Monday, 23 March 2015

Of Poissons and Proton Packs

Musings Inspired by an Amazon Reviewer by Sarah Bower


The other day, I made a rare foray on to my own books page on Amazon and looked at the reviews. It’s not often an Amazon review poses an argument that gets me thinking, but this one did. Writing about my novel, The Book of Love, nearly all of whose principal characters are, in fact, real historical figures, the reviewer posed the following:

‘There is a difference between a historical novel and a novel set in a specific historical era. The first is a fictionalised account of a historical person and the events in that person's life, and the other is just a fiction set in a particular time or place. It is a fine but important difference. Without the real event history it really is just a novel.’

The phrasing could be better, but in what I believe to be the spirit of the reviewer’s remarks, I have quoted it verbatim rather than cleaning it up. So, what is an historical novel? If it is authentically period specific but includes only or mainly fictional characters, is it not, then, historical? My first novel, The Needle in the Blood, included very few real historical figures because it is set in a period (the Norman Conquest) which is poorly documented and whose history is dominated by Norman propaganda. In order to grasp at what, to my mind, came closer to a balanced historical truth than the propaganda, I created a set of fictional characters to represent the less-told sides of the story. This is the privilege of the novelist – to imagine, to extrapolate from the known facts and arrive at that which we revere as fictional truth. We can do this, as I do, by creating fiction grounded in historical reality (as best we can know it), or we can create fantasies and alternate histories such as Game of Thrones or D. J. Taylor’s The Windsor Faction, or A Kill in the Morning by first time novelist, Graeme Shimmin, which is a bizarre and not entirely successful combination of both. Is William Boyd’s Any Human Heart less of a historical novel because it inserts a fictional narrator right into the heart of actual twentieth century history? By contrast, does Philippa Gregory forfeit the right to define The Other Boleyn Girl as historical fiction because she uses a largely discredited belief in Anne Boleyn’s exercise of witchcraft as a major plot driver? The people are real, their actions imagined.

I have no idea of the answer to any of these questions. I’m sure I could manufacture plausible definitions if I wanted to – I am, after all, a wordsmith by trade. But I have no desire to clip the wings of novels and put them in cages. All novelists know that categorisation can be limiting and misleading to a degree. Let me tell you a story. The Book of Love, to which I referred at the beginning of this essay, is a novel set during the Italian Renaissance whose main theme is family dynamics, most particularly the relationships between mothers and sons. The book alluded to in the title is a book of recipes. However, the family under examination is the Borgias, and, at the time the book was due to be published in America, Showtime was about to launch its ill-fated TV series about these notorious ‘precursors of the Mafia’. My US publisher was therefore keen to include the name Borgia in the book’s title, admittedly for sound marketing reasons. They came up with Sins of the House of Borgia and I was quite unable to persuade them that such a title would set up all the wrong expectations in readers’ minds and lead inevitably to disappointment. It did, and some of them were, though obviously not all because the book has, I’m happy to say, fared rather better than the TV series. However, I feel quite unable to claim it as mine under a title imposed on it by someone else for reasons which have nothing to do with summarising its theme and adding to its meaning. That title is not part of the book the way the one I gave it is. Names, as anyone who has pored over baby name books or poked around graveyards looking for inspiring nomenclature will know, are totemic and deeply aspirational.

Marketing. The dreaded M word. As all of us who write full-length fiction know, in mainstream publishing, the decision whether or not to accept a book for publication nowadays lies squarely with the marketing department. While the increasing ease of self-publishing and the proliferation of small presses made possible by declining costs of book production have served in many, mainly good ways, to reunite the producer of fiction with the means of production, they have also caused mainstream publishers’ marketing folk to become ever more conservative and entrenched in positions they know – or think they know – will sell. Marketing departments are mainly responsible for categorisation. They are the ones who make the decisions about where a book will appear on bookshop shelves, how it will be packaged (pink glittery romances, black and silver boys’ thrillers, figures with their backs to the reader on almost everything else, and anything published by Bloomsbury an honourable and elegant exception), what key-words Amazon can pounce on with its if-you-enjoyed-that-you-might-like-this claws fully extended. You can’t blame them. Year on year, there is more and more fiction being published in English. Even if you are the kind of reader who confines herself to a single genre, choosing what to read is a truly Sisyphean task. If you buy for your Kindle, you are probably even more of a marketing nightmare because Kindle readers are apt to be both careless and non-conformist. Kindle readers are the builders’ mates with a serious Mills and Boone habit, the porn-gobbling yummy mummies, the promiscuous impulse buyers who want to try everything but never finish anything. Bookselling in all its guises is a horrible knife-edge, a teetering between derision and bestsellerdom, art and commerce, intellectual rigour and total lunacy.

But let us not be tempted to look back nostalgically on the history of the novel. Even Cervantes, widely seen as the father of the modern novel, wrote Don Quixote as a mockery of the Romance, also a species of novel. The history of the novel is as convoluted and murky as that of homo sapiens and will probably prove harder to untangle. In the early years of the circulating libraries, young women who borrowed from them the works of Henry Fielding or George Eliot (and the criticism was always directed at women rather than men because novel reading was, and still is, perceived as a predominantly feminine pursuit) were condemned as frivolous and racy, filling their heads with dangerous and subversive notions. Dickens made writing fiction just about respectable because he was so successful, yet the model of his success and accompanying celebrity may well lie partly at the root of the messy commercial scramble that is modern fiction publishing.

Even today, when some authors make very good livings indeed out of their fiction and are respected public figures who make praiseworthy use of their money and their fame (and here, J. K. Rowling and the late Sir Terry Pratchett spring to mind, not to mention Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose public championing of miscarriages of justice led directly to the founding of the Criminal Court of Appeal), many hide behind pen names and are chary of telling people what they do. There is still something not quite respectable about writing fiction for a living. However strenuously academics and marketing people try to crate us up, we keep escaping, like ectoplasm from the Ghostbusters’ proton packs, to challenge and shape-shift, to spread chaos and mayhem.

This is as it should be. I was recently privileged to hear Jeanette Winterson in conversation with Helen Macdonald about writing. In a fabulous, bold and unruly segue from the joys and agonies of dog-owning, she spoke of the book in progress as a thing with too many legs, occupying unpredictable and uncomfortable spaces in the house. A book, she suggested, not only has a life of its own, but a life that isn’t human. We keep books in our houses at our peril, knowing we will never quite understand them, their lifespans will not match our own, they will break our hearts.

I wonder if that Amazon reviewer had any idea what her review would trigger? Probably not. Words are wild and mainly untameable. Words, to quote a phrase David Bowie once used to describe himself, are ‘a queer kettle of poissons’.


Sarah Bower has owned several dogs and also, at various times, a fish and a model Ghostbusters fire station. The covers of all her novels feature figures with their backs turned to the reader, except for The Book of Love which sports a mask.

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