This month, rather to my surprise, I have found myself thinking a lot about romantic fiction and where it sits in readers’ lives. I write it, read it and love it, as regular readers of this blog will know. And there are some times in my life when nothing else will do. Not every romantic novel, of course. Maybe Persuasion. Or Sylvester. Perhaps The Morning Gift. Or…
But this is not about me…
100 Novels that Shaped Our World
First there was this BBC/Libraries initiative, 100 Novels That Shaped Our World. This turned out to be a rather jolly gallop through the personal reading of 6 sort-of specialists: 3 authors (Alexander McCall Smith, Kit de Waal and Juno Dawson), 2 BBC Radio 4 bookish type journalists (Mariella Frostrup of Open Book, Stig Abell of Front Row, who is also Editor of the Times Literary Supplement) and Bradford Literature Festival Director Syima Aslam.
It was hosted by Jo Wiley, of the BBC Radio 2 Book Club, and broadcast from the British Library’s charming theatre.
I remember going to a very special talk with musical illustrations about Benjamin Franklin’s glass armonica there some years ago. Apparently the sound was alleged to send you mad. After that evenng, I could believe it.
The 100 Novels was a lunchtime programme, which made a lot of sense, I think — except that it ran for way over an hour — and broadcast on the BBC iPlayer. The organisers had signed up at least 20 participating libraries, who ran 100 novels live and tweeted comments in real time. Jo Wiley read some of them out. You can see the replay for another 11 months. I thoroughly recommend it. A great laugh in many places and a nice mix of readers and reasons for being passionate about a book.
The 100 Novels in Question
There’s a list. Ten categories — a little odd, with a lot of overlap between categories, a number of books that I would call romantic appear in the other 9 categories — but the key qualification for getting onto it is that they were all proposed and advocated by committee members as books that were significant in their lives. Stig Abell, not the one who proposed it, won my heart by saying he remembered people at school pressing copies of Jilly Cooper’s Riders on him. Yup, she certainly opened the eyes of that generation.
Riders was in the Love, Sex and Romance category — along with Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm. Now, that’s one of my favourite books but I don’t see much love or romance in any meaningful sense. And the sex is a spoof (of Mary Webb of Precious Bane fame). From Aunt Ada Doom who has never been the same since she saw something nasty in the woodshed, to vain and libidinous Seth, who ends up going to Hollywood, the whole damn family is sex-obsessed. And knows it will End Badly.
It’s a hoot. But seriously sexy? No. I think the panel might have been misled by the BBC serialisation in which Rufus Sewell, memorably, was Seth Starkadder. (Fans self with wet rhubarb leaf.)
Short Grouse — Female Agency
Well, there’s always going to be something to argue with in an exercise like this. And my ire was raised during the discussion of The Hunger Games in the Adventure category. The proposition was that it was a heroic story with a phenomenally capable female character. Mariella Frostrup agreed, saying how lovely that was, because throughout her childhood there were not many female heroes in books. (It’s about Minute 52, if you want to see it on the recording.)
Harrumph, thought I. What about the main characters in romantic fiction? I refer the reader to the three books in my opening paragraph and a host of others. There were many more in the multi-protagonist children’s books by Susan Cooper, Diana Wynne Jones, Alan Garner et al, and earlier by Malcolm Savile, Violet Needham, Enid Blyton, for Heaven’s sake. Not to mention those fabulous Edwardian masterpieces, A Little Princess and The Secret Garden.
Female Agency has been around in books a long, long time.
I’m not quite clear about whether the list is up for changing. Interestingly, the list the committee came up with has 49 books by men and 51 by women — and it was pure chance. Mariella Frostrup said she didn’t realise until a non-participant pointed it out to her.
The Committee are certainly hoping for discussion and argument. BBC Arts have set up a Facebook page and a Twitter hashtag #mybooklife on Twitter for us to have our say.
Sadly, I admit that I’ve been writing like a maniac, so haven’t yet looked at either, yet.
I’ve been charmed and intrigued by the list. It includes some books that I remember loving and haven’t revisited for years, some that are so close to my heart that, like two of the committee members, I re-read them regularly for comfort and delight, and a whole bundle that I’ve never considered and may now look at again. (Also, just to prove I’m not wholly sycophantic, there are three I’ve read and wouldn’t touch again with a barge pole. They were respectively depressing, infuriating and creepy.)
When I Read It…
Complementarily, I went to the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s Industry Awards this week. Great party, by the way.
There are some lovely awards, including a new one for championing inclusivity in romantic authorship and publishing. This year it was won by Laura Macdougall, United Agents. Also Media Star, won by much admired book blogger Being Anne Anne Williams.
But as I talked (and earwigged other conversations) I was very struck by people discussing moments when they turned to a romantic novel or novels when they were in dreadful distress and needed to break out of the downward spiral. It sounded like a sort of emotional reboot. Time out. Clearing the slate. Going to a different place and no, not escaping, participating.
This followed two remarks by award winners. Both said they’d had very hard years. What had got them through was romantic fiction. Not in a professional sense, you understand. Reading them.
“Thank you for writing them,” said one.
I admit to having had a lump in my throat.
As I have been binge reading Heyer these last couple of weeks, your words on comfort reading resonated. Must take a look at the 100 list, though I have to admit these lists usually get me hot under the collar because they invariably hash over all the big name author books and few obscure novels come to light. I bet The Charioteer isn’t on there and that was a life changing book for me, for example.
Actually I think this list is more surprising and less ostentatiously “literary” than most. And the programme had some delicious moments – like Alexander McCall Smith announcing that he travels widely, always taking “A Suitable Boy” which he believes to be a wonderful book and has not yet finished – and doesn’t believe that he ever will finish. He may even have now got superstitious about it. I hooted. Well worth a watch.
I’m not a huge fan of lists of this kind- there always books that should be there and aren’t. But it’s a personal choice so that is inevitable. At least this one wasn’t hidebound on snobbery. Totally with Sophie on the wet rhubarb leaf. Forget the books, give us more Rufus Sewell!
Those words resonated with me, too. I’ve been binge reading – but not romantic fiction. I’m currently getting towards the end of the Rex Stout canon, including the continuations by Robert Goldsborough. And it is pure comfort reading while my world goes mad around me. It’s something to hide behind. I bet he doesn’t figure on any lists.
That is so interesting, Lesley. I only remember reading one Rex Stout, which disturbed me greatly (not in a bad way) and I’ve always thought I should go back and read more. One of the important characters had either been in a Concentration Camp or helped liberate one. Do you recognise it? I can’t remember the title.
Many years later I shared the house for a bit with a chap who was in the joint Red Cross St Johns Ambulance contingent that went into Bergen Belsen. What (little) he said chimed totally with the book. And the look on his face was unforgettable.
I saw that Liz Bailey mentioned The Charioteer. That was one of my all-time favourite novels. As for Rufus Sewell, who’s still magnetic even today …
Yes, The Charioteer is on my re-reading shelf as well, Liz. Very humane and inspiring book.
As for Rufus Sewell – I’ve never seen him give a bad performance – even Petruchio, in the BBc’s “updating” of The Taming of the Shrew, a play I try very, very hard not to hate. But he was believable and not hateful. Eccentric, intense and dangerous, yes. But as much a danger to himself as everyone else, if you know what I mean. And – um – magnetic, as you so tactfully put it.