Monday 13 March 2017
So, You're White, Male, Middle-Class and Middle-Aged? Oh Dear...
Back in 1970, when Reggae first burst onto the music scene, one of the songs of the day was entitled 'To Be Young, Gifted and Black'. Originally performed by Bob and Marcia, it was re-released in 1972 by Aretha Franklin and became a classic of its time. Its lyrics continued along the lines of 'Oh what a lovely precious dream'. This was doubtless part of the same dream which inspired Martin Luther King and was overtly political in nature. Despite the progress that the Black movement has made since then, much of that dream remains outstanding. Fine. But what if you're middle-aged, middle-class and white? And male to boot? Well, according to John Allan, Chairman of the UK's largest retailer (Tesco), if your dream consists of gaining a place in the Boardroom, you're stuffed.
“If you are female and from an ethnic background – and preferably both – then you are in an extremely propitious period,” he told a panel during the Retail Week Live conference this week. “For a thousand years, men have got most of these jobs, the pendulum has swung very significantly the other way now and will do for the foreseeable future. If you are a white male, tough – you are an endangered species and you are going to have to work twice as hard.”
As you can imagine, his comments have caused quite a stir. But, if we can set aside any natural reactionary prejudice (hard to do, as we shall see later) is there any reason to take his remarks seriously?
I can't comment about life in the modern business Boardroom. I was in one 30 years ago and yes, it was composed solely of white, middle-class, middle-aged men. But things change. Today I'm on a very different kind of Board, that of a Board of Trustees of a Literature Festival. Our problem is not so much the awkward political choice between competing candidates but rather finding any sort of candidates at all. We would willingly welcome anyone prepared to serve, be they young/old, black/white, male or female, just let them come forward, we'd be delighted to see them. What I can comment on though is the state of play in the world of modern literature and in particular, fiction.
A few years ago the debate was all about the alleged preponderance of men winning writing's major prizes. As a result, the Orange Women's Prize for Fiction was set up (now renamed the Bailey's Prize) which despite today's supposed 'equality', is still open only to women. Does this mean that the pendulum has swung very significantly the other way now in literature as well as in business? Only the other day someone (it was a woman, incidentally) told me it was clear that you had to be both female and from another continent to stand a reasonable chance of getting your book published. I would have to say that I have absolutely no concrete evidence to support this assertion but the very fact that the perception exists makes it worth asking the question. Which in this case is, Is the white, male, middle-class, middle-aged author equally in danger of extinction as his business counterpart?
My remarks will no doubt prompt a storm of vociferous online protest, much the same as greeted those of Mr Allan. It seems to me that when it comes to any kind of debate conducted via social media, the first tactic employed by your opponent will be to try and drown out your argument by subjecting you to a stream of personal abuse. It's water off a duck's back so far as I'm concerned, I've been through it once already. Back in January I incurred someone's wrath by supposedly favouring men over women by using the phrase 'Mr and Mrs' instead of 'Mrs and Mr'. My assailant said (and I quote) 'The person who did this is white, male, middle-class, middle-aged and non-disabled'. So just as you can 'profile' serial killers and paedophiles, the clear implication was that I must therefore be a misogynist. What they failed to mention was that I'm also not gay and since they're aware of what newspaper I read, my supposed political opinions. Leaving aside the question of class, these characteristics place me as close to Donald Trump in my antagonist's mind as it's possible to get, hence the assumption that I'm chauvanistic. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. I'm actually a committed feminist ie. I believe in equal rights for women (and for men, by the way). But then, truth can be extremely inconvenient when it contradicts ardently held dogmatic opinion.
In the meanwhile, we should really get on and ask what the future holds for the white, male, middle-class, middle-aged author. Do they have anything interesting to say? Or are they so handicapped by their lack of handicap that we can safely ignore them? And what of the white, male, middle-class, middle-aged protagonist? Not to mention those who are non-disabled and straight. Are their lives so obviously devoid of meaning that we have no real need to read about them?
I believe that we do and that their stories are just as important. But then I would say that as this is precisely the area l work in. It's an argument I'd like to pursue further on another occasion but for the moment I'd like to leave you with this thought. In recent years liberal opinion has tended to focus on improving the lot of those with disadvantages, on the plight of immigrants from war-torn countries and the pursuit of European expansion. I make no comment on the rights and/or wrongs of these projects but it has meant that 'ordinary' people have felt excluded from the mainstream of politics. The inevitable backlash has been the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Trump in the States. Will this trend extend to literature and will we see an upturn in the popularity of books about the white, middle-class, middle-aged male? All I can say is, if I have anything to do with it the answer will be yes.
Thursday 24 November 2016
So What Makes a Good Book?
Today is the formal publication date of my third novel. After many months of effort (I began the first draft in the summer of 2013), MALAREN finally emerges into the light and the uncompromising glare of public scrutiny. Such occasions are inevitably accompanied by a certain degree of nervousness. What will people make of it? Will it be thought of as a good book? All of which raises the question of what we mean by a 'good' book. And, incidentally, of what we mean by 'people'. Because in my view, it all depends on your perspective...
As you're probably aware, I spend a significant part of my time in bookshops promoting my work. Every Saturday you'll find me in one somewhere in Yorkshire and the North East. (If you want to know exactly where and when, why not visit my News & Events page where you'll find the details.) As a result, I get first hand information from the book-buying public about what they like, what they don't like and what for them constitutes a 'good' book. Some prefer crime, some like romance, some historical drama, and there are those who don't read fiction at all. But for those who do, they all seem agreed on one thing - they want strong characters and a readily discernible plot.
To a novelist like me who's committed to entertaining the reader, this is music to my ears - and hearing it repeated time again merely confirms what I've always thought I've needed to do to be successful. But is being 'successful' the same thing as writing a 'good' book? That's a sentiment not everyone would agree with. And by that I mean the critics. For them, a 'good' book is far more likely to mean one that's well-written. But as we know, not all successful books are well-written. And by the way, not all well-written books are successful. I recently tried reading one which had won a major literary prize and I couldn't get past page 50. The prose was rated outstanding but I didn't engage with any of the characters and there was no sign of a meaningful storyline. Confused? No wonder. How many times have you picked a title from a big-prize shortlist only to be disappointed?
But there are yet more links in the chain between an author and their reader - and that's agents and publishers. (Things are a bit simpler for me in this area - I have no agent, although applications for the vacancy will be gratefully received. Please use the facility on my Contact page to apply). They at least are united in their concept of what makes a 'good' book - it's one that sells. Ask any fly on the wall of a commissioning meeting at a publishing house what the attendees were talking about when they said 'Now that's a good book' and they'll tell you it was the one at the top of the best-seller charts. Never mind the writing - just show me the money.
So we're beginning to get the picture of what makes a 'good' book. It should ideally be well-written, have strong characters and an engaging narrative and sell in bucket-loads. No pressure there then. Which brings us to the point of how the authors themselves feel about it. What I can tell you is that the best authors are never entirely happy with their work - there's always something they think can be improved on - and so 'good' usually translates into 'could be better'.
And is MALAREN a 'good' book? We'll have to wait and see but in the meantime I'll let you make up your own mind. You see, it all depends on your perspective...