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A Cupful of Comfort
Text by Anita Nair and Illustration by Farzana Cooper
Published: Volume 15, Issue 5, May, 2007

In the midst of ponderous tomes of literary fiction, lie the little books - the slim, feel-good volumes that de-stress like no pink pill can. Anita Nair empathises with the typical Maeve Binchy heroine

I know I ought to start on Proust. I know that I should attempt Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow one more time. I know that Mrs Dalloway waits as do War and Peace and The Magic Mountain. But my eyes evade their stiff albeit imploring spines and instead settle on Marian Keyes' The Other Side of the Story. When I am done with that, I have Joy Fielding and Joanne Trollope, both filled with many hours of promise…these writers may not ever be reckoned amidst a line of literary stalwarts but you can be sure that they have a million readers more than any literary god....

So for the moment, the day, the week and the month, I have put aside the doyens of angst and the word acrobats, writers who plumb the depths of the human soul or soar to celestial heights. Instead I seek solace and peace in doorstoppers. Fat and fatuous family sagas where almost everything happens the way we expect it to; where black and white overshadows the grey and where good gets its reward and evil its punishment and even if the girl doesn't get the man of her choice, she finds someone who is just as good.… Besides they all have wonderful dialogue, unforgettable characters and plenty of minutiae about food, clothes and everyday life. More than anything else, why I delight in these books is that they celebrate the ordinary and these days we have very little time or media space for that....

I remember the horror I saw on a publisher's face when I said I found Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy rather like an Indian version of Catherine Cookson. "What about An Equal Music?" he asked. "That's literary fiction," I said. "But the other one…it is very much like a Catherine Cookson book. I don't know why you sound so horrified though. I adore her books so you needn't read anything derogatory into it," I added. And I stand by it. The Kirkus Reviews referred to this book as a cream-puff-wrapped-in-a-cinder-block but you can ignore that. What they mean is that it isn't literary enough....

As for the much-maligned-by-literary-types Dame Cookson, she published over 90 highly popular novels which have been translated into several languages. Each one of her books dwells on life as it is and there was no attempt to rise beyond that. And yet, I have found her books the most readable. Perhaps it stems from the fact that the author knew the world she was talking about and she wrote about it from within rather than as an observer. In the end, isn't that what all fiction, literary or otherwise, ought to do: celebrate life rather than denigrate it.

At one time, women's writing was for me a synonym for banal. The very act of opening a book written by women for women seemed an act of drudgery. I would toss my hair, grimace and move on to weighty tomes, hefty with gravitas and much existential angst. Not anymore. Now on my bedside table where once Camus and Kazantzakis reigned, pretty pink volumes with grab-you-by-the-gut titles in loopy writing reside.

But I am not entirely out of the closet yet. There are moments when I feel as though I have gone back to my early teens when I hid my Harold Robbins and Sidney Sheldons amidst the more innocuous Mills & Boon. For when I have guests who may wander into my bedroom, I place a vintage collection of Latin American short stories or a Jeanette Winterson or a Bruce Chatwin on top of the pile....

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