Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Shedding some light

For a small establishment, this building has generated a lot of heat in the last two days. Know what it is? Roald Dahl's writing shed. It's not looking so good these days apparently. It is going the way of all sheds, when the Ronseal eventually fails to preserve them. Wood, like flesh, in the end will rot.

It's in the news because Dahl's granddaughter Sophie, the supermodel, appeared on the Radio 4 Today programme and explained that the contents of the shed needed to be moved to the Roald Dahl Museum nearby in Great Missenden, to be preserved and exhibited as her grandfather left them.

So far, so mildly interesting. But what has caused the Twitterverse and Blogosphere generally to explode is that she said this archiving and preservation (of the contents, not the building) would cost £500,000. She then seemed to be asking for contributions from the public.

This is it: all there is. And it got me thinking. I'm not a big Dahl fan but many, many people are and doubtless would like to visit what will be a
facsimile of the interior you see here. So I asked myself if I would go and if I would be willing to contribute hard cash to a project to preserve the working space of a writer I did admire. Calvino, say, or Joyce, or Terry Pratchett.

I have visited Jane Austen's house at Chawton and the Haworth Parsonage, wondered at the smallness of the rooms in comparison with the largeness of the works written therein. And been mildly interested to see pens and inkwells, tables, beds and chairs.

The last famous person's home/museum I visited was Gustav Holst's in Cheltenham. It really was quite interesting, especially the kitchen of the period.

But it satisfies an idle sort of curiosity. It doesn't even begin to compare with reading Emma or Jane Eyre or listening to The Hymn of Jesus (better yet, singing it). It's part of the passion for biography which now seems to be an accepted way of shedding light on the works of a creative person. I read them just as much as anyone else does and sometimes I wish I hadn't. I could have done without knowing that Proust drive long pins into live rats - the only fact that sticks in my mind from George Painter's biography.

But if you read James Shapiro's excellent Contested Will, you discover that biography is a very young branch of the literary arts, and reading someone's life into their work even younger.

Philip Pullman wrote in a shed, before his huge success with His Dark Materials enabled him to buy a house with an indoor study. Many of my writer friends have sheds; Linda Strachan calls hers Tuscany. When Pullman moved house he gave his to a writer-illustrator friend, who demolished and reconstructed it in his own garden. It even still had plot post-its adhering to the walls.

One practical writing space practically handed on to another creative person. Not magic, not biography, not - heaven preserve us - "inspiration." And certainly not requiring half a million pounds. I imagine a pint changed hands in an Oxford pub or perhaps a bottle of wine was given. I like that story better.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Women's fiction is dead!

At least in WHSmith. I heard this item on Woman's Hour this morning:

The term ‘Women’s Fiction’ will no longer be gracing WH Smith’s shelves after two customers complained to their chief executive Kate Swann, appealing to her ‘in sisterhood’ to remove the term. Teacher Julia Gillick and policy advisor Claire Leigh complained to WH Smith after spotting a stand branded ‘Women’s Fiction’, which they felt was outrageous and offensive. So, is the term Women’s Fiction offensive and demeaning to women or is it a handy label for shoppers to find books they like? (Taken from BBC website)

There was a delightful irony in hearing this discussed on a gender-labelled Radio show but it's a real subject and one that greatly interests me. I don't know exactly which titles WHS used to stock under this label but I note that many literary agents use the term to clarify what kinds of books they do, or don't represent.

We are used to terms like ChickLit and ChickFlick, and they usually seem to be more about who wouldn't like the work described rather than who would. Men are supposed to like thick bricks of books, with tinfoil on the covers, written by ex-SAS men or Navy SEALs, while for women something that hints of shopping (especially with shoes involved) is supposed to press the right buttons.

At the movies, the testosterone-filled want exploding cars and gunfights, while the oestrogen brigade need kisses and tears: The Bourne Ulitamatum vs How to Make an American Quilt. But how did we reach this ridiculous situation? My husband can't be the only red-blooded male who enjoyed I Capture the Castle, Sense and Sensibility, The King's Speech and the TV adaptation of Ballet Shoes ("Why did no-one tell me about this book when I was a child?" "Because you were a boy!"). But I can't put the other side of the picture by being entertained by bloodshed and torture (although I do watch Torchwood, albeit through interlaced fingers).

But I like my fiction a lot more muscular than most of the books that would probably have made it on to WHS's shelf designed to appeal to my sex. The Lacuna, for example, is by a woman - Barbara Kingsolver - but it never occurred to me it might be for women. It's about Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Leon Trotsky and McCarthyism in America. And what about books like The Hare with Amber Eyes? Not fiction I know but equally appealing to both sexes I would have thought.

What is gained by this rigid assumed division of gender tastes? One of the contributors on Woman's Hours - Claire Leigh, I think - asked why not group books under genre: Romance; Historical fiction etc as is done with Crime/Thrillers, Horror or SF/Fantasy. A very sensible suggestion I thought.

But the rot has set in LONG before anyone is old enough to choose an adult book in a bookshop or Stationers. Girls brought up on a diet of Rainbow Fairies and similar series would have no problems with a section labelled "Women's Fiction." In fact, you might as well call the shelf "pink books" and be done with it! Likewise, boys who are  encouraged to read only titles like Beast Quest, will have no trouble avoiding the books provided for Sisters once they are grown men.

Perhaps this is another area where e-readers will liberate people who are worried about being judged by the cover of the book they are reading? The reading preferences of anyone holding a Kindle remain a secret.