Claire King


The Illicit Pleasures of Dorothy Whipple

Posted on: February 13th, 2011 by Claire - 15 Comments

You might think you've got it covered, but we all know what you're reading.

Yesterday I had the privilege of hearing Nicola Beauman, founder of Persephone books, talking about women writers and some of the constraints that they face in the literary world. In particular, why female authors are notably absent from the literary canon, despite the fact that their work is excellent and much appreciated by readers.

Nicola gave the example of Dorothy Whipple, who is one of their most popular authors at Persephone, although she was not considered to be a ‘serious writer’.

She also mentioned that it was not unheard of for ‘serious writers’ to own Dorothy Whipple novels and hide them away inside other books, as though they were shameful reading, a sort of literary guilty pleasure.

This was an interesting point, because only that morning my friend had admitted to me that she now regularly reads Jilly Cooper on her Kindle on her morning commute, when previously she would have read something more literary or maybe a decent biography. “The thing is,” she said, “now no-one can see what I’m reading.”

It’s true, you can’t judge a person by the cover of the book they’re reading when you can’t see the cover. Indeed, romance seems to be the fastest growing genre on e-books and part of the reason is that readers who may have been bashful reading romances in public, or even in front of their husbands, can now download entire back catalogues and read them discretely, while claiming to be working through something more highbrow.

Where does this shame come from that tells us what we ‘should’ be reading? What kind of books we should enjoy and what books are a sort of literary gluttony? Are e-readers helping to throw off the shackles of snobbish oppression, and will our new status as anonymous readers change our reading habits? Will people still buy Jonathan Franzen in hard back so they can show off on the tube?

But the most important question is…What’s your guilty pleasure?

15 Responses

  1. Marcus Speh says:

    i wish i could write romance. i can get away with reading it at home, though my wife (!) will look at me askance. she likes it rougher. great post, claire-repost at the kaffe perhaps? (happy 2 help) … i like that picture, too. lots of associations of hidden treasures and forbidden pleasures…

  2. Jan Carr says:

    Yet another good reason to get a Kindle. They’re stacking up. Thanks Claire.

  3. Pete says:

    Well Bryan Adams was No 1 for 17 weeks with ‘Everything I Do..’ but I’ve never met anyone who said they’d bought a copy.

    I’ve always been intrigued by what people say they like and what they actually read / listen to. iPods mean that guilty music pleasures can remain private and Kindles will do the same for books.

    Maeve Binchy is my Kylie Minogue and the late Colin Forbes my Fleetwood Mac. I must buy that Kindle soon!

  4. LucyFishwife says:

    Apparently Virago used to refuse to publish anything “below the Dorothy Whipple line” (which obviously included Dorothy Whipple!) as they considered her Not Literary Enough. Which is why there’s so much fiction gold around for Persephone! I just read their reprint of “The Expendable Man” by Dorothy Hughes – amazing thriller from 1963 which is entirely about racial tension, but doesn’t tell you the hero is black until page 71. Extraordinary, challenging, undeservedly out of print for so long.
    My guilty pleasure is an American romance author called Jenny Crusie…

    • claire says:

      At the event where Nicola was speaking, I mentioned my forthcoming novel. Several people came over to congratulate me, and to say that they too were authors, but “only science fiction” or “only romance”…”nothing like what you have written.”
      Down with snobbery and power to the reader!

  5. Martha says:

    Dorothy Whipple — who is she? She sounds like a Land of Oz dessert! I will pick one up and Whipple with pride. IN PUBLIC.

  6. Jules Archer says:

    Love this topic. Never have thought about it before – how e-readers can make one less self-conscious about what they’re reading.

    I’d say my guilty pleasure is revisiting the books I used to read as a pre-teen/teen – Sweet Valley High and Christopher Pike. Just pure bubblegum but still a fun memory.

  7. writeanne says:

    Great topic, Claire. I can’t be doing with all the distinctions in literature – it’s obviously good to have some broad groupings but it’s such a pity that they form a hierarchy.

    What matters is that a novel tells a good story and is well written.

    I love that a Kindle means nobody knows what you’re reading – another reason I’m glad I’ve got one.

    My illicit pleasures include American thrillers.

  8. Rachel Blom says:

    My guilty pleasure has nothing to do with reading (I read everything from romances to biographies and YA fiction), but with what I’m watching. I love tv series for teens and young adults, even though I’m in my thirties. I’ve watched every episode of Dawson’s Creek at least four times, I’m addicted to Glee and I love One Tree Hill. I can’t explain it, but somehow they just make me happy…

  9. I suppose I could choose to feel guilty that I have no guilty pleasures, but…

    I don’t.

    I think ebook reading will change many things and, if it helps folks read what they wish they didn’t have to feel guilty about, perhaps the world will have a bit less guilt.


    Mixed blessings, at best.

  10. I hadn’t realised that Dorothy Whipple was so popular. I come from the same town as her (Blackburn) and grew up on her books in my early teens. Because she was local and a successful writer she was an inspiration to me and made me believe that my dream of being a writer wasn’t an impossible one. the local library has all her books. Perhaps it’s time I had a re-read. It will be a pleasure – and one that I refuse to feel guilty about.

  11. […] we really need to choose one or the other? Can we not have our Dickens with a side order of  Whipple? This topic was recently brought to light again, albeit inadvertently, by BBC2 programming for […]

  12. […] Nicola Beauman on Persephone books, and why women write so well. This talk inspired my post The Illicit Pleasures of Dorothy Whipple […]

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