Critics ignore writer guilty of un-Canadian sin of success
Book List & Ordering Information

About Charlotte Vale-Allen

   Now Magazine
   Quill & Quire
   Southam Newspapers
   Toronto Star
   Globe & Mail

Charlotte Vale-Allen On Writing

Book Descriptions

Book Reviews

Daddy's Girl

Island Nation Press

Katharine Marlowe

How to Contact Charlotte

by Rick McConnell, Southam Newspapers-Edmonton Journal, May 12, 1996

"The difference between journalism and literature is that journalism is unreadable and literature is unread." - Oscar Wilde

Since I, too, believe in the importance of being earnest, I must protest. Loved your jail-house ballad, Oscar, and a couple of the plays were real rib-ticklers. But who decides what's "unreadable?" Who gets to pick the "literature" from the litter?

Wilde's caustic comment came back to mind when a press package arrived on my desk announcing the publication of a new novel by Charlotte Vale-Allen. I was about to toss it out when a photo-copied Maclean's column by Diane Francis fell out and this line caught my eye: "She went on to become arguably Canada's most financially successful female author."

Which left me asking - Charlotte Vale Who? Well, Charlotte Vale-Allen, that's who.

I discovered that Allen's new book, Claudia's Shadow, is her 31st novel. In a 25-year writing career she has sold seven million books in 20 languages. Pretty impressive numbers for a Canadian author, I thought. So why haven't I heard of her?

The reason is simple: Charlotte Vale-Allen, who was born and raised in Toronto and borrowed her name from a character in the 1942 movie Now, Voyager, has committed the cardinal Canadian sin. She has moved to the United States and become commercially successful.

Shame on her.

Canadians are more than willing to embrace struggling artists who stay home and earn a pittance writing "literature" for a subsidized homegrown market. But let them cease to be "artists," let them instead sell "commercial fiction" to a broad audience-worse yet, a broad American audience-and we howl for their heads. [See, for example, the Toronto Star review following this article]

Well, not all of us howl. But the book critics in this country, who see themselves as arbiters of taste and merit, have reacted to Allen's success either by attacking her or ignoring her.

Through it all, Allen goes quietly on, writing and selling books at a rate that would have any literary agent ordering another bottle of bubbly. She still has an apartment in Toronto and was there when I called to ask how it feels to be attacked or ignored in Canada.

"I was lucky, because I was ignored," she says. "Nobody told me I wasn't supposed to make a living out of this."

Allen grew up in Toronto's theatre community and spent three years in England before moving south of the border in 1966. Her first novel, Love Life, appeared in 1974.

Though her publisher, Mira, is a division of Harlequin, Allen insists she doesn't write romances and says first-time readers are pleasantly surprised to find more between the covers than scenes about people between the covers. Over the years she has dealt seriously with such topics as kidnapping, family abuse, divorce, and alcoholism.

"I'm certainly not establishment," she says. "And I certainly don't write literature. To do that, I'd have to use a lot of artsy-fartsy language and reach for metaphors and reach for similes. I'm not interested in that.

"I'm interested in writing simply and well ... and entertaining you, and giving you some information and leaving you feeling better for having read the book, with possibly some more insight into an issue or a person."

Gee, I always thought that was the whole idea. Clearly, our nastier critics don't agree.

"I've been left gasping at the viciousness of the personal attacks," Allen says of some reviewers. "To the media in this country, without ever having cracked open a book, I must be writing garbage. Otherwise, there's absolutely no other rationale for my success."

Thankfully, readers on both sides of the border have been smart enough to judge for themselves.

Though she won't say how much she makes these days, at her peak in the 1980s Allen was grossing more than $400,000 a year from book sales. She may no longer be our top-selling female author, but she's still doing rather nicely, thank you.

Which brings us to the two main reasons she won't be coming home any time soon. "In the States, the highest tax rate is 38 per cent," she says. "I couldn't afford to live in Canada. And I just don't think I could take all this abuse."

Allen doesn't write literature, that much is true. But there are seven million reasons to believe her work is very readable. Rather than abuse, she should be congratulated for her success.

Shame on who?

Top of Page

Dreams of Fair Women

{The following review appeared in the Toronto Star August 21, l993. Both the author and her publisher, HarperCollins (Canada), protested the Star's using someone whose occupation placed her in a prejudicial position and whose review was bound to be biased against the author. The Star did not bother to respond.}

by Helen Heller

Dreaming in Color, by Canadian writer, Charlotte Vale-Allen, tells the story of three grown women: a battered wife, a middle-aged widow and a relatively elderly stroke victim. It also features a 6-year-old child of such extreme sweetness that she could be substituted for aspartame.

Bobby, the abused wife, comes from rural New York state, where she has been terrorized for years by her sadistic husband, Joe. finally, when she realizes that Joe will probably start in on her daughter Penny, she grabs the kid and runs, ending up in Connecticut, right by the seashore. Bobby is destitute and must find a job fast. She has no real qualifications, but she answers an ad for a practical nurse and gets lucky.

Enter Alma, a proud woman now disabled by a stroke, and Alma's niece and surrogate daughter Eva, a writer who was widowed young. Alma takes to Bobby instantly-and falls from a great height for adorable Penny who immediately starts calling her "Granny" and climbing on her lap.

Eva is less enchanted-Bobby reminds her of her friend Deborah who as murdered by a violent husband-but even Eva is enchanted by Penny (as who could not be, the child is So Sweet!). Bobby and Penny move in with Alma and Eva.

Meanwhile, back in New York, Bobby's husband Joe is trying to find his wife with the express intention of killing her. He eventually discovers her address from her aunt, with dire consequences for Auntie. Joe heads out to Connecticut, where he plans to murder Bobby. Almost does, too.

Meanwhile Eva, who confesses at the beginning of the book that she can only dream in black-and-white, is helped by Bobby to work through her feelings of anger against her dead friend Deborah. She quits writing the potboiler romances she's been turning in to earn money and goes back to real writing. She also manages to dream in color again. Bobby has found a new love, Dennis, who is gentle and kid and generous, etc. And Alma resolves to make the best of things. In fact, all loose ends are tied up nicely in a neat pink bow.

This is not a good read. The storyline is banal, the narration sloppy and the characters ill-defined; there is no real attempt to make any of them live on the page. We see the vengeful husband Joe every so often, pacing the floor and interior monologuing in italics, but he is such a stock villain that we can't believe in him.

The good thing is, we don't meet Joe too often. But we see far too much of the insufferable Penny, who mugs adorably for the invisible camera every time she is on stage and always gets her way. No one ever seems to say no to her.

As you might expect in a book called Dreaming in Color, all the characters dream lavishly. Dream after dream is recounted in full here until the reader's eyes glaze over. You know how other people's dreams are always excruciatingly boring? Well, imaginary other people's dreams are worse. They serve no other purpose than to slow up the narrative. And this narrative is slow enough already. ***

Helen Heller is a Toronto literary agent.

Top of Page

*** For other, unbiased writings about the book, please go to the Reviews section of this site