How Authors Were Shaped By Their Readers
I still search for reasons why men aren’t reading fiction, and wonder if the time-consuming habit of box set bingeing has made a difference. Apart from the vast difference between enjoying prose and watching images, is watching the whole of ‘The Night Manager’ different to reading the novel in one sitting? How does anyone find the time to read a book in a day?
Reading Eric Ambler at the moment, I’m struck by how his novel feels like the skeleton of a screenplay (he was also a screenwriter). Post-war males devoured such books and I can see why; they’re packed with realistic data. In his novels nobody travels without all of the stations and interchanges being listed. Nobody stays at a pension without the cost of the room being described along with its amenities. Men of a certain age seem to love facts in their fiction. It’s why military books still sell well.
Before writers like Ambler, facts were few and far between in fiction. Narrators would say, ‘I once lived in the town of M – ‘ rather than provide co-ordinates, and that was acceptable. After the war it was no longer good enough. Women were travelling alone and men had moved with their regiments. Readers became more knowledgeable. They knew their Arles from their elbow.
The postwar men who wrote often had the financial freedom to do so. While I was selecting the authors who vanished from bookshelves, I couldn’t help noticing how many women writers gave up because the demands of looking after a parent or children prevented them from putting their thoughts on paper. For many, writing was one of the few ‘respectable’ jobs for a young woman, so they wrote short stories for small amounts of money and make a living.
Men left the house to work, and so were able to write at home in a different atmosphere, but for women with families the work never ended and could not be easily escaped. Men could be very condescending about wives who wrote, and it’s amazing how many women denigrated themselves by saying that they only wrote as a ‘hobby’, even though the hobby made them bigger earners than their husbands.
Wives often collaborated on husbands’ books but received no credit. One female author I spoke to for ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’ told me that asking her husband for a co-credit actually ended her marriage. Publishers weren’t much better, speaking of ‘the lady writers’ as if they were a separate breed.Other authors took out their frustration on the page. The great postwar American writers of domestic suspense like Very Caspary, Margaret Millar and Charlotte Armstrong all wrote about women being blamed for crimes and finding the strength within themselves to fight back, and their readers were quick to find their own home situations reflected in these stories. The stifling conservatism of the 1950s that tied housewives to the kitchen could be broken when they wrote suspense stories.
Some of the tales that make it into the book are more tragic; there were women who managed to produce work around the demands of family and working life, only to be overlooked and dismissed by publishers and critics who refused to take them seriously.
One woman wrote a novel that to her horror was banned by the prudish Catholic Legion of Decency, mortifying her and her family. Others wrote of being thought helpless and repeatedly ignored or condescended to.
Marghanita Lanski wrote eerie, disturbing ‘The Victorian Chaise Longue’, in which a wife becomes literally imprisoned by her solicitous husband and family. The frustrations of these women bubbled out onto the page, and by doing so they found readers who identified with their plight. These were books about emotional states, not railway timetables.
There were many other women writers who found that writing liberated them from a suffocating home life and opened up new worlds. They travelled, made films, found critical success and were finally taken seriously. One such writer died on an Egyptian cruise, still happily working in her eighties. ‘Never regret,’ she said. ‘If it’s good, it’s wonderful. If it’s bad, it’s experience.’