Sunday, October 25, 2015

Thoughts on Book Clubs and Women's Fiction

For many years I’ve been a member of a ladies’ book club. We’re all middle-aged with one or more aspects of our lives in common: teenagers or young adult children, jobs varying in pressures and fulfilment, husbands facing redundancy or career changes, and increasing responsibilities for our parents. At the same time, we're also facing the joint onslaughts of the loss of youth and age-related health problems. We’re a strong, supportive group with individual and yet universal problems that unite us beyond our mutual love of books. Our meetings are filled with lively, vocal discussions that sometimes go on until the early hours of the morning on just about any topic.

Except the books that brought us together in the first place.


It’s not that we never discuss our chosen books; it’s just that we so rarely discover a book that all of us have read and enjoyed to the very end that it warrants discussing it for any length of time. And forcing ourselves to read a novel to impress or to satisfy some quasi-intellectual need isn't necessary: We know each other too well. So, by the time we’ve got past the excuses: “I was too exhausted to read it,” (any lengthy literary novel); “It was too depressing,” (any novel featuring a child killer); “It was so predictable I watched a rerun of The Professionals instead," (any book with “teashop” in the title); and “How did this get on the Man Booker shortlist? My navel fluff is more interesting,” usually we're left with very few books that meet all our expectations.

Now I don’t want to make my friends sound uneducated or overly fussy because they’re neither. We have occasionally talked at length about some great books: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, The Help and so on. But what these particular books have in common, despite their literary statuses, is that they're easy to pick up and put down but are still absorbing enough to be entertaining and informative.

There is, of course, a lot of “women’s fiction” that is worthy of discussion which never grabs the headlines like the more literary novels. Anything by Jodi Picoult ticks that box, as would undercover successes like The Memory Book or Me Before You. These are the type of books that many women enjoy. They're books which don't require a degree or in-depth analysis to appreciate. They're emotive, engaging and frequently explore situations or moral dilemmas that create food for thought and conversation. To women with busy, exhausting lives these easy-to-read but captivating books are a gift because, after a harrowing day, not many of us want to face the challenges of Hilary Mantel or David Mitchell.


It was with these thoughts that I set about writing The Changing Room. But I also wanted to factor in one further element and write not just an easy-to-read and thought-provoking novel that would be appreciated by the ladies of my book club, but a humorous one. It would have an older heroine that readers would empathise with but who also did things they’ve wanted to do but haven’t quite had the courage or opportunity. A woman who would make them laugh and cry and, hopefully, inspire them.

I'm not sure why there is so little meaningful comedy fiction available for older women, but certainly finding any agent or publisher actively looking for any humorous writing that isn't a Christmas coffee table book, chick lit or dry literary humour is like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. Nevertheless, I was determined that it shouldn’t just be girls or academics who have fun in literature, but mature women too.

And so I created 45-year-old Sandy Lovett: mother, wife, carer and sex-chat expert. A resilient woman with a sense of humour and a strong moral, social and political conscience who was changing direction in her life.  A woman, I hoped, whose character and story would appeal to the ladies of my book club long enough to make it through several bottles of wine and a selection of exotic nuts.



Only time will tell if I have succeeded in my mission. But whatever the reception for Sandy Lovett, I will always hold the same affection for her as I do my book club ladies. All of them ordinary women, just like you and me, living their own extraordinary lives.



This article originally appeared on Random Things Through My Letterbox .

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