Male writers who changed my life

Girl meets boy!

Girl meets boy! A proof of my 2nd novel hanging out with my OH’s Pynchon

Stevie Smith said differences between male writers and female writers were more obvious if the writing was bad. I’m a big fan of Stevie Smith, but I’m not sure that’s true. To quote The Life of Brian, we are all individuals. The writers I love have a distinctive voice and a way of seeing the world, and yet they tell stories that have a universal appeal that reaches way beyond the limitations of their personal experience and circumstances.

Reading blurs and breaks down boundaries and allows us to access the imagined unknown, and to experience many different lives (to paraphrase a line from one of George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones books, the man who reads has many lives, the one who does not lives only once). When I’m reading a book I love, I could be anyone, and so could the writer; there’s only the story. (Perhaps that’s what Stevie Smith meant.)

So why single out male writers for a list like this? Partly it’s to redress the balance – I’ve already blogged about women writers who changed my life (parts I and II – III will come at some point), so it seems only fair.

But it also raises a couple of questions… (The list follows so keep scrolling if you want to check it out…)

Are there differences between what men write and what women write, and if so, what are they?

Hmm… see above. That said, I wonder if women writers, outside of literary fiction, are rather more hampered than their male counterparts by the expectation that female characters should be sympathetic – it’s the long dark shadow cast by Bridget Jones.

Adorably goofball? Idealised? Sweet? Depending on what you mean by sympathetic, it could be tricky for a heroine of this kind to do bad, interesting stuff, or be more than a victim of other people’s bad, interesting deeds. Writers of suspense fiction can get away from this, though, and have heroines who are faithless, manipulative and so on – see Tamar Cohen and Harriet Lane for examples.

Alys, Always by Harriet Lane

Are there differences between what men and women read?

Sometimes – yes. Did men bother with 50 Shades, and its sequels? (Did anyone keep going with the sequels? But of course they did – in droves.) I know some men were instructed to read the books to pick up sex tips (one imagines them reluctantly relinquishing the sofa and the football, or whatever). But by and large, surely, it was women who bought 50 Shades and snickered about it round the water cooler, or in lesson breaks at school. It was a female bonding book, and perhaps the only real way any writer can achieve that is to write about sex. (Note to self.)

50 Shades was a female bonding book, and perhaps the only way any writer can achieve that is to write about sex.

When I was a student, a fair few of my male peers were big fans of Martin Amis. They fancied Nicola Six; the line about her having her own personal cinematographer was admiringly quoted. There was something about the way they liked Amis that really bugged me; it was as if he was an uber-witty mouthpiece for stuff they couldn’t say well enough to get away with.

One of my closest female friends advised me to get over it and read Success, which I did, but I didn’t love it. I’m still ambivalent, though I think his essays are brilliant (his literary criticism makes me feel slightly scared to write; I’m pretty sure I am unworthy.)

It was as if Martin Amis was an uber-witty mouthpiece for stuff they couldn’t say well enough to get away with.

Are there differences between how books from different genres are marketed?

Hell yeah. Obviously. Maybe increasingly.

Look - no pink! 1980s Mary Stewart

Look – no pink! 1980s Mary Stewart

Across the board, with anything that’s available for sale, the gender marketing gap is striking and seems to be getting bigger all the time, and it starts to transmit its insidious message even before you’re born. When I was pregnant in 2003 and ventured into Mothercare for the first time, I felt like I’d been inducted into a whole new world: pink on one side for the girls, blue on the other for the boys. And it goes on.

As a girl in the 70s I had dungarees with workmen’s tools embroidered on them and Richard Scarry books illustrated with all the primary colours. If I was a kid these days, I’d have been much more likely to spend my days in a pink fairy costume reading a pink book about pink princesses. I really, really wanted to be a fairy, ideally called Lavinia – you see, I definitely wasn’t a tomboy – so probably I would have been quite happy with this, at the time anyway.

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the wannabe Lavinia fairy

I didn’t turn out to be a practical, puncture-fixing type, sadly, or a practical, fairy-cake baking type either, but I’m still grateful that the prevailing culture didn’t indulge my pink princess tendencies.

I really, really wanted to be a fairy, ideally called Lavinia. You see, I wasn’t a tomboy.

I don’t know whether it’s anything to do with the tidal wave of pink produce for girls – maybe it isn’t – but differences in how girls and boys explore their interests seem to be fixed very early on. When my daughter (not a big fan of pink) went to a coding workshop last year, she was the only girl. When she went to an art workshop, there were stacks of girls. Both workshops involved making pictures – it’s just that at the coding one, you used a computer to do it.

There’s an uphill struggle ahead for any initiatives to get women into science/tech careers – or even to study relevant subjects post-16, or study physics at GCSE, which is not an option in a large number of state schools anyway. In many cases they will already have decided long ago that it’s not for them. It’s too late.

OK – on with the list.

The male writers who have changed my life

This is a list of writers rather than of books, so the writers I have included have written more than one novel that has made a big impression on me. Hence some major omissions, of which the biggest is The Catcher in the Rye, which I discovered at the perfect time, as a lonely teen in the school library. Also, Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which features one of my all-time favourite heroines.

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I haven’t touched on non-fiction (Al Alvarez would definitely be on that list, along with John Carey) or poetry (that’ll be a long one, with a starring role for T S Eliot and, of course, my OH Ian Pindar.)

Douglas Adams. Hitchhiker’s Guide and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe have soaked into my unconscious. I still often find myself thinking about the uniquely biroid lifestyle, or the first ten thousand years being the worst, the second ten thousand being the worst too, and after that, going into a bit of a decline. Or it being too late to worry that you left the gas on when you’re about to watch the universe boil away into nothingness. Or the mark of civilisation being the question, ‘Where shall we have lunch?’ Or about how you might feel safe on an alien spaceship if only you could see a small packet of cornflakes amid the piles of Dentrassi underwear. And so on.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Ian Fleming. Mary Goodnight is the reason I wear Chanel no 5 (though Marilyn Monroe also has something to do with it.) A couple of years ago I wrote a short story called What would a Bond girl do? The story probably wasn’t up to much, but I still kinda like the title.

Around the same time I read the Bond books (early to mid teens) I read a lot of Dick Francis novels, but all I really remember from them is the description of a hungry jockey griddling himself a steak. Also, that 80 hours into learning to be a pilot is the most dangerous time, because you begin to think you can do it and forget to be afraid, and the dictum that a truly satisfied woman doesn’t need to read dirty sex (hmm. 50 Shades.)

Raymond Chandler. Especially The Big Sleep. Love those slangy, cynical, man-of-the-world cadences – the beaten-up toughness of it. Love the old rich man with the orchids, the sharp dialogue, the ending. When I first read it I didn’t really get a lot of it, but it didn’t matter. And now I’m thinking of Bogart and Bacall. Btw, there is a brilliant essay on how Humphrey Bogart became Humphrey Bogart in a collection of essays by Louise Brooks, Lulu in Hollywood (if you read the book, look out for Charlie Chaplin and the jolly orgy involving paint).

Ernest Hemingway. My dad likes Hemingway and once told me The Old Man and the Sea was his favourite novel. Hemingway was also on an improving reading list that my English teacher gave me, and I read a fair bit aged 16 to 18 and loved it – For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Sun Also Rises. The short story Hills Like White Elephants has stayed with me – it catches so clearly the sterile feeling of being with a lover when there is almost nothing more to say. Read The Killers recently – eerily brilliant.

D H Lawrence. I read lots of DHL aged 16-21. (He was on the improving reading list too, and, later on, the degree syllabus.) The end of Sons and Lovers is one of my favourite endings of any novel – more affecting, to me, than the arguably more celebrated ending of The Great Gatsby. One of the endings of Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others hits the same note: poignancy and exile, moving on and out into the world. And I like Ursula at the beginning of Women in Love, like a daffodil with all the growth going on underground, before the shoots come up for everybody else to see – and Mrs Morel with the lilies in the moonlight, her brute husband left behind indoors.

Raymond Carver. Bought mid-90s, collected short stories, after Short Cuts came out. Shining example of what can be achieved by being lean and spare. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love stays with me – an inspired sideways glance at the question of what love is, up there with James Joyce’s The Dead. Also the one about the three men who go fishing and find a body. And Cathedral.

James Ellroy. How do you find writers you love? Movie adaptations don’t hurt. I bought LA Confidential after seeing the film. Read the first page, thought huh? What’s a shiv? Soon found out. Got into the argot and read a load more. Big, ambitious books with amoral heroes – actually, he shares some qualities with George RR Martin, of which more to follow: an eagle eye for the workings of power; a desire to tell stories about bad people with a bit of good in them, and good people with a bit of bad in them; and an interest in twisted families.

William Gibson. Discovered mid-90s, browsing in a bookshop. The inventor of cyberspace, no? The kind of cyberspace we’re still evolving towards – a virtual simulacrum of the world we live in, with criminals, hustlers, defended power bases and ghosts. And Molly with the retractable claws… I often think of William Gibson when I see a wasp’s nest, or read about the hyper-rich – he’s brilliant on the dehumanising effect of immense wealth.

William Gibson introduced me to Cornell boxes – years later I saw some for myself and was stunned by how beautiful they were. Sometimes when I see my son, who has autism, set out his toys, I think of those Cornell boxes. There’s something very precise about the spacing and arranging, something numinous, even if I don’t understand it.

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I once tried to write an imitation William Gibson story. It wasn’t very good, as my boyf at the time reluctantly, but rightly, pointed out.

George R R Martin. I’m going to pay a swift homage to Tolkein here, in passing – The Lord of the Rings had pride of place on the bookshelf in my mum’s house and we painstakingly taped the radio adaptation. My OH recently acquired a bit of the recording and it’s still brilliant.

Nearly at the end of season 4 of Game of Thrones as I write. George RR Martin has a spectacular ability to create real people in a fantasy world. Intensely believable and often terrifying. Grim to think that pretty much any of the dark stuff in the books has really happened sometime, somewhere – and a relief when humanity’s more redemptive qualities come through: courage, integrity, resourcefulness, self-sacrifice, a sense of humour in the face of overwhelming odds, loyalty, vision, love.

Neel Mukherjee can do it all – his fiction is funny, profound, vivid, sweeping, and revelatory about how and why people do the things they do. After I’d read The Lives of Others I felt I understood more about why terrorist atrocities happen than when I started – it was an education. I’m very much looking forward to his next. The extract that appeared in January’s Granta was startlingly, shiver-inducingly spooky.

The Lives of Others

Patrick Gale. I read my first Patrick Gale (Notes from an Exhibition) last year and could happily spend the next working through everything else he’s written. Look out for A Place Called Winter, out next month – I was lucky enough to receive a proof copy.

Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale

Patrick Gale’s novels give me a feeling of space and light: new people, new territories, illumination. He’s also a damn good storyteller. When his characters do unexpected things, or have unexpected and sometimes terrible things happen to them, you’re left thinking – yes, that’s how it is, that’s the truth of it. He knows what makes people tick.

OK, so that’s my list. I know as soon as I post this I’ll be troubled by omissions – other names and books are occurring to me as I type, clamouring for inclusion – but you have to start somewhere…

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

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