The full title of this book is RATIONING IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR: SPUDS, SPAM, AND EATING FOR VICTORY. I met the author, Katherine Knight, at a Society of Authors event last year and liked the sound of her book. It is just as interesting as I thought it would be, both in itself and on a personal level. My parents lived through the war and my mother in particular is much on my mind at the moment. She would have been eight-five on the 31st January. It’s almost three years since she died.
She was thirteen when the war started. She was living in Chesterfield, where she must have been in some danger, living close to Sheffield, a centre for steel-making and the target of enemy bombers. She didn’t talk about that and now I can’t ask her. But reading about the privations of war-time – there was rationing of clothes as well as food – I see that the war was a formative influence. Her family weren’t badly off – skilled working class – and she was a cherished only child. She used to say that her mother liked to keep a good table. I don’t think she went short, but the prevailing drabness has its effect. I understand why later in life she loved to shop. When she lived in Birmingham she could spend a whole day window-shopping, not buying anything. She loved little treats, meals out, and the food department in Marks and Spencer. But she wasn’t extravagant: she loved a bargain, and lots of her clothes were bought in the sales or spotted in charity shops.
One of her favourite activities was shopping for clothes for me and my daughter. She liked to see me well dressed (not that common an occurence, sadly!). She liked bright colours and luxurious fabrics. She especially admired a shocking pink calf-length wool coat that I bought in a Jaeger sale years ago. I wish I’d hung to that coat. Together we chose my wedding dress from the original Droopy and Brown shop in York: sea-green, full-length with a full skirt (complete with net petticoat) and a bolero jacket. Just earlier this week I finally took to a charity shop in Bakewell a lovely coat that she bought for my daughter. I felt a pang at parting with it. How I miss her.
A few years ago, my friend, Anca Vlasopolos, wrote a haunting short story about an immigrant family trying – unsuccessfully – to sell fish by the roadside in Detroit. It ended with one of them saying ‘Don’t they know a good thing when they see it?’ I have been have been brooding over that story and that question, prompted by a headline in THE INDEPENDENT newspaper a couple of weeks ago: ‘Writer who was rejected 100 times is finally rewarded.’ It goes on to say that Jason Wallace has been named winner of the Costa Children’s Book Award for his novel for young adults, OUT OF THE SHADOWS, set in 1980s Zimbabwe. He had been turned down by 100 agents and publishers before finding a home with the Andersen Press.
This isn’t the first time that a book not deemed good enough to be published by the people who are supposed to know has gone on to win an award, but it never ceases to surprise me. And it doesn’t happen just to new writers, either. Some years ago Jill Paton Walsh, already a successful writer, failed to find a publisher for her book, KNOWLEDGE OF ANGELS. She published it herself and it was short-listed for the Booker Prize. It’s enough to make you throw up your hands in despair. How does it happen that editors and agents can fail to know a good thing when they see it? Yes, literary taste is to some extent subjective, but not THAT subjective. Most readers can recognize a piece of really bad writing when they see it. Most readers will agree that ANNA KARENINA is a great novel, even if it is not one that they personally enjoy.
I guess that answer lies in the conservatism of the publishing industry, particularly in periods of recession. They don’t want to take a chance, they want something just like the last big thing, or at least something that is guaranteed solid sales. I wonder how many good writers fall through the cracks? It’s not enough to have talent.
But then perhaps it never has been. The other day in the course of doing research for my next novel I asked a biologist what makes a good scientist. ‘Genius may well be 10% inspiration and 90% genius,’ he said, ‘but it’s also 100% persistence.’ The same is true of the writing life.
I’ve been neglecting my blog a bit. It’s been very busy time for me as the CWA membership secretary. Subscriptions were due on 1st January and we have around 500 members so that’s an awful lot of renewal forms and cheques. (And by the way, if you’re a crime writer and you’re not a member, why not? You’re missing out on a lot of fun). To make matters more complicated, this year we have introduced online payment, so I am operating two systems, a paper one and an electronic one, which has made for a challenging first year in the job.
There has still been time for reading, of course. I’ve enjoyed the latest Camilleri, THE TRACK OF THE SAND. Reading this and also reflecting on FREEDOM, the Jonathan Franzen novel, it strikes me that reticence is a an important quality in a writer and that there is enormous skill in knowing how to give the reader exactly the right amount and no more. It’s a common fault in new writers that they try to tell you everything. But it’s a courtesy to the reader to assume that they don’t need to have everything spelt out. There’s a good example in FREEDOM when disaster overtakes one of the characters – I won’t say more for fear of spoiling it – and Franzen doesn’t describe how she felt or what thoughts went through her head; we imagine that for ourselves and the scene is all the stronger for it. Similarly when Inspector Montalbana has a ill-judged sexual encounter, we don’t need a blow-by-blow account, but Camilleri tells us enough for us to understand the Inspector’s discomfort later.
So: enough and no more. Sound easy, perhaps, but it is one of the hardest things to learn as a writer.
Among my presents this year was Jonathan Franzen’s FREEDOM, which I’d very much looking forward to reading. The big question has been, could he come up with something as good as THE CORRECTIONS? I thought that was the very best contemporary novel that I had read for a long time, exhilerating good in the way that Dickens is good and naturally I was hoping for more when I opend the new one just before Christmas. At first I was a bit disappointed. I wasn’t immediately caught by it and I think this had something to do with the character whose narrative we first follow, a basketball player who goes to University on a sports scholarship. Maybe it brought back the misery of basketball in my own school days and being among the last to be picked for the teams! But it was also to do with not understanding the American sports jargon and with the personality of Patty which I didn’t much like. However I pressed on and got over that.
It’s good, it’s very, very good, though my personal preference is still for THE CORRECTIONS. FREEDOM is a state-of- American novel and Franzen touches on some huge themes, but at the heart of it is a portrait of a marriage and this is where he really excels. It struck me as I was reading, how brilliantly Franzen writes about sex, a notorious difficult area. He’s explicit, but never pornographic. He doesn’t make the mistake of going into a lot of physical detail, instead he really gets into his characters’ heads.
When I’d finished it, I felt at a loss. I knew I wouldn’t want to read anything else for a while. It was as if I had eaten a long meal with many courses. I needed to think about the novel, digest it, go back and re-read parts of it. And ultimately it is pretty pointless comparing it to THE CORRECTIONS. It’s a different novel, it’s another great novel, and I am sure that it will last.