Rating: 3 stars
I debated with myself whether to review Morality for Beautiful Girls or not. I mentioned my personal concerns about reading Alexander McCall Smith’s popular series in my review of The Heavens May Fall.
How did I come to start reading the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books? A few years ago now, I received a book token as a birthday gift and I chose the first two in McCall Smith’s series from my local bookshop as they were on offer. I’d watched the HBO TV series when it was shown on the BBC and enjoyed it, in the way I usually enjoy light hearted cosy mysteries that only have the slightest undercurrent of seriousness. Grantchester is another TV show I enjoy, in a similar vein.
I read the first book and had some misgivings. Not about the quality of the writing, or about how entertaining the stories were, or even about whether Precious Ramotswe was a suitably strong female character. All of these things met with my approval. It was the fact that the books aren’t written by a woman, let alone a Motswana woman, that didn’t sit well.
For many, this wouldn’t matter. The books are what they are, and they are popular for a reason. In some ways I am part of the target audience, because I love crime and mystery fiction, with a soft spot for the kind of fare that doesn’t tax the brain too much but still keeps you guessing. In other ways, because I care about the underrepresentation of women writers among published and reviewed authors and prize winning authors, and because I care about authors of colour being seen as having the authority to write their own culture, I’m not in the target audience at all.
I could review Morality for Beautiful Girls. I could acknowledge that it covers topics such as depression, fear of rejection, the way in which violence begets violence, and why women deserve respect in the same way men do, and that it does so with an amount of sensitivity. But I’d also have to acknowledge that the book is written by a middle class white man who has lived in Botswana and interacted with the Tswana people, and believes that gives him authority to write about Botswanan society, with the result that he writes in a way that is condescending. Unity Dow covers some of the same topics as McCall Smith in her book, particularly in relation to the role of women in a patriarchal society, but her novel felt authentic to me, a white woman from Britain, in a way that McCall Smith’s couldn’t.
Shortly after winning the 2015 Man Booker, Marlon James responded to an essay written by Claire Vaye Watkins. It’s a brilliant essay about how Watkins has the voice of older white male writers in her head when she writes, about how she writes to please them. Things in it reminded me of when I wrote a novella and sent the first two chapters to a literary agent who read them and returned the typescript, explaining that he liked the crispness of my writing style, but felt that my characters were unsympathetic. The novella was about a woman, an academic, trying to escape an affair, trying to establish herself outside the shadow of the professor she’d been having an affair with, trying to be visible. Of course the agent found my characters unsympathetic. They weren’t written for him.
Anyway. In his response to Watkins’s essay, James talks about how writers of colour write to please white female readers and white female critics, because that’s the way they get noticed. This made me wonder about Unity Dow’s book, and the way it had echoes of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books in its subject matter. It made me wonder whether McCall Smith and Dow are both writing for the same audience.
Both articles made me think about my own reading taste, and whether I prefer male authors’ works and works by female authors that have a male feel to their style (what Marlon James identifies as astringent, observed and clipped) because I genuinely appreciate that style of writing, or whether it’s because I’m conditioned to appreciate it. That’s something I need to mull over some more, I think.
This has travelled as far from a book review as it’s possible to do, but I felt that I needed to get what I’m thinking out of my head so that I could see it more clearly. That’s what going to a therapist for your anxiety and insomnia does for you.
Trying to find a positive out of the entitlement of McCall Smith’s appropriation of black female culture, I suppose that any reader who doesn’t think about the relationship between author and subject matter too deeply, but who ends up thinking differently about the topics bubbling under the cosy surface is a win of sorts.
I won’t be reading any more of McCall Smith’s books, it’s too jarring an experience, but the stories are entertaining and thought provoking if you want some easy reading.