The shortlist for the Women's Prize for Fiction (formerly known as the Orange Prize) was announced last week and it looks like 2013's is a particularly interesting one. I'm not going to go over the same old arguments in defence of the existence of a prize devoted solely to women's fiction, save to say that when sexism no longer exists in publishing (and hey, why not the wider world while we're at it), then it'll be redundant, but not before.
The list is interesting because there are some serious heavyweights on it - Zadie Smith and Hilary Mantel to name but two - and the judges have recognised their achievements rather than shying away from ‘rewarding them too much’. I'm going to be blasphemous and say I'm not a fan of Mantel’s work (apart from the glorious A Place of Greater Safety which singlehandedly dragged me through my History A-level) and although I haven’t read Bring Up The Bodies, I did read Wolf Hall and I honestly can’t see what everyone else does. So there’s that, but it’s just my opinion.
Anyway, when I sheepishly confessed to some friends that I hadn’t read anything on the shortlist, one of them asked, genuinely curious because she knows I’m ‘a reader’, “well what are you reading then?” and I realised that I’m going through one of my lazy phases where all I consume is ‘literary babyfood’. That is, fiction that doesn’t remotely challenge or stretch my brain, plus magazines.
Now I just want to be clear: just because something is literary babyfood, that doesn’t mean it’s poor quality at all. It’s more that it’s about simple, easy-to-digest ideas written in a clear style with no nasty shocks, surprises or twists and definitely no unhappy endings.
These novels, for me anyway, have the ability to soothe frazzled nerves, like the literary equivalent of sucking your thumb or stroking a pet. When the world feels like a cruel, chaotic place, they envelope you in their warm, comforting embrace and let you switch off and drift along with a good story.
I only indulge from time to time, and balance it out with some ‘roughage’ – heavyweights like Edith Wharton (just a few pages of one of her novels makes my brain feel like it’s been through a pencil sharpener) or Trollope (Anthony, not Joanna – she’s definitely babyfood.)
I belong to a most excellent book club which has booted me out of my literary comfort zone on more than one occasion; I’ve been forced, grumbling, through non-fiction (I never normally read non-fiction, preferring made up ‘stories’), contemporary fiction (those ‘stories’ should be set in the cosy, recent past where everyone wore better clothes) and even poetry. I KNOW!
It’s been great; just some of the unexpected titles I’ve read thanks to book club include Nothing To Envy by Barbara Demick, an award-winning journalist who tells the terrifying story of North Korea through the testimonies of six people who escaped the regime, The Big Short – an account of the economic crisis as told by Wall Street insiders, Rajaa Alsanea’s Girls of Riyadh and Wolf Hall (hmm...)
Anything by Agatha Christie
Who cares whodunit? Just sit back, relax and enjoy the subtly spiteful descriptions of human behaviour - jealousy, snobbery, all the sins - in small English villages and genteel hotels. If you want some badass feminist heroines, read the crime novels which don’t feature Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot – there you’ll find intrepid gels who smoke, drive fast cars and have MacGyver-like ingenuity when it comes to getting themselves (and the hapless chaps they hang out with) out of sticky situations.
Margery Allingham’s Campion novels
Allingham’s writing is often elevated by literary critics into the ‘proper’ (as opposed to crime) fiction canon, which I think is a tad patronising - just because someone’s writing murder mysteries, that doesn’t mean they’re producing mass market pap. Again, a perfect example of literature that’s a pleasure to consume, easy to digest and always leaves me filled with admiration at her wickedly skilful use of language.
Any Fairacre or Thrush Green novels by Miss Read
The lives of the inhabitants of two small Cotswolds villages throughout the twentieth century (I think the books start in the '40s and end in the '80s) are lovingly described by 'Miss Read' with wit, warmth and genuine affection. I've learned more about the flora and fauna of the British countryside and the strength of the human spirit through reading these gentle tales than I ever had in a more weighty tome.
The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection (No.1 Ladies Detective Agency) by Alexander McCall Smith
Precious Ramotswe and her colleague ('associate detective' as she insists) Grace Makutsi have a lot in common with the schoolteachers and other women of Miss Read's novels. Pragmatists, with a firm understanding of human nature and plenty of common sense, they navigative the mundane domestic dramas that land in their way with kindess and patience - qualities that are all too often overlooked.
Winifred Watson's Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and Mrs 'Arris Goes To Paris (also known as Flowers for Mrs Harris) by Paul Gallico
Two delightful jewels which both have a Cinderella theme and lots of lovely fashion. If you don't cry while reading these you have a HEART OF STONE. I like to imagine them both with makeover montage scenes like the one Tai gets in Clueless.
So tell me, what do you read when you need to relax, set your brain to autopilot and let your eyes skim over the page? Do you feel guilty or do you EMBRACE the bookish babyfood? Share!