What makes an author “great”?

I came across a couple of interesting lists when I was researching for last week’s book club with Bob Fischer on BBC Radio Tees. I was talking about Enid Blyton, so I wanted to find out who the most successful authors of the twentieth century were, knowing how phenomenal Blyton’s sales had been (and still are). So, I looked at various lists which provided different definitions of success. Needless to say, on most of them Martin Amis featured heavily and Blyton did not!

The most interesting one (on Wikipedia, so not necessarily verified – this isn’t academic research, just interest!) was a list of the bestselling British authors of all time. Shakespeare was at the top of the list, but I decided to discount him as he’s not a novelist, and other classics (such as Dickens, Eliot and Austen) are not included because they don’t have accurate figures prior to the twentieth century, which makes it a bit unfair to add Shakespeare.

So, the five bestselling British novelists with their very broad estimated sales figures, according to Wikipedia are:

  1. Agatha Christie (between 2 and 4 BILLION books)
  2. Barbara Cartland (between 500 million and 1 billion sold)
  3. Enid Blyton (approx. 600 million books)
  4. JK Rowling (approx. 500 million books – but the list may not be up to date)
  5. Jackie Collins (between 250-400 million books).

Do you notice something quite surprising here? Yes. All women. Every single one of the top five selling British novelists is a woman. And they are all writing either genre or children’s fiction, popular stories with a huge and appreciative audience. It appears, however that neither popularity nor sales count for much when it comes to legacy.

I then searched for “great” novelists of the 20th century (because all these writers above are broadly 20th century and the older classics are excluded from the list I thought this was a fairer – and more interesting – comparison).  Google provided me with the following top five (I don’t know how their list was compiled, so I’m not claiming this is a scientific comparison):

  1. Virginia Woolf
  2. George Orwell
  3. H.G. Wells
  4. E.M. Forster
  5. Anthony Burgess

Only one of them is a woman, and not one of them is a bestseller. Out of the complete lists of twenty authors, only one person makes it onto both lists, and that’s Agatha Christie. If you look at the overall figures for the top 20 in each category, 10 of the 20 bestsellers are women but only 3 of the 20 “greats” are women. Oddly enough, I suspect that if I included earlier ‘great’ novelists, the list would look entirely different, with Austen, Eliot and the Brontes swinging the balance back in favour of a more equal balance between male and female writers.

There’s a lot of snobbery about books, about those who write them and those who read them, and about how some writing is “better” than others. However, the facts here speak for themselves. Women genre fiction writers were dominating their (often male) literary counterparts in the twentieth century when it came to the number of people who were reading and presumably enjoying their books. I think I can quite confidently state that Enid Blyton has made more readers happy than Martin Amis has!

Images by Yerson Retamal from Pixabay

Sleeping Beauty

I did something new this year. With my lovely friend Cath Turnbull, I wrote a pantomime!

We picked “Sleeping Beauty” because it was a story that our local drama group hadn’t done as a panto for many years – only to find, when it was too late to turn back, that the professional theatre down the road had also picked Sleeping Beauty for this year’s show. Still, it didn’t deter us!

sleeping-beauty-1462740_1920Along the way, I learnt several things from my co-writer (a successful professional panto director) and from experience, which I will share for the benefit of future panto writers:

  1. Never, ever include a custard pie scene. In previous years we have learnt that custard pies do one of three BAD things: they ruin costumes, they get in people’s eyes and they get dropped on the stage and someone falls over on the resulting mess. Health and Safety nightmare, wardrobe team’s nightmare. Don’t do it.
  2. Everything comes in threes. If you want the audience to shout “He’s picking the rose” to the cast it must be three times and three times only. More than that it gets tedious and boring.
  3. You can have too much of a good thing. Short and sweet is the motto for songs – if you have an audience of primary aged kids, they don’t want to listen to a love duet that lasts five minutes. I know this, because in a previous year I had to sing one!
  4. You carefully plan your script to last a set time. Reduce that by at least five minutes because your cast will see the glare of the floodlights and start adding in jokes of their own, and you can’t stop them once they’re on stage!
  5. Sometimes, the cast may add in jokes that are … a little risque … and everyone is going to think that you wrote them. (No, neither Cath nor I wrote the joke about the fan, for those of you who saw the panto …)

I think we might tackle Cinderella next – but following THAT joke there will be NO fans in Cinderella …


Who to kiss in 1996

In the process of my research today, I came across an article in the “Love and Relationships” section of the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette. This section has been a source of endless fascination for me, particularly as the tone often suggests that it might been written by a grumpy middle aged staff journalist with very little interest in romance … but that’s beside the point!


Today’s article (from the edition for 11th October 1996) was about kissing. More specifically it was a survey of who, where and how the great British public would most like to kiss. Unsurprisingly “My partner” came out as the top choice for both men and women (78% of women chose their partner as one of their top choices, but only 58% of men did!). It’s what comes next that is interesting. There are some obvious high scorers. Meg Ryan, Gillian Anderson and Elle McPherson all do well amongst the desirable ladies. But so, worryingly,  does “My mum” who scored 24%, well above Naomi Campbell, Princess Di and Joanna Lumley!


You want to snog WHO exactly?

Amongst the desirable males, Mel Gibson scores over 50% in the kissability stakes. He’s accompanied by other obvious choices like Bruce Willis and Denzel Washington, but after that,  Michael Barrymore and Jarvis Cocker both feature (admittedly only rating 4% and 3%, but even so – what WERE you thinking, Gazette readers of 1996?)


For the ideal setting for that kiss, “in a Venetian Gondola” rates highly, shortly followed by at the top of the Eiffel Tower. No surprises there. But at 14%, there’s another surprising venue for that perfect romantic moment. Yes, “Wembley, at the cup final, as my team scores the winning goal.” Now THERE’s a romantic moment that I could use for my Boro book!


Or then again, maybe not.



My Boro book – starting the research.

Because my Boro book is going to be set in 1996 which is now 25 years ago (frightening thought!) I’m having to do a fair bit of research. Not only the football (most of which I have forgotten about) but also the general and social history of the period. It feels like yesterday, but it isn’t; it really is the past now. So, this morning found me at Stockton Reference Library. It’s a very civilised place to spend a morning, watching the carp in the ornamental fish pond outside the window, and I spent a happy three or four hours poring over microfilms of the [Middlesbrough] Evening Gazette.

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A very fine view of the carp pond!

I discovered several interesting things, as well as who scored Middlesbrough’s first goal of the 1996 Premier League season (or rather “Carling Premiership” as it was then) – it was Ravanelli, if you care, and he scored a hat trick. I could have sworn I was there, I want to say I remember it, but I didn’t attend my first football match until the December of that year, so I couldn’t have been. It’s strange how my memory plays tricks. Hence the need for research!

So, here are some of the things that I found out and/or remembered about 1996 today.

Video was king in 1996. There is a regular weekly feature in the Gazette about which videos have been borrowed the most from the Blockbuster on Linthorpe Road, and which releases were new out. In the last week of August 1996 it was Trainspotting, Seven, Babe and Showgirls which were amongst the favourite videos of Teessiders. And who remembers videoplus? When you recorded a show on your video recorder, (which would be connected to your HUGE TV set) instead of setting it manually, selecting times and channels, if you entered a numeric code, the video recorder set itself! I used to love it; the height of technology.

videoAnd what were we recording? Well, I looked at one Saturday night, to find that some of the staples of terrestrial TV were familiar – Morse, Casualty, Match of the Day (with Des Lynam, of course). Others less so – do you remember “You Bet!” with Carol Vorderman which headlined “TTTV”‘s schedules that Saturday evening? Sky sport was a single channel (it’s listings in VERY small print compared to BBC/ITV/Channel 4 (no Channel 5!). Other popular shows included Friends, of course, at the height of its popularity, the X files, Chicago Hope … I could go on. I might, in the book! And I have to make a confession. I noticed that the TV listings didn’t begin until about 2 pm. Surely, I thought, even in 1996 we had morning TV? And then it came to me in a flash of inspiration … The Gazette was an evening paper, so the morning TV schedules would be a bit pointless!


Not the Odeon (nor yet the Regent or the Showcase)  but stock footage. (Image courtesy of Pixabay)

Then there were the cinemas. The Regent at Redcar (an old fashioned seaside cinema) was flourishing, as was the new Showcase at Teesside Park  – but so was the old Odeon on Corporation Road. I’d love to include a picture of this 1930s monstrosity, but it was knocked down in the early part of this century. The current Cineworld wasn’t even conceived for another 5 or 6 years. And what were the people of Teesside flocking to the Odeon to watch in August 1996? Independence Day, largely, a huge summer blockbuster of that year, or The Hunchback of Notre Dame for the kids. And a whole host of films that I can’t remember at all – for example The Stupids (along with many other things) has disappeared into the mists of history as far as I’m concerned.

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Notes. I made pages and pages of them. It feels almost like being a proper writer!

It’s been a bit of an eye opener. As far as I’m concerned the late 1990s are still almost now … but today I realised that really, they’re not. They’re history. And the past, as you know, is a foreign country. They do things differently there and I’m going to have to remember how, when and where we did things!

My Boro book – why I’m writing about the football season of 1996-97 and not a tea shop by the sea!

Writing for publication is a bit of a double edged sword. It’s lovely to have the validation of a publisher’s approval for what you have written … but you have to write for the market that publisher serves. It proved quite limiting when I tried to write my second published novel. When all that most publishers want is “the same but different” – but not too different, and not too much the same. It’s a fine line to tread, and one I don’t think I trod very well. So, without a publisher (and a carefully defined established audience) to please, I can write for myself. Hence my latest choice of subject.

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Midlesbrough Football Club. Not an obvious setting for a romance …

A romance, set in Middlesbrough, focusing on the extremely dramatic events of the 1996-97 football season. Yes, that one: three deducted points, two cup finals, one bitter relegation.  It’s got drama, passion, hope and despair – and that’s before the hero and heroine get together!

I can already here the voice of the big established publishers – “You can’t do that! If we were to even consider this, you’d have to make the hero slightly less northern. And the heroine, she needs to be more sweet and likeable. And the football …  couldn’t it be tennis? That would look better on the cover of a summery novel. And if it has to be football, it really can’t be Middlesbrough. What about somewhere more fashionable? Arsenal? Or Chelsea? Or a little football team by the sea?


So, here begins the story of “My Boro book”! I have to accept that it might not make me a huge amount of money (or even ANY) – but I’m hoping that it will give me a huge amount of satisfaction!

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Every new novel needs a new notebook! Perhaps I should have chosen a red one?