Monday, August 14, 2006

Romantic Novelists' Assocation honours three members

On Friday of this week, the UK Romantic Novelists' Association will be holding a lunch at the Scottish Parliament building, in Edinburgh, to honour the lifetime achievements of three senior members: Lucilla Andrews, Rosamunde Pilcher, and Mary Stewart.

Each of these three ladies has a formidable track record in terms of the numbers of books written and sold, and the numbers of satisfied readers. All three have Scottish connections.

Of the three, Lucilla Andrews is, I suspect, the one who most closely conforms with the public image of the romantic-fiction author. That is to say, she has produced a substantial volume of work, she is read almost exclusively by women, and is seldom reviewed by the literary press; although the Guardian did once describe her as 'the brand leader of hospital fiction.'

If you search for books by Lucilla Andrews, you come up with a list of 134 results (the first one of which, inexplicably, has the cover illustration for some other book entirely). And you will see that the audio versions of her novels are also very popular. But a better guide to her career is, I think, offered by the catalogue of the British Library. This shows an output of 79 publications, from 1954 to 1996. Lucilla has also written under the names Diana Gordon and Joanna Marcus.

A more general search of the web, for biographical information about Lucilla Andrews produces little result. What this means is that she is not a name which is much talked about by the keyboard classes. That is a pity, but it need not concern us here. Because we already know that Lucilla Andrews is one of those low-profile writers who has served her readers well over many decades, has accumulated an enthusiastic following, and has been much loved. It has been a long and successful career; and now she is to be honoured by the members of the RNA, which is as it should be.

Rosamunde Pilcher, by contrast, is a high-profile writer. She has her own Wikipedia entry, web sites organised by fans, and so forth. There are also quite a few profiles and interviews online.

Rosamunde's writing career began in 1949, when she wrote Secret to Tell, for Mills and Boon, under the pen-name Jane Fraser. Ten more novels under that name followed, until she began to use her own name regularly, for a different publisher, in 1965.

The later books were substantial international successes: The Shell Seekers and September, for example, were on the New York Times bestseller list for months. The books and stories have also been enormously successful in terms of adaptations. Wikipedia says Rosamunde's books are particularly popular in Germany, due to the fact that the national TV station, ZDF (Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen), has produced more than 60 of her stories for TV. These TV films are some of the most popular programmes on ZDF. (You can find a list of these films on imdb.) There have also been a number of British adaptations for TV, such as Coming Home. The Shell Seekers will reportedly be shown as a TV miniseries later this year.

Mary Stewart has also been on the New York Times bestseller list: fourteen times, to be precise. In 1964, for instance, she came up with the ninth best-selling novel of the entire year, This Rough Magic. In 1967 she was again in ninth place for the year with The Gabriel Hounds; and in 1970 she was fourth, with The Crystal Cave.

Many of Mary Stewart's books combined romance with suspense or detection. The romantic genre was not, however, the only one in which she has excelled: she also made her mark in a field which might be called historical fantasy. Here she produced a series of novels about Merlin, the wizard who features in the legends of King Arthur. Her work has also been adapted for the screen, notably in the 1964 film The Moon Spinners.

I am pleased to be able to report that Mrs GOB and I have been invited to attend the lunch to honour these three writers, and we are much looking forward to it. Jenny Haddon, the current Chairman of the RNA, tells me that the invitation was prompted by the fact that I am one of the few book-world commentators who ever has a good word to say for romantic fiction. To that I happily plead guilty.

This is not the place to rehearse the detailed reasons for my approval of genre fiction in general, but perhaps it is worth pointing out that I have been studying the theory and practice of writing fiction, in a reasonably structured and methodical way, for some fifty years. In the whole of that time I have never come across any argument which convinced me that one particular type of fiction is technically or morally superior to any other kind.

This is, of course, a markedly different view from that held by most other 'authorities'. The received wisdom is that the various genres of fiction form a hierarchy of value (rather like a block of flats), with literary fiction (naturally) at the top, and all the other genres considerably lower down. What the trade refers to as women's fiction in general, and romantic fiction in particular, are normally seen as filling the basement, along with the dustbins and trash cans.

This truth is held to be self-evident. But like a lot of other self-evident truths (e.g. the sun obviously goes around the earth), it is not supported by the evidence. The proper way to view the various genres of fiction is as a street of many bookshops, each of them selling a particular variety of book (and some of them rather specialised). In this street all bookshops are equal; there are no prime sites. And the wise reader wanders from shop to shop, sampling the wares here and there as the fancy strikes.

The UK Romantic Novelists's Association, by the way, is an extremely active organisation and its web site repays study. Not the least of its virtues is that it offers a New Writers Scheme, which provides encouragement and help to those who can demonstrate that their work is of publishable standard.

The RNA also offers a useful list of members' web sites. It is invidious to pick out individuals (but when has that ever stopped me?), and you might look, for instance, at those of the current chairman, Jenny Haddon, and the secretary, Eileen Ramsay.

Eileen Ramsay was the 2005 winner of the Elizabeth Goudge Award, for the best historical novel of the year.

Jenny Haddon, you will find, is a prodigious worker, and her books have been translated into 24 languages. See? Next time you want to be sniffy about romantic fiction, show me the list of the 24 languages that you've been published in and I might take a bit of notice. But not until.


Kate Allan said...

Well said.

Adrian Weston said...

I'm always going on about Mary Stewart and have tried on occasion to whip up a bit of interest in her, but am probably as always deeply out of kilter with prevailing literary fancies. The thing I find most interesting about her as an example of popular fiction writing is how erudite she is - her novels are frequently grounded in literary texts (eg This Rough Magic - The Tempest) and major writers and poets are refernced throughout her novels. Unsrprisingly Mary Stewart was a lecturer in English at (I think) Durham before fame and fortune struck - and she was also married to another academic. This is not in itself remarkable - heavens, my father's a many-chaired professor - but what is remarkable is that her learning was worn so vividly without diminishing her popularity or populism. I can't imagine many current publishers being happy with a hunky detective false-love-interest sitting reading TS Eliot as the policeman in Madam, Will You Talk? does. In fact, would we now believe in a DCI with knowledge of Burnt Norton...? Which is probably unfair as there are now more graduates in the police force than once was the case - though it posits the question: graduates of what? What am I trying to say? I guess a depressing fear that we've lost a level of literateness and knowledge of the literary past from our popular publishing/writing - and I know Shakespeare in Love and Baz Lurman's Romeo & Juliet could be used as counter arguments - and wasn't Clueless meant to be based on a Jane Austen novel? But I'm not convinced!

Anonymous said...

'Keyboard classes'. Not heard that one before. Very good. You can't mean people like me, of course...

Anonymous said...

As you would expect, I completely agree with your remarks on the writers we in the RNA will be honouring on Friday.

Lucilla Andrews was a nurse during and after the war and mined her own experience for her stories. Her autobigraphy, "No Time for Love" gives an unsentimental account of nursing in London during the blitz and is quoted by Random House as good background reading to Ian McEwan's "Atonement". RH are right - and the McEwan novel is one of my favourites, too.

Adrian, I agree. English literature accompanies Stewart's characters like a friendly ghost. One of her heroines actually says at some point, "Poetry is awfully good material to think with," doesn't she?

I'm grateful for your kind remarks on myself, GOB, but actually rather a lot of Harlequin authors are published in more than 24 languages. Personally, I'm missing Icelandic, for instance. I brood about that.

Anonymous said...

Came to this one a couple of months late, after my mother set me looking for Lucilla Andrews books for her - they are not terribly common in Norwegian 2nd-hand bookshops. One google hit seems to indicate that Lucilla Andrews has passed away since the luncheon, is that correct?

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