It has been my great pleasure over the years to meet some incredible writers, and to be part of some amazing collaborations. So when 7 of my very favourite writers I’ve met on my journey got together to produce an amazing box set of women’s literary fiction, I was positively hopping up and down to talk to them about it. Business out of the way first, though. You can find out more about the project here. And you can order the wonderful box set, bringing you 7 of the finest novels on the market today, here from Amazon UK and here from Amazon.com. And you have just 90 days in which to snap up this wonderful offer for just £7.99.
It strikes me that the motivation for this collection could sit anywhere on a spectrum between a clever marketing idea and an important political statement. Where would you place it?
Jane: Are clever marketing and political statements at opposite ends of the same scale? 2015 has already been hailed the year of the collaboration by the likes of Mark Coker of Smashwords. The challenge for indies—as is always has been for corporate publishers—is connecting book and reader. That’s why indie collections like Outside the Box: Women Writing Women work so well for both readers and authors. Is it simply a case of clever marketing if you offer readers a genuine opportunity to discover fiction that they might not otherwise try at a very attractive price? This is far more than a seven-books-for-the-price-of-two offer. We know that readers are struggling to find their next read, one that will both entertain and challenge them. Publishers must choose from a bewildering range of genres at the point of publication, among them ‘women writers and fiction’, ‘women’s literary fiction’, ‘literary fiction’, ‘women’s popular fiction’, ‘contemporary fiction’, ‘general fiction’. The diversity under those categories is so vast that the very same labels that were designed to make life easier for readers lose all meaning. Personally, I find the sub-genres far more useful. Add the thorny issue of cover design, put together by someone who may not even have read the book, into the mix and it’s not surprising that, inevitably, some books end up in the hands of the wrong readers.
Kobo have recently published statistics showing which books readers were most likely to give up on before they reached the end – and the results were surprising, including critically acclaimed novels and prize-winners. Readers are genuinely fed up with being told what they should be reading. They want fiction that is both challenging and entertaining. As Joni Rodgers says, ‘I love stepping aside from the noise and introducing books I can highly recommend to readers who really get it—and not everyone does. These aren’t the commercial no-brainers; they’re the thoughtful books that jump the turnstile and do all sorts of things that well-behaved books don’t do.’ We are asking readers to take a risk on an author/authors they don’t know. But hopefully the pay-off will be discovering something wonderful.
As for political. Clearly, we’re a group of women writers, but that was by accident rather than design. We simply sought out a group of writers we considered to be at the forefront of indie publishing and who were producing difficult-to-pigeon-hole work. But the fact that we are an all-female group is difficult to ignore. Our aim is to showcase a diverse range of fiction from light (but never frothy) right through too darker material that delves into psychological territory, but should we feel under an obligation to take on a cause?
Personally, I would prefer to let our credentials speak for themselves – although we do happen to be holding one hell of a joker. Speaking for myself, I share Joanne Harris’s view that ‘women’s fiction’ isn’t a genre. All it does is reinforce the idea that books written by women are not for men. At a time when bookshops have been asked to do away with ‘boys’ fiction’ and ‘girls’ fiction’, this category seems highly inappropriate. There is no shortage of material to show that women authors are often overlooked. I for one would never want positive discrimination. We do know that women read books written by both men and women and that men tend to only read books written by men. Or do they? The twist in this tale is that two of our authors ghost for male writers. Which suggests that, as was the case in 1998 when Francine Prose’s wrote her essay, “Scent of a Woman’s Ink,” take away the gender label and it’s not all that easy to identify the author by sex.
Roz: The problem with terms like ‘political’ and ‘marketing’ is that they look dishonest. And dishonest is completely opposite to who we are, what we stand for. We are all writing the books we feel genuinely compelled to write. That’s where we all started, with a truthful connection with our characters and material. This is why we are indie.
Roz: What unites us is our desire to craft our fiction to be as good as possible while pushing boundaries. We’ve each of us proved our worth with awards, fellowships, teaching posts and commercial success. We’ve all self-published to keep our hard-earned independence and our artistic identity. Our set of novels features strong, idiosyncratic female protagonists – characters traditional publishing might shy away from. So we’re presenting a new breed of female characters, and they’re a diverse and unconventional bunch. As are we.
Jessica: Unconventional women trying to navigate (and at the same time, break free from) the conformist ideologies of a submissive society.
Was it these commonalities that drew you to each other as writers?
Jane: We looked for authors whose work we knew had been pigeonholed to their detriment by the traditional publishing industry, or whose work is difficult to define by traditional parameters. My second novel was turned down by my publisher because it wasn’t women’s fiction – they had published Half-truths and White Lies under their Black Swan imprint, but I had never set out to write only for women. Roz Morris describes My Memories of a Future Life as ‘stubborn and strange’, which I think is a fabulous marketing strategy. It certainly made me track it down immediately. As a group, we have been tagged as ‘literary’ but the novels in our collection also have a strong contemporary leaning.
Jessica: I believe so, but perhaps on a more subconscious level. I hadn’t read the authors’ books before realising I had a lot in common with them. But it certainly came to no surprise, when I did read their books, that they were of a similar nature to mine. Perhaps it was the power of female intuition?
Roz: Funnily enough, the ‘stubborn and strange’ description came from a reviewer, not from me. It’s actually very hard to know how to describe your own work. You need others to be your mirror. I’d say our most important common traits are a similarity in outlook. We’re independent minded. We embrace control and we have a strong vision of our own art. I echo Jane’s point about pigeonholing. Many of us have been encouraged to fit market trends and have resisted because it would compromise our books. We’ve all got our eye on the long term – to make books that are true to who we are. I like being in the company of such writers.
Do they help you to come up with any kind of a label for your books? I say that with one eye on the general problematicity of the label “literary fiction” and the other eye on the well-rehearsed spat between Jodi Picoult and Jonathan Franzen over women writers and literary fiction.
Jessica: Though I list my books under specific genres, because I’m obligated to do so due to the structure of retailer catalogues, I do my best not to focus on those genres when promoting my work on social media. I generally focus on what the book is about, or refer to my tag line. (I’ll let readers find the tag line on my website, as I’m not sure it’s appropriate for this interview! Ha!) This way I give readers the opportunity to see whether the story is right for them without having to lump myself into a specific category, which, let’s face it, is most likely perceived in an entirely different way by each individual anyway. Take this as a real-life example: I say “women’s fiction,” and one reader immediately thinks “fun chick lit, a quick light read,” and another immediately thinks “contemporary women’s fiction, a deep and thought-provoking read.” How am I supposed to let readers know that they may enjoy my work, when they have completely different ideas about the genre it’s listed under? I think genres should be regarded merely as stepping stones, because to some extent, they limit the visibility of unconventional work.
Roz: I didn’t know how to label my novels when I wrote them. I submerged in the characters and followed my instincts. I published them with little idea of where they fitted, market wise, so I let feedback from readers guide me. I never set out to be deliberately literary; I was told I was after the event. Indeed, I see myself most of all as a storyteller who likes a resonant metaphor. Story and pacing are just as important to me as elegant language and thought.
As for the spat between Picoult and Franzen? Honestly, life’s too short. Their argument doesn’t affect what I do. I don’t feel I am a representative of anything. That seems too simplistic – and anyway, it doesn’t matter to me, although I realise it matters to some. I’d rather spend my energy writing honest books than following two writers arguing in the public eye.
Jane: The irony of fighting against labels is that, ultimately, it was necessary to define what the box-set was about. Our decision was to focus on our characters and the boundary-breaking nature of our fiction.
What do you think the dangers are, as a writer, with box set collaborations? How have you avoided them?
Jane: The main danger is that each author within the group will have a different agenda. Put your first question to each participant and you might find that one of us has a highly political agenda. I must admit that before I accepted Jessica’s invitation, I had already decided to release my own three-book box-set and was looking for two other authors to collaborate with on a mixed box-set. Outside the Box is far more ambitious than what I originally had in mind! But we are totally a democracy. I felt have felt free to express my opinions and have, on occasion, been outvoted – just as I’d expect to be. I served on a board of directors for twenty-three years, so I am more than used to compromise. But, seriously, working with this team has been a complete eye opener. The talent and experience within this small team meant that within a week we had a title, cover artwork and a website. Our vision was almost complete. Any minor niggles far outweigh the pros. Roz Morris blogged today: ‘Now here’s where we can explore the power of the group. We’ve already been interviewed by The Guardianbooks pages, Books + Publishing (the Australian counterpart of Publisher’s Weekly) and have interest from the arts programmes of BBC Radio 4. If any of us had approached them on our own – impressive though our CVs might look – we probably wouldn’t have got even a reply.’
Jessica: Dangers? I do not see any dangers. I dove into this project as an experiment and do not have any expectations. It is what it is, and it will be what it will be. And I’m completely open to any result in any shape or form. If it’s a flop (and what’s a flop nowadays anyway?) I had a good time, and honed my organisational skills. If it’s a success (in my own view), erm … I’ll drink a bottle of my favourite wine with a smile on my face and move onto achieving my next goal.
To give my own answer to an earlier question, I would say that the threads I see running through the books in this collection with which I am familiar are a reality that sits on a line between bent out of shape and porous (sometimes approaching magic realism), and the employment of big metaphors. Both of these point to the search for a truth that is “more true” somehow than the one we perceive with our senses. Succeeding with those ambitions takes a lot of control and confidence as a writer. How do you manage it?
Roz: Oh I do love a good metaphor. When I get an idea, it’s usually strange. For instance, what if a character was hypnotised and experienced a different life, but instead of going to the past, as is conventional, she went to the future? This became My Memories of a Future Life. What if, in decades to come, all the countryside had gone and we lived in a cocoon of helpful software and social rules – and somebody started dreaming they were riding horses? This was the germ of Lifeform Three.
I love your description there of ‘the truth that is more true’. That’s exactly it. These ideas arrive full of freight – although, like dreams, they keep it locked away. Confidence is needed to do justice to them, certainly – although not just in craft. I also have to be patient, to keep working so that the idea will reveal how it needs to be treated. My writing process is part research and part search; a labyrinthine route of interpretation and guesswork that sometimes take years. I’m searching for answers, but really I’m also searching for the right questions to ask, the way to unlock the metaphor, the hyper-truth if you like.
Jessica: I’ve never thought of being able to “manage.” I write what I’m inspired to write, and inspiration comes in various forms, and often in no form at all, but as a mere sweep of energy that tempts me to sit down and type. Sometimes I type not knowing my intention, creating characters out of thin air who eventually become fully-developed creatures who star in the show. Sometimes, like with White Lady, the star of the show doesn’t show her face until the third draft and I am forced to reshape the entire book around her. I hate to sound clichéd, but writing, for me, is something I do because I would dissolve into nothing if I didn’t. I really hate saying something like that. I know so many writers play the “I can’t not write” card, but I truly think it’s because it’s so irrevocably true. We work so hard for very little return when you compare the hours we put in with the money we make. Any logical person would think thrice about diving into such a profession. But we don’t. And that determination can only come from a deep desire to fulfil ourselves creatively. It’s not “managing,” it’s “being alive.”
Which leads to whether you think it is better for an author to be ambitious in their scope even if they fall short, or to succeed on more limited terms?
Jane: When you say ‘succeed on more limited terms’, I assume you mean ‘limited’ in terms of commercial or monetary success.
For me, self-publishing is the mechanism that freed me to be more ambitious in terms of where I wanted to take my fiction. Instead of being dictated to, I am free to write about what I want to write about. Remove the pressure of trying of tying to mould something to fit the current publishing market – which agents admit is risk-adverse and overly-commercialised – and it grows wings. I have been told that my fiction delves into deeper psychological territory than most fiction dares. Would I have been allowed to write An Unchoreographed Life if I was under contract? I don’t think so.
So does it always have to come down to a choice between artistic integrity and commercial success? Even though it didn’t come from independent publishing, I am grateful for The Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and the way in which Eimear McBride used her acceptance speech as a platform from which to challenge the industry to meet the needs of reader.
Before the e-book revolution, one of our other contributors, Joni Rodgers, was told by her agent, “Don’t waste your time. The midlist is dead.” The bottom line is that if a publisher can’t make money from a book, neither can the agent or the author. An author devotes thousands of hours to a book out of whatever it is that drives us to create, but agents and publishers quite reasonably funnel the lion’s share of their resources to projects that are less risky or commercial no-brainers. The indie publishing revolution rewrote the balance sheet by sweeping aside the crowd of people who used to stand between author and reader. Less than ten years later, we’re operating in a new publishing universe. Literary fiction, which had always been difficult to place, is on the rise, because it’s created within the artistic values systems of authors rather than the commercial values systems of corporate publishing.
Jessica: If a writer “falls short” as you say, isn’t that something completely subjective? One person’s trash is another person’s treasure, is it not? And I don’t think it does any writer any good to wish to succeed in a way that is perceived as success by the average Joe (worldwide recognition and lots of money). I think it’s too overwhelming and stunts creativity. I definitely would not be perceived as a success by someone like Stephen King. But I am perceived as a success by my peers, and by readers who enjoy my work. I have defined my own version of success, and worked towards achieving that. And every day, that definition changes, and I grow with it. I think the fact that I am constantly growing is a success in itself, too. Perhaps I am, what you call, a success on limited terms. But again, that is a completely subjective view. And I’ve never been one to care much about what other people think of me. If I’m happy with where I’m at, and what I’m doing, then nothing can stop me.
Roz: this is an interesting question. Jenny Diski was writing recently in the London Review of Books about growing up with Doris Lessing. She was intimidated by Lessing’s friends because they would always be discussing books or plays or films, and the chief subject was whether something ‘worked’ or not. Usually, even the most accomplished pieces had something that didn’t quite ‘work’.
This is how I talk with my writer friends. It’s our chief curiosity: whatever it is, does it work? And then: could it have been more ambitious? This is how artistes are, how we keep ourselves challenged. We learn by what works but also by what doesn’t – especially the brave failures. This doesn’t destroy the joy of a work, or our admiration for it.
On the one hand we need artistes who dare, even if they don’t quite succeed. They move us on, keep our artform fresh. They make all of us raise our game. But as a writer trying to do her very best, I value craft immensely. It matters a lot to me that something ‘works’. Some novel concepts seem to me to be little more than whacky conceptual art. The idea may be clever, but as soon as you’ve read the description you’ve had the best of it. I’m very disappointed if the execution doesn’t deliver on that anticipation.
So I love it for writers to have vision and scope. Absolutely – otherwise we drown in the ordinary. But the idea is only the beginning. Skill, craft, dedication and patience makes up the rest. And some writers are so accomplished that if their novel works only 70%, it will still be a lot more powerful than that of another writer whose safer idea works 100%.
Dan, you ask questions of ambition and scope. Well done, sir.
What would success look like for you with this collection?
Jane: One of our aims is to persuade new readers to take a risk on authors they may not have heard of before and so, with such a short period of time in which to achieve our aims, naturally, we have to look at book sales. It would be amazing to hit number 1 in the rankings.
But I would also like to change readers’ perception of self-published fiction, particularly those who are clinging to the belief that it is the preserve of amateurs. I too was sold that line. Apparently no self-respecting writer should consider it. Any yet when I explored the option for myself, I found a diverse group, including authors who had walked away from six-figure deals, established authors who’d been dropped by their publishers after their latest book didn’t sell quite so well, talented newcomers building a readership, innovative authors whose work doesn’t fit the market, cross-genre authors who sell themselves as a brand and best-selling authors who have never tried the traditional route, but were there at the start of a publishing revolution. In fact, in a recent survey of over 2,500 authors, 25% of those who had traditional deals had also self-published and, of those who had self-published, 89% would do so again. There is a new breed of hybrid authors who look at each writing project and decide if it is one to submit to their publisher or one to go it alone. With the Society of Authors advising their members that publishing contracts are no longer fair or sustainable, my belief is that the predicted growth in self-publishing will now come from authors who are currently under contract.
Jessica: I think I’ve pretty much summed that up in my previous answers. Of course, there is a part of me that wishes to make a prestigious bestseller list. But that is not the be all and end all.
Roz: I have simple aims, really. I’d like to prove that fine, original authors are self-publishing as a mark of independence and integrity, and doing work of value. To prove that indie publishing is a positive choice for writers of quality, to show that writers can make good publishing decisions and lead the creative process. And if you’re happy with traditional publishing, we hope to add more power to your arm, by demonstrating that authors should be included in business and promotion decisions, treated as partners and offered fair deals.
Finally, why do you think the media has such a big problem writing about literary fiction by women and is so nervous about its response to events like A Year Of Reading Women? What needs to change?
Jane: The great thing about the growth of social media is that people don’t have to rely on traditional publications for information and recommendations. Social media is democracy in action. It grew because of there was need for a medium by which intelligence could be shared. Traditional commentators should be concerned that they are fast becoming irrelevant. I became aware of the Year of Reading Women through their Twitter campaign.
2014 was a year in which women out-performed men in literary awards. Eimear McBride may have won the Women’s Prize for Fiction, but she also won the inaugural Goldsmiths Award, The Desmond Elliott Prize and the Geoffrey Faber Award, whose judges said she had opened a new door for literature. Her novel The Girl is a Half-formed Thing was not just judged to be the best novel by a woman, but the best novel full stop. Ali Smith took the Goldsmiths ward for her dual narrative novel, How to be Both. The Pulitzer Prize for fiction was won by Donna Tartt for The Goldfinch. Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk took the Costa ward for memoirs. Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing took the Costa Award for a new novel. Amy Mason won the Dundee International Book Prize for The Other Ida. The list goes on…
I certainly didn’t have to go searching for great fiction written by women writers, but neither do I deliberately seek out novels written by women. I simply look for great novels. That said, I’m positive that the balance has begun to shift in the past year and will continue to do so. Publishing is a rapidly developing industry. While it is difficult not to take offence at the comment, “And while women are heavy readers, we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS,” or by the college lecturer who refuses to teach fiction written by women because it will be of no interest to his male students, there is little point in quoting statistics that were compiled two years ago.
And since the focus of your question was literary fiction, let’s not forget that it is not only women writers who feel that the golden age is over. Last May, Booker-nominated novelist Will Self mourned the death of literary fiction, writing. “How do you think it feels to have dedicated your entire adult life to an art form, only to see the bloody thing dying before your eyes?”
I’ve always been nervous of the literary tag with its high-brow connotations, but it’s interesting to see a household name such as Kate Mosse distance herself by talking about getting back to her roots as a storyteller. That, to me, is smart marketing. A return to the story being the focus, just as it should be.
Jessica: I can only speak for myself on this matter. I’m all for supporting campaigns like A Year of Reading Women and I think they’re a lovely idea if they’re going to draw attention to great books. But I can’t help thinking that singling women out is just going to cause more segregation. If we really want to support gender equality, shouldn’t we be aiming to read books from an equal amount of men as women? Or even better still, read a book because you want to read the book based on the merits of the story, not because it was written by a specific gender. The fact that this box set contains books all written by women, and the books are all about women, has to do with the fact that it makes a striking thematic link. For me, this box set aims to expose literature that is diverse and pushes boundaries. We are all women? So what? I want people to read and support the books we have written, not the fact that we lack the Y chromosome.
Roz: I support any campaign that aims to introduce readers to great books they may not otherwise have found. However you dress it up, that’s what matters.