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Pink Hearts and Mortarboards by Rosy Thornton

May 11, 2011

Rosy Thornton is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Her academic interests include landlord and tenant and housing law, real property and trusts, as well as feminist approaches to law; she has written and published in those fields. She has also published four novels: More Than Love Letters (2007), Hearts and Minds (2008), Crossed Wires (2009) and The Tapestry of Love (2010).

Visit her site at and her faculty webpage at

“Few things are less remarkable than an academic who has written a novel. Not all of them would readily admit it, perhaps, but you can bet your cap and gown that half my colleagues have a dog-eared manuscript under the bed, or a file tucked away somewhere on their hard disc containing an embryonic work of fiction. Some, I know for a fact, have three or four. But if you going to have the effrontery to go beyond writing for enjoyment, to stick your head above the parapet and actually publish a novel, then you’d better make it a Man Booker contender, a searing essay on the state  of post-9/11 society, experimental in style and construction, darkly abstruse in theme. Or, if you absolutely must write to entertain, then let it be detective fiction; crime novels are the accepted light reading of the don on his day off. What you absolutely must not do, under any circumstances, is write commercial women’s fiction.

At this point I should state emphatically that I make no apology for writing novels primarily for a female audience. It is not necessarily even a conscious choice. It is simply that the issues that preoccupy me tend to be those which twist and wind through women’s lives: romantic love, certainly, but also family, fertility and parenting, female friendships, ageing, illness, bereavement and loss; and beyond that, too, the struggle for a manageable work-life balance, community involvement and political activism, and the quest for self-fulfilment through creativity, or through  work, paid and unpaid. If this makes what I write ‘women’s fiction’ – or if it’s also my own gender which makes it so – then so be it.

Within the academic community, however – as indeed to the broadsheet reviewer – women’s fiction is not a thing to be taken seriously. All women’s fiction must be airport romance or air-headed ‘chick lit’; it’s heaving bosoms or it’s sex and shopping. It is a trinket, a bauble, a thing of no weight or substance, to be smiled over indulgently by colleagues, or joked and teased about. I have learnt, if not to apologise for my novels, then at least to shrug them off with some self-deprecating quip – to dismiss them before they are dismissed.

The pretty pastel covers don’t help. I read with sympathetic recognition Elyse Friedman’s essay here in March this year about the packaging the marketing men had assigned to her dark and edgy novels: pink and princess-y, and even a clothesline! My first novel (working title: Asylum) was published as More Than Love Letters in a baby blue cover, sprinkled liberally with little red hearts. Yes, it has comedic elements, and yes, it contains a love story, but it also addresses wider issues, including (this being an academic interest of mine at the time) whether flight from domestic abuse should be a legitimate ground for political asylum. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse commits suicide in a psychiatric ward on page 242 – but it still has hearts and butterflies on the cover. (That’s right, butterflies – when I’m certain there were none in the book.)

My second novel, Hearts and Minds, is a traditional campus novel. The book is a female twist on what is in the UK traditionally a ‘male’ genre, from C.P. Snow and Lucky Jim to Tom Sharpe and David Lodge; it is set in an all-women’s college, but it is still very much a campus satire, full of committee manoeuvrings and political back-stabbings. The central issue of the book is the morality or otherwise of sacrificing academic integrity in order to accept a financial donation. But the cover is bedecked with hearts and flowers – and cute, white doves bearing academic mortarboards in their beaks.

I work in a highly traditional Law faculty which has only employed women teaching staff for the last thirty of the seven hundred years of its existence, and which appointed its first female full professor in 2005. Already my credibility as a hard-edged academic was undermined in many eyes by the course I run in Women and Law, and by my writing about legal doctrine from an avowedly feminist perspective. Now I have completely blown it: I have lost the last shreds of a serious reputation by publishing novels for ‘girls’.

Let them mock. Let them dish out the Barbara Cartland jibes – I’m impervious to their scorn. I believe in what I write; I believe I have things to say about women’s experience and women’s lives. What is so wrong about writing books that people might actually enjoy reading?”


From → Novelist

  1. Brilliant piece, Rosy, and beautifully phrased. I couldn’t agree with you more. x

  2. Yay, Rosie! I believe in what you write too.

  3. Rosy
    I’m shocked especially at what was done to your book that started out as Asylum. That’s incredible…and appalling. Good for you for writing this post.

  4. adele geras permalink

    A very good piece Rosy and this is something that need saying over and over again. I’ve read all your novels and anyone of either sex who’s tried them will know how much pleasure they give. A shame that decisions about covers should be so SILLY! You are cutting off half your possible audience at a stroke. It’d be a brave bloke who read a book on the train with butterflies on the cover!

  5. Very well said. No one should have to defend either writing or reading women’s fiction, but still we do. Just a shame the covers don’t always do the contents justice.

  6. Oh I do so agree with you, Rosy. And have blogged about similar issues, but glad to know I’m not alone. It makes me wild! When my novel, The Curiosity Cabinet, was shortlisted for the Dundee Book Prize, and in spite of the fact that poet John Burnside called it a ‘powerful story about love and obligation’, one reviewer described it as a ‘guilty pleasure’, I can only assume, because it was – among other things – a love story. Male preoccupations are invariably taken seriously while female preoccupations are dismissed as somehow of lesser importance – as you so astutely put it ‘a trinket, a bauble, a thing of no weight or substance’. It’s as bad, if not worse, in theatre. An intense coming-of-age drama about a young man will always be treated more seriously than a drama about a young woman, by male critics anyway. Only the occasional female theatre critic (and they are pearls of great price – Joyce Macmillan springs to mind) will somehow understand the whole picture!

  7. Great Post Rosy!
    What’s the point of writing something if you don’t believe in it? I love your work and for anyone to suggest that it’s lesser because it’s about ‘women’s issues’ is simply ludicrous.

  8. Brilliant post – thank you Rosy! As an academic who writes about race, gender, technology in feminist science studies, medicine, etc. now embarking on a career writing middle grade and YA fiction – I took great pleasure in reading this piece. I think the assumption that all “important” issues must be approached with a serious “voice” – a discounting of humor, or relationships, or the overall women’s fiction – is terribly troubling and a mechanism set up to maintain gendered hierarchies.. I recently read an essay (can’t remember nwo where) about an academic who felt like she had to be “in the closet” about her motherhood as well – a feeling I’ve often had too. huzzah to you for being all your multiple selves simultaneously – you inspire me to do so as well..

  9. Loved the piece, Rosy. Reading and writing whatever we want is all about academic and intellectual freedom – which should be important to academics.

  10. Let them mock Rosy. We’ve recently made an appointment that in many respects parallels the situation at the end of ‘Hearts and Minds’. That novel is spot on.

  11. Thank you all for your kind comments.

    ‘Multiple selves’ is absolutely right, Sayantani. But the culture in academia is still so much that all the other things you are and do and feel – the rest of your life experience – should be left at the door. We are all supposed to be objective, impartial, distanced – rather than being allowed to celebrate the unique subjectivities we all bring to our writing (whether academic or fiction).

    • Absolutely – tho it’s such tripe that we are ever really ABLE to leave our selves at the door, right? ‘Objectivity’ is such a myth – and the moment we at least in medicine recognize the prejudices/past stories/subjectivities we bring to listening, the closer we are to a healthier health care… (sorry, getting off soapbox now!) In fact, that honoring of subjectivity and its connection to socially just practice is mostly where my academic work lies – and even then my academic colleagues try to look at me blankly, or pat me on the head and say “there there” because it’s somehow ‘soft’ to suggest such a thing… but wonderfully bolstering to read your words and share the experience!

  12. great piece. I am going to hunt down one of your novels as I hadn’t came across any until reading this. watch this space 🙂

  13. Three loud cheers for you, Rosy! I do SO agree with what you’ve written. I too have suffered from what I consider to be a demeaningly “romantic” cover (STAR GAZING). I don’t know who these dumb covers insult more – authors or readers. Butterflies?! What marketing message is that meant to be? “Park your brain at the door”? But why attach such a message to thoughtful, grown-up fiction?

  14. fozmeadows permalink

    Fantastic post. The term ‘chick lit’ desperately needs either to be reclaimed in a positive light or replaced by something that its proponents think of as positive. How can you argue in defense of a genre when the only word that exists to describe it is effectively a diminutive, at least as far as its detractors are concerned? With all these SlutWalks on at the moment to argue in favour of ‘slut’ not being a derogatory term, nor ‘slutty clothing’ considered as a factor in rape cases, you’d think the literary community could get some equivalent ChickWalks on, too, and speak up for women’s literature. The whole situation is getting beyond a joke.

  15. Wonderful post!! Are your books available in the U.S.? I love your book covers as well. I don’t find whimsical covers to be demeaning at all. Lovely.

  16. Nice post – and I write this as someone who probably wouldn’t pick up one of your novels based solely on those covers (your description of ‘Hearts and Minds’, however, sounds FAB, and I will look out for it). My impression of novels with pink covers and hearts is that the book contains a lot about love, in which the heroine will agonise for ages about her life before admitting that all she wants is Mr Right – this is probably incorrect for a large percentage of them. However, there are so many books published that one has to seek out based on something – covers are as good as anything for that first whittling down of the multitude – and then decide on whether to read further. It’s just all terribly unimaginative on the publisher’s part, though.

  17. Thank you so much for your kind comments, everyone.

    Anjali, my books are not published in the US, unfortunately, but (if you’ll forgive the shameless piece of promotion!) The Book Depository will ship them worldwide without postal charges:

  18. Kudos for staking your claim! The covers you were assigned are almost funny re: how inappropriate they are. Less funny (in the USA) is the way covers of books by women authors so often over-sexualize the content, esp. when the writer is African American.

  19. Bev permalink

    I agree totally … and I”m going to check out your books. It’s irritating that publishing requires such a lack of maturity in covers… but then again, it’s better than a cover featuring a beautiful but vacuous female with blood dripping from her mouth.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. links for 2011-05-23 « Embololalia
  2. Rosy Thornton | "That Fond Impossibility"
  3. Hearts and Minds – Rosy Thornton | Ela's Book Blog
  4. Feminism: It’s Necessary « shattersnipe: malcontent & rainbows
  5. Cora Buhlert
  6. More than Love Letters by Rosy Thornton | Brown Paper

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