When, shortly after completing my first novel, I began submitting it to agents and publishers, there were invariably two questions which I was required to answer and which I found incredibly difficult.
The first of these involved saying which established writer’s output most resembled. I could see the reason for the question being posed, because agents, publishers and booksellers would like to be able to assess quickly whereabouts in a list or on a bookshelf a new work would fit. But my hackles rose every time I was confronted with this question, because I felt that my writing was my own, not anybody else’s. After all, if I wrote like Sebastian Faulks or Hilary Mantel, what would be the point of carrying on? Surely, I felt, the essential aspect of any person’s writing must be that they have something different to say or a different way to say it.
The second question was even more baffling. In what genre should my novel be classed? Up to a point it was easy, until one started to narrow down the classification; it was clearly fiction, and it was clearly not crime fiction, nor fantasy, nor sci-fi, and certainly not erotica. But was it general, commercial, literary or women’s fiction?
‘Commercial’ was most easily dismissed, for I recognised that no book of the type I was writing would sell in its millions, flying off the shelves of supermarkets and airport bookshops as soon as it appeared.
‘Women’s fiction’ I found perplexing as a concept. Indeed, I have difficulty understanding why women even tolerate the existence of such a category. (Perhaps they don’t.) What does it in fact mean? I assume it means writing that deals with the real essentials of life such as love, sensitivity, relationships, rather than with violence, war or sport. If it does, then I believe the very existence of such a term is as insulting to men as it is to women. I know that women on the whole tend to like my books more than men do. I’m immensely pleased that this is the case, but I have no idea why it should be.
But ‘literary fiction’ is the category that puzzles me even more, for, to me, it implies a qualitative judgement that is not mine to make. I know that the books I write are not crammed with images and metaphysical conceits – if I were able to write in that way I would write poetry – but I do care passionately about the way I write, its rhythm and its tone, weighing each word carefully before I select it and trying hard not to resent the attitude of the reader who skims rapidly through the story, and hoping that he or she will have been affected at least subliminally by the selection I made at the time of writing. It may be, of course, that my interpretation of the term ‘literary fiction’ is incorrect; does it perhaps mean the opposite? We have all, when all is said and done, come across authors whose style is literary to the point of being pretentious, and I cannot help harking back to a period of my life (long ago now!) when I lectured on 19th century French Literature, and thinking of the disparaging way in which Paul Verlaine used the word littérature in his poem Art Poétique, when, after describing the qualities which he himself sought in real poetry, he produced his final, scathing judgment: Et tout le reste est littérature.