“I think there’s a bit too much of a certain type of ‘acceptable’ person appearing in so-called literary novels written by people who only seem to know other people like themselves, who get published by people like themselves and reviewed by their pals”, responds Joolz Denby, performance poet, painter, and author of a number of novels including 2005 Orange prize shorlist title Billie Morgan. The question was one partly fudged from comments made by Nick Hornby when reading Saturday by Ian McEwan: are there too many literary novels filled with literary types? It’s a pertinent question to ask Denby, as her latest novel is filled with anything but. Its protagonist, Billie Morgan, is an ageing woman struggling to deal with the her dark past. She is an ex-biker, and murderer, and the novel is filled by people marginalised certainly from the literary worlds of McEwan and the like (Hornby as well, it should be added).
“It might be vaguely interesting, – continues Denby, – if you only sell novels to that type of person, which is a very tiny minority of readers somewhat bulked out by those aspiring to be part of that minority, but it’s very boring indeed after you’ve read a couple of books like that. Large parts of your brain start screaming ‘Jeez, people, get out more, meet some folk other than five other writers from Hampstead, please’. I fear for the sanity of ‘literary’ writers who write stuff like this because it must be like being a hamster in a wheel; round and round and round they go in the same space until they go crackers. No wonder they’re all so weird. A number of reviews of Billie Morgan made much of my ‘seeming’ to ‘actually’ know the type of persons described in the book, one writer going so far as to suggest I had a first-hand acquaintance with their ‘appalling kennels’. This would suggest reviewers have sadly narrow lives and believe only a certain type of person can write; their type of person. This is, of course arrant nonsense and yes, I do have personal knowledge of various appalling kennels, my own in inner city Bradford being one of them, I’m happy to say.”
There’s little chance of Denby turning into one of these literary ‘hamsters’. Her time is filled with various artistic disciplines, ranging from designing and touring with rock band New Model Army, through to performing her poetry, painting and writing. How do the various different disciplines interact? “I just got commissioned today to create a photographic and multi-sensory exhibition/installation/happening at Bradford University called ‘True North – Bradford; Looking Up’. During the meeting we discussed this topic as my commission is to photograph Bradford, – she begins, by way of explanation. – All my art, be it writing, performing, drawing, photography, embroidery, music etc., etc., is a facet of the central drive in my life to tell stories – all my art is narrative in some way. Basically, I just love making stuff and am lucky enough to be talented in various artistic ways. However, I am wholly crap at maths and even worse at money – you can’t be good at everything”, she jokes.
Her novels have tended to have been bracketed as ‘crime’ or ‘detective fiction’ (her first novel Stone Baby was written while touring, and went on to win the the Crimewriter’s Association Award for New Crime Writer Of The Year). While she accepts the tag she’s quick to point out the limitations of the genre, and how she differs from the standard: “With Stone Baby, – she explains, – I wanted to write a book about how crime happened to people. In that, I pretty well succeeded but I found that I wasn’t able to sit easily in ‘crime’ because I’m not writing police-procedurals-by-numbers. I dislike crime-novels that pile up the body-count and use porno-violence to get an effect and appeal to the ghoul in us all; it’s easy to write that kind of thing but it’s nasty and dirty stuff.”