In Defence of Commercial Fiction

In Defence of Commercial Fiction

When I first had yearnings to write a book, I assumed I wasn’t smart enough. By book I meant a terribly clever literary novel - the kind that garners awards and is discussed at book groups across the country. "I can’t do that," I decided. Still I had a go, terribly unsuccessfully, and decided to give up until a friend suggested, "Why don’t you write fiction in the way that you write for magazines?"

I mulled this over. I have written for teenage and women’s magazines since I was 17 - mostly light, breezy pieces that hopefully cause the reader to smile in recognition. Since having my twin boys in 1997, I’d relentlessly mined the mummy side of my life and dashed off literally hundreds of features and columns and about the tribulations of parenthood. It was fun, I enjoyed it - hopefully, so did the readers. Commissions kept rolling in and I started to think my friend was right: this was how I should approach fiction. It should be fun and enjoyable to write. Heck, writing a book is pretty lengthy process (around a year when I began, although I can now manage two novels a year). So it had better be enjoyable.

This, for me, was a big lightbulb moment. As I started to write in this way - fairly quickly and unselfconsciously, with lots of jokes - so the fear of writing disappeared. I wasn’t writing to impress clever people, or to win prizes, or to be reviewed in the Times; I was doing it to provide a few hours’ escapism on a sunny beach. And what’s wrong with that?

It’s such a treat to be able to disappear into a fantasy, happy-ever-after world. While I do read literary fiction, I also enjoy a light-hearted read - there’s no shame in it. In fact, at certain times in our lives - perhaps when children are young, or work is particularly demanding, or we are simply tired - it’s just the ticket. I’m not talking about trashy books, although there’s nothing wrong with enjoying those either. In fact, a lot of popular fiction is extremely well-written, and very difficult to get right: you want a warm, cosy ending without descending into tweeness. You want real, flawed, utterly believable characters who don’t behave like cardboard cut-outs. Quality popular fiction makes you feel warm and happy and believe, just for that moment, that all is right with the world. It’s an antidote to tax demands and getting the car MOT’d and sorting out a stinky drain.

For me, success as a writer means seeing my books being read on the train, or in a cafe. I love spotting an review where someone has said it's full of laughs - it makes me think, oh, that must have worked, then! Thank God for that… It’s virtually impossible to know if your writing is truly funny when you’re holed up in a grim little workroom, clattering away at the keyboard alone. I love to hear of a husband complaining about being kept awake by his wife, chuckling over one of my books.

Occasionally, someone asks me, "But wouldn’t you like to write something serious? Something with more depth?" Believe me, every book I write feels deep when I’m immersed in the writing of it. The subject matter might be everyday - a faltering marriage, wayward teens, a cranky mother-in-law - and I try to handle such issues with a light touch. However to me, these subjects really are the stuff of life - there’s nothing shallow about them. Virtually every person in this world has friends and family members and wants love in their life.

Personally, I’m not a fan of the ditsy heroine who trips around town, concerned only with buying shoes, eating cupcakes and finding Mr Right. And novels featuring gangs of 20-something girls out on the rampage just leave me feeling rather old and knackered - but that’s because I no longer live that way. I like relatable characters, and a novel I can inhabit completely as I rip through the pages.

For me, that’s not a guilty pleasure - it’s just pleasure - and I am proud to be a part of that world.  

As Good As It Gets? by Fiona Gibson (£7.99) is out this week from Avon.