These “quiet psychological novels”

I have just re-read Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger, which won the 1987 Booker Prize, and then her much later The Photograph (2007), because they are on my shelves and reading her is like chatting with an old friend.

Ah yes, you may be thinking, doesn’t she write ‘conventional’ ‘middle-brow’ novels of the cosy sort so beloved of women? No! She does not. She has had that reputation among some who perhaps have not read her novels for adults –  I confess that was my original impression, before I actually read any of her work.  I don’t go much for ‘cosy’. But then I was inspired to venture into what I anticipated might be uncongenial territory by the Booker Prize, which she won in competition with a short list of Chinua Achebe, Peter Ackroyd, Nina Bawden, Brian Moore and Iris Murdoch. I don’t always like all the Booker selections, but have found that this  is  a good way to discover new authors, and you would surely agree that that list – dated as it may seem to younger readers – does include some very good authors. Yes, my tastes do tend towards the literary.

It is not my intention today to write a review of Penelope Lively’s novels, which I do highly recommend. Not today. My blog is about books, but about writing books rather than reading them. And at the moment, because I am now writing and trying to sell my own novels, what has been exercising my mind is the ever-present memory of that apparently damning phrase “these quiet psychological novels”.

I have been writing quietly for many years, and occasionally sending out my work to be assessed. I have had four agents now, all of whom have tried to sell my novels to traditional publishers, and all have received variations on the theme: “Love the writing, but it’s difficult to sell these quiet psychological novels. Let us see her next.”

That tends to be what I do. I write novels in which the drama is essentially contained within the relationships of the protagonists. Psychology is about people. Novels are about people. Terrible things may happen, but the central thing to me is how people react, not the awful event itself. So when, in my recent novel THE AMAZON’S GIRDLE, I wrote of a murder, I was more concerned with the motivation of the murderer, and the consequences for all those emotionally involved, than I was in describing the event itself. By its very nature, a secret murder is quiet, and whether or not it is detected will depend on the psychology of those who remain.

Penelope Lively’s books surely come under the definition of “quiet psychological novels”, and they have not lacked readers. Far from it. The later one I recently re-read, The Photograph, is entirely a matter of psychology: a husband finds a photograph of his now deceased wife holding hands secretively with a friend who turns out to  have been her lover, and succeeds in turning a great many people’s lives upside down as he, and then they, try to accommodate this new knowledge.

I have heard from a number of established authors that even they are having difficulties today in placing their new novels, and many are certain they would never find a publisher if setting out today. And yet, when I described my experiences with agents and publishers to the Writers in the Real World Workshop at St John’s College, Oxford, (see Blog Celebrating Women at St John’s), one member of the audience protested: “But I like quiet psychological novels.” Lots of others agreed.

Well, so do I. I shall continue to write and to read quiet psychological novels, in the secure knowledge I am not alone!

About Elizabeth Mapstone

Author of novels, short stories, a self-help book that really works and a serious work on the psychology of argument. Former psychotherapist, now retired and writing fiction.
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