Paris Mon Amour — A Review

Rarely can a novel have been so appropriately titled as Isabel Costello’s Paris Mon Amour. The city is so evocatively described it becomes one of the characters (Paris: Mon Amour, perhaps?). Also, the novel explores the contrasting romantic mores of two French men (Paris. Mon Amour, maybe?)

Paris Mon Amour by Isabel Costello
Paris Mon Amour by Isabel Costello

I’ve blogged before about the pleasure of seeing friends’ novels being transformed from Word documents  e-mailed around as drafts to professionally published finished article. When Isabel announced that she’d got a publishing deal, I wrote a post about Paris Mon Amour as being one of these deserved successes. Now I’d like to pass on a few thoughts about the novel in a belated review. 

First of all, it’s a compelling read. One problem with reviewing the novel is avoiding spoilers and, while the premise of the Paris Mon Amour is well advertised to anyone looking at the blurb, the way the events unfolded towards the end of the novel certainly took me by surprise (in a good way).

As well as an enthralling plot, I loved  the quality of the writing. One benefit of being something of a writing workshop veteran (through many course and writing groups) is that I appreciate excellent prose: I was constantly impressed by this novel’s standard.

Isabel’s prose in this novel isn’t the sort that draws attention to itself in a showy way but it possesses a definite elegance — avoiding the repetitions and banalities that subconsciously drag down more workaday novels. It also reflects the restrained but classy character of Paris as a city. There were certain turns of phrase — like “it flipped the catch on my imagination” that I found refreshingly inventive.

As might be inferred from the title, one of the book’s strengths is its depiction of Paris as a city. Alexandra, the half-British,  American-raised ex-pat narrator, is a perfect guide to Paris for the non-native. This is a master stroke. Alexandra is as knowledgeable as a Parisian about the city’s geography but she still has the eyes of the outsider, which allows her to provide illuminating descriptions to the reader who’s not quite so familiar.

The novel captures an elusiveness about Paris. I’ve visited the city on numerous occasions but I feel it’s much more inscrutable than most cities. I’m less able to mentally picture how to get from A to B than in many places I’ve visited far less frequently, for example Berlin or San Francisco.

Perhaps it’s those numbered arrondissements — they seem like a code that only seems to yield its secrets to those who’ve lived in the city. With Alexandra, at least from the geographical perspective, the reader feels in safe hands.

Paris could be the only setting for this story as, like the city itself, the plot lies at the intersection of sensuousness and culture.

Paris Mon Amour tells the story of an intense, passionate affair through both the heart (and other more erogenous parts of the body) and the head. Isabel has a degree in modern languages and while, through Alexandra, she wears her erudition lightly, the characters use, for example, the poetry of Baudelaire to articulate their feelings.

Paris is the city of love and French is the de facto language of love. The sprinkling of French language dialogue in the novel (translated where necessary) works well to set the place. Also, as a novel written in English, the French works well to evoke the heightened sexuality th both the principal characters feel once they’ve embarked on their illicit affair.

For those of us lacking fluent French, the odd phrase hints at the exotic and unknown world that Alexandra is entering.

Isabel wrote a much-commented-on post on The Literary Sofa about Sex Scenes in Fiction. It was so thought-provoking I wrote my own my response to it. The careful thinking she put into that post is evident in Isabel’s expert handling of the sexual relationships between the characters in Paris Mon Amour.

What makes the novel feel so authentic is that much of the protagonists’ motivation stems from their mutual unadulterated sexual attraction (or perhaps that should read very adulterated?) .

As in real life, characters in the novel make reckless decisions, often knowingly, because they’re unable to physically resist the object of their desires. To acknowledge that people are subject to such pure, undiluted desire is genuine and realistic. It’s a refreshing change from novels that might try to rationalise attraction by over-compensating with a character’s likeable, non-sexual attributes.

Conversely, a couple can be matched perfectly in social and intellectual terms, but if they’re not getting along physically then all other types of compatibility are in jeopardy.

Sexual motivation is just as important (if not more) than any other driver of a character’s behaviour. The tricky thing is that it’s intrinsically far more difficult for a writer to convey sexual attraction than more rational motivations

Isabel achieves this goal through some impressively economical writing.

(I’m not an enthusiast about borrowing the visual term ‘sex scene’ to describe fiction but there’s not a concise equivalent term that I’m aware of in writing so I’ll bear with it.)

There must be at least a dozen ‘sex scenes’ told from Alexandra’s point of view, both with passionate Jean-Luc and her less pulse-racing husband Philippe. The novel is frank in depicting intimate physical details that would never be seen on post-watershed British TV or in mainstream films. Only a few art-house films, quite often French ones, don’t shy away from depicting the messiness of sex. Thankfully one of the strengths of the written word is its ability to use its direct connection with the mind of the reader to describe and explore personal experiences that get little exposure in other genres.

As an aside, it’s baffling why the mention of even perfectly straightforward sex remains a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon taboo. The reasons why so many people are buttoned up about one of life’s most universal experiences people is a topic for a blog post (or entire blog) of their own.

While Paris Mon Amour is candid, the effect is almost always achieved using one carefully chosen phrase or sentence. I’d guess that the sexually explicit content of the novel would come to no more than a couple of pages, if all cut and pasted into one place.

Erotica this isn’t but the writing is genuinely erotic, through its sparing use of tantalising details — a case of less is more – and every detail advances the plot and revelation of character. Nothing is gratuitous.

While the narration means that sex is described from Alexandra’s first person perspective, I found it engaged me from the perspective of a male reader (particularly as I’ve written similar content myself). Through Alexandra’s narration, Isabel’s writing strikes empathy with her male characters. As I mentioned in this post , in any healthy relationship, it seems vital to try to appreciate the physical enjoyment of one’s partner but there’s also an elusive impossibility about being able to authentically experience what the other feels.

While Alexandra’s physical appearance isn’t described in exhaustive detail, one key question at the heart of the novel is whether Jean-Luc, a good-looking, twenty-three year-old man, who seems to have no problem seducing women of his own age (and younger) would find Alexandra irresistibly attractive. This ties in with a theme in the novel that will inevitable resonate more strongly with women readers – female fertility.

At the opening of the novel, we learn that Alexandra is self-consciously aware that she’s entering her forties — that threshold where she worries that the underlying source of her attractiveness to men (the outward signs of fertility) might be waning. By contrast, her considerably older husband, while not sexually attractive, is still presumably potent in reproductive terms.

I can’t speak for Jean-Luc but I have no problem in finding women over forty to be very attractive and, if I try to cast my mind back to my own early twenties, I think that’s always been the case. There are far more important factors at play than age when it comes to sexual attraction.

The novel has a very stylish cover photograph of a vase of shattered lilies (see above). It complements the classy prose and elegant setting but also, as book covers tend to do, it serves to position the novel in a certain genre. I guess this would be upmarket women’s fiction, although my own enjoyment of the novel suggests it’s capable of appealing well beyond an exclusively female audience. I’d suggest Paris Mon Amour also sits firmly in the ‘book club’ category. 

One reason for this is the novel’s subtlety. Plot details that later take on large significance are slipped into the narrative almost (but not quite) without the reader noticing — a skillful technique that repays a second reading. I had that satisfying feeling that I was stealthily picking up subtly buried clues about possible duplicitous behaviour of one of the protagonists and my suspicions were confirmed towards the end of the novel. To say any more would be to give away spoilers.

Finally, it’s ironic that the novel was published in the same month as the EU referendum when certain parties attempted to incite divisions and to assert willfully misleading falsehoods about our European partners .While Paris Mon Amour shines a fascinating light on differences between cultures, it’s a welcome reminder of how a shared appreciation of the love, passion and humanity ought to unite us all.

Paris Mon Amour is published as an ebook by Canelo and is available from all the usual platforms.

My Guest Post on the Romantic Novelists’ Association Blog!

My last blog post, about my happy experiences with the Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA) New Writers’ Scheme (NWS), was read by several of the committee of the RNA itself and they were so interested in the post and my thoughts on the scheme that I was granted the unlikely honour of writing a post for the RNA’s own blog.

The blog is updated twice weekly on a Tuesday and Friday and covers a wide range of topics of interest to the RNA with contributions from many well-known and highly respected writers.

My post, titled ‘Romance — “A Bloke’s Point of View”‘  covers similar points to the one I posted on this blog but the content is completely new — and starts with a little taster of how the characters in my novel might react if I walked into their local pub, The Angel, and announced I was a member of the RNA NWS.

Read it (and all the other fascinating posts) by following this link. If you’d like to add a comment or ask a question on there then that would be great.

As part of my membership of the NWS I get sent their newsletter, Romance Matters. The latest issue contains some very intriguing articles based on sessions at the RNA conference.

One considers how effective fiction works by triggering chemical responses in the brain that are identical to those in real, physical situations (e.g. desire, fear) — releasing oxytocin, adrenaline and so on. Another, quoting a session by author and academic Catherine Roach (who writes as Catherine LaRoche), discusses the psychological benefits to the reader of the romance narrative — suggesting that traditional romantic plot types work because of their empowering effect on readers, which, for the purposes of the argument, were assumed to be women. If female readers feel relatively disempowered and disenfranchised in society in comparison to men then the heroine redresses the balance, achieving happiness and fulfillment through risking her vulnerability and being true to herself.  ‘The romance story is a woman-centred fantasy about how to make this man’s world work for her.’

It’s all really thought-provoking analysis, and as with my RNA NWS readers’ report, has provided me some with some intriguing insight when I’ve applied it to my own novel. I also found via Google that Catherine Roach has also published a feminist-orientated academic work called Stripping, Sex and Popular Culture (available as a free pdf download) which is very relevant to one plot strand of my novel — not wanting to let slip any spoilers I’ll say no more than that.

Blog Tour Monday

I’m privileged to be nominated to participate in the Blog Tour Monday project. I was passed the baton by my ex-MMU MA Creative Writing course mate, Anne Jensen, who blogged this post last Monday. Anne has also nominated her writer friend, Deborah Morgan, to contribute a stop on the tour in parallel (apparently termed the ‘other side’).

Anne was awarded her place in the relay team by another ex-MMU student, Kerry Hadley (who guest-blogged on Jo Nicel’s site). Kerry also nominated Matt Cresswell, another MMU alumnus, who also posted a blog last Monday. There is an illustrious line of bloggers who preceded Anne, Kerry and Matt on the tour – see Anne’s list of links in the introduction to her post.

The idea of the tour is to introduce ourselves and our blogs to whoever chooses to follow the excursion by answering four questions about our writing – I’m not sure if I’ll be able to do so as succinctly and wittily as my predecessors. As usual with my writing process I’ve left things right up until the deadline (it’s Sunday night) – oops that’s straying into Question 4. So I’d better start at the beginning.

What am I working on?

The novel – what else? I’ve been promising myself for about two years that it’s almost finished – and that was after starting the book a couple of years before that when I was on the City University Certificate in Novel Writing course. Since then the novel – called The Angel – has nourished a whole MA course – and then some.

Unfortunately for any Belbin completer–finisher impulses I might harbour, the creative writing course process has given me lots of reasons to do’ just that little bit more’. I completed a full manuscript for submission as the MA dissertation last October – MMU is one of the few MA courses that ends with submission of a full novel – but with the prospect of tutor feedback when it had been marked, I decided to wait until January to read the professional verdict (see previous posts on the blog) and make any changes accordingly.

Taking some of their useful comments into account, I’ve been making what I’m determined to be the absolutely final changes and then to move on to the half-finished novel that I ‘temporarily’ placed on hold when I started to develop ideas for The Angel.

But the novel isn’t everything I’ve worked on recently. I was fortunate enough to have a winning short story chosen by Liars League London this month. Liars League were featured as one of The Guardian’s Ten Great Storytelling Nights this weekend – it’s a fantastic evening out where actors read out the short stories in a brilliant way that the writers would never be able to compete with. A transcript of my story Do You Dare Me to Cross the Line?  and the video of actor Alex Woodhall reading it at the event is currently right at the top of the Liars League homepage.

I enjoyed the experience so much I might try a competitions like that again.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Like probably most graduates of Creative Writing MA courses, I’ve always been a bit reluctant to single out my novel as being in a specific genre (which doesn’t help your chances of publication as genre is the first thing agents tend to think about). However, one ‘genre’ that people might associate with MA graduates definitely doesn’t fit my work — academic literary fiction. I’m probably a bit too lazy (see below) to attempt anything like tricksy meta-narration, post-structuralism and all that – not that anyone on the MA course was that pretentious .

Therefore one of the most useful pieces of feedback from the markers of my MA submission was to nail a genre. I was told that ‘at its heart [my novel] is a rather engaging love story’. I guess it is – in that it deals with a romantic relationship between its two protagonists.

Later this year I may find out definitively how my novel differs from others in the romance genre from true experts. It may astonish some people — it certainly does me — that I’m a now a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers’ Scheme (no mean feat as it’s exceptionally oversubscribed and, no, I don’t think they positively discriminated towards me based on my gender – I was just very quick to apply – spaces do almost as quickly as Kate Bush live show tickets are likely to do later this week).

The great thing about the RNA scheme is that your manuscript is given a critique by an experienced RNA reader. I’ll have to wait until I get the reader’s report back to be sure but I suspect most of the RNA’s members works won’t feature lots of wanton, late-night heavy drinking, heroines with fetish wardrobes, vicars dwelling on being beaten with metal combs, tattoos with plot significance, illicit substance consumption by canals in Hackney, World War Two re-enactments with condiments and a hero who has a virtual bromance over the airwaves with Jeremy Vine.  

Why do I write what I do?

Some of it out of laziness again. My writing is mostly about the contemporary world because it saves me having to do any laborious research – although I often stray into the Internet nevertheless to check insignificant but seemingly monumental at the time facts like ‘Do they really offer a PGCE in Art at Goldsmiths University?’

And I tend to attempt to slip humour into almost everything I write – even when not obviously appropriate – perhaps because I need to amuse myself and make up for not being in the pub or doing something more sociable than writing on my own.

How does my writing process work?

Generally it tends to expand to fit the time available – which is why I like deadlines.

I can write fairly quickly – but then I’ll rewrite it – usually by annotating on paper copy and then again by reading out loud and then I’ll check for overused words against a spreadsheet I use and then print it again and – see why I like deadlines?

I write in all kinds of places – at home, at lunchtimes during the ‘day job’, on trains, even planes. And I do an awful lot of writing in my head – when I’m running or just daydreaming – it’s a good job I get on with my novel’s characters or I’d have been driven mad ages ago. Perhaps I get on so well with them I don’t want to leave them?

And as for ideas and inspiration – I just metaphorically shove stuff into my brain cells and hope it somehow all connects (see blog post).


Now at this point, I should be naming who’s going to take the baton from me and do the Blog Tour Monday next week but, to my great shame, I’ve not managed to line anyone up – yet – but not for want of trying. It seems most of my writing blog friends have already just done the Blog Tour – or something very similar recently – but I’ll keep trying. Im waiting on a couple of responses. If you know me, write a blog and are reading this and would like to take part then get in touch with me asap.

So watch this space in the run up to next Monday to see if I pull a blog-writing friend out of the bag – so to speak.

The Documentary on Books I Really Didn’t Like To Watch

A week last Saturday there was a documentary on BBC2 that was ostensibly about the sorry state of the world of books (riven as it’s meant to be by factionalism between literary and genre) but I found that, ironically, the programme itself served as an example of the inherent problems of a whole genre of television documentaries.

I’ve been meaning to blog about the three documentaries about books that were broadcast to co-incide with World Book Night and the Sebastian Faulkes series on the novel on the preceding four Saturday nights. Unfortunately I’ve had three pieces of writing to send out for tutorials or workshops in the meantime and had to submit my 118-page MSc dissertation at the start of last week.

Even so, Sue Perkins’ s programme ‘The Books We Really Read‘  was responsible for a minor fire-storm of tweets and provoked enough subsequent comment that its memory has maybe not yet totally escaped away into the ether.

Creative writing courses and their alleged ‘writing-by-numbers’ approach to novel writing came in for a bit of stick both in the Perkins programme and the following documentary, which profiled 12 ‘important’ debut novelists. Curiously, it seemed to me that it was the misapplication of a key creative writing class concept — plot — to ‘The Books We Really Read’ that made it grate far more it probably intended to.

One of the basic plots found across all fiction and drama is the quest whereby the hero sets out to achieve something, overcoming fear and obstacles on the way and thereby changing by gaining some self-knowledge.

It’s an archetype that’s been applied recently to documentaries, particularly the celebrity-led. This person is sent on a ‘personal journey’ which, naturally, progresses in true classic narrative plot style, from wariness or cynicism to growing familiarity, experiences a few challenges along the way, and ends with something of an epiphany. The Jamie Oliver school dinner documentaries were much in this vein as are the ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ documentaries where invariably something unusual or emotional is uncovered in the subject’s past.

This concept has been broadened into subjects where there is less personal involvement by the presenter and the concept is that the celebrity mediates between the subject and the viewer — the viewer gets signals of how we’re meant to react. This risks being patronising but can come off is the presenter is aimiable and sympathetic enough — the Al Murray documentaries on Germany were structured something like this.

This style of documentary making seems to have been what the makers of ‘The Books We Really Read’ had in mind but they appeared to spectacularly misapply the formula. The logic seemed to have gone: let’s do a documentary about how some books are considered easy to read and some scarily hard but it would be too patronising to have a presenter who was scared of literary fiction and was ‘improved’, Educating Rita style, into eventually enjoying it. Why not do it the other way round and have a presenter who affects only to enjoy literary fiction and expresses almost a fear of popular fiction — and in the course of the journey we learn that genre fiction isn’t all bad. Ironic and post-modern, huh?

This probably seemed a cleverly subversive idea but it also subverts the basics of the classic plot device it tries to exploit to the point where it worked against the programme. For the quest plot to work the reader (or viewer) must accept that the quest is credible and the hero must engender some sympathy or identification.

So to compare ‘The Books We Really Read’ with a similar, recent quest documentary — the Comic Relief documentary about Helen Skelton’s high-wire walking, we had Skelton working towards overcoming the fear of walking 60 metres in the air on a rope slung between two of Battersea Power Station’s chimneys whereas Sue Perkins was forced to read thrillers, crime fiction and romances. It might actually have worked had they approached the subject the other way round and followed an ‘ordinary’ reader’s apprehensions about tackling Perkins’s favourite author, Dostoyevsky — but that wouldn’t have been very innovative.

It was also inevitable that starting from a position of ostensible ignorance about popular fiction would portray the presenter as unavoidably snobbish. So we learned very early on that  Sue Perkins read English Literature at university and, inevitably (though I don’t see why), she had never read the type of dross that people choose take on holiday with them (cue interviewing people in an airport) but she’d judged the Man Booker prize instead.

This was obviously meant to set out the starting position from which she would mellow and ‘learn’ by the end of the programme but it sent the message that she’d be metaphorically holding her nose until persuaded otherwise. This wasn’t the best way of gaining sympathy for the hero’s quest and raised the question of what audience the programme was made for — maybe just fellow Oxbridge English graduates and probably not even the majority of those. (I’m not sure whether she mentioned it was Cambridge where she read English — sadly the programme is no longer available on iPlayer — but  somehow that fact has lodged in my brain, as probably was the intention.)

This positioning of the presenter took up a good five or ten minutes at the start of the documentary and it was entirely irrelevant to the subject. It’s a shame as the underlying hypothesis is fascinating and topical– is there a meaningful distinction between the sort of literary fiction studied at Cambridge and the type of books sold by the yard at the local Asda?

Perhaps trying to analyse popular taste in the arts using a highly personalised approach is inevitably flawed — it seemed to be at the root of the unsatisfactory aspects of ‘Faulkes on Fiction’.

The programme wasn’t above using a few documentary makers’ tricks to advance its agenda. We saw many of Lee Child’s fans queuing for his signature in a bookshop and many were asked about how they pictured his thrillers’ hero, Jack Reacher, who’s a rugged type, not unlike how Child himself appears in person. The implication seemed to be that his readers were like the sort of soap opera fans who run up to an actor in the street to berate the character they play’s actions — ‘How could you swap the baby?’

As always, ‘ordinary’ people were shown jostling in the public space of a shop whereas ‘the experts’ always sit in a quiet room with a nice table lamp in the background — or on the solitude of a park bench.

Child made a feisty contribution, his revelling in the ‘us and them’ divide between his genre and literary fiction seemed to fit the documentary’s pseudo-narrative opening chapter. He made the inflammatory assertion that literary fiction writers are unable to write genre fiction and the snobbishness of the literary establishment is because they know that bestselling authors could write literary fiction as easily as dropping off a log.

This claim could have been exploited better in a traditional documentary — by introducing counter arguments. Instead his arguments were apparently undermined simply by Perkins reading out passages of his prose in a silly voice. This is something she did for the work of several other authors.

Maybe Child’s arguments have already been discussed to death in various versions of the ‘is Dylan better than Keats’ debate on the likes of Newsnight Review?

But no doubt many of the readers of genre fiction agree with straightforward proposition that the writers who Perkins investigated have the talent to identify what the majority of readers want from a book and are rewarded by selling a lot of books and, presumably, making money whereas many literary fiction writers scrape by on Arts Council grants and the proceeds of prizes allocated by the literary establishment.

There’s always also a widespread suspicion of claims made about a work’s intellectual or aesthetic pedigree when the acclaim comes from a closed, elite group of arbiters. This is the classic ’emperor’s’ new clothes’ situation that applies even more to modern art, modern classical music and various other art forms where there’s a suspicion that reputations can be determined by a small number of influential critics who may be motivated by political or social factors.

The tone of the interviews followed the narrative arc of the programme — Child was confrontational, then Ian Rankin was emollient on crime fiction (conceding that armies of 70-year old detective spinsters stretched credibility). Sophie Kinsella, sitting agreeably in her pyjamas, was then able to make the assertion that allowed the self-knowledge aspect of the documentary’s ‘plot’ to reach its conclusion: Jane Austen wrote on subjects that are staples of modern chick-lit.

The logic of this argument was about the universality of human experience: one of the English language’s greatest novelists wrote about the difficulty for women of finding a good man — and so, for that matter, did Charlotte Brontë. This is very true but it’s also true that many of Shakespeare’s plays could be considered thrillers or fantasies and that, even, Austen’s Emma could be argued to be the first detective novel.

It’s not really an argument that equates a bit of Jilly Cooper with literary fiction but it seemed that the programme had come so far in its journey that it ended up arguing for the values of relativism that it had held in contempt at the outset.

The mention of the universal appeal of the basic romance story of the search for the perfect partner allowed the programme to reach its rather unconvincing — but inevitable conclusion — people liked bestsellers because they have a plot, which is something that, as everyone knows, literary fiction books don’t.

So in the end, the programme concluded that there were some good things about literary stuff — like the enjoyment of beautiful prose — and good things about thrillers, crime fiction and romances (well, perhaps, just one albeit the most important in any narrative work) and, actually, maybe they’re not too different after all and wouldn’t it be nice if they could, maybe, learn a bit from each other? Now that sounds like the basis for a programme I’d really like to watch.

One Day

‘One Day’ by David Nicholls won the Sainsbury’s Popular Fiction prize at the Galaxy National Book Awards last week. I’ve mentioned this book in passing a couple of times on this blog since I read it in the summer.

I’ve found the book interesting for a number of reasons. It has quite an interesting cover and this is also plastered with all sorts of endorsements which largely serve to position it in the market: ‘big, absorbing, smart’ (Nick Hornby); ‘incredibly moving’ (Marian Keyes); ‘totally brilliant’ (Tony Parsons); ‘fantastic Labour boom years comedy’ (the Guardian) (although less than half the relationship occurs under Blair); ‘you really do put the book down with the hallucinatory feeling that they’ve become as well known to you as your closest friends’ (Jonathan Coe). That’s just the covers, there’s plenty more epithets in the first two pages inside.

One clever thing about having these quotations on the cover is that it makes it look like a film poster. And the book is very cinematic — so much so that a film is already in production. (The author wrote some of one of the series of ‘Cold Feet’ — and this book has many echoes of that TV series.)

These endorsements are very accurate as they position the book into a sweet spot that sits between the lad-lit of Parsons and Hornby, chick-lit with a dark touch of Keyes and the modern comedy of Coe — and with a ‘bit of politics’ thrown in by the Guardian. And that’s exactly the genre — a funny book written by a man that also appeals very much to women. A look at the 262 (at time of blogging) 5 star reviews on Amazon appears to show they are predominantly penned by female names (although, of course, women do read more book than men overall).

I have a feeling that this book is significant because this genre may well be something of a new phenomenon — non-gender specific and a synthesis of lad-lit and chick-lit — whereas previously these commercial social comedy novels have tended to have been aimed at either gender. Again, the cover is significant — two silhouettes — each of a man and a woman. I has the mark of very careful marketing as if the publishers had taken a punt on a book that didn’t ‘fit’ directly into any neat category. And, if so, I’m very glad this has worked because one of the other reasons I bought and read the book is because it seemed to fit the genre I’m writing in.

The book follows two characters, Dexter and Emma, and switches between their points of view. However, my reading is that Emma is the character the author is most attached to, as I find her more realistically drawn and complex (but that might be my male POV). And I think this may tap into something mentioned by Graeme A. Thomson in his analysis of Kate Bush that I blogged on a few months ago — an innate curiosity about how the other half feels (either as intimate lover or as gender in general). I’ve noticed recently in women’s magazines how they often have a ‘typical’ man writing a column that is meant to give the readers some idea of a male perspective on an issue (although I’ve been fairly infuriated by the views of most of these supposed representative men in the few I’ve read). But I think that Nicholls has shown there’s quite a sizable market for novels written by men that perhaps don’t achieve the ultimate insight of providing an authentically female point-of-view (although if you want that authenticity then there’s plenty of female writers to pick from) but are actually more interesting and enlightening by presenting a sympathetic interpretation of what a male author considers to be a female perspective.

Actually I find that women writers are a lot less neurotic about writing from a male point-of-view — they just get on with it — but perhaps that’s maybe because they’re less likely to be challenged over its authenticity by men.

Going back to the Amazon reviews, I’m not sure if I’ve seen a novel like this that has polarised opinions so much — not so much in the star ratings but in the comments that accompany them. Many of the five star reviews say it’s one of the reader’s favourite ever books while the one-star reviewers completely damn it on many different aspects, predominantly technical.

Having come out of the City University course where I’d spent six months reading other students’ writing with a very critical eye, I’ve started to read published novels with the same perspective and, in many, I have a mental pencil which strikes out words and makes notional comments in the margins.

Reading ‘One Day’ was oddly both infuriating and quite affirming because there were passages where I thought ‘if I’d have brought that to the City workshops I’d be slagged off mercilessly’. There were the dreaded adverbs (particularly hated when applied at the end of speech tags), long passages of dialogue where despite it being between two characters (male and female) it became unclear who was speaking, some occasionally very stilted dialogue (Dexter’s mother) and in some passages the POV kept leaping all over the place (sometimes within the same paragraph) — although there were amusing occasions when I was reminded of Douglas Adams when the POV suddenly switched to a minor character.

Also, and I’ll try not to spoil the story, there’s a massive twist to the plot that relies completely on a co-incidental, totally random event — which is something all the how-to advice tells writers never to do because the plot should derive from character. However, I actually liked that twist because it was genuinely surprising and it does throw the reader — I’m not sure that it helps the remainder of the book that much but it did pack an emotional punch and that part was well-written.

Having finished and reflected on the book, I think that all of the above are perhaps why readers like it — it’s not too perfect, the imperfections perhaps bring the reader closer to the characters in an informal way. And also it shows that many creative writing class shibboleths are quite over-pedantic anyway.

I liked the book even though the characters aren’t particularly likeable — often people will criticise books by saying they need to ‘like’ the characters — but I’m not sure whether this is mainly a defensive reaction that a reader likes to use to make a statement about how they’d like to be perceived themselves.

Overall, the book succeeds because it does something that, in my experience, creative writing courses fail to emphasise — perhaps because it’s so fundamental — it makes the reader want to know what happened next. By taking a clever device of basing the action every day on 15th July from 1988 to 2007, Nicholls has (most of) the readers hooked — and it’s a life experience saga too — the characters will be just about 40 by the end of the period.

Almost all popular fiction (which is the category of award ‘One Day’ won) succeeds because readers want to find out what happened next. I find it quite odd sometimes when someone writes on my drafts (‘looking forward to what happens next time’ or ‘always like yours as it has me turning the pages’) because sometimes it seems like the readers have more interest in the events in the story than you do as a writer (perhaps because you have the burden of inventing them?) but in a workshopping session one is more likely to be praised to the skies for a nice sounding phrase or a piece of imagery.

It’s good to have this counterbalanced every so often by reading warm and funny novels like ‘One Day’ and also appreciate the genuineness of many readers’ reaction to it — and good that there are awards that recognise this too.

I also liked the use of pop music in the book too. The book’s website had a lovely feature where it listed the tracks Emma had put on compilation tapes to give to Dexter. I e-mailed the author to discuss the relative absence of Smiths’ tracks and he was a nice enough chap to send me a quick reply on the subject.

Arts Bloodbath?

The Guardian reports today that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is preparing to inflict cuts on itself of up to 50% as part of the forthcoming government spending clampdown.

This reduction in its own staff is in keeping with the cuts it is anticipated the department will make in its funding of the arts and sport. With the big expense of the Olympics relatively protected and big tourist draws relatively safe (such as free entry to major art galleries and museums) then the axe is going to fall particularly savagely on less high-profile spending.  Bodies such as the Arts Council in England, which funds 850 organisations, are going to find they have a lot less money to give out in grants. I know of many small enterprises, such as poetry magazines, that struggle along even with the help of a small amount of money from the Arts Council. Similarly, this is the source of the already meagre funding for many students who study arts or creative writing at postgraduate level.

The government has expressed what seems like a somewhat naive hope that private benefactors will step in and plug the funding gaps — as happens in America. I remember when I lived in the US for a year in the mid-80s how mystified I was to see the PBS channel regularly soliciting its viewers for donations — something at the time I found quite shocking but, like TV sponsorship, would not be quite so alien in the UK nowadays.

One of the governments other big targets for expenditure cuts is higher education so it’s not difficult to predict what’s likely to happen to the arts in education over the next few years. I would expect creative writing courses to be put under very tight scrutiny. One point in the courses’ favour is that they’re popular and accessible — people are quite willing to pay to do postgraduate and continuing education courses in writing. They also don’t involve much capital spending on the part of the university — just a room to sit in — unlike courses that require neutron colliders that cost billions, as at Oxford. However, as Emma, who taught us briefly at the end of last term, pointed out — to teach creative writing properly there needs to be a fairly low student to staff ratio — the teaching is interactive. I remember when I was doing my MBA at Kingston being quite astonished at the size of the audience for the undergraduate business course lectures — there were hundreds of them to one lecturer.

Also, a school leaver is going to have to be pretty confident of their future ability as a writer to do creative writing at undergraduate level — passing up the opportunity to get a more ‘marketable’ qualification.

One consequence is that I’d suggest anyone who wants to get a creative writing qualification, like an MA for example, might be better applying sooner rather than later. It’s too late for universities to cancel courses for the next academic year but they will certainly review them carefully for the year afterwards. I can’t see them disappearing but there may be fewer to choose from and perhaps the teaching will be less individual. However, it was Emma’s view that the standard on our City Novel Writing course was MA standard anyway and that the only reason that any of us would find it advisable to take an MA would be if we wanted to teach — and perhaps having a published novel would be more credible in that case anyway.

What might have more lasting consequences is that universities will cut staff in creative writing departments and postgraduate and doctoral students will find it a lot more difficult to gain funding. Many university courses, such as those at City, are taught by lecturers who aren’t full time academic staff (at least at that university anyway) and are working themselves on PhDs and the like while also working on their own novels, poetry or other writing. I guess this route into getting some financial support while developing a writing career is now going to be pretty difficult to follow. These people also give time and support to the large network of ‘underground’ publishing, such as e-zines and small circulation magazines, that nurture the careers of more experimental and literary writers.

With government grants drying up and a major source of financial security (in higher education teaching) likely to wither away then both writers and the outlets they currently use are going to feel the pinch with disproportionate severity unless some private funding can replace that cut by the government. With some exceptions, commercial funding is not likely to support writing that is experimental or provocative. This might have a peculiar knock-on effect as the pursuit of literary prizes might take on even more prominence. Perhaps a new author with literary ambitions might be taken on by a publisher with the sole intention of being submitted for a prize — and if the author doesn’t win or get shortlisted then they could be dumped straight away?

The effect of the ‘new austerity’ is going to be pretty bleak right across the writing spectrum. While the more commercial genres tend to have no need of government subsidy, new authors in these genres may well have benefited from some subsidised support. Also, any author with a literary bent who finds the traditional means of support to be dwindling may decide to switch into a commercial genre, at least temporarily, in an attempt to pay the bills by publishing a work that will sell in large numbers — thus making that market more crowded?