||Don't Fence Me In
Charlotte Vale-Allen spurns the "romance writer" tag
List & Ordering Information
About Charlotte Vale-Allen
Quill & Quire
Charlotte Vale-Allen On Writing
Island Nation Press
How to Contact Charlotte
by Lynn Crosbie, from the July 1996 issue of Quill & Quire
I was asked recently-by TV Ontario's Imprint-about my "guilty reading pleasures," and didn't know what they were talking about. I suspected that they meant trashy novels, an idea which is patently offensive to someone who has read the collected works of Jacqueline Susann (even Yargo) and can't get through Ulysses. If the readers of trash are, to use McLuhan's locution, a "somnambulist public," their tastes in literature do, at least, reveal a great deal about large collective's desires and dreams.
Canadian novelist Charlotte Vale-Allen is a commercial fiction writer who has, very successfully, captured the imagination of a huge audience. The author of over 30 works of fiction (since 1970), she has a six-figure income, with book sales exceeding seven million in 20 countries. Allen is thought of by many as a romance novelist: her last two books were published by Harlequin's Mira imprint, and her book jackets are covered with the standard romance miscellany-high gloss, floral designs, stardust, and silvery moons.
I read (and enjoyed) several of her books, finishing with her much-championed 1971 memoir Daddy's Girl (which recounts father-daughter rape in, at the time of its publication, unprecedented terms.) While her novels tend to fall into traditional fantastic patterns (the beauty make-over is a recurring feature), her work is distinguished by the particular spin she places on fantasy; rakish men and runaway weddings play no part in the novels; the vicissitudes of women's lives and experiences, however, are central in terms of both plot and politic.
Allen, immediately likable, met me at the door of her penthouse, ushering me into a reassuringly modest apartment. She showed me her cluttered office which, like her office in Connecticut (where she lives half the year), contains the standard-issue monster thesaurus and dictionary set, a computer, and a bulletin board tacked with pictures of family, fans, friends, and a little boy in a Superman cape.
Allen was preparing to return to the States, and bubbling over with excitement about the "storm of controversy" she had recently caused on Jane Hawtin Live after announcing that the idea of therapy-guided recovered memory was "crap." Later, we watched the rebuttal show, while Allen talked back to the television: "Get a fucking life," "Join a gym, for God's sake." She's a wickedly funny, outspoken, and irreverent woman. "I will say anything," she remarks to me, "and will not kiss ass." "No one's," she adds, somewhat grimly, noting that her compulsive candour has not endeared her to anyone but "real people."
Real people, by Allen's reckoning, are those without an "agenda," a term she uses liberally throughout our discussion. She expresses such a strong aversion to this concept that any term I attempt to apply to her work is met with denial and skepticism. She will admit that she is a writer who is Canadian (not a Canadian writer), a woman-oriented woman (not a feminist), and an issue-oriented writer (not a political one). Commercial fiction is the only genre she will cop to-the mention of romance literature sets her teeth on edge. She dislikes the way that gender is constructed in romance novels. Harlequin women are waiting to be saved by men, she observes, an idea that is anathema to her own work. I suggest that her books are structurally related to romance novels, but offer, instead of escapist fiction for women, the means of escape, an interpretation she is willing to consider.
Rowena, the protagonist of Claudia's Shadow, is similar to many of Allen's characters in that she is, like Charlotte Vale (the heroine of Now Voyager, played by Bette Davis, whose name Allen legally adopted in 1961 when she was 20), a troubled and haunted figure who transforms herself, finding love and happiness in the process. This is indeed the stuff of fairy tales, but Allen's work with fairy tale tropes is more reminiscent of Angela Carter's than Danielle Steel's.
As we talk, Donizetti's L'Elisir D'Amore blaring, she mentions a number of literary influences. Mysteries, suspense novels, and true crime figure prominently. Notably, so do Anne Sexton's Transformations (a book of revisionist fairy tales) and Dickens' Great Expectations. Allen's work, like Dickens' and Sexton's, suggest that a critique of the genre may be placed squarely within the genre itself.
Allen's own life resembles many of her plot lines. "Emancipated long before anybody had heard of it," she escaped her family to "save [her] life." The life that is recounted in Daddy's Girl is harrowing, yet the memoir is distinguished by Allen's heroic efforts to rescue and support herself, by herself. This memoir emphasizes-in addition to a commitment not to live life as a "walking wound"-the power of language.
Allen was always believed in the potency of words; she began writing as a child, and used notes to communicate with women she admired. She began writing fiction in order to get Daddy's Girl published, which supports the idea (central to confessional writers) that the self may be transformed by the self-in-writing.
The salvation of self is key in Claudia's Shadow, as in all of Allen's work. The notion of self is always compounded: the personal is both political and pluralistic in her work, as her novels unflinchingly attack topics such as rape, abuse, self-loathing, disability, isolation, and other issues germane to women's lives. The happy endings of these books (she has been accused of tying things together with pretty ribbons), offer salutary and practical solutions to often unspeakable crises: "I Offer hope," Allen states, a fitting summary of what is left clinging to the lid of the Pandora's Box she opens with each novel.
Claudia's Shadow was written and rewritten several times; Allen is a binge writer, a meticulous technician, and a harsh self-editor. As an artist, she is indebted to film, and she discusses her novels as being "set" and "staged," as unwinding in a "cinematic fashion." Their pace also recalls film, as very little "broth," or excess detail, is used in books that constitute, in Allen's words, "a very heavy stew.".
The image of the stew is just: her books appear to nourish a legion of followers. Allen writes up to 15 letters a day to her fans, who range in age from 11 to 94 and include both men and women. Of course, this is a smart commercial gambit (recalling Susann's practise of bringing coffee and doughnuts to the truckers who delivered her books), but she expresses a genuine affinity with the "community" of readers she writes for and within. She tells me that she is hated in Canada, pulling out several unflattering reviews, and rails against the Canadian literary establishment's dismissive attitude toward popular fiction: "Big numbers and terrible covers, so it must be trash."
She also claims not to care what the academy of reviewers think, although, after needling her a while, she will admit that she finds it distressing that her work is never discussed in the same terms as someone like Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence, or Mavis Gallant (writers I bring up, Claudia's Shadow having recalled for me their treatment of violence between sisters.) Allen is a writer who has dedicated herself to the task of writing "an entire body of work about the interior lives of women," an artistic and discursive effort which does merit attention beyond the realm of popular fiction, a genre which is, for the most part, shut out of literary discourse.
"I expect to be discovered after I'm dead," Allen tells me, late into our talk, during which she has produced grilled-cheese sandwiches and dill pickles, and talked about a wide range of topics including other writers (she does not fraternize with colleagues, preferring to read her work to friends), politics, art, her craft, and her three-point criteria for herself as a writer: to present an issue, to entertain, and to provoke thought. Writing is a collaborative venture, in her terms; once she has completed her work, it is the reader's task to measure, evaluate, and take action. She wants her readers to "grate," "like sand in an oyster," she adds, leaving me to finish her metaphor. As our interview winds up, and as she Spartacus Ballet adagio swoons to a close, I am left thinking about all the readers, grating, and refining the pearl. ***
Lynn Crosbie is a Toronto writer, poet, and editor.