Romantic fiction: too much added sugar?

a passionate sisterhood

By Shirley Wright

My romantic streak has received a series of blows to the head recently. Last month I read A Passionate Sisterhood (Virago) by biographer and friend Kathleen Jones, and now I have to re-evaluate my life-long passion for poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge because they were, essentially, male chauvinist pigs. It’s a great book, brilliantly written and painstakingly researched, but it’s left me feeling slightly bereft, as though I’ve lost old friends. Their poetry is still as amazingly beautiful and mind-blowing as ever, but the way they treated their wives, sisters, daughters just isn’t. In depressing detail, the author lays bare the extent to which these women, meek, self-effacing and downtrodden, simply put up with a lifetime of unremitting abuse. Because that was their place, as pretty adjuncts to men.

Then last week I read Celia Brayfield’s angry article “Dark Matter” which appears in the current issue of Mslexia. As far as she’s concerned, in the literary universe, not much has changed. With a few notable exceptions, what the vast majority of women still write about and want to read about is other women in essentially submissive, stereotypical roles, leading inoffensive little lives that are “all tinkly tea-cups and nice chats with the village postmistress” instead of fighting back and running with the wolves.

According to Brayfield, the rhyme “Sugar and spice and all things nice, that’s what little girls are made of” has been attributed to Robert Southey, another ‘romantic’ poet, who once wrote to Charlotte Bronte (after she’d sought his approval and endorsement) that “women had no business writing because it would distract them from their domestic duties.” And we know the story of why George Elliot took a man’s name.

Back in the seventeenth century, Charles Perrault collected wild European folk tales and sanitised them into fairy stories. We gained happy-ever-after endings, and a “heroine” who was almost exclusively in the kitchen about her domestic duties. Cleaning, cooking, a saccharine romance! Move forward four centuries, and the winner of the 2013 Romantic Novel of the Year award is entitled “Rosie Hopkin’s Sweet Shop of Dreams”, beating the similar genre-sugary “How to Eat a Cupcake.” Yes, truth really is stranger than fiction.

So, what should we conclude? What should we do?

Well, perhaps if we genuinely consider ourselves to be “writers unchained” it’s time to throw off the shackles and wind in there. Write honestly. Aim a few punches at the patriarchy.

Shirley WrightShirley’s poetry collection The Last Green Field was published in September 2013.

View all Shirley’s books in the Bookshop 

A View from the Far Side of NaNoWriMo

Sally post-nanoLast month Sally Hare was anticipating having another bash at Nanowrimo. We’re glad to see she lived to tell the tale. Well done Sally!  

It’s been two weeks since the end of National Novel Writing Month; the aches in my arms have just about been Zumba-ed away and my eyes no longer look like last week’s party balloons. (Sally are you sure about that?) 

I’m happy to say that I did manage to write 50,000 words, passing the finish line on 27th November. (WOOP!) Despite my assertions earlier in the challenge that I’d keep going until the end of the month regardless, I stopped at a mighty 50,001 (the NaNo website obviously has a kinder word-check: it awarded me 50,069). The cava was promptly cracked.

It’s been an ‘interesting journey’, to say the least. I have slaughtered and merged characters, christened the novel after someone I subsequently abandoned by the kerbside in week three, renamed just about everyone, and realised that one of the three stories I was telling had no place in the narrative at all (but invented a whole new one in a bit of an eureka moment). Keeping up the demanding pace left no time to edit; I had to roll with the ongoing twists and turns of the plot and just keep writing through exasperation, despair and occasional elation.

So, what am I left with? Well, re-reading Louise’s post about ‘tending plots both literary and green’, I would have to say a steaming great pile of manure. However, I’m hopeful that it might, just perhaps, turn out to be the kind of fertile compost from which delicious rhubarb will sprout.

Yes, it turns out there was only one storyline which had anything like its own momentum, one appeared out of nowhere but I have no idea how to put meat on its bones, and one is so boring even I didn’t want to write it.

nanowrimo winnerBut … these are problems to work on. Rather than wandering around trying to come up with a ‘big idea’, I have loads of little ideas to ponder when doing the shopping, digging the allotment, writing more sensible things. At the moment I’m letting it all rot down a bit in my mind (and bulk-buying boxed toiletries and novelty jumpers), but come the New Year I’ll get my literary wellies back on and get grappling. Was it worthwhile? I’ll tell you when I see what’s grown in the spring  … 😉

Writing a novel: beware abnormal load

From Ali Bacon

The Last Big Thing
The Last Big Thing

On three separate weekends this year, an ‘abnormal load’ (well three of them, to be precise) passed through the outskirts of Bristol, resulting in road closures and general traffic mayhem. Not only that but a significant numberof people left their homes and walked to the nearest vantage point just so see the Big Thing  for themselves as it rumbled through at a bone-crunching 7 mph.

I suppose in a world where most things are getting ever smaller, something that’s famous for its sheer size is worth a look. When I inadvertently crossed the path of the last of these mega-loads, I jumped out of my car to  record the moment for posterity.

I find the problems of writing a novel are mostly to do with size. Short stories are about eking out a moment to show it in its most shining truth. It would be great to say that a novel will have the same effect, but the scale of the things makes the process quite different. The thing is, a novel is not, compared to a short story, just longer, but much more complex. In fact if you take into account the characters and their plots and subplots, a novel is many stories twisted together to create a satisfying whole. If it works, it’s only at the end that the reader  thinks ‘Yes! That was the real story.   This is true even in a novel that focuses on – and might be told by – just one person throughout. There are still distinctive plot strands in terms of what’s happening here, there, with him, or with her.Bringing this off is a bit like fighting with a many-headed beast or steering a pantechnicon through narrow roads – will it fit, will it crash, will it just come to a halt? Right now I’m happy to take it very slowly, trying to stop and go at the right time, taking pit-stops and doing some road-mending as I go. If I can get it to its destination, that will be the time for spit and polish.

When I actually saw the Big Thing, I admit I was underwhelmed – so is this what all the fuss has been about? If you look at the amount of the WIP I have written so far, you might feel the same. You’ll have to take my word for it – like the Tardis, it’s bigger on the inside.

A Kettle of Fish coverIf anyone is in Clifton tonight, there’s a new event called Novel Nights at The Lansdown pub starting at 7.30 pm. Ali and Jean  will both be there  reading the opening pages of their novels.

Tickets still available at £3 each if you’re quick!