My children still haven’t got over the embarrassment of walking into my office last week and seeing my desk covered with erotic novels. From Jane Eyre Laid Bare to Eighty Days Yellow, they were piled up all over the place.
I was reading them for a newspaper review (really) but even so, my son and daughter shut the door hurriedly and scuttled off to laugh about it with their friends.
Scores of erotic novels have been published following the massive success of Fifty Shades of Grey (now the bestselling book of all time in the UK) and judging by the ones I’ve read they vary hugely in quality. Some are sassy and entertaining, while others are absurd and downright degrading to women.
But as I read through the torrent of erotica I kept thinking one thing - “actually, I’d far rather be reading a Jilly Cooper novel.”
I’ve been a fan of Jilly’s books since Emily was published in 1975 and have read every single one since. Her novels are full of sex too (though thankfully not so graphic as the ones I’ve been reading) but what sets them apart is that they’re also witty, funny, poignant and above all, well written.
I’d been wondering what Jilly Cooper would make of Fifty Shades of Grey and the rest – and now I know. Not a lot. In an interview with Stefanie Marsh in The Times today she describes Christian Grey (EL James’s lead character) as a “terrible, terribly silly man” and reckons “you would hate him in real life.”
She also stresses the importance of plot and characterisation in novels – whatever their genre. “…If you have a terrific plot and terrific characters,” she says, “it doesn’t really matter what they do, because you want to know what happens to them. You’re biting your nails to discover whether they do get into bed or they have a fight or they fall in love. I haven’t read any of the new genre of books but they don’t seem to have any proper characterisation, and what they do have is from books or screenplays written by other people. So it’s not writing in that sense, or even a reimagination of a text.”
Jilly adds that she’s a huge fan of writers like Shirley Conran, Jackie Collins, Penny Vincenzi and Barbara Taylor Bradford – because, like her, their key aim is to tell a good story.
She loves writing about horses, dogs, the countryside, laughter” and reckons that “for sex to really work in a book it has to be funny and it has to be loving.”
“There is always a massive amount of research that goes into writing a bonkbuster, “ she says, “and there’s less sex in it than you would imagine. My books are usually about one-50th actual sex scenes, if that. But Christian Grey is at it most of the time, isn’t he?”