Sunday, September 23, 2007

That Kate Atkinson! And books that cheat.

I read Case Histories over the summer and enjoyed it, although the backstories of the various characters are sad and mournful. But One Good Turn was, I thought, even better. There have been critics who haven't enjoyed the denouement, but I enjoyed the whole book the whole way through, and didn't even try to end-read, which was unusual for me. It was funny, poignant, and although there were many loose threads, the key plot points were tightly sewn up by the end. What I like most about these two books is that there seems to be no fuss, no issue over genre fiction vs. literary fiction, or populist fiction vs. aesthetically admired fiction - Atkinson just gets on with the writing. No messing, just solid characterisation, a twisty plot and vivid, pointed writing. Terrific.

Am now rounding off the weekend with a romance: The Raven Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt. It was her debut novel, published last year, and it garnered rave reviews. Great sex scenes, but I'm not so sure I could rave about it. It's just one of those wallpaper historicals where there is an official date 1760, and some nods to the fashions of the times - but the steward of an earl's estate would not be wandering about doing the dandy thing, and frankly, the setting of the novel could have been any time when women wore long skirts and men didn't wear jeans or Armani suits.

There is a romance convention that leads to the creation of worlds where noblemen went to London and had a townhouse, came home and went to their estate, had a few friends with funny names and otherwise are totally estranged from the social, political and cultural context in which they are meant to be living. In these stories, the author can get away with whatever mechanism they feel like to ensure that the hero and heroine actually have a relationship that could be recognised as such in 21st century terms, in other words, spending time with each other and falling "in love". So in the Raven Prince, our heroine becomes secretary to the hero even though the role of secretary to a member of the nobility was not simply a question of copying out a few documents.

Neither the hero nor the heroine rang true to their time, and that is one of the tests for me. Now I am a big fan of Georgette Heyer, and I know that many of her characters are informed more by the mores and rhythms of life in the first half of the 20th century than the actual Regency where she sets so many of her novels. But she did her research and she didn't have anyone setting a foot out of place. No anachronisms, no invented occupations, just straight up willingness to accept the milieu which she had chosen to set her stories.

I suppose that fundamentally, that is my problem with certain forms of genre writing - it (and the Raven Prince is right up there in this regard) cheats. There's something about these cardboardy characters and rickety settings that lacks integrity. Most books are flawed but have some integrity. Most genre fiction is technically reasonably well-crafted (few are car-crashes on the scale of Dan Brown, frex), but there's a void in them where some form of truth ought to be. This truth holds for the serial killer books as well as the historical romance.

While I write genre fiction, the accusation can also be levelled at me - but I do try very hard to create a world where the hero and heroine are experiencing things that are historically verifiable (like the fact that it took between 10 and 14 days to travel by coach from London to Edinburgh, and the common routes that people used for that journey, or that blotting paper wasn't invented until Victoria was on the throne, or that the waltz was not commonly danced even in the 1820s). But I want my characters to live in their world. I run my plots through my head, and when I reach points at which I just do not know what is actually going on, I have a choice - plump for what I feel like or check what might plausibly have taken place...

It takes longer, it leads you down side alleyways that do not necessarily help at all, and it can hold up that muse, but in the long run, if the ship you are sailing in has proper joints and caulking and reliable sailors, isn't that better than a leaky boat run by a drunken skipper?

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