Women Doing Literary Things: "Pink Hearts and Motoboards" by Rosy Thornton

Rosy Thornton is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Her academic interests include landlord and tenant and housing law, real property and trusts, as well as feminist approaches to law; she has written and published in those fields. She has also published four novels: More Than Love Letters (2007), Hearts and Minds (2008), Crossed Wires (2009) and The Tapestry of Love (2010).

Visit her site at http://www.rosythornton.com and her faculty webpage at http://www.law.cam.ac.uk/people/academic/re-thornton/80


"Few things are less remarkable than an academic who has written a novel. Not all of them would readily admit it, perhaps, but you can bet your cap and gown that half my colleagues have a dog-eared manuscript under the bed, or a file tucked away somewhere on their hard disc containing an embryonic work of fiction. Some, I know for a fact, have three or four. But if you going to have the effrontery to go beyond writing for enjoyment, to stick your head above the parapet and actually publish a novel, then you’d better make it a Man Booker contender, a searing essay on the state of post-9/11 society, experimental in style and construction, darkly abstruse in theme. Or, if you absolutely must write to entertain, then let it be detective fiction; crime novels are the accepted light reading of the don on his day off. What you absolutely must not do, under any circumstances, is write commercial women’s fiction.

At this point I should state emphatically that I make no apology for writing novels primarily for a female audience. It is not necessarily even a conscious choice. It is simply that the issues that preoccupy me tend to be those which twist and wind through women’s lives: romantic love, certainly, but also family, fertility and parenting, female friendships, ageing, illness, bereavement and loss; and beyond that, too, the struggle for a manageable work-life balance, community involvement and political activism, and the quest for self-fulfilment through creativity, or through work, paid and unpaid. If this makes what I write ‘women’s fiction’ – or if it’s also my own gender which makes it so – then so be it.

Within the academic community, however – as indeed to the broadsheet reviewer – women’s fiction is not a thing to be taken seriously. All women’s fiction must be airport romance or air-headed ‘chick lit’; it’s heaving bosoms or it’s sex and shopping. It is a trinket, a bauble, a thing of no weight or substance, to be smiled over indulgently by colleagues, or joked and teased about. I have learnt, if not to apologise for my novels, then at least to shrug them off with some self-deprecating quip – to dismiss them before they are dismissed.


The pretty pastel covers don’t help. I read with sympathetic recognition Elyse Friedman’s Women Doing Lit. Things essay about the packaging the marketing men had assigned to her dark and edgy novels: pink and princess-y, and even a clothesline!  My first novel (working title: Asylum) was published as More Than Love Letters in a baby blue cover, sprinkled liberally with little red hearts. Yes, it has comedic elements, and yes, it contains a love story, but it also addresses wider issues, including (this being an academic interest of mine at the time) whether flight from domestic abuse should be a legitimate ground for political asylum. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse commits suicide in a psychiatric ward on page 242 – but it still has hearts and butterflies on the cover. (That’s right, butterflies – when I’m certain there were none in the book.)

My second novel, Hearts and Minds, is a traditional campus novel. The book is a female twist on what is in the UK traditionally a ‘male’ genre, from C.P. Snow and Lucky Jim to Tom Sharpe and David Lodge; it is set in an all-women’s college, but it is still very much a campus satire, full of committee manoeuvrings and political back-stabbings. The central issue of the book is the morality or otherwise of sacrificing academic integrity in order to accept a financial donation. But the cover is bedecked with hearts and flowers – and cute, white doves bearing academic mortarboards in their beaks.

I work in a highly traditional Law faculty which has only employed women teaching staff for the last thirty of the seven hundred years of its existence, and which appointed its first female full professor in 2005. Already my credibility as a hard-edged academic was undermined in many eyes by the course I run in Women and Law, and by my writing about legal doctrine from an avowedly feminist perspective. Now I have completely blown it: I have lost the last shreds of a serious reputation by publishing novels for ‘girls’.

Let them mock. Let them dish out the Barbara Cartland jibes – I’m impervious to their scorn. I believe in what I write; I believe I have things to say about women’s experience and women’s lives. What is so wrong about writing books that people might actually enjoy reading?"

 

This post appears on the Women Doing Literary Things site

Views: 35

Tags: #fiction, #organizations/associations, RosyThornton, WDLT

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Comment by Angie Spoto on July 18, 2011 at 7:26pm
Right on! There should be more women on those marketing teams; they'd realize what appeals to men in terms of cover art might actually appeal to women, too.
Comment by Gayle Gardner Lin on July 18, 2011 at 6:23pm
I have problems with the covers they put on so-called chick lit. Once in a while someone gets a decent cover. Example: The Violets of March by Sarah Mitchell Jio.
Comment by Eunice Boeve on July 18, 2011 at 5:03pm
Oh, I forgot to mention your book cover. Sorry. Don't "They" know the cover is what draws the reader to pick up the book. I have a dreadful cover on one of my middle grade books and kids pass right over it. If they do pick it up, which isn't often, they don't usually open it, but lay it right back down again. I explained/complained to the publisher but couldn't get it changed. When the contract expired, although they said they'd renew it, I pulled it. No sense beating a dead horse.
Comment by Eunice Boeve on July 18, 2011 at 4:53pm
You know, it seems to me there are a lot of snobs in the writing world. So big deal. Let's just write what we want to write and if it's not highbrow, dark, and brooding, or "literary" whatever the h... that really is, so be it.  From what you describe about your books, they sound like good stuff to me.  Smile sweetly my dear and say,  "And your novel?"
Comment by Sandra Shwayder Sanchez on July 18, 2011 at 3:51pm

Labeling is such a double edged sword. You feel that you lose credibility as a serious writer if someone calls your fiction "women's fiction" but it is so difficult to reach readers with fiction that is not labeled somehow.  I had no idea what to label my first novel, one reviewer judged it with disdain saying it was "dreamlike" ( I do use dream imagery a lot for its psychological insight) and a prof. at the college my daughter attended complimented me by calling it "eco feminist" . . .  I had no idea, I just thought it was an interesting story written with all the narrative skill I could summmon.  Now I say that I write "literary fiction" and I can't sell it because that label seems too vague. I clarify that my work is "magical realist" fiction but a lot of people don't understand exactly what that is, think it is fantasy fiction, which it is not.  I actually once had an agent tell me she didn't like my mss. (so couldn't represent me) for the same reasons she disliked One Hundred Years of Solitude. Well that was an amazing compliment but it was 15 years ago and only last year did I find a publisher for this novel.

I wish our individual creative efforts did not need to be so strictly labeled but I found out that bookstores needed labels to know where to shelve books so they could be found by the readers most likely to find them interesting. (What happened to old fashioned browsing? thinking for oneself? following one's instincts?) . . .  and of course now bookstores are going out of business right and left (unless they decide to sell ice cream and coffee to make rent) and now we need to fit our work into the paradigms set by cyber technology. I wish authors could just use their powers of observation, empathy for characters, & linquistic skills to write great stories and readers would respond with some  interest and we could do away with all those labels and the judgments attached thereto. One reader's favorite book might bore another and vica versa, there is that thing called "taste" which can be completely idiosyncratic and have nothing to do with whether it is "women's fiction" or this or that kind of fiction, and of course how readers respond to books has a lot to do with what experience and insight they bring to their reading. I long for the days when readers were not afraid to just try something based on the random reading of a page or two and not think always inside those restricting category boxes.

Comment by Bev Murrill on July 18, 2011 at 2:43pm
I"m going to check out your books... they sound great, despite the dreadful girly covers... why can't we get maturity on the covers? Still, I suppose it's better than a vacuous looking beauty with blood dripping down her mouth..

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