Cookson's romance fails to tempt students

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The Independent Online
LOUISE JURY

Her legions of fans have made her the most popular author in Britain's libraries. Sales of more than 90 million books have placed her among the country's wealthiest women.

So when Leeds University advertised its course on the social, historical and literary aspects of the works of the historical-saga writer Dame Catherine Cookson they thought they were on to a winner.

"She's a local writer and she's hugely popular," said Samantha Fielding, administrative officer for the university's department of adult continuing education.

For one afternoon a week for a term, the course was worth 10 credits towards 120 needed for the first part of a full university degree.

But only one person enrolled, and the course has been axed.

"The minimum number needed was 10. But if we can get enough we'll try again in January. We did it once before, last year, and got enough people then," Ms Fielding said.

But others were not convinced. AR Beven - whose novel The Seldom Girls was released under his initials by publishers who believed women would not buy romance from a man - said: "Comparing Catherine Cookson with, for example, 19th-century novelists might be interesting, but if all you have to do to get 10 credits is regurgitate the plots then it's not worth it."

Elizabeth Buchan, chairman of the Romantic Novelists' Association, said: "Romantic fiction contains some of the big novels like Jane Eyre and Far From the Madding Crowd, and it's a great tradition, but it's been hijacked by Mills and Boon ... But to take Catherine Cookson as a complete lodestone would be mad. Her clogs-to-credit-card kind of feel is the stuff of traditional romantic fiction but she's not the whole story by any means."

Joanna Briscoe, who won the 1993 Betty Trask award for "traditional" or "romantic" fiction with her novel Mothers and Other Lovers, was "not surprised if only one person wants to take the course". She said: "I'm all for studying commercial fiction and I think we should certainly question our notions of what great writing is. But it's silly to choose one author."

Dame Catherine herself, however, was thrilled that Leeds was still hoping to get the course underway. She already receives letters from schools which use her books as a subject for study. "I think it's marvellous," the 89-year-old writer said. "I am a story-teller. I adore a good story."

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