As For Reading…?

Oh deep depression. After an afternoon spent writing yet another proposal, my husband has just read it and declared it ‘sounds like every other academic book you’ve ever written a proposal for.’ No, no! All kinds of wrong! But you know what? I think I just can’t do it. I actually think a commercial proposal is completely beyond me. I don’t understand which buttons to press, I don’t know what I’m supposed to say and never, ever have I felt quite so much like jacking it all in. It doesn’t help that everyone’s a critic. My husband has just come to apologize for depressing me with the words: ‘I don’t know why I was so disappointed; I thought this time you were on to something.’ And was then offended because he didn’t see what was wrong with that sentence. Honestly, I couldn’t make it up.

Well, there’s always consolation to be had in reading. When the going gets tough, the feeble pick up another book and feel grateful for an alternative world. To read my posts last week, you’d think I hadn’t read a thing, but in fact I have been plowing through the books as usual. But several of them haven’t warranted a full post to themselves. The first novel of the new year was The Way Men Act by Elinor Lipman, an author I think I’ve praised on this site before. If I just described the plot to you, you’d assume she wrote frothy chick-lit, but this author has a tongue of steel and a fearless sense of humour. What I note most about her main female characters is that they are not nice. It’s one of the things that can put me right off ‘women’s fiction’ that the main protagonist has to be a paragon, or at least wholly sympathetic. Lipman’s heroines are not made of sugar and spice and all things nice, far from it; in fact in this novel Melinda has a huge chip on her shoulder because she never got a college education, is desperate in a wholly unattractive way for a relationship, gives her mother bad advice and practices double standards. I felt utterly compelled to find out what happened to her, and if the compulsory happy ending was in evidence, at least the journey to it had been wittily acerbic and troublingly accurate in its representation of modern mores. I strongly recommend Elinor Lipman in the intelligent comfort read category, alongside other books that really do deliver well-written comedies of manners.

I’ve decided to begin the year with a four-way split in my reading matter, which is to say four books on the go at any time which represent the categories: fiction, classic, non-fiction and something in French. The French novel was crime fiction from Fred Vargas, a writer widely available in English translation. The book (Debout les morts or The Three Evangelists) opens with ex-opera singer, Sophia Simeonides realizing that she has gained overnight a whole new, unexplained tree in her back garden. This troubles her to the extent that she enlists the help of her new neighbours next door, a bunch of down-on-their-luck academic historians, to solve the mystery, although before they can do so, Sophia is dead. This was a cracking piece of crime fiction; great characters, twisty plot, good writing. I happened to find myself in the local bookstore that stocks foreign language titles and ended up buying two more Vargas novels (they were mostly all available in translation too) a few days after finishing it. I’m really enjoying reading more French. I’ve just started a novel by Philippe Ségur in which a successful male neuropsychiatrist with a terrible fear of women finds he can travel back in time to reexperience the one relationship that might have saved him. French contemporary novels are often fascinated by the fantasies that tenaciously inhabit the new discoveries of science, and whilst this man knows he can account for his hallucinations with medical explanations, his anxiety and his neuroses offer up something far more fantastic. I love how fearless French writers are with their representations of states of mind; they have a way of pushing back the boundaries quite naturally that I find wholly engaging.

The non-fiction book of the week has to be the best book on motherhood I’ve read for a while. Melissa Benn’s Madonna and Child is an excellent account of the difficulties of modern motherhood, with most of her focus resting on the problems of managing childcare and juggling employment. She reminds me of Susan Faludi in her clear-eyed assessment of politics, not one that is drawn from the images the media constructs, but one that comes from her own travels around the country interviewing mothers. She is quite clear that the problems that obsess the mass media, involving supermothers who hold down a partnership in a law firm and have trouble finding a nanny, concern only a tiny percentage of the population. For most women, work is not a choice but a necessity, they barely make ends meet and childcare is inevitably an uneasy reliance on family and friends. The book was published in 1999 when one of the UK’s prime investigative television programmes, Panorama, did a special on ‘Babies on Benefit’, an ugly piece of reportage that suggested tribes of teenage mothers were falling pregnant on their own in order to gain state benefits and bump themselves up the housing list. The government’s response to this was to react quickly (for once) and reduce single parent benefits. Benn travels to the same Cardiff estate where the programme was filmed and finds a completely different story, of course. A story of grown women whose marriages have broken down in painful ways, and who must now somehow see that their family survives on approximately ninety-eight pounds a week. Just under ten years ago, I know, but that amount would represent my food bill alone for the three of us. I don’t know how anyone could get by on that. I know I shouldn’t harp on, but this is what annoys me about the way evolutionary psychology gets applied to women. Benn did not find lawlessness and violence and crime, even though starvation and homelessness was a continual nagging fear:

‘Throughout the long afternoon the women have made deliberate distinction between survival and life. In a way, they’re saying, we do both. We survive and it’s bloody hard. There is a tiredness to all of them, the inevitable tiredness of those that hunt and gather: two historic roles merged into one, giving out all the time and making ends meet. […] But there is much more to them all than just enduring, because of their generosity of spirit and mutual understanding. I am certainly the outsider but they are kind, very kind to me.’

Women play by a different set of rules to men, always have, always will, I fear, and anarchy is not their lot in crisis. I felt very affected by this section of the book, as I loathe the thought of people being without voices, without the authority to speak and having to be instead the recipient of easy prejudice from people who haven’t a clue what they’re talking about. Very little riles me more than authority being unethical, lacking in compassion, in insight.

The last book was Booth Tarkington’s classic, The Magnificent Ambersons. Now that does require its own post, and I will write about it next week. It’s back to term time for me, though, and students to see and my academic book to write, but I’ll still be posting when I can.

15 thoughts on “As For Reading…?

  1. I don’t for a second believe that a commercial proposal is beyond you, I expect it just requires a slightly different vocabulary and to reference ‘Sex and the City’. Good luck with it!
    Look forward to reading your post on the Tarkington.

  2. Oh Litlove, I am sorry about your proposal. Maybe this isn’t the right subject for a non-academic book? Maybe you could use it for an academic book and try something else for a commercial book? Don’t give up!

    Your reading sounds like you’ve been having fun. Vargas sound enjoyable. Is he as good in translation as is he in French? I am looking forward to your post on The Magnificent Ambersons. I’ve wondered before what it is about and whether I would like it.

    I hope term gets off to a good start!

  3. Oh you poor mommet. It’s notoriously difficult to have any critical perspective on one’s own work, and partners can often be more of a hindrance than a help. I’m sure Mr Litlove thought he was providing constructive feedback, bless him. Why not do something completely different for a few days and then return to it? Your brain can then achieve a greater degree of objectivity. And remember, there’s no “right” answer. You’re a superb writer and clearly a clever stick, so there’s absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t be able to come up with a book proposal!

  4. I too have tried commercial proposals and have not succeeded with them. But I am very easily discouraged and it sounds like you are too. My advice — take up Emily’s kind offer of help, and keep at it — don’t take no for a final answer.

  5. I imagine you’ve picked yourself up, dusted yourself off, and are ready to start all over again…at least I hope so🙂 You have so many devoted readers in blog-land who are cheering you on!

    Your thoughts on the Benn book were interesting to read this morning, particularly your comment regarding “authority being unethical.” I’ve just come from reading a history of China, in which the author discusses the Chinese notion that a rulers moral behavior was imperative to sustain his rule. They also felt that a prevalence of calamities within the nation (pestilence, flood, violence) were a “sign” from the heavens that their ruler had lost his “mandate from heaven” due to immorality.

    I’m glad you were able to find comfort in reading…I always do, too🙂

  6. Book proposals are a mess, aren’t they? Tell me in 500 words what you plan to do in 70,000, could you please? Oh, and make sure it’s tightly written, snappy, and shows its commercial potential. While you’re at it, please follow our house style manual, which is like no other style manual on the planet. I’m on draft four of my proposal right now, and it’s no fun at all.

  7. Of course it’s not beyond you! It must be damnably frustrating having to produce new proposals, but it’s definitely not beyond you! You; the literary portrayal of motherhood; your views on how these resonate with you and the society at large and what this says about both. What’s not to like!

    Personally (and not letting my total ignorance of the matter be the slightest impediment to expressing a strong opinion), I think something like your original idea, as I understood it, combined perhaps with a slightly more developed personal dimension, to give it a grounding or continuity as well as the all-important non-academic feel, has the makings of the book you seek.

    Even I realise though that it’s very easy for me to say all this, I’m not the one confronted with problem of transforming intention into prose. You know best (when you’re not being overly pessimistic, that is!). If you must shelve it, do it with the expectation of coming back to it, not in resignation. You would do yourself a disservice otherwise.

  8. The whole book writing/getting published process sounds really complicated and a little bit beyond me, but if there is anyone who can do it, I’m sure you can. It seems like the book writing part would be the hardest, but I guess publishers make you jump through all their hoops just to make sure you’re serious about it all. Falling back on reading sounds just the thing to get your mind off it for a while. I have a Fred Vargas book to read as well, so I’m glad to hear she’s as good as I’ve heard. And I can’t wait to hear about the Booth Tarkington–I read it several years ago and thought it was an interesting read–sadly he’s not much read these days.

  9. Ms Musings – I must say I haven’t mentioned Sex and the City up until now – that must be it! Thank you for the kind words, not to mention the solution!

    Stefanie – You are such a sweetie. Something’s certainly not gelling! I think it’s just the endlessness of the process that’s getting to me. And it feels funny to be writing proposals with no idea really what the book would come out like. I need a new approach, I think. Fred Vargas is confusingly a she, and I must admit I haven’t checked out a translation. It’s wise to do so, because colloquial language translates least well, I find. I notice Danielle has a copy of one, so I think we should lean on her to read it!🙂

    Emily – you are a star. I’m having a couple of days off, as you might imagine, but I would be very grateful if you’d have a look. I’m in sore need of good advice.

    Catherine – virtual hugs to you for (amongst other things) calling me a mommet, which was surprisingly comforting. I am taking your excellent advice and putting it all to one side for a while. I do feel like I can’t connect to this project any more, which is frustrating in itself, and certainly space and time always help. Mr Litlove did indeed think he was being most constructive – moral of the story? Never ask an engineer.🙂

    Harriet – it’s a very discouraging process. It doesn’t help that I’ve been at it for eight months now and this is the seventh proposal. So I’m probably more susceptible to frustration than I sometimes am. But I will do both the things you suggest. First of all, though, I think I need a complete change of perspective on this.

    Becca – what an interesting book that must be and I’ll be looking out for your review on it. Ages back I planned to read more Eastern literature and you remind me I should return to that project. My knowledge of Asia is pitiful. And thank you for the kind words – much appreciated.

    Hobgoblin – Am I pleased to see you back in this ghastly marathon! We have to make the most of solidarity – it’s one step forward and two back time and time again. And no fun. The very best of luck with your proposal. I have every faith in you.

    Lokesh – You are such a stalwart support, my friend. Bless you for that. I don’t often give up, it must be admitted. I’m hugely frustrated, and the best thing to do is back off and find a very different approach. I’ll be thinking on that. And you know, you’re right, in that so often the first idea is the best one.

    Danielle – you have it so right when you talk about complicated hoop jumping. I’m beginning to think that writing is the simplest thing, and it’s everything else that’s hideously complex. Although I daresay I could be proved wrong about that, too!😉 I’d love to know what you think of Fred Vargas, and I enjoyed the Tarkington a lot and am looking forward to writing the review too!

  10. Poor Litlove! I wrinkled my nose the second I got to the words ‘writing yet another proposal’ – oh, how I feel your pain. I want a proposal/synopsis/abstract genie who takes care of all this sort of nasty business – they’re HORRIBLE, hateful things. I am all sympathy.

  11. Dorothy – what a lovely, calm, philosophical way of looking at it! All qualities I readily associate with you.

    Doctordi – thank you for feeling my pain! If you find the lamp that contains the genie, I promise you you can have my other two wishes in exchange for it. Proposals are the pits and should not have to be written by the same people who produce the long version.

  12. Fred is a she? What is it with women authors taking male names these days? It’s got a bit of a 19th century aura except they don’t don’t hide the fact that they are women.

  13. Pingback: Best Books of 2009 « Tales from the Reading Room

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