When I was in Ireland a few years ago, I found a bookshop in Bantry that had a wall of fiction divided into two. The left section was headed BOOKS BY MEN, and I bet you can guess what the right section was. I don't know what the expectation was here - the bookshop owner was very grumpy (a man, but he needn't have been) and I felt disinclined to ask. Were men supposed to gravitate to the BOOKS BY MEN half and women to the other on the grounds that each gender would find what suited them best written by their own sex? Or was it the other way round? That men would read books by women and women books by men, and thereby we would learn about each other and sexual harmony would be encouraged? Or was the bookshop owner simply an obsessive compulsive who owned a bookshop because what better job is there for the ordering and categorising of its elements? I'm very partial to Daunt Books which shelves books not according to author alphabetically, or fiction and non-fiction, or subject, but by geography. All books on or concerning themselves with or by the French are shelved under France. Camus and the history of the Wars of Religion live happily side by side with Escoffier and tourist maps of Paris. It has a certain gaiety even if it sometimes it leaves you a bit baffled: where do you look for a book on the history of the footnote? The Bantry system of book cataloguing is more troublesome. It assumes, and I suspect that it's generally true, that men and women do read different books. I once had to get a signature for a contract from a solicitor who, when he saw I was a novelist, asked me if his wife would have heard of me.
These thoughts are prompted by a letter from a reader telling me that his men's book group have been reading a novel of mine: Happily Ever After. Reading groups in general strike me as a slightly strange way to read a book. I know there is fun to be had from talking about something you've read, but I'm much more taken with the idea of the private reading of what has been privately written. Still, reading groups are big. There are writers who include on their websites Discussion Tips and Questions for reading groups about their latest books. All life as a GCSE class. I am not the world's most sociable soul, so I am no authority on group activity. But a men's reading group is an odd thought. It's almost daring - as if they might be uncomfortable in a mixed group - women having the upper hand in the fiction reading stakes. Or it's a less objectionable way to get together and exclude women than joining a working men's club. There were mixed reviews of my novel from the men's reading group. It (partly) concerned a middle aged man, Liam, who falls sexually and passionately in love with a woman of 70. Some of the men didn't like the book because they didn't believe in the possibility of a sexual relationship between a man and a woman whose wrinkly old body is vividly described in terms of his desire. The man who wrote to me said he thought it was because they were threatened by the idea of the sexuality of an old woman. I don't doubt that. But there's something else here that interests me that has nothing to do with gender, but with what people want and expect when they read.
In fact, many women had the same reaction. Maybe because they too dislike the idea of an old woman's sexuality. But always this point was made by saying that the situation and the characters were unbelievable. Doubtless this is true, it is an unlikely scenario. But the novel wasn't an attempt to reveal that all over the place younger men were besotted with haggard old women. For all I know, it never happens. None of my novels (or my non-fiction) is predicated on presenting a simple, recognisable picture of reality. Here's the thing: it has never crossed my mind when writing a novel that it should be 'believable' to the reader. I've always found it odd when a book is praised because its characters and their doings are 'totally believable'. I don't think that novels have to be (and am not interested in writing novels that are) reproductions of the world. There are novels written as realistic portraits, but by no means all and there's no reason why they should be. It is certainly not the only task of a novelist to reproduce reality. A novel is not good just because it looks to you like the world you know. Nor bad because it doesn't. There are other kinds of truth (or even untruth) that a writer might want to get to. Pictures they might want to paint of what is least likely. Some of us want to play with ideas in the form of narrative. Only the narrowest of views demands that novels must be believable and that novelists have to conform to their readers' notions of the way the world is.