Tag Archives: Anne Goodwin

The Best Books for … a lockdown

I am thoroughly fed up with newspapers, booksellers even book tweeters assuming that they know what I want to read during the lockdown. By the time this post appears it will be more than 50 days into the restrictions, and although we may still be finding them hard, we will know more about how we cope than pop psychologists with their routines of resilience. I am dubious about the idea of reading being some kind of antidote to boredom and loneliness.

We are being recommended to read long books, or comfort reads, or books about restrictions and the plague, or books that offer escapism. But we may not want this. What everyone seems to agree on is that readers are reading more, and readers have more time for more reading. But I don’t want to work through a list of long books I’ve been meaning to read forever; I don’t want books to cheer me up; or to match any low mood; or books that pander to a reduced ability to concentrate. 

During the lockdown I have enjoyed a good mixture. So here’s my list of Best Books and I invite you to add your choices too. 

Quiet books

If you haven’t read Stoner by John Williams this might be a good opportunity. The main character leads an unremarkable life, which can be described as an accumulation of failure and disappointment. But it is a life worth reading about. You can read my review here.

Barbara Pym is another writer, but very different, who writes about the small things of life, the quiet people, everyday events. I really enjoyed rereading Excellent Women, and highly recommend it to you. It was the subject of the previous post. And for a book by her in the older women in fiction series you could read Quartet in Autumn.

A thoughtful writer

An early casualty of the cancellation of all my activities was an event in Bristol at which Rebecca Solnit was due to speak. What made it even more frustrating was that this was the second time she had cancelled a visit to Bristol. I’m not taking it personally. But I want to read more from Call them by their True Names by Rebecca Solnit. This was a gift from my daughter at Christmas, being a collection of essays. And in anticipation of that cancelled event I had obtained a copy of her memoir: Recollections of My Non-Existence. I have scheduled a post on this blog on her writing for the near future.

She always provides a wider perspective on events, allowing one to understand the world in which we live in more breadth and depth. You will find several posts featuring her writing (all non-fiction).

Comfort Reading

I don’t usually go in for comfort reading, but there is one book that I have read in the past during times of great personal difficulty. It absorbs my attention and flatters my focus as a reader, for I know the plot so well. I enjoy reading new details, of style, comment, interaction and so forth. It is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. And if the moments of personal difficulty follow too close together I will replace it with Persuasion. Neither novel comforts me because they end well for the heroine, but because they are so well crafted, such a treat for the reader.

Books I started and want to finish now

One book in this category has to be Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, which won the Booker Prize. I started it a few months ago, but it was called back to the library and so now I have my own copy I can continue to read it without the threat of being parted from it. I relished Mr Loverman, partly because it is set in Hackney, a part of London which I know well. And also because the people in that novel were, as it were, known to me. I had lived among them. In addition I attended a day course at the British Museum on which Bernardine Evaristo tutored. It was a good experience. That woman has serious talent.

And another book to finish is RC Sherriff’s A Fortnight in September. This is another book that I read a chapter of and now want to get back to. It regularly receives praise on social media, and I feel I should know it. 

Poetry

I am dipping into various collections and enjoying the work of a range of poets: Kathleen Jamie and Helen Dunmore for example. 

Novels on the theme of pandemic:

Maybe I will try one or more of these:

Lockdown by Peter May 

La Peste by Albert Camus

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

The Stand by Stephen King

But probably not.

And …

I am enjoying listening to Podcasts, for the discussions about books or words. And I’m pleased that Backlisted Podcast is now in production again. These podcasts feature, as the name implies, books that are on publishers’ backlists but still deserve attention. They restarted the series in April with a look at Barbara Pym.

And I continue to read chosen books for the blog, especially the series, my book clubs and because I have them on my shelves. 

Recommended by others

Five Comfort Reads from A Life in Books blog

Lockdown Reading by Anne Goodwin on Inspired Quill

Comfort Reading on the Guardian, chosen by various writers

There are lots of good suggestions there for people who like lists of recommendations.

Best Books for …

This was my third post in an ad hoc series which all begin The best book for …  Some other ideas are … reading in translation; … recommending to book groups; … taking on holiday; … when I am ill in bed; and so on. The first two were: 

The Best Books for … changing my life in December 2019

The Best Books for … giving in January 2020.

Over to you

So what books would you add to a list of the best books for the lockdown?

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Let’s have more older women writers

In 2016 I had been looking at discrimination against female writers for three years on this blog and trying to make older women in particular more visible in fiction. At the time it also made sense to look at the barriers, if there were any, to older women authors. And anyway, Martin Amis, in his provocative way, made the following comment about older female writers: 

You can see them disintegrate before your eyes as they move past 70.

So back then I enlisted the support of another female writer, Anne Goodwin, and asked her to think about possible discrimination against older women writers. Her answers provided the material for a post which I posted on my blog. The comments that followed it are also interesting. You can see all that here: Is there Discrimination against Older Women Writers?

Older woman writing: Literacy in Oaxaca by Pilarportela in 2005 via WikiCommons

Since then …

Some evidence would suggest that some older women are being supported more to get their writing published. Here is some of the evidence together with some questions and answers that I put to Anne:

Anne Goodwin herself has published and self-published more books. She now has four to her name.

  • Sugar and Snails
  • Underneath
  • Becoming Someone
  • Somebody’s Daughter 

Do you think the major publishing groups are still looking mostly for youth in the writers they support? What about the independents?

They’re looking for what will sell, which might be about the book or it might be about the person who wrote it. Naïvely, until I was published I didn’t appreciate just how commercial the whole enterprise is! Independent publishers, more motivated by the love of books than the money, are able to be more flexible, but they still need to put food on the table.

I think if the publisher can build an interesting story about the author it doesn’t matter how old she is: extreme age can be as fascinating as youth, especially if there’s a rags to riches element.

Another factor is that, if they’re thinking long term and investing in the author’s entire career, a younger author might have more years – and perhaps more books – ahead of her. On the other hand, since very few can earn their living through writing, an older author, especially if she has a pension, might be able to commit more time to publicity – and writing the next book.

2019 saw the inauguration of the Paul Torday Prize for writers of fiction who publish their first novel over the age of 60. It was won by Anne Youngson for Meet Me at the Museum. All the semi-finalists in the first year were women. I wrote about the prize and the winner here. Do you have any reactions to this prize? 

I think it’s great, although 60 is starting to feel rather youthful!

Gransnet commissioned some research into older women readers and their preferences in reading. You can find a summary here. https://www.gransnet.com/online-surveys-product-tests/ageism-in-fiction The readers wanted to see characters of all ages and less stereotyping of older women. They were furious that so many older women were portrayed as fumbling with new technology and digital devices. Any thoughts about the evidence that readers want to see characters of all ages? And less stereotyping. 

I had seen this and wondered what to make of a survey that lumps together all women over 40! And Gransnet as an umbrella term feeds into another stereotype. Otherwise, all I can say is “of course”.

The so-called grey pound might be a factor here too. More women have reached 60+, many of them have income to spend on their leisure, including on their reading. They expect to see more older women characters and writers. Do you think this will have an impact on publishing older women writers?

I hope so, although I meet a lot of older women in bookshops who don’t like the sound of my fiction. They either want something cosier or much darker – I can never get my head around the popularity of violent crime. On the other hand, U3A groups have been very supportive.

Here’s what Joanne Harris said recently (reported in Bookseller) about publishers promoting debuts:

Regardless of what it is that they write, as men get older they become veteran writers. As women get older, they get invisible and I think part of this is to do with the fact that women’s writing has always been seen as lesser in one way or another. If a man writes about relationships, he is writing about the universal condition and needs to be praised. If women write about relationships they are writing chick lit and everything they do is slightly diminished because of that. The idea is that women are there to please women, whereas men are there to enlighten posterity.

1 Sadly, because it’s ubiquitous in our culture, women can be as dismissive of other women’s contributions as men

2. I was shocked to learn last year that publishers push debuts because an author without a track record can be more attractive – at whatever age – to the book world because they haven’t yet failed to produce a bestseller. It means new authors have to hit the ground running and there’s little interest in learning on the job. Mid-list writers – who might also be older women – get pushed out.

3. Rubbish books do get published; some by men, some by women.

Bluemoose publishers are dedicating their efforts in 2020 to publishing women authors over 45. Is this kind of action useful?

I think so. Publishers can get so swamped with submissions it’s helpful to have some way of narrowing down their options, especially if that means supporting marginalised groups. Others are trying to prioritise submissions from people of colour.

Vanessa Gebbie ran a retreat to encourage writers, Never too late to do it, in February 2019. Are these kinds of courses likely to help? 

Anything that challenges the notion that we stop growing, learning and developing as we get older seems good to me.

So the answer is …

Any thoughts about any of this? 

Overall, I think how the individual writer feels about this is a function of internal and external factors. Since we exist in a patriarchal culture, where women’s power is feared and denigrated, there’s bound to be some prejudice in some quarters against female writers. And, as we don’t like reminders that we’ll all die eventually, youth is going to be celebrated and age ignored as much as possible. So, although I don’t think I’ve experienced age and gender discrimination, if an older woman writer tells me she has, I’m likely to believe her.

But how we feel about this personally must also depend on our own psychology and circumstances. When ageing is accompanied by multiple losses – bereavement, poverty, physical health – as it often is for women, discrimination is going to be harder to fight and/or to bear. I’m lucky that isn’t my situation – yet – and, although I have my share of grumbles like anyone else, I’m loving this stage of my life.

A final point: my writing depends on voice recognition software, which continually thwarts me with multiple errors. But I know it’s on my side as it persists in writing the word women as winning!

I must thank Anne Goodwin, the winning woman writer, for taking the time to think about my questions. You can find more about her books at her website Annethology: here

Silly old Martin Amis.

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A little rant about … Spoiler Alerts

This post is about spoiler alerts, what they mean and why they are so common. I am asking whether we need them. Are we in danger of saying that the story and its surprises are the most important thing about reading a novel. Really?

The donkey dies in the end

I cheered when I read this by David Rain.

Think of the phrase ‘spoiler alert’, so common in discussions of films, television series and even, nowadays, novels. What kind of work is ‘spoiled’ – used up, made redundant – once its surface narrative is known? A classic story can be told again and again. Shakespeare is never read for the last time; nor is Jane Austen. In Platero and I, we ‘spoil’ nothing by saying that the donkey dies in the end.

He was recommending Juan Ramon Jimenez’s novel Platero and I in Slightly Foxed (No 46, Summer 2015).

Recently I saw a spoiler alert on a blogpost about Mrs Dalloway. If Virginia Woolf were alive today she’d be turning in her grave! Now I ask you, would your pleasure in Pride and Prejudice be reduced if you knew that Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy get it together? Or that Jane Eyre is able to say of Mr Rochester, ‘Reader, I married him,’ and you already knew? Or even that in Rebecca, Maxim … no I’ll leave that one.

Cartoon from Amy Lynch tweet 28.5.15

Cartoon from Amy Lynch tweet 28.5.15

The surface narrative is not the novel. Although the surface narrative may be the film, I’m not sure about that. But perhaps the reason why films of good novels are so popular may be connected to this primacy of the narrative. Here’s a link to the blogpost on novels that are ‘major motion pictures’.

A and B Readers and Writers?

Anthony Burgess divided writers into two kinds:

A writers are story tellers.

B writers are users of language.

For B writers prose is foremost and without it ‘you are reduced to what are merely secondary interests: story, plot, characterisation, psychological insight and form,’ according to Marin Amis in The Art of Fiction, 1998, Paris Review interview. Hmmm

Could we apply the same categories to readers?

A readers focus on the story.

B readers look at how writers express ideas.

If this division works I would say that A Readers dominate the blogosphere with their spoiler alerts.

But although I would say I am more of a B reader, the novel is nothing without those things: story, plot, characterisation etc. I’m sure there are exceptions, some experimental French novelist of the last century probably.

While novel reading is about the pleasure of the story, a great deal of that pleasure comes from how the writer writes. The writing presents and supports elements of the story. Literary fiction is about the art of the writer to tell us the story in a skilful way. For readers the manner or style of the telling is part of the experience.

And novels need tension to carry the reader to the end, but the tension doesn’t have to be about what on earth will happen? Whodunnits use the tension of clues and McGuffins to draw the reader on. Thriller readers want the hero to escape, with one enormous bound. That’s why it may be important not to reveal the plot twist in Rebecca, but reader she (not Rebecca, who was at the bottom …) got her man.

45 catch-22

Some novels aren’t written for suspense, for what happens. Reading can simply be watching the protagonist come to terms with the events. This is one of the strengths of Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, who in scene after scene, character after character convinces us of the many absurdities of war. Perhaps the writer is suggesting that nothing much gets resolved in the story: see The Green Road by Anne Enright for example, reviewed recently on this blog.

I know of one reader who always turned to the last page. She wanted to read the novel without the surprises that the story might bring, to know the outcomes so she could see how they got there.

To spoil or not?

225 S&S coverSometimes it seems important not to reveal the plot. For example, I did sidestep reviewing Sugar and Snails, by Anne Goodwin. The significant reveal is designed to get the reader to think about their assumptions. I love a novel that makes you think, but I didn’t feel I could review the novel without discussing what is revealed. Anne Goodwin’s own discussion of spoilers can be found on her blog, Do spoilers Spoil? We are all Completely Beside Ourselves. Anne quotes some research about spoilers (that weren’t) and readers of short stories. They preferred them spoiled!

I took a different line when I reviewed at We are all Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, where the central issue of the novel is disclosed on p77. Again, it challenges the reader: what were you assuming? And says, now you know THAT look at what it does to my story.

But on the whole I want fewer spoiler alerts.

BTW

Slightly Foxed is a quarterly and subscription details can be found on their website.

Over to You

We have energetic debates about spoiler alerts in one of my reading groups. Where do you stand?

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Is there Discrimination against Older Women Writers?

We know about the bias against women in publishing and reviewing. My recent writing has made me think about the toxic combination of sexism and ageism. I have been wondering if the effects of that combination are evident in the book world, making it harder for older women to be published and noticed. The media, at any rate, acts surprised if people over 65 do anything, it seems.

225 foggie_grandmother_knits_glasgow

Surprised at older writers?

The press uses the idea that it’s surprising that older writers even exist. Here’s one headline:

Grandmother lands book deal for debut novel aged 82 (Guardian June 2010)

A grammatical point has to be made: the misplacing ‘aged 82’ suggests the novel is that old. The sub chose to use the word ‘grandmother’ as a euphemism for ‘surprisingly old woman’. The grandmother reference is gratuitous, except that it conjures up the image of – what? A quavering shawl-wrapped dependent knitter of limited mental capacity. But – guess what – this 82 year old person writes books. (btw ‘pensioner’ is used in the same way. Watch out for it.) The emphasis in the article is on the writer’s age and gender.

Here’s another headline.

In defence of the older debut (Guardian Review July 2015)

OK, this one is a little more promising. It turns out to be about people publishing their first novel when they have passed 40. 40? I ask you. More than 50 writers have formed a support group called Prime Writers. It suggests that they have found age-prejudice even before they are 40.

The press likes to draw on the idea of inactive, less competent older persons, especially women. Are they reflecting the attitudes of the publishing business? I decided to ask a blog-friend, Anne Goodwin of Annethology, about her experiences as an older woman writer. She has recently published her first novel, Sugar and Snails.

225 AG and book

An older female writer’s experience

Here are the Q&A.

Congratulations on having recently published Sugar and Snails. What difficulties did you have in getting your novel published? Are you able to identify any issues that relate to sexism, or ageism or both?

Thank you, Caroline, I’m really pleased to have published my first novel. I sent out dozens of submissions before I found my publisher and it’s impossible to say whether or not the multiple rejections were due to sexism or ageism, but it didn’t feel like that to me. There are so many subtle (and, I’m sure, often unconscious) factors which influence an agent or a publisher’s decision whether or not to pass on a submission, the prejudices that exist throughout society must play a part. It could be that my novel was turned down because the main character is a forty-five-year-old woman, but I think the main anxiety was that it didn’t fit so easily into any obvious marketing slot.

We know from VIDA’s statistics that women’s fiction receives much less coverage in the literary press (in the UK as well as in the US): fewer reviews of their books, fewer reviewers. Where has your book been reviewed, and did any refer to your age or gender?

I’m guessing that women’s fiction gets fewer reviewers etc because of a perceived lack of “authority”, but small independent presses are at a similar disadvantage, so I wasn’t expecting to be reviewed in the broadsheets. My reviews have come primarily from book bloggers and a few small magazines, who seem to be a fairly egalitarian lot. I don’t recall any references to my age or gender, but it would be hard to imagine how a reviewer could have raised this in a way that was relevant to the novel, even though gender is one of the main themes.

Do you have any antidotes to the difficulties for women, and perhaps older women, in getting their work published and noticed?

I think it’s the same for writers at any age: find some allies; work to your strengths; keep asking yourself if there’s anything you’d rather be doing (and if there is, get out of this crazy business).

What do you see as the advantages, benefits, good things about being an older female writer, if any?

The situation might be very different for a female writer who’s been working at the keyboard all her adult life and sees her prospects and earnings diminishing as she gets older, but for a woman like me embarking on fiction as a second career after early retirement, the benefits are manifold:

  • rich life experience means you’re never short of ideas

  • if you’re writing from painful emotions, there’s a better chance these will now be processed sufficiently so as not to contaminate the writing

  • a stronger sense of your own values and priorities and less of a sense of having to prove yourself (although ask me on another day and I might tell you something different)

  • (not for everyone, I know, but) fewer competing demands on your time

  • closer connection to potential readers (aren’t middle-aged/older women the group most likely to read fiction)

Any reaction to what Martin Amis said about older writers, quoted by Michele Hanson in the Guardian,

Octogenarian novelists ‘on the whole [are] no bloody good. You can see them disintegrate before your eyes as they move past 70’.

Michele Hanson referred to Ursula Le Guin, Fay Weldon and Ruth Rendall. I might add Diana Athill, Cynthia Ozick, Mary Wellesely, and Elizabeth Jane Howard (isn’t she something to do with Martin Amis??). Any comments? Are you aware of other older women writers?

I’m not terribly interested in what Martin Amis has to say about much, really, and I’m too small fry to enter his radar. And it’s always rather foolish to make sweeping generalisations. However, I have been disappointed at times with the work of some older well-established writers, but I see that as less about age per se than the fact that they’ve been practising this very strange profession for half a century and might well have run out of steam, or, because anything with their name on it will sell, they aren’t being pushed hard enough by their publishers and editors.

The world of fiction writing and publishing seems to be very young. I have come across press comment about how surprising it is for novelists to achieve a first novel at 40. In your lovely phrase elderly prima-authorista. They even have a support group – Prime Writers: about 50 authors over 40 when their debut novel was published. And Huffington Post ran a feature on 10 women authors over 40 in August this year. What do you make of all of this?

Interestingly, my biggest supporters in the publishing world have been young women (an agent’s assistant who was very enthusiastic about my novel but couldn’t persuade her more experienced colleagues to take it on, and my publisher who has been wonderful to work with). Despite my grey hair and my post on being an elderly prima-authorista, I actually see myself as fairly youthful relative to how old I thought I might be by the time I got published, having assumed I’d put my writing to one side until I retired (and ended up retiring earlier than expected). While I was shocked that the Prime Writers thought forty was old, I think gathering together under some banner is a good marketing strategy, and age is one of many possible ways of defining a group.

Do you have anything else you would like to add about older women writers?

I think it’s great that you’re running this series [older women in fiction], Caroline, and I’m honoured to be invited to be part of it, but the biggest barrier for me in getting my books to readers is the low status of small presses in the publishing industry (I suppose it’s capitalism rather than ageism or sexism).

Thank you Anne, for your answers and for your perceptive comments.

225 S&S cover

Case for discrimination not proven?

So the evidence for sexism-ageism in publishing is not overwhelming. I guess that the infamous invisibility of older women might help avoid judgements based on age, in publishing at any rate. I am constantly impressed by the dominance of the professional skill and all round competence of the many young women we have met in our publishing experience. We wrote a blogpost in their honour after the publication of our last non-fiction book, called Published today: what our editors did for us (July 2014).

And thank you Anne, for reminding us what we all know from our experiences that older women are as competent, active, wise and creative as anyone else. Age alone does not rob us of that.

But you might have a different view or experiences to counter this conclusion.

 

Sugar and Snails by Anne Goodwin, published in 2015 by Inspired Quill Publishing. 332pp

See also Women and Fiction, a post from September 2015 about discrimination against women novelists.

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