How Authors Were Shaped By Their Readers

Reading & Writing

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?Eric_Ambler

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.

the-victorian-chaise-longueSome 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.’

17 comments on “How Authors Were Shaped By Their Readers”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    There are even fewer female playwrights than male playwrights. Mary Haley Bell, Enid Bagnold, Dodie Smith. Esther McCracken, Janet Green, Charlotte Hastings and Shelagh Delaney spring to mind, but for every one of these I could name ten male playwrights.

    Interestingly, amateur dramatics has far more female directors than the professional stage. And just like getting men to read books, it is also difficult to get them to do amateur acting-unlike the professional stage. I think it is an image problem. So many heterosexual men worry about their image and consider it effeminate to read/act etc as a hobby, and don’t want to be caught doing it.

  2. Denise Treadwell says:

    I keep thinking , who could play Bryant and May, would they be allowed to be themselves. I have been disappointed with Granchester. In lots of ways it doesn’t resemble the books.

  3. admin says:

    Jeez, reading is effeminate now? I thought it was a sign of having a brain!
    I have dream casting of Bryant & May in my head, BTW…

  4. Brian Evans says:

    Same here Admin, but some men think it is. When I was a teenager, my stepfather referred to me reading a book as “girlie”. My mother wasn’t much better. She also thought it was bad mannered to read a book in company-though not a magazine. These were typical working-class attitudes I was determined to rise above.

  5. Brian Evans says:

    PS. My next stepfather was just the same. I’m surprised , Admin, that you are surprised by this with all the research you do on reading-it really is the case with some men and it is one of the reasons many don’t read. The late snob art critic Brain Sewell came up with a classic: “I dislike the working-classes as they are determined to condemn their children to have the same wretched lives as themselves.” Whilst a generalisation and not always the case, there is a lot of truth in his statement. For the record he said it on “Loose Ends”, the early evening Radio 4 Saturday chat programme.

  6. kevin says:

    A bit of clarity. It isn’t reading per se that’s effeminate. It’s reading FICTION (as your post is essentially about) that is considered so. At least as far as I understand the prejudice here in the US. And if you think about it, it makes sense because of the attitudes that the reading of fiction tends to cultivate – empathy, compassion, understanding, curiosity, respect, tenderness, and dare I say it, love. Attitudes/emotions that are associated with women.

  7. kevin says:

    , , , Attitudes/emotions that are associated with women. Not supercapitalist – which every red blooded heterosexual American male worthy of swinging a penis aspires to be!

  8. admin says:

    Oh lord, Kevin, I feel really depressed now.

  9. Peter Tromans says:

    Yikes, I’m learning about prejudices that I had never even imagined. One of the inestimable advantages of growing up amongst Black Country iron workers?

  10. Brooke says:

    @Kevin: Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, Twain, Faulkner, that most macho of men–Hemingway, Mailer, Roth, Bellow, Updike must be rolling in their graves. Comments are ironic given the barriers female writers have traditionally encountered.

    My partner (male, university professor, theologian) once declared that he didn’t read fiction. To which I responded “don’t talk nonsense. I saw you with an open Bible.”

  11. jeanette says:

    A book-worm or not. I think it is as simple as that. The day my teacher could no longer replace daily a new Janet and John book is the day she let me loose in the school library, and by the way that is how I found you in a public library.

    I also read a lot of fact finding books to help in my genealogy hobby.

    I read to my boys from an early age, and they still enjoy books. My Husband, now he has only read TWO books in our 35 years together.

  12. Roger says:

    Well, Brooke, reading “that most macho of men–Hemingway”, I always find myself wondering what he was so desperate to keep hidden…

  13. Peter Tromans says:

    According to Donald T this morning, it’s all a matter of the size of the button.

  14. Peter Tromans says:

    On a more serious note, it’s very worrying first that men are not reading fiction and second that social and family pressure is stopping them.

    Is ‘not reading’ a recent phenomenon; does it relate to class, education or region? I know that my grandfather and his brothers (all born in the 19th century) had no problems about fiction, especially Walter Scott. Ironworkers didn’t perceive fiction as detrimental for the male image. Though the same is true of males in subsequent generations of my family. None of us could claim to be of a high social order or (apart from me) to be particularly educated. I don’t understand.

  15. Roger says:

    I think ot may be how men “take” their fiction, Peter Tromans: perhaps men prefer films and TV as sources for fiction. They think books are about facts and knowledge.

  16. Helen Martin says:

    Hm. My Mother was raised on the “bald headed prairie”, educated in a one room school by a series of half trained teachers and became a library regular. My father, the son of a street railwayman (a motorman) would have liked to have been a teacher and would have been a wonderful one, but in the thirties there was little chance for that so he read instead. Read everything there was from Lorna Doone (“pulled off his arm and threw it into the lake” – love that bit) to Alvin Toffler. Read non-fiction but a lot of fiction, too, Montserrat and The Guns of Navarone and read at a great speed. A lot of the reading thing has to do with background. My maternal grandmother was also born on the prairie and had almost no education, but she read what she could and encouraged her children. Her husband came from a German/Irish farm family which prized education and produced a university professor of music, a state politician, a grower of certified seed, and some people who would have been even better if they hadn’t been Republicans. What is talked about at the dinner table – if there is conversation at the table? No bed time stories in either of those families but we got Robin Hood over the length of time it took to go through that large book. My brother read Mark Twain to his wife in the evenings.

  17. John Griffin says:

    Well I never thought my lifelong hobby (average consumption a book every 2-3 nights, fiction and non-fiction, usually one of each on the go simultaneously) was camp. LGBTQ + BW for BookWorm!!!!! I am transformed, though not in tulle and sequins.

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