Is Scotland Afraid of Romance?
My story also includes, among other things, an unsolved murder, political skulduggery prior to the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, the early years of Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and an associated healthy amount of bodysnatching. So it could just as easily be called a shroud-ripper – only that doesn't have quite the same dismissive edge.
Now, I'm a big girl and I can take both criticism and rejection. Both are part and parcel of the writer's life. What worries me is that the publishers are clearly not comfortable with a sexy and romantic novel. What worries me even more is that this distaste for romantic novels is shared by some very influential people.
In too many Scottish literary circles the term "popular novelist" is an insult, one of the worst things a writer can be is readable, accessible and entertaining, and romantic novelists are beneath contempt. According to this credo, storytelling itself is despised, and the only fiction of any value is that which is "challenging."
Leaving aside the fact that some of the writing lauded by Scotland's literati is about as challenging as a dead sheep, most people I know are challenged enough in their daily lives. When they pick up a book they want escapism.
Not that escapism necessarily requires the disengaging of the brain. This is where those who sneer at romantic fiction betray their woeful ignorance of the genre. It's an extremely broad church. Yes, some of it is badly written. On the other hand, much of it is beautifully written and deeply satisfying to read. Both extremes can be found in any type of writing.
My definition of a romantic novel is one in which a love story is at the very heart of the novel. This doesn't mean that there can't be an awful lot else going on in there too: that the characters can't be real, living, human beings, each with his or her own sets of dreams, ambitions, fears and emotional baggage; that they aren't contending with the realities of their own time and the way life happens to all of us while we're busy making other plans; that readers can't enjoy the escapism of adventure and happy endings while at the same time having their own lives reflected back at them. All good fiction does that. All good fiction goes into the now of its characters. All good fiction tells lies to tell the truth.
Although it sometimes does, we all know that life doesn't always deliver happy endings. That's precisely why romantic fiction is so satisfying. I firmly believe that popular fiction in general is necessary to our emotional and spiritual well-being. We need stories and we need storytellers.
Some of Scotland's growing number of book festivals promote all types of writing. Some don't. I'd love to be proved wrong but it's been my perception for some years now that the Edinburgh Book Festival, to take one example, more or less ignores popular fiction, let alone that of the romantic variety. Again I'd love to be told that I'm wrong, but I don't think I saw any romantic novelists listed as taking part in the recent Tartan Bites events in the United States or that I see them listed on British Council tours or being awarded writing fellowships or having their books reviewed. Why is that? Why is it that Scotland doesn't celebrate its tradition of romantic writing and its current crop of talented and hardworking romantic and popular novelists?
Is it the long shadow cast by John Knox and generations of hellfire and brimstone ministers – thou shalt not enjoy thyself? Is it an innate miserabilist tendency - life's a bitch and then you die? Or do the literary opinion formers feel so guilty about all those launches and lunches drinking wine at other people's expense that they can only justify their existences by turning reading into a form of masochism, a book something to be endured rather than enjoyed?
We popular novelists who are, well, popular, could of course simply read our royalty statements and annual Public Lending Right returns and retire to our well-appointed garrets to write the next book. Sorry, but I've had enough. I'm fed up to the back teeth with this presumption that literary novels – some with a very shaky claim to that honourable designation - are superior to the popular variety. I'm also concerned about the effect all of this has on new writers.
Last year, literary agent Jenny Brown asked where all of the "gorgeous, sexy novels from Scotland" were. I'd like to pose that question too, and I'm presuming she used sexy both in its literal and wider modern sense of big, engaging and well-told. There's no shortage of talent out there, but could it be that some who might write a big, gorgeous, sexy novel are persuaded by a confederacy of dunces that it's somehow more worthy to produce a not-very-good literary novel?
Given our great tradition of romantic and popular writing, this negative attitude towards popular fiction and storytelling flummoxes me. Without even mentioning Scott or the majority of the usual suspects, allow me to scoop up a handful of gems.
Take Thomas the Rhymer and his dalliance with the Queen of Fairyland. Read the heart-breaking story of the Goodman of Wastness, who loved and lost his beautiful seal-wife, one of the legendary selkies. Have a look at George MacDonald, a Huntly loon shamefully without honour in his own country – although not in the US – and who was acknowledged as a huge influence on their own writing by both CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien. For an enchanting and unusual love story, one of those with room for a myriad of other strands and themes, try MacDonald's The Light Princess.
For pure pleasure I'm currently re-reading Catriona by Robert Louis Stevenson. This sequel to Kidnapped might be described as high romance, with David Balfour falling into in all sorts of adventures on his way to falling in love. The sexy and sparkling dialogue is just one of Catriona's many delights, leaping off the page as fresh as the day it was written. When David and Catriona sail together to Holland a gust of wind catches her petticoats while they're disembarking and "gave us rather more of a view of her stockings than would be thought genteel in cities." That's pretty sexy, too.
If you fancy an equally swashbuckling but more graphically sexy story, try the long-running Scottish-set saga written by American writer Diana Gabaldon. Although she comes away with some howlers, you forgive her for the sake of her creation Jamie Fraser, one of the most charismatic romantic heroes of recent times. I'd wholeheartedly recommend the first three books of her series about him and his time-travelling lover Clare Randall: Cross Stitch, Voyager and Dragonfly in Amber. Although die-hard fans are persevering with the subsequent books in the series, sadly these doorstops seem to have been written while Gabaldon's editor was out to lunch, one of heroic length even by publishing standards.
Sexy and romantic doesn't have to be graphic. The Dark Mile by DK Broster is the third book in her Jacobite Trilogy. It beautifully interweaves Jacobite politics and adventure with the tender and moving story of two star-crossed lovers. Ian Stewart and Olivia Campbell do nothing more than kiss, but for my money it's one of the most romantic Scottish love stories ever written.
Not that there's anything wrong with wanting to write and read about two people who fancy each other like mad making, or dreaming of making, mad passionate love to one other. Speaking personally, I like that even more when the two people concerned both have long hair and at least one of them is wearing long skirts. Ah, the attraction of a man with a lace jabot at his throat and ruffled shirt cuffs flopping over a slim-fingered hand which is masterfully grasping a basket-hilted broadsword. Pass me the smelling salts before I rip my own bodice with the excitement of it all. I have a book to write: a big, gorgeous, sexy Scottish one of course.
Whether the stories to be told are historical, contemporary, futuristic, set in Scotland or outwith it, I'd love to think there were loads of other authors out there working away on their own big, gorgeous, sexy novels. Aux barricades, brothers and sisters of the pen and keyboard. Writers of romantic and popular fiction, your country needs you!