Sunday, February 13, 2011

Writing about issues

I've just read this blog post by Elizabeth Baines (via Rachel Carter on Facebook) and it's got me thinking.

My first novel, Walking on Tiptoe, a novel about a family affected by autism, might be considered by many to be an 'issue' novel. For me it is not, because that is the reality of the only life I've known as a parent. But could being perceived as such actually be damaging? When I planned the novel I agonised over whether it should be literary or women's fiction, as I think my writing style can naturally straddle the two. In the end, because of the female first person narrator and the significance of a young child, I decided it needed to be written and marketed as women's fiction. I still think that was the right decision, but it is a tough market for a debut novelist to crack.

Jodi Picoult currently writes issue-led fiction to great success. I have been interested to see that a writer called Diane Chamberlain, a 'Southern Jodi Picoult' according to a quote I read on Amazon, seems to be currently be doing very well in the UK Kindle charts, following competitive pricing of some of her books. Indeed I have two of her novels currently waiting on my own Kindle. The public still seems to have an appetite for this type of fiction, even if misery memoirs are perhaps fading away. But I wonder if people's reading choices are determined to a certain extent by their life circumstances. Were people more likely to read about 'difficult' subjects when their own lives were very comfortable and will they turn to lighter material in the testing years to come?

Walking on Tiptoe is categorically not my story. The heroine, Emma, is not me. Her son Ben is not my son. They are both composite fictional characters. Their story is not ours, it is pure fiction inspired by snippets of parental testimony I've absorbed over the years from many sources, both journalistic and real life. But I wonder if agents and publishers will erroneously think that it is autobiography?

When I was writing the novel, I was certain about just one thing, that I wanted to be truthful about the realistic level of help to which parents of autistic children are entitled. I didn't want my work to deceive anyone. As that is an area which is changing all the time, even more so in the current political climate, I decided to set the book clearly in the years when Son 2 was young, because I knew I could be utterly truthful about what sort of services some people were receiving back then. If I was to write about what is available currently, which can easily be researched, the reality might be totally different if/when the book is published. It might set up false hopes for vulnerable parents and that is the last thing I would want to do.

But beyond some practical facts, the storyline and the main setting are both fictional. So when I submit the novel do I continue to mention that I have experience in the area of autism and can therefore vouch for the authenticity of certain facts? Or do I keep quiet, to prevent agents thinking it is autobiographical, even though my personal experiences could potentially be a media selling point?

I'm willing to accept that Walking on Tiptoe would probably be a 'Marmite' novel, because it deals with facts that some readers would rather ignore. But with one child in less than one hundred currently being diagnosed somewhere on the autistic spectrum, it is a situation which is not going to go away. Characters like Emma are here to stay, they are at the school gate, in the supermarket and in the park. For them life is not a romantic comedy.


Kate Kyle said...

A very good post, Cathy. I think that 'issue-led' fiction is necessary, to raise the awareness of the issue at least. I have read a few novels like that (Jodi Picault included) and they gave me fantastic insights into lives of people affected. I could undestand why people affected by the problem behave they way they do.

As for your questions re marketing of your novel. I can't offer any advice becuase I'm struggling with a similar dilemma and I'm somewhere between preserving my privacy and adding a sellimg point to my (unfinished) novel. I think I'm going to go for the first.

good luck with the book

Cathy said...

Welcome Kate, and thank you.

I think part of the problem in selling this sort of novel is that it would be very easy for the writer to appear to have a specific personal agenda. But I also think that people who have experienced something difficult can probably express it more eloquently than someone who hasn't (though Jodi Picoult does better than most because she researches very thoroughly). It's a dilemma, isn't it?

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Hello - I came here from Elizabeth's blog. Nice to meet you!

My three-pennorth says that you must give the novel every leg-up you can, to help it be taken seriously by an agent. You can make clear it is a work of fiction, but written by someone who has very relevant experiences to ensure the writing is 'true'. That is a strong card to play, if played right.

loads of good luck.

Cathy said...

Vanessa - thank you!

That approach is indeed what I have been trying. No luck so far, but it's still early days. You've helped me confirm in my own mind that I'm on the right track in my submission procedure.

Amanda said...

Wishing you much luck with your novel, Cathy - whatever you decide.

Cathy said...

Thank you Mandy :)