Creative writing: On trend
Celia Brayfield explores the pros and cons of writing fashionably
I’ve spent the last couple of years writing a biographical study of the very young women writers of the Sixties. Rebel Writers: The Accidental Feminists looks at the early careers of Shelagh Delaney, Edna O’Brien, Lynne Reid Banks, Charlotte Bingham, Nell Dunn, Virginia Ironside and Margaret Forster. They’re linked by theme, in that they all wrote about being a young woman, but they didn’t think of themselves as a literary movement. Nor did anyone pin a name on them as a marketing move, which is what happened to the even more disparate group of young male writers of the time, first called the Angry Young Men by John Osborne’s publicist.
But they were fashionable, part of a trend, a genre. For a crucial decade, before second-wave feminism moved the public conversation on, books by women in their teens and twenties were the hot trend in publishing, just as psychological thrillers have been recently, following on from misery memoirs, chick-lit and YA paranormal romance. I made this choice with my first three novels, all in the 'glitz' genre started by Judith Krantz, so I know how it works. With the added perspective of my work as a creative writing tutor, I’ve noted down a few points that any debut writer might care to consider.
1) You won’t have a choice. You will be a genre writer if you, or your writing, fits the genre conventions and the decision will be made by your publisher. In the case of the Rebel Writers, it was the stupendous success of the 17-year-old French novelist Francoise Sagan with her debut novel Bonjour Tristesse, which convinced the industry that young women’s writing was commercially sexy. So when the 19-year-old playwright Shelagh Delaney got off the train from Salford for the premiere of A Taste of Honey, she was immediately asked, 'Are you the new Francoise Sagan?' This still happens, even to the extent of changing a writer’s name to make it sound on trend.
2) Genre marketing can make your fortune. You’ll get a cover in the right colours with the right title in the right font. You’ll be on the right tables in the bookshops, and put forward by Amazon and all its works in those 'you may also like' or 'people who bought this also bought…' features. This will have a sales benefit. As the playwright Arnold Wesker, one of the most honest of the Angry Young Men, admitted, the young writers who got this label weren’t angry at all. 'On the contrary, we were very happy… we were earning more money in a year than in our entire lives till then.”'
3) Catch the wave. Timing is everything. The best time to be a genre writer is when the genre is building. I suggest to students that they think of it like surfing. The time to catch the wave is when it is rising, not when it’s breaking. Of the seven Rebel Writers, Virginia Ironside, whose novel Chelsea Bird, was published six years after the genre emerged, suffered from media overkill and her publisher’s complacency. A glance through the files shows weary editors and complacent readers failing to see what was different, even challenging, about her account of a young art student’s life. Instead they just assumed it would sell if they marketed her as a 'teenybopper novelist.' Small wonder that she preferred to be cool and be a pop columnist.
4) You will find yourself in the Hotel California. You can check out any time but you can never leave a genre. Moving out is like tunnelling out of Colditz, believe me. Margaret Forster hated her hit novel Georgy Girl. It was an anomaly, something she wrote as a reaction to a bad experience with her first publication. Yet it took twenty years, ten more novels and a change of publisher before she found a readership as an independent voice.
So being on trend has benefits, but the writer can find themselves in a gilded cage.
Rebel Writers:The Accidental Feminists is published by Bloomsbury, £19.99.
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