'Aga saga' may be my phrase, but it's not my style

Seeing the comments of the two queens of popular fiction at Hay, I'm tempted to recant my recantation

Terence Blacker
Saturday 31 May 2003 00:00

I have been trashed at Hay-on-Wye, it seems. There is nothing unusual in that - virtually everyone who writes for a living ends up getting trashed at Hay, usually when they are not present.

Something happens to people when they gather in the hills to talk about books. The knowing, sensible audiences, the haughty interviewers, the authors basking in the limelight soon begin to believe that they are absolutely it, that they are at the throbbing heart of the literary scene, that a book or author really might as well not exist if it is not the subject of this year's chatter in tents.

Not that I care, of course. The true writer rises above the sort of hype, talking and performing that represents the marketing wing of the books business. As the American novelist Ann Beattie put it in a recent interview: "The more attention is focused on the writer's life, at the expense of considering the work, the more we will continue to perpetuate the delusion that the writer is there - conveniently there, on the road - to be projected upon. To come to conclusions about the writer is irrelevant to the writer's work."

The chatter at Hay during which my name was mentioned was, paradoxically, about reducing serious work to chatter. According to a report in The Guardian, the two queens of popular fiction Joanna Trollope and Jilly Cooper have, after years of being patronised by the literary establishment, appeared on stage together to "put the snobs and supercilious critics in their places". Furthermore, "the guilty men who once held them up to ridicule were forced to admit they were wrong".

Only one of the guilty men was actually named: patronising, snobbish, supercilious me. The crime of which I was accused was that once, early in my writing career, I had written a column in Publishing News where I had passed comment on the new kind of fiction which Trollope was writing, tales of the troubled middle-class in the countryside - Aga sagas, as it were.

A few days later, someone in the national press picked up on the phrase and soon, by the mysterious process by which the modern media works, the phrase "Aga saga" was being used by publishers, bookshops and journalists.

The report from Hay reveals that I have since "recanted" but that is not quite the way I see it. Although it must be bloody annoying for a writer to have her work reduced to a flip phrase, I have only used it once and in a perfectly respectable context. What happened to the term after that is no more my responsibility than it would be Trollope's if her jokey reference to a certain kind of serious fiction as "grim lit" took hold.

In fact, reading some of the comments of the two queens of popular fiction at Hay-on-Wye, I am tempted now to recant my recantation. Trollope had read novels entered for the Whitbread Prize and had found most of them "unbelievably bad". There was an "inherent puritanical strain in the British psyche" which militated against popular storytelling: "We distrust anything readable or fun."

For her part, Cooper denied that her work was not on the cutting edge: her next book has "got paedophilia, 11 September and lots of black people in it".

Their interviewer, the horror writer Phil Rickman, also had his say, suggesting that the difference between genre novels and self-conscious literary fiction was the same as that between honest love-making and masturbation.

Hang on, this is getting silly. No one with any sense would argue that telling good stories and writing books that sell thousands of copies is easy, or that providing entertainment is unimportant.

On the other hand, to dismiss authors simply on the grounds that they are serious is the literary equivalent of valuing EastEnders more than The Cherry Orchard because more people have watched it.

It has become a tedious cliché among those who write for a particular popular market that they are undervalued by jealous, pretentious and snobbish literary types. Terry Pratchett regularly moans about how few reviews he gets. John Le Carré has never felt that he is taken quite as seriously as he deserves to be.

When he was at liberty, Jeffrey Archer used to sneer at the low sales of more serious novelists. More than once, some prat will argue that the latest Dick Francis thriller should be on the Booker shortlist.

As a general rule, the division of fiction into the literary and the popular is a trick perpetrated by the lazy-minded books business and helps neither authors nor readers. But a hallmark of genre fiction - the central reason why it is popular - is that it is undemanding and unsurprising, works within certain conventions and is sold and promoted with the help of marketing tags, like "Aga saga".

It is as pointless for those who specialise in the readable and the fun to dismiss the efforts of less commercially driven authors as it is for supercilious critics to patronise books which merely entertain. But, because serious fiction is more difficult to write, and a lot more difficult to sell, the honest love-makers of popular fiction should at least give the poor old literary masturbators a bit of public support, the sound of one hand-clapping, as they go about their lonely task.


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