BY CATHARINE MORRIS
If you’re a woman, and you write a novel about a family, there’s a pretty good chance that it will be classed as “domestic fiction”. Tessa Hadley, who was interviewed by the literary journalist Suzi Feay at Foyles bookshop in Charing Cross Road on Monday, finds this unhelpful: she said it seemed to suggest that her new collection of short stories, Married Love (the title is a playful allusion to Marie Stopes), was “all about baking”. It is in parts, she said, but it’s about much more than that – characters have jobs, for one thing.
Feay also interviewed Samantha Harvey, who has examined family relationships in the context of a novel of ideas – All Is Song – about a modern-day Socrates. When Feay asked “Why Socrates?”, Harvey replied that she was fascinated by the outlook of somebody who embodied philosophy as an approach to life. How would you live, she wondered, if you had an obsessive compulsion to question everything, in fundamental ways? How would it conflict with the simple need we all have just to get through the day? Socrates is never actually mentioned in the book (the relevant character is called William); and Harvey said it doesn’t matter if you don’t recognize the biographical details she has borrowed – the military background, the late marriage, particular moral issues he struggled with, certain phrases and foibles . . . .
Harvey’s first novel, The Wilderness (2009), was written from the point of view of a sixty-year-old male architect. She likes writing from a male perspective, she said, because she can get straight into fiction mode, whereas writing as a woman blurs the boundary between fiction and autobiography – she finds herself asking “What do women think?” in a flummoxed sort of way, as if she wasn’t one.
Both authors observed how difficult ideas-heavy writing is: Hadley’s novel London Train (2011), about a man and a woman who meet on the Cardiff to London line, was originally much longer, with conversations that were “argued through, and beyond through” and therefore “read dead”. “I cut almost all of it”, she told us. “All that was left were two little bits that shone.” Harvey cut “ninety-seven per cent” of the philosophical content of All Is Song.
For Harvey and Hadley, writing is a compulsion. Harvey wanted to give it up, but she couldn’t; it proved a necessary form of communication that also calmed her down, like a tranquillizer. Hadley persisted through the early stage when the whole enterprise felt mildly absurd (“Instead of doing proper things . . . you make up stories, badly”) and through the notes from publishers that said things like “Your main character is too boring”. When her writing did get published, she was rewarded, of course, with a new sense of identity: “Your deepest thinking about things gets its fulfilment”, she said.
In the question and answer session afterwards a member of the audience remarked on how nicely designed the cover of Hadley's book is, and Hadley said that in the wrong hands it could have been made to scream "mum-lit", which apparently is “just like chick-lit, but grey”. Perhaps, at this point, I should have raised the issue of domestic fiction again. As a category it masks variation and complexity, clearly – but why the does the phrase have a disparaging air?
Married Love and All Is Song will be reviewed in a future issue (or future issues) of the TLS.