While reading an article in the Irish Independent on romance novels, a quotation from author Kate Kerrigan caught my eye:
‘The people who are reading romance are not like the people who are reading the Booker shortlist. They are voracious readers and they are getting through a volume of books.’
It’s commonly known that romance is the biggest genre, of course, with the most sales, but have you ever considered that the size of the readership is not simply down to the fact that a lot of readers read romance, but also because romance readers read a lot (if you follow my logic)?
How many romance books do you read each year, as opposed to books in other genres? How many books does a romance reader read as opposed to a reader with other tastes?
‘They are voracious readers and they are getting through a volume of books.’ What is it about romance that makes readers read and read in the genre? Do romance readers tear through books more quickly than other readers? Do they dedicate more hours to reading – and if so, why? Does Netflix-style ‘binge reading’ come into play (see this article in the Times Literary Supplement: ‘Netflix, heir to Dickens?’).
This would make for a very interesting research study, don’t you think?
It strikes me that no question of quantity can be asked without also considering quality. There are romance authors (and, indeed, publishers) who are aware of the power of quantity and who consequently churn out fiction. Often, these are books that have been written quickly. They may be short. They may be lacking in complexity and depth. They are offering quick ‘fixes’, as some readers term it, to a romance addiction.
I am signed to a wonderful publisher, London Wall, that supports my way of writing and publishing. I don’t churn out books; I don’t write quickly, with the aim of producing something that’s merely acceptable rather than the very best I can write. I tend to take a whole year to create a book, from idea and research through writing and editing. I labour over that book; I care about it deeply. I always endeavour to write something meaningful, which will transport my readers into the story world. I want to create books that are ‘keepers’, to remain on the shelf and be re-read someday. In short, quality is very important to me – more so than quantity.
When a romance reader chooses to read one of my novels, I know that it is just one of many books they will read this year. But I hope that with my book they won’t feel it’s a quick read, a story to race through before moving on to the next one. I hope that my book offers the reader a chance to slow down, breathe and relax, as they enjoy a journey to an exotic location infused with passion, beauty and truth.
A new ‘Hannah Fielding’ novel may be more of an annual, rather than quarterly, event, but it is one I look forward to immensely, knowing that the new novel is a work of which I am proud. In case you are wondering, a new book, entitled Aphrodite’s Tears, is in the pipeline, and I’m very happy with how it is looking. As soon as I have a publication date fixed, I will share the news on my blog.
Back in the nineteenth century, readers – men and women alike – began to discover and enjoy fiction by new novelists Currer Bell, Ellis Bell, Acton Bell and George Eliot. Male writers, you may well have assumed, but in fact these were the pen names of the Brontë sisters and Mary Ann Evans, so chosen to ensure they were taken seriously in the male-dominated field of literature.
Fast-forward to more recent times, and readers are confronted by covers on which the author’s name is deliberately gender-ambiguous. JK Rowling, of course, is the obvious example (but it’s notable that when she moved into writing crime thrillers, she stepped back in time some two hundred years and, like the Brontës and Evans, adopted a male nom de plume, Robert Galbraith).
It is not only female writers, though, who are opting for gender-ambiguous pen names. The Wall Street Journal recently published an article entitled ‘These Male Authors Don’t Mind if You Think They’re Women’. The article profiles male authors whose books have sold well under an ambiguous pseudonym. SJ Watson, for example, author of Before I Go to Sleep, is in fact Steve Watson, though his book is written from the first-person female perspective. His was one of the stand-out thrillers that launched the ‘Girl Who’ genre currently in vogue that is aimed at female readers.
In my genre, romance, male writers are under even more pressure to hide their gender. A 2014 Goodreads survey found that women read women; 80 per cent of a new female author’s audience is likely to be female. And yet women can also make the choice to be ambiguous; take EL James and JR Ward, for example.
Issues can emerge with using pen names to occlude gender, relating to discomfort in either the reader or the writer over lack of transparency and honesty. From the author’s point of view, it is one thing to choose to put a name on a book cover, but another to actually pretend to be that fictional person – to have Twitter conversations with readers under that name, for example. From the reader’s perspective, discovering that an author whose book they have enjoyed is not the gender they had assumed can be disconcerting. It can even feel like a betrayal – ‘It leads me to be suspicious of the writer,’ said one reader. ‘I just feel a little bit lied to.’
Book marketers insist gender-ambiguous pen names can make a difference. (Would JK Rowling have achieved her stratospheric success as Joanne? We can never know.) But clearly there is a down side to taking this marketing angle.
I am left wondering: should there even be a reason, in the twenty-first century, to consider concealing one’s gender? Should readers judge a fictional (or non-fictional) work based on the gender of its author?
In her 1847 book Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë wrote: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” Her heroine’s words, and perhaps her own longing – for she was not free then to write as herself; she had published as Currer Bell. All these years later, one has to ask: should writers today be free to write as themselves?
She’s the one: Five reasons I write in the third person
‘I had not intended to love him; the reader knows I had wrought hard to extirpate from my soul the germs of love there detected; and now, at the first renewed view of him, they spontaneously revived, great and strong! He made me love him without looking at me.’
So declares Jane Eyre in the eponymous novel by Charlotte Brontë. It is my favourite work of English literature, and in my teenage years, when I first began reading literature, it was one of the books that inspired me to want to be a novelist myself someday.
Yet, there is one aspect of Jane Eyre with which I never connected well: the first-person narration: ‘I had not intended… I had wrought… He made me love’. When I came to read French literature at university, I found I was entirely more comfortable reading novels like Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, in which Emma’s story is narrated in the third person.
I was stirred to consider this preference by a recent article in the Times Literary Supplement entitled ‘A brief history of the first person’ (http://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/brief-history-first-person/). The author charts her personal journey from writing only in the first person, because the alternative felt ‘remote, false, a performance’, to struggling to so much as read a book written in the first person, let alone write in it. Interestingly, she describes the turning point as being when she became a mother and began telling stories to her child.
All of the books I have written are in the third person: I write ‘She entered the room’, not ‘I entered the room’. Here are the reasons I believe third-person narration works for my romance fiction:
1. I draw on a heritage of oral storytelling.
The third-person narrative is as old as time. Imagine ancestors at the fireside telling stories – fairy tales like Cinderella, Aladdin; the storyteller told the story in the third person. As a result, there is an intrinsic sense of comfort in being told (or reading) a story in which the narrator is not a part of the story.
As a little girl, I lived for story time, and for me that meant listening to stories. My governess would challenge me to come up with my own stories, and I did: so my first steps into storytelling were in the third person, and when I write now, it feels right and natural to tell a story in that way.
2. I like to explore multiple perspectives.
The first-person narrative allows the reader to get very close to the protagonist, to see the fictional world through her eyes. There is a limitation, however: the reader can only see through the heroine’s eyes.
In my fiction, I like to move occasionally into the hero’s point of view. It is important to me that he have a voice, a perspective on the story – and it allows the reader to see the heroine from another angle. Using an omniscient (all-seeing) narrator allows me to move about as I wish.
3. I want to have a bird’s eye view.
Readers of my fiction know that settings are very important in my novels. I like to set a scene and really transport my reader there. A heroine can’t achieve that; I need a narrator who knows all about the scene and can stand back and describe it.
4. My heroines are not extensions of myself.
When a writer writes ‘I’, the reader can quite naturally infer that ‘I’ means ‘I’! That is to say, if I write ‘I’ for my heroine, the reader assumes there is something (a lot, even) of myself, the writer, in that heroine; she is more personal.
In addition, over time heroines could blend together. To date, I have published five novels, each with a different heroine. I think had I written each of these books in the first person, it would have been harder to differentiate between the heroines. A reader working through all my novels may start to wonder, ‘Who is this “I”?’
5. A little emotional distance allows for breathing space.
I write epic, romantic fiction in which characters go on emotional journeys. Were I to write in the first person, I think my fiction could become claustrophobic; my reader could get quite overwhelmed by the strong emotions of the heroine. The third-person narration allows me to create just a little breathing space. Having said that, you may still need a fan to hand for the passionate scenes!
‘Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.’ So wrote satirist P. J. O’Rourke.
Of course, he was joking. We should read whatever we want to read! But I think this quotation touches on a very real discomfort in readers over being judged for reading choices.
Recently, reports have emerged of a new practice at airport security in the US. The Bookseller in the UK reported: ‘Security staff in US airports have reportedly been demanding passengers clear all the reading material out of their hand luggage into a separate bin during safety searches so that staff can search for items made of paper.’
The argument for the practice – which will likely be rolled out across all US airports – is understandable. Carry-on bags are often full of items, and analysts at X-ray machines can struggle to see past books. But passengers have not taken kindly to having to throw their books into a bin and then watch as security officials leaf through the pages.
The American Civil Liberties Union has publicly raised concerns, outlining the ‘long history of special legal protection for the privacy of one’s reading habits in the United States’ (full details are at https://www.aclu.org/blog/free-future/new-tsa-policy-may-lead-increased-scrutiny-reading-material).
Reading privacy isn’t a new issue. Since the rise of e-readers, for example, concerned readers have been questioning how much data is being collected on reading choices and habits. The Electronic Frontier Foundation reported on this back in 2012 in ‘Who’s Tracking Your Reading Habits? An E-Book Buyer’s Guide to Privacy’. Their conclusion: ‘reading e-books means giving up more privacy than browsing through a physical bookstore or library, or reading a paper book in your own home’.
In whatever area this issue crops up, one thing is clear: readers do not like to have their privacy invaded.
What are you reading? It’s a common enough question. But are you always happy to answer that question honestly? Let me put it another way: can a reader always be confident in any situation that he or she will not be judged for what he or she is reading?
Take the 50 Shades series of books when they were at the height of their popularity. On London trains at rush hour, how many people were reading these ‘The Next Big Thing’ books? Plenty, I am sure. Some were holding up paperbacks, happy to let other commuters see what they were reading. Others, though, weren’t prepared to read erotica in public, and so they read on an e-reader – quietly, privately.
It is easy to say, ‘We should read what we want, when we want, and be “out and proud” about our choices.’ But life isn’t so black and white. Whether we like it or not, judgements are made. (At the airport, just imagine the reaction at Security when it emerges a traveller is reading a thriller about terrorism.)
Novelist Siri Hustvedt wrote, ‘Reading is a private pursuit; one that takes place behind closed doors.’ I agree that it is a reader’s right to read in this way. By all means, readers may choose to share books they have read and discuss them publicly. But a reader is entirely free to read without an audience.
Ultimately, I think a reader should never be compelled to answer that intrusive question: What are you reading?
I love books. I love to browse books, choose books, purchase books, collect books – and, of course, read books!
If, like me, you are a bibliophile, you will know well the happiness a book can bring: finding a hidden treasure in a second-hand bookstore, eagerly buying your favourite author’s new novel on publication day, simply holding a book in your hands and using it as a magic portal into a story world. For me, though, the greatest happiness of all is not to be found in holding a book in my own hands, but in passing one to another.
Giving books, quite simply, is a beautiful act. Soul-stirring. Life-affirming. Joy-creating.
Many people, myself included, enjoy choosing books to give as presents for friends and loved ones for occasions like birthdays and Christmas. A book is a thoughtful gift, after all, and choosing the right one means the giver has the perfect excuse to spend an hour (or more!) in a bookstore.
But increasingly book-lovers are going a step further, and finding ever more fun and creative ways to gift books.
What’s the best gift of all? A surprise gift. Imagine walking through a park on a sunny summer’s day, when your eye catches something colourful amid the green leaves of a tree. You go up on tiptoes to investigate and discover a book – a novel, wrapped up in green ribbon. Intrigued, you reach up and take down the book. On the cover you see a little sticker on which is a picture of a book with wings and, beneath, a gentle instruction: ‘Take this book, read it, and leave it for the next person to enjoy.’ You’ve just received a gift from a Book Fairy.
The Book Fairies (http://ibelieveinbookfairies.com/) are a group of book-lovers all over the world who leave books for people to find. Currently, there are 5,000 people sharing copies across 100 countries. Anyone can be a book fairy; all you do is pop on an instruction sticker (available inexpensively and in various languages from the Book Fairies website) and then leave the book someplace it will be discovered. Many Book Fairies post Instagram pictures of their gifts in situ, as a clue.
The Book Fairies grew out of Books on the Underground (http://booksontheunderground.co.uk/), which works in the same way: each week, around 150 free books are left on the London Underground system, in stations and on trains, for travellers to enjoy. (New York has its own version, Books on the Subway: https://www.booksonthesubway.com/.)
A key part of the concept is that whoever receives a free book eventually passes this book on to another reader, so theoretically these free books should remain in constant circulation, turning public spaces into libraries. The exchange principle draws on the ever-popular Little Free Libraries scheme (https://littlefreelibrary.org/), which originated in the US, in which readers are able to access micro-libraries in all sorts of places, donating a book in exchange for taking one.
What all of these programmes have in common is that they are run by volunteers, simply for the love of books. They want to promote reading and to widen access to books, especially important books; last week, for example, actress Emma Watson donned her Book Fairy hat and hid 100 copies of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in Paris.
Most of all, though, book givers want to bring a ray of sunshine to a fellow reader’s day. Giving a book – even to a stranger you will never meet – has a fabulous feel-good factor, because of the goodwill behind the gesture. As the Roman philosopher Seneca wrote: ‘A gift consists not in what is done or given, but in the intention of the giver or doer.’