So Day 5 has just finished with a lovely evening at Cup Cake Genie. Tonight it was the Book Swap with Howard Linskey and Robert Ryan. Basically a couple of hours chatting about books, asking inane questions of respectable authors, drinking coffee and err eating special WORDfest Cup Cakes (again). Can’t be beaten really!
I was at work the other day piling up books to be displayed under the heading ‘Jamie Recommends’. I walked around the shop and hunted for books that have really stuck with me. Recent highlights and old favourites. I trawled from A to Z enjoying having a browse that wouldn’t result in me having to spend a single penny.
Of course it wasn’t a real browse it was more like cataloguing my reading history.
Naturally my take on that history is utterly revisionist.
If Winston is right and history is written by the victors then my own READING history is presided over by writers who will give me intellectual kudos (Graham Greene, Richard Yates, Paul Auster) and excising books that I think would make people question my intelligence (The Da Vinci Code), social ineptitude (The Game) or sexual persuasion (The WHOLE of the Twilight Saga).
When I had made my initial selection, whilst considering what my choices say about me/what I WANT my choices to say about me, I was shocked to discover that my first pick of 8 books didn’t include a SINGLE female author. After a second sweep of the shop I managed to partially redress the balance by adding four titles penned by ladies (The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Living Dolls by Natasha Walters, Cuckoo by Julia Crouch and Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld). The fact is though, I had to really think about it.
I was stunned. I never knew that I was so subconsciously book-sexist. It made me look at my book shelves at home and although there ARE women amongst the spines they are drastically outnumbered. I’ve read Jane Austen & Mary Shelley but none of the Brontes, I didn’t get on with On Beauty but I devoured The Whole Woman, I’ve not read George Eliot but I HAVE read Evelyn Waugh (kidding). I haven’t read a book as thought-provoking as Living Dolls in a long time and I think Laura Lippman is one of the best crime novelists in America. I’ve only read two books more than once in my life: The Shipping News by Annie Proulx & To Kill A Mockingbird By Harper Lee….but they didn’t spring readily to my mind!
Is this just me? Is it just male readers? Why didn’t I think instantly of Annie & Harper? I’ve definitely read more books by men but I don’t know if I’ve enjoyed them more. In fact if you look at it percentage-wise the hit-to-miss ratio DEFINITELY goes in favour of the female authors I’ve read. But Is that simply because I have read more books by men? Why have I read more books by men? Is it because there are simply more books written by men published every year? Is that because it’s easier for a man to get published?
Is it the case that for a woman to be a credible, visible, multi-million selling author you have to be pitch perfect and never drop a beat and for a man it’s fine if you are, it’s even nice if you are, but half the time you can just phone it in? IS that the case or does it just seem that way?
To redress the balance I’m now reading The Night Watch. After that is Kat Banyard. After that Margaret Attwood (who I’ve never read!). Then I really must get stuck into Kate Atkinson’s Jackon Brodie. After that who else?
Please help me before I start reading Nuts magazine and enjoying sport.
Lionel Shriver (another author I love but have snubbed) wrote a fascinating article about something very similar. She also talks about the marketing of books by/for women which is something I will talk about next time…
Christina Koning is an award-winning author and critic, who has published five novels. Her first novel, A Mild Suicide (1992), was shortlisted for the David Higham Prize for Fiction; Undiscovered Country, her second book, won the Encore Award in 1998 and was long-listed for the Orange Prize; Fabulous Time (2001) was awarded a Society of Authors Travelling Scholarship. In 2010 she published The Dark Tower simultaneously as a print-on-demand text and an ebook. Her most recently published work is Variable Stars (2011).
What was the last book you read?
The last book I read was Hangover Square – Patrick Hamilton’s wonderfully louche depiction of the seedy Earls Court pubs and Soho dives of late-1930s London. I read it just after re-reading Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock – another noirish portrayal of Britain between-the-wars.
Which book would you recommend to a younger version of you that hadn’t yet read it?
The book I’d have recommended to my younger self would have been Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, a novel that changed my perception of Space, Time, and everything else! For a fuller discussion of this amazing book, see my website: www.christinakoning.com
What was the first book you remember having a big impact on you as a child?
The book that made the biggest impact on me as a child was Alice in Wonderland, which I first read when I was about seven.
Where is your favourite place to research/write and why?
My favourite place to research and write is the London Library.
What made you decide to branch out and self publish and how much influence did new publishing technology have on your decision?
My first three novels were published by Penguin Books during the late 1990s and early 2000s. At around this time, publishing was going through a massive shake-up – largely as a result of the collapse of the Net Book Agreement, which led to the closure of so many bookshops, and the subsequent decline in demand for good literary fiction. Suddenly, book selling was dominated by the big chains, whose aggressive ‘three-for-two’ marketing of an increasingly restricted range of books was bad news for serious writers. I decided I wasn’t prepared to give up on my career just yet. Fortunately, new technology has meant that writers can now wrest control back from the mainstream publishers and booksellers, and produce high quality fiction in both textual and e-book form. I’ve been lucky to be part of this new publishing revolution, and am about to publish my second novel with Arbuthnot Books, one of the new online publishing companies. My intention is to re-publish all my earlier novels in the same format.
Christina will be at WORDfest for the Working With Words panel on Tuesday 5th at 7pm at Crawley Library.
Probably being set on fire (accidentally) while sleeping in a tent in the Arctic circle. I was reporting on NATO manoeuvres in northern Norway and living with the soldiers in minus 20 degree blizzard conditions. A lamp exploded, spraying burning oil over me and the soldier who was working on it. I dived into a snow drift to put the blaze out. He was more badly burned, but was airlifted out and survived. It was the first time I realised it was actually possible to die while working. If the oil had splashed a different way, I might not be here now.
As an author, you only have yourself to answer to, whereas when you’re a journalist you’re following the direction of various strata of editors. That’s definitely a plus. Journalism is certainly more short, sharp shocks – quick deadlines, constantly moving on to something new. Writing novels is a long haul and you have to make sure you have strategies for keeping your focus and your drive. Writing fiction is a solitary job and you have to be disciplined and a self-starter. Journalism is very social, with lots of camaraderie – that’s quite a big, and tough, adjustment to make.
What do you think you would be doing if you didn’t write for a living?
It’s hard to really answer that as I’ve always earned a living writing in one form or another, since I left university. I’d probably be doing something in the music industry as that’s a big love of mine. I once ran an indie record company and managed bands, which I found hugely stimulating.
The last book I read was Mysteries by the philosopher Colin Wilson. It was an eye-opening examination of what is often called paranormal experience, but filtered through psychology and science. Highly recommended.
Which book would you recommend to a younger version of you that hadn’t yet read it?
Probably Mysteries as there’s so much in it that altered the way I think about the world. But other than that, I’d recommend House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski which shows how much it’s possible to break form and structure yet still achieve an emotional result. Or Little, Big by John Crowley which is possibly my favourite book of all time, a whimsical, magical examination of family, history, love, meaning… so many things.