Reading the various reviews of “petite anglaise”, a few things have given me pause for thought.
One is that many readers are judging the book against everything I’ve previously written here, rather than on its merits as a book, full stop. This was inevitable. I do have a huge body of ‘work’ already out there. When I put together my book proposal – in haste – I had to make choices. Choices about which strands of my story I wanted to use. Choices about which material would appeal most to the publishers circling around me. Choices about who I wanted the book to appeal to most: my blog readers, or a wider audience? Or both?
I stand by my choices, but invariably some people would have preferred me to do everything differently. ‘I didn’t want to know about X.’ ‘I wish she’d written more about Y.’ I’m reminded of opinions aired in my comments box, along the lines of ‘I liked it better in the old days when you wrote more about Paris.’ There is something about the participative nature of blogging that gives readers a sense of ownership. Some feel entitled to tell me what they think I ought to write – as if a blog were like some sort of online ‘request show’. I reserve the right to politely disagree.
But I’ve realised there is no sense in worrying about not pleasing everyone. That would have been mission impossible: my book can’t be all things to all people. The quirk(e)y reviewer in the New Statesman wishes I’d shown more of my ‘disturbo’ side, whereas glimpses of the compulsive blogger in me made others deeply uncomfortable.
A charge levelled against the book (particularly on Amazon – a place I only go when I’m feeling masochistic) is that petite anglaise is too ‘mememe’, and that some of the secondary characters are rather one-dimensional. To the mememe charge, I’d say that when a story is narrated in the first person, you necessarily see events from a single perspective; you are only permitted a view inside one person’s head. Other characters, although they can explain themselves through their words and gestures, necessarily remain enigmatic to a greater or lesser degree. ‘Petite’ is a true story, taken from a personal blog and I didn’t have an ‘access all areas’ backstage pass into James’s or Mr Frog’s heads. If I had, many of the twists and turns of the story would have been robbed of the power to surprise and shock. As for my ‘secondary characters’, they are real people whose identities and sensibilities I had to protect. I was telling my story, from my perspective and left many of their stories out of the final cut, robbing the reader of extra insights which would, no doubt, have rounded out their characters. But I didn’t feel I had the right to go further.
I learnt a lot while writing ‘petite’. I learnt that a book is finished when you simply can’t bear to look at it any more; not when it’s ‘perfect’. I learnt that once it is written, the author has to let it go, leave the marketing people to their jobs, let them package it, add their cover blurb, and send it out into the world to fend for itself. There no point in me agonising over whether ‘petite’ should be shelved next to the latest Jordan autobiography, or in the travel section next to Peter Mayle. Or neither. In the words of Vicomte de Valmont: it’s beyond my control.
The main thing the experience of writing a personal story and laying myself open to personal criticisms has taught me is that I don’t necessarily want to do it again. No matter how many lovely emails and comments I’ve received from people who have read the book compulsively, finished it in one sitting, laughed and cried and empathised along with me and felt sad when they reached the end, at 4 am, because they wanted more.
So there will be no petite anglaise II. There will be a novel, in which I can draw on my own experiences as much or as little as I wish, fill out the secondary characters to my heart’s content and take on board the constructive criticism I’ve received and try and do better. I’m proud of what I achieved and convinced I wrote the best book I possibly could at the time.
But I hope the best is yet to come.