s Clara for the 2002 Booker prize, an oversight I still can’t quite believe.


So what does this mean for the future of Scottish women’s writing? If we ‘daughters’ are more reconciled to our ‘mothers’, thanks to Jessie Kesson’s ground-breaking work changing how we saw our heritage, what do we ‘daughters’ of the twenty-first century have to look forward to? How do we take our places in a future canon, if it’s like that past one which has so long and so often been closed to us? We don’t need to ‘kill’ our mothers who are no longer against us. We don’t need to kill our male counterparts, who, as Kennedy and Galloway and Lochhead show, have helped us. Is it simply a case of writing the best books we can and hoping they will be recognised? What is the reality for women writing today?

One of those realities, especially when it comes to taking up a place in the canon, is prizes. It’s a feature of today’s writing and publishing world: all publishers will tell you that prizes make a difference (just think what might have happened had Kesson won the Booker in 1983 instead of J M Coetzee. And interesting to note that Lanark didn’t get anywhere near it either). And that is why, every October, the Scottish literary establishment will ask fretfully: who will be the successor to James Kelman? Who will be the next Scot to win the Booker prize for fiction? The assumption is that it will be a man, of course, because when the question is asked, it’s usually male names that crop up in reply.

The Booker is a hugely important prize – it’s international, it’s now opened up to Americans, and it confers real weight, not to mention real sales and real money, on a writer. The last couple of years have seen women writers of historical fiction win it – Hilary Mantel and Eleanor Catton – suggesting a possible trend. Both women’s books, however, have male characters as their leads. When was the last time a woman won the Booker with a leading woman character?

I would argue that novels about women are still seen as less important, women’s experiences as less crucial, less universal, less broad in scope. Scottish women writers have a double ‘anxiety’ then, you might say, about their viability as prize-winners, especially if they write about women and if they write about Scotland (heaven help them if they do both together). Kelman could put a Scotsman at the centre of his book and be described as ‘authentic’. Galloway, a Scotswoman, put a historical real-life female German composer at the centre of hers, and was ignored. If it’s sexist that women’s experiences aren’t regarded as important as men’s, then it is also sexist to insist that women don’t write ground-breaking novels. And that they don’t, or can’t, ‘anoint’ the next generation.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that this year sees the 25th-anniversary of what Gifford and Macmillan call Scottish women writing’s ‘annus mirabilis’, 1989, which was also the year that Galloway published The Trick is To Keep Breathing. Twenty-five years on, we have a real, huge, wide-ranging, first-class, prize-winning and international-looking body of Scottish women writers to gaze upon, to be cited as future influences or inspirations, to be emulated and passed on in their turn to the next generation. Will they be ignored as the daughters of the 1920s and 30s were?

I don’t think so. I think we will recognise the heritage on offer here. Because doing so recognises women writers’ rightful place at the centre of a culture, and not on its margins. When the next generation of Scottish women writers can cite Lisa O’Donnell or Kirsten McKenzie or Jenni Fagan as the ones who inspired them; when the next generation can look at a magazine cover and see mothers and daughters, not fathers and sons; when a female student can cite a Scottish woman writer as one to emulate, and not be accused of lack of ambition. That’s when we’ll know we’re at that centre; that we own it; that it’s ours as much as anyone else’s.

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!

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 (

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.