Book of the Week (actually, book of the summer): Gabriel’s Bay by Catherine Robertson

An essay by Catherine Robertson, author of the wildly entertaining novel Gabriel’s Bay, on the problems some critics have with ‘women’s fiction’.

Two years ago, I reviewed a truly terrible novel. I managed to find one positive thing to say about it, but the bulk of the review was not complimentary. The author wrote to the books page editor and said it was clear I had not actually read the novel. In his mind, I’d written a fake review because a real review would have acknowledged his obvious and possibly majestic brilliance.

I did read his novel. Right to the end. It joins the list of things I’ve done that I wish I hadn’t, like try curried eggs a second time.

If you’re the kind of person who believes the world does not recognise your genius, then you’re the kind of person with no ability – or, more probably, willingness – to judge whether your work is bad. You are Kevin, part of the first creative writing class I ever took, held in the Redwoods Retirement Community in Mill Valley, California. I bumped into Kevin by the piano as I was hurrying in late and he was storming out, practically horizontal with indignation. He told me that I was “a nice person” but that the rest of the class were “idiots” and that he would not be returning, no sir. That was in 2001, and I would happily bet money that Kevin’s genius remains unrecognised to this day.

The class teacher was an award-winning poet, Thomas Centolella. In his introduction to the class, Tom did his best to ground us: “If you are expecting unqualified praise, be prepared for disappointment.”

(Narrator: Kevin was not prepared. NB: Kevin was his real name. I didn’t call him that just to be mean.)

Catherine Robertson.

I’d be lying if I said I’ve never secretly craved unqualified praise. It’d be so much easier on my psyche if my work were universally beloved. I’m happy enough that the good reviews outnumber the bad. I’ve even enjoyed the odd bit of qualified praise: “Not the worst book I’ve read…” (Some woman on the PaperPlus website, using italics to make ‘worst’ even worse.)

But what I want more than praise is to be read by people who think books like mine are dumb.

At the risk of sounding like the author above, I know I’m a better writer than those non-readers have judged me to be. They have judged me not on the quality of my work, but on their belief that I write in the category described by the esteemed books editor of The Spinoff as “chick lit and shit”.

I don’t blame them. I’m sent a lot of commercial women’s fiction to review, and a part of my soul dies when faced with yet another novel whose cover has a woman in profile or walking away, or there’s a blurred child running, or swirly title font, or the author is Danielle Steele.

The downside is that it makes it very hard to determine what is good and what is dross. I admit I no longer even consider reviewing books by authors I’ve read and can’t tolerate, but I do have a rule to try the first 20 pages of an author I don’t know, just in case. I’ve found some gems that way – books that were much better than I’d expected, given that they had a woman in profile on the cover and a swirly title font.

Writer Me wants everyone to be like Reviewer Me and just Try. My. Books. Ignore the cover – the words are all that matters! If you read one and don’t like it, fine, but how will you know if you don’t give it a go? People initially repelled by blue cheese and oysters now adore them! I tried curried eggs TWICE.

My first three novels are intelligent, feminist and properly funny. Fans include Renée, Fleur Beale, Ruth Todd and two university professors who reviewed them. In North & South, Paul Little said I’d written “lots of very good jokes,” the best compliment ever. He also got to the nub of my problem when he said “the book will be hailed as a splendid piece of chick lit, which is unfair as that label will deter many who would otherwise enjoy what is a well-written, thoroughly entertaining read.”

Those first novels had to be marketed as chick lit because there is no fiction genre called humour. There is in non-fiction, but for novels, there is only satire. Renowned funny writers are shelved in other genres: Terry Pratchett’s in fantasy; Colin Bateman’s in crime. Sue Townsend is in general fiction, between Colm Toibin and Rose Tremain. If you write humorously about relationships, you are always relegated to the chick lit pink zone.

Unless you’re a man. If you’re a man who writes humorously about relationships, you are Nick Hornby and you get a lot of respect. I’ve spent time with Nick and he’s lovely, but you know, fuck him.

My fourth book wasn’t chick lit but it was still marketed as commercial women’s fiction. Both Louise O’Brien and Harry Ricketts gave it positive reviews, but even their literary cred couldn’t persuade people who do not read books like mine to pick it up.

I can’t even get some booksellers to try me. I’ve never once had a novel featured as a Unity Books ‘Staff Pick’. Carole Beu of The Women’s Bookshop told me she’d never read any of my books, and she wasn’t really apologising.

Carole has read my latest book. She had to because she’d agreed to host my Auckland launch event, and then got worried that she’d be promoting rubbish. She told me all this quite openly, but added that she was enjoying the book very much. She would have been quite open if she’d hated it, too, I imagine. Bless her.

In hindsight, I should have started off doing my MA at the IIML, published something worthy and then started writing funny books. If I’d done that, perhaps I wouldn’t cheer every time I watch Die Hard and Al asks John McClane how he’s feeling: “Pretty fuckin’ unappreciated, Al.”

I’m no literary genius. I’m not the next Nobel Prize winner. I’m a capable writer, with a talent for characters, dialogue and good, occasionally excellent, jokes.

My latest novel is not women’s fiction. It’s a funny book about a bunch of characters in a small coastal New Zealand town. Carole Beu liked it a lot. There you go.

Catherine Robertson’s latest novel, Gabriel’s Bay (Black Swan, $38), is available at Unity Books.

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