On Reading and the Art of Giving Up – Reading Diary #2

In this instalment of my Reading Diary: how to begin a book, how to give it a chance, why giving up is an option – and an analysis of one book I gave up on

Beginnings

Nowadays, when I start reading, I keep an eye on the page numbers and see if I can’t reach page 50 by the end of the first sitting. After that I try to read two or three chapters or 20 to 30 pages at each subsequent reading. Of course this only works with longer books. With books of short stories or essays, books of poetry or other thinner volumes I have different strategies. But novels, biographies, histories – anything that has serious mass – this is the way I go now.

The 50 page first bite confirms for me that the book is worth trying to read. If I can’t get to page 50 – or at least close to that – on my first sitting, I have to ask, Why? Is it because the book is too dense? (Maybe I’m going to have to revise my idea of the time I want to give to it.) Or is the book just poorly written? Is it irritating me too much?

If the latter, comes the next question: Am I going to waste any more time on it?

Lately – and this is a very new development – my answer to that last question is No.

I’ve started, so I’ll finish

Not so long ago my philosophy was, “I’ve started, so I’ll finish.” Guided by that, I tortured myself with numerous titles that just weren’t worth the effort. I’d start reading, and because I’d started I’d grit my teeth and plough on, generally making my life increasingly miserable. Every time I finished one of these exercises in masochism the relief was palpable. But why do it? Just because it’s so nice when it stops? That’s the punchline of a joke, but it’s no way to live.

And why take it as a poor reflection on myself when, despite everything, I failed to read a book even under this lash? Why not blame the author? You, yes, you, damn you! You who couldn’t keep my attention, who couldn’t interest me enough!

But really, it’s not the author’s fault either, just my own stupidity.

Maybe I’m getting a little less stupid.

What has changed, apart from my having struggled at last out of the Slough of Despond, is a growing consciousness of my mortality. Life is just too short, I tell myself.

It’s something I have to tell myself because, after a lifetime of assuming that a book:
1. that’s made it into print,
2. that someone has recommended or
3. that someone I know has written, and
4. that I’ve picked up and started,
is necessarily a book I have to finish. After a lifetime of that, it’s hard not to fall back into the rut of: “I’ve started, so I’ll finish.”

Giving up : Man with books - detail of foot Bad books

Mind you, it’s not as though I’m exactly wading through bad books. In the last eight months I’ve chosen to not continue trying to read just two. And there’s one other I’ve read but wish I’d had the strength of mind not to plough through.

(Let’s not be coy – the book I wish I hadn’t wasted my time on is Linda LaPlante’s Backlash.)

One of the two books this last year that I eventually chucked aside is Barnbruden by Anna Laestadius Larsson.

Barnbruden

Barnbruden means “child-bride”, and, yes, it’s in Swedish. (There may be an English translation, but a quick Internet search doesn’t turn one up.) It’s a fictionalised account of a few years of the life of Charlotte – Princess Hedwig Elizabeth Charlotte of Oldenburg – the child-bride of the title. Charlotte came to Sweden in 1774, aged 15, in order to marry the brother of the King of Sweden.

Giving up: Barnbruden
There is a portrait of the young Charlotte by the Swedish artist Alexander Roslin, but for some reason the publishers chose to decorate the cover of Barnbruden with a Roslin painting of a different woman.

The book was recommended to me because it has things in common with my Elin’s Story.

I’m not sure how far I want to go into the things about the book that made me – finally – give up. Because I didn’t give up directly. I put Barnbruden to the fifty page test and it passed. I actually got through 156 pages – the first 22 chapters. (There were 252 pages left to go.) It wasn’t that I found the Swedish difficult. Of course, as someone who only learned to read Swedish as an adult, as someone who has not put nearly as much effort into appreciating Swedish as I have into appreciating English, I’m in no position to pass comment on the quality of the Swedish Ms Larsson writes. So I won’t say anything more than that I thought the language was pretty straightforward.

However, I became increasingly irritated by two things that have nothing to do with the language. First, character development (or lack thereof), second historical accuracy.

More fool me

The novel starts quite well, with the heroine’s voyage to Sweden and her initial experience of the court. That was what saw me through the first 50 pages. But after that, after that it deteriorates into banality. It holds out the promise of character development, but then betrays that promise. Of course, I have to wonder whether I’m being too harsh. Whether the book is just very slow in setting up its character development. But I gave it three times as much space as I give other books to prove itself to me and it still didn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Barnbruden has clearly been a success. It was published in 2013 and there are already two sequels. Perhaps I was expecting too much from it. Maybe it’s only a romantic romp got up to look like a serious historical novel. Only a bit of fluff successfully marketed as an example of feminist historical fiction. But, you see, I was reading it under the impression it was a serious historical novel, that it was actually a work of feminist historical fiction. More fool me.

The eck of history

It seems as though Ms Larsson is very taken with the eck of history – with body odour and sweat, urine and shit, lice and fleas – and is keen to share. Also that she is so keen to write about the experience of women in the past that she’s prepared to insert modern perspectives and activities into the historical narrative. I think this is particularly noticeable when she writes about sex.

I’m not sufficiently well read in this particular period to be sure, so I could be wrong. A large part of the book seems to draw on the diary that Charlotte kept for all her life and I haven’t read the diary. It’s possible Charlotte was sufficiently indiscreet to actually write about some of the things Ms Larsson passes on. But, I have my doubts.

Sex as window dressing

For example, is it really likely that Charlotte would have all her body hair shaved before her wedding night? Maybe it is, maybe it happened, maybe she recorded the experience in her diary. It just seems unlikely. I do know that not 150 years before Charlotte’s wedding, in England, women had their body hair shaved only to combat disease – in particular sexually transmitted disease. At that time and in that place, shaved body hair marked a woman out as a diseased prostitute. Shaving body hair simply wasn’t acceptable for women with any claim to respectability – especially among the aristocracy. (Shaving or plucking hair from your scalp line to raise your forehead was a different matter.)

Maybe, in her diary, Charlotte described her first sexual encounter with her husband as a rape. Maybe she implied it. (This latter seems more likely.) What perplexes me is why her husband, after using her so badly on their wedding night, and then “servicing” her on a daily basis in much the same manner in order to get her pregnant, should suddenly choose to give her cunnilingus. And that after a completely unexplained change in his feelings towards her.

Possibly the Princess also wrote in her diary an explicit description of the transgressive scene Ms Larsson retells. The one in which Charlotte’s maid and friend Sophie von Fersen introduces her to sex by kissing her like a man and fondling her body – a practice Sophie claims to have learned from her brother. Certainly the diary appears to have been started as series of unsent letters addressed to Sophie von Fersen, so what do I know?

It may be all there in the diary. But in Barnbruden it honestly reads as far too modern. By and large most of it fails to advance the story, so it also reads like window dressing.

In the watches of the night

It feels bitter and harsh to be criticising this book. It feels a lot like the voice of failure, as I lie awake in my bed and run through the things I hate about this book. This book I’ve just put down on the bedside table in order to compose myself for sleep. Which I’m not managing to do.

What right, I ask myself, what right do you have to criticise Anna Laestadius Larsson? You who have squandered the last eight years failing to write your own historical novel? I defend myself: Don’t I have the same right as any reader who feels short-changed? Yes, I grant myself that – but it still feels like envious disparagement. Shame!

I can’t sleep and find myself gazing into the well of my self-doubt – as one does at 3 o’clock in the morning.

Finally, I sit myself up and go on-line to see what I can find out about Ms Larsson and how the general public, and any historians, may have reacted to her book when it came out.

You’re never weird on the Internet

Reviews and the Swedish language pages of Goodreads. First off, I discover that Ms Larsson isn’t an historian but a journalist – which is a partial explanation. Then I discover that nevertheless she has her fans. (And why not? Even journalists need people to love them.)

Most of the women – I only found women – who have read the book and written about it on-line have enjoyed it. Some have even been inspired by it. Some, though – I’m relieved to see – have reacted like myself. Sisters! (I cry – but softly, it’s the middle of the night after all.) I am not alone. Not uniquely weird, not the only person to have found the history in Barnbruden dubious and the characterisation dodgy.

After reading all the negative criticism I could find on-line (not much) I felt less as though I was at fault for not enjoying the book, and more justified in putting it aside. And actually able to switch off the light, and the tablet, and go to sleep.

It took a long time to write this entry. I kept hesitating about publishing my critique of Barnbruden. Well, I made the decision at last.

Next time

Next time I’ll write about a book I actually enjoyed reading all the way to the end – and how I read as I get towards the end of a book I like.

Man with books


A note about some of the subheadings

I’ve started, so I’ll finish
This is a catchphrase from the BBC TV quiz series Mastermind. Coined by first presenter, Magnus Magnusson, it was incorporated into the title of his account of the programme I’ve Started, So I’ll Finish: The Story of Mastermind (1997).

More fool me
This is a widely used expression. Some people say “The more fool I”. Shakespeare did in As You Like It (Touchstone: “…now I am in Arden; the more fool I! when I was at home, I was in a better place: but travellers must be content.”) But more recently “More fool me” is the title of a song by Genesis (1973) and a work of autobiography by Stephen Fry (2014).

In the watches of the night
An expression meaning the deeper, darker parts of the night. The term refers to guard duty (watch duty) in time of war or uncertainty – or simply during a curfew – and is recorded (as “night watches”) in the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. It’s been used repeatedly in the form “watches of the night” as the title of books, novels, short stories and poems.

You’re never weird on the Internet
This comes from the title of a work of autobiography by actress, vlogger and Internet entrepreneur Felicia Day, You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost): A Memoir from 2015.

Her hidden face

Recent book covers from Amazon UK
Recent book covers from Amazon UK
One of the things I learnt from Writing Historical Fiction, the book I reviewed in my last article, was that there is a puzzling – not to say disturbing – visual cliche on the cover of a surprisingly large number of books of historical fiction which have a woman as protagonist. Celia Brayfield writes about what she calls “the headless woman” phenomenon on pages 50 through 53 of the book. It’s not just that women’s heads are lopped off, they can also be hidden, turned away or blacked out. It’s difficult to know what goes through the heads of publisher’s art directors when they make this choice. Brayfield uses this as one illustration of “the tensions that an author has to resolve when creating a female protagonist in a historical novel”. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what she means – not that I misunderstand her words, but I don’t understand how the headless women illustrates what she wants to say.

My gut interpretation is that publishers’ art directors assume that these books will most appeal to women, that they assume women read historical fiction to vicariously experience life in another time, and that if the face of the heroine is unidentifiable it makes it easier for the reader to identify herself as the heroine. I’m not saying I believe this to be the truth myself, but it’s the only interpretation I can find that seems to make sense. Because it is absolutely true that an astonishing number of novels of historical fiction with female protagonists are illustrated on their front covers by women whose faces are invisible.

The five book covers I’m using to illustrate this article were taken from the first few pages of Amazon UK’s current historical fiction lists. I picked the ones that seemed more or less “Tudor” but I could have included others from earlier and later historical epochs. Not all books with female protagonists set in historical contexts are illustrated like this, and there are a few (a very few) books where a male protagonist is similarly illustrated, but the broad tendency is very obvious.

What this cliche illustrates unintentionally (and I think this may be what Celia Brayfield is getting at too) is the way that women’s lives and experiences have for centuries been ignored – hidden – in history books. When I first came across Elin’s story, which forms the core of the novel I am myself attempting to write, I was astounded that I had never heard of it before. A young woman travels from Sweden to England in the 1560s, becomes a Lady in Waiting at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, marries the Queen’s step-uncle and ends up as the senior English female aristocrat and mourner at Elizabeth’s funeral in 1603. When I looked in the sources, I found her, but as I had studied Tudor history at school and at university I couldn’t understand why I was learning about this only for the first time. More than anything else, discovering Elin’s story made real for me the criticisms feminist historians have been making for years about the way in which history has been distorted by male historians.

It also illustrated what I had been teaching in my periods as a history teacher: that the history we know is the story that was told to us; that everybody – even the most well-intentioned and scrupulously balanced historian – is prejudiced in some degree and allows their prejudice to influence the story they tell; that everybody ought to be wary of prejudice – of the prejudice others and of their own prejudices; that there is so much more in the source material; and that every generation comes to the same material with new questions, new perspectives and new interpretations, and comes away with new stories.

And you can – should – apply this thinking to stories in the news and the tales you are told by people around you as much as to stories from history.

Not sure how much of that came across – here, now, or to my students back then – but I live in hope.

Hide her face


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Writing Historical Fiction

A review of the book Writing Historical Fiction: A Writers’ and Artists’ Companion
by Celia Brayfield and Duncan Sprott
published by Bloomsbury


My copy of Writing Historical Fiction
My copy of Writing Historical Fiction
During February, I have been reading Writing Historical Fiction with interest and pleasure. Although it is more of a book for dipping into than for reading from cover to cover, it does repay reading all the way through. However I think most readers will find, as I did, that some parts seem more relevant and useful than others.

The book is written to inform, to encourage and as a handbook for potential and practising writers of historical fiction and is structured in three parts. The first “Historical fiction”, presents the authors’ perspectives on their subject and a potted history of historical fiction. The second part, “Tips and tales”, is a collection of short essays or extracts by a selection of authors of historical fiction reflecting on the subject or on their own writing. The final part, “Write on” is a combination of practical tips, exercises and encouragement for writing as well as a compendium of possible sources for historical background and detail. Celia Brayfield and Duncan Sprott are both themselves authors of historical fiction, and in the first part of the book they each present some personal reflections on their subject – what it means to them, how they regard historical fiction.

There is a sense in which all fiction (with the possible exception of science fiction) is historical, that you cannot not write historical fiction. The argument goes: even when you set out to write about your present-day, as soon as you have written it down it is already in the past. Even science fiction is frequently a commentary – conscious or not – on the author’s present day, which is why many works of cutting-edge SF can feel remarkable dated when read a generation later.

“Historical fiction” is a genre, and genre is a product of the market place and the expectations of readers rather than anything that has to do with the core of creative writing. Some authors are comfortable writing in a genre, others are offended to be categorised as “genre writers”. There is a certain chip-on-the-shoulder quality about authors who find it important to establish the breadth, ancient pedigree and/or superiority of their genre. Brayfield and Sprott tackle this issue well, even entertainingly, but I still detect a faint whining sound when I read the section “On being not quite proper” (pp16-18).

To be fair, there is a prejudice against “historical fiction”, so if the authors did not confront it they would open themselves to charges of ignoring the elephant in the room. They take the perspective that historical fiction is as old as story-telling itself and present an outline history of historical fiction that starts with Gilgamesh and Homer and reaches to the very near present.

The middle of the book is given over to “guest contributions” by twenty-eight practising writers from Margaret Attwood and Tracy Chevalier via Philippa Gregory and Hillary Mantel to Rose Tremain and Louisa Young. (And despite the gender range of those examples, ten of the twenty-eight are men.) Each guest is given a page or two to present a few thoughts about historical fiction, meditate on their own process of authorship, or offer tips and encouragement to would-be authors.

I imagine readers will be drawn to the authors whose work they already know, and as most of these pieces seem to have been written specially for this volume they may find something new. Reading them all one after the other, though, I was struck by the amount of repetition. For example, three or four cannot resist referencing LP Hartley’s famous opening to The Go-Between, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” (I’ve done this myself.) To be fair, the writers don’t all take the sentence at face value, but seeing it come up again and again made me realise how much of a cliché it has become. Unless I can riff a new slant on it I resolve not to use it any more.

Another observation about the guest authors section: all but two are from the English speaking world. The two exceptions are Orhan Pamuk and Valerio Massimo Manfredi. All the rest are British (most of them), Irish (2), Canadian (1), American (4) or Australian (1). This betrays a tendency in the book. Although Brayfield and Sprott do try to be inclusive, they are writing in the first case for a British audience.

The book’s bias to its anticipated audience is particularly noticeable in the final part, “Write on”, in the compendium sections. Here the authors make an effort to present sources for historical research. They do include some pointers for New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the USA and Ireland, but the bulk of their suggestions focus on Britain. I count only six out of a couple of hundred references made to sources in other languages than English. I don’t want to beat them up about this. The book does not set out to be comprehensive and it could be a guide to people working with sources in another country, in the sense that it gives a framework of the sources one might find in Britain as an example. One could reasonably attempt to carry it over to a foreign context.

It would also be fair to say that non-British authors who are researching an historical novel set in Britain will find the suggestions valuable.

More generally useful, though, are Duncan Sprott’s sections in the final part (Planning, Beginning, Drafting and Troubleshooting) and Celia Brayfield’s writing exercises in historical fiction. In particular, Brayfield’s suggestions for finding historical voices, settings, objects and seeing the “street view” are excellent and I can definitely see myself using them. The suggestions for working with classes of would-be authors are more aimed at established writers who have the opportunity to run courses for others. As a former teacher I can see how these would also be useful, though they are not for me at present.

Apart from the exercises, the part of the book I most expect to be revisiting is the section of Celia Brayfield’s “Reflections” sub-titled “Heroine addiction: women as protagonists in historical fiction”. My own novel-in-progress has a woman protagonist and a largely female cast, so I find several of her observations valuable and thought-provoking. In this section’s conclusion (p57) she writes “the consensual image of a prominent female figure will almost certainly be at odds with the historical record, and also with contemporary expectations of a woman” (emphasis added). Overcoming those parallel barriers successfully would be a great trick to pull off.

In conclusion, Writing Historical Fiction is a book with a lot to recommend it. It will be most useful and interesting for wannabe authors of historical fiction in Britain and the English speaking world, but has information, advice and encouragement for many people beyond this (after all) not so very narrow audience. I’m happy to have bought it and read it and will certainly keep it handy on my bookshelf so I can dip into it again.


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Also published on Good Reads.