Thursday, 31 July 2014

Let's talk about sex. Or not.

Back in the days of obscenity trials, it was clear what you could and couldn’t write about when it came to sex. Lady Chatterley’s Lover is possibly the most famous example, but other books to run foul of the UK censor included Ulysses, Lolita, The Well of Loneliness, and Tropic of Cancer. Nowadays, of course, this is a thing of the past and writers can write, and readers read, pretty much whatever they want to.

There are still things that we would all agree that we shouldn’t read and write about (I don’t expect to see graphic tales of sex with small children any time soon) but otherwise people differ quite markedly on where they will draw the line. My publisher, Accent Press, has an erotic imprint, Xcite, which has received awards for the quality of its work, so obviously there are plenty of people relaxed about Addicted to Rope or Adventures in Fetishland. Pauline Reage’s Story of O is read even by people who might normally avoid what, in the 1960s at least, would have been regarded as ‘dirty books’. Yet, in a world full of quite explicit novels, many people seem surprisingly easily shocked. This is from an Amazon review of Leslie Thomas’s The Secret Army:
But we also see a country overflowing with sexual immorality. Yes, s£x did and does take place, but open oral s£x in streets or respectable married women regularly having multiple partners, even being passed from person to person? Perhaps, but surely very rarely, and not anywhere else as a regular occurrence except in Mr Thomas' mind, I expect.

The question of how much sex is too much (or too little) is, apparently, a constant concern of publishers. One author I know, whose ‘erotic’ novella seems pretty tame, told me that her publisher had asked her to hold back on the kink, while another, writing a straightforward romance, was apparently told to include more explicit sex. It’s a particular problem for me, because The White Rajah includes some (very unexplicit) gay sex. The simple fact of having a gay character at all is apparently too much for some Amazon reviewers:
Pity that such an excellent story should be ruined by the sexual obsessions of the author.
I think Tom Williams spoiled a great yarn by introducing a 'gay' element into a well known and loved adventure.

At the same time, several reviewers on other sites have complained that I shy away from explicit details.
The one disappointment I had, and why I give it three stars rather than four, is that the relationship between the narrator and Brooke is related in very timid detail.  [Goodreads review]

Nowadays the notion that characters don't have sex and that their bedroom activities don't affect their broader relationship is simply silly. But how much detail do we need? Even well-known 'mainstream' authors often seem to feel the need to describe their heroine's enthusiastic response to the hero's thrusting organ, though I would have thought most of us could imagine it for ourselves. At the other extreme, though, we have books that avoid explicit sex but replace it with childish innuendo that I would think many adult readers find much more embarrassing. (I’m naming no names, but I have at least one mega best-seller in mind.)

Obviously, some writers are seeking to shock or excite and, for them, this isn’t a problem. But what about romantic fiction? What about old-fashioned adventure stories? What about literary efforts like Julian Barnes' dreary Sense of an Ending with its sad little paragraph about masturbation. (Uck!) I was going to say that it was a problem for everyone except children's writers, but in the age of Heather Has Two Mommies, sensible children's authors are questioning whether ignoring sex in books for children and young adults is really a good idea.

So: close the bedroom door and leave everything to the imagination? Or bring on the whips and chains and explain exactly what she means when she says that she loves him to death? I'm guessing most of us will go for somewhere in between. But where? I have a friend who was astonished by Fifty Shades because she had never imagined such things. Other friends would regard an evening with the eponymous Christian as a bit on the dull side. How can any author write a book with real characters with real lives that can satisfy all their readers without shocking any of them? And is it even worth trying?





Friday, 18 July 2014

Public Battles, Private Wars

A few months ago I wrote about a book set in the 1960s, arguing that it could legitimately be seen as a historical novel.

As policeman get younger, so it seems does history. I've been reading Laura Wilkinson's Public Battles, Private Wars, which is set in the Miners’ Strike of 1984/5. The events described happened just thirty years ago – nowhere near the agreed minimum for a historical novel. (Few people will accept that anything less than forty years ago could possibly be described as historical.) Yet the world described is barely recognisable: nobody has a mobile phone, or an Internet connection. The story starts with Mandy Walker trying to get on in life by attending a typing class: there are no word processors and the typewriters have ribbons. Will younger readers even understand what Laura Wilkinson is talking about?



It's not material changes that mark this off as a different world, though: it's a whole way of life and the social attitudes that go with it. Mandy lives in a mining village. Life is defined by the pit and the men who go down it. Women stay at home, cook, and bring up the kids. Their sons will, in turn, go down the pit. Their daughters may dream of escape but their highest aspiration is likely to be to work (like Mandy's schoolfriend Ruth) as a local primary school teacher, trapped forever in the mining community.

Not many people much under fifty will have any conception of how important mining used to be, not only economically, but socially. The destruction of the mining industry destroyed whole communities and, with them, a way of life. Ancient certainties about the roles of men and women crumbled. The Labour movement was divided and never really recovered. There are still families split by ancient memories of scabs and picket line violence.

It’s impossible to write about the Miners’ Strike without being political. It was, ultimately, a political strike. The irony was that people were striking for the right to see their sons inherit jobs that were dirty, dangerous and, in some senses, degrading. And the women who supported them were fighting to maintain a way of life in which women would always be second class citizens. (Life in a pit village was defined by your work in the pit and women were, by law, forbidden from working as miners.)

Laura Wilkinson’s characters are caught in this dilemma. Writing from a committed feminist perspective, she highlights the way that Mandy’s life is limited by the pit, her marriage and the hierarchy of the village. In the book, as the strike continues, Mandy grows and develops as the men move inexorably toward defeat.

At times, as a man in 2014, I found revisiting the Guardian Women’s Page of those days intensely irritating. But (returning, belatedly, to my initial point) it is a historical novel. The attitudes expressed were the attitudes of the time. Reading it gives an insight into huge social and political changes that young people who have grown up with New Labour and post-feminism can have little understanding of.

There are all kinds of reasons why historical novels can be worthwhile. One is that it is only by understanding our history that we can truly understand ourselves. Watch The Call Centre and see the young people of South Wales earning their living by selling home insulation on the phone and mock their salon tans and their limited ambitions if you will. But the reason that some of the main employers in that part of the world are call centres goes back to the events of 1984 and, if some of the young people seem to struggle with their lives, those are the lives that Britain gave them when it closed the pits with no idea of what would come next.

Writing this, I feel an anger that I had forgotten for thirty years. Sometimes we should feel angry, and Laura Wilkinson has written a worthwhile reminder of why.



Laura Wilkinson's Public Battles, Private Wars is published by Accent Press and, at the time of writing, is on sale at 99p on Kindle.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Beyond the Call of Duty

His Majesty's Confidential Agent has been written as the first of a series of books which will follow the adventures (initially real, but increasingly fictional as the series goes on) of James Burke. My hero owes more than a little to Flashman and, although it's not intended as primarily military history, you can't set a series of adventure stories around the Napoleonic wars without there being a lot of military stuff in them. So it was interesting for me to read Fred Lilley's book Beyond The Call Of Duty. His hero, Charles Sherrington Bagshott, has been at all the most exciting British military engagements from Burma in 1853 to Sudan in 1883, bravely fighting for Queen and country.

I really, really wanted to hate this book. Any book which starts (apparently without any irony) with the famous aphorism Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, is alien to our modern way of thinking. Surely people rejected this notion once Wilfred Owen had thoroughly discredited it in World War I? Lilley, though, seems to have missed modern attitudes to colonial warfare altogether. In a blog post of his, he claims, with an innocence that one almost has to admire, that British troops never took reprisals against civilian populations. Anybody who knows anything about the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny, to name just one example close to my heart, will know that that is rubbish.

Packing so many campaigns into one book, means that the book reads more like a series of very short stories than a single novel. It provides an instant summary of the British Army actions in the mid- 19th century and, somewhat my irritation, it proves to be very good.

Because I researched the Indian Mutiny quite carefully for my own book, Cawnpore, I read that bit with particular care, in order to see how historically accurate this novel is. The answer is that, like most people (probably including me in some of my books), Lilley gets quite a lot of the fine detail wrong. He does, however, have a good grasp of the general sweep of history and of the role that the British Army played. More importantly, in terms of reading pleasure, it's really rather well written. It's not a long book and it races from one thrill packed incident to another without too much time for the reader’s interest to flag. There are some attempts to make Bagshott into a rounded and credible figure (he's given an Indian wife and twin sons, for example) but he remains somewhat two-dimensional. This is probably inevitable, given the sort of book that it is, and not necessarily that much of a bad thing. Lilley sees the British Army as officered by brave, patriotic men who are convinced of the rightness of their cause and don't think too much about the politics of the situations they find themselves in. Bagshott epitomises these values to the point of caricature and any attempts to turn him into a "real" person with self-doubt and moral uncertainties would undermine the whole raison d'ĂȘtre of the book.

When I was born, Empire Day was still celebrated every 24th May. In my lifetime, the Empire has gone from being a source of pride to something that the British feel vaguely ashamed of. My books, The White Rajah and Cawnpore, both try to show that the relationship between colonisers and the people they colonised was less black-and-white than we tend to see it nowadays. To that extent, Beyond The Call Of Duty is a useful antidote to the contemporary view that British colonialism was a wholly bad thing that is best forgotten about. That doesn't make its underlying assumptions and attitudes right, but it does make an interesting read.


Buy it for a Guardian reader for Christmas.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Review sites

Someone has just said that they'd like to review my book, but want to know a good site. Here's two:

(1) Amazon. Go to the book's page on Amazon (in the uk it'shttp://www.amazon.co.uk/Majestys-Confidential-Agent-James-Burke-ebook/dp/B00JZZS5JY) Scroll down to 'Customer Reviews'. Click the button to say you want to write a review. You can only write a review if you're registered with Amazon, but if you have ever bought anything from them, you are. When you've written it, click the button saying you want to read over what you've written and then click the button to publish it. Done!
(2) Goodreads. You have to be registered to post on Goodreads, but it's a nice site and it's free. 'His Majesty's Confidential Agent' is athttps://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22071282-his-majesty-s-confidential-agent. Immediately below the details of the book is a section headed 'My Review' Click on the green text that says 'Add a review'. You can use the same text as for Amazon if you want.

Reviews make a big difference to books that have limited marketing budgets behind them, so if you did like 'His Majesty's Confidential Agent', please let people know. Remember that you don't need to write a long review. Just a couple of lines saying what you thought of the book will help.

Many thanks.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Take Two

If you missed my post here on the Industrial Revolution in Scotland, or if you would like to see an extended version with extra photographs, check out the English History Authors blog.