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Catherine Cookson - Genius or Drivel?

I have decided to start a thread about the very well known and popular author Catherine Cookson.  After the fact she was dropped from the Big Readers competition (hardly surprising as only myself and Luna put her forward!) and since Himadri said he would welcome discussions about some of the other authors who didn't make it, here is one.

So... Catherine Cookson, a poor working class child brought up in the slums of the North East by her mother who turned out to be her grandmother with her sister who turned out to be her mother.  This premise became the central feature of many of her stories, in one form or another, young and nearly always poor girl gets raped or taken advantage of in some way and gets pregnant, has baby, stuff happens etc. all in the surroundings of Newcastle and the North East. Critics of her books say her formula is always the same nothing changes and they are all set in the same time period of the Victorian era.  But I say no thats entirely true, when you have read as many Catherine Cookson books as I have you find they are all unique in their own way.  It is true most but definately not all of her stories are set in Victorian times, there are other periods including the first and second world war eras and the 1950's & 1960's in which she has set her books, and she paints a vivid picture of the era (or era's in the case of books which span a number of years) in which that/those particular book/s is/are set, and are a good social record of life and attitudes at that period of time.

She had the knack of writing believable characters, nobody in her stories was ever over the top, there were plenty who were nasty pieces of work and plenty who were simply victims, but there are strong characters and there are very likeable characters, but the way she writes her stories they are easy to read and don't take any work so they are fine for a bit of a lazy time of indulgence and entertainment, but don't be mislead, you can very easily find yourself being drawn into the book, you find yourself caring for the characters, and wanting to know what happens to them, and willing them to find happiness, and I think that is because they appear so ordinary. She tackles many issues in her stories - admitedly rape, incest and sexual abuse does tend to appear fairly regularly in some way or another but other issues including domestic violence, racism, drug taking and dealing, homosexuality, alcohol abuse, Downs Syndrome and mental health issues have all made appearances and have all be handled well. Class and how it affects people is also a very prominent feature of her stories - you do find some of her stories have a working class boy/girl from the slums made good theme and then on the other hand others show how absurd and unfair the class system could be.

Catherine Cookson books are not top classical literature but they never set out to be they are an entertaining readable period pieces, and I would urge anyone who has not read anything by this author to give her a go.  I have read most of her books but a few notable favourites of mine are The Round Tower, The Invisible Cord, The Wingless Bird, Maggie Rowan, Colour Blind and The Black Velvet Gown, and I would like to point out that only one of these novels is set in the 1800's.

So in short Catherine Cookson isn't literary genius but she's not a load of drivel either, she's quite simply an entertaining read, and at the end of the day isn't that what reading is all about?!

I agree with you, Apple, that Catherine Cookson's books are not drivel.   They are quite well written and have their place on our bookshelves.   I haven't read many but tend to look for them when it's the time for a little comfort and easy reading, such as when I'm in bed with 'flu or a heavy cold.   As you say, their characters are somewhat repetitive but well-drawn and and sometimes magnetic.   I have never actually bought any Catherine Cookson and doubt that I would spend money on them, but my tenants often leave them in vacated flats and I am happy to take them home.  

CC also wrote some poetry, imo not worth reading but the following is her own comment on the fact that she is considered easy-to-read:

So Easy to Read

They say that my books
Are so easy to read,
They know nothing
Of the profundity of thought,
The depth at which they are wrought,
In the midnight sleep-seeking hours
Or in the breaking light of dawn;
And beyond it,
Dragged up and sieved
Through the grid of deletion
Until the clear essence,
In spare syllables, remains,
So those who run can read
And exclaim
In pain-filled breath of discovery,
That's exactly what they've always said,
At least that's what they meant
And would have said
...And written
Had they time to think it out.

But what matter?
It is their gain
If they can understand me;
My aim is accomplished
Through the crucible of pain.

I've only read The Mallen Series but I loved them and they are easy to read, but that's not a crime.  I did buy The Mallen Series and the sequel to it (The Mallen Secret by Rosie Goodwin), obviously written by someone else and is truly drivel, which proves that Catherine Cookson did have something.

I haven't been moved to read anything else by her but wouldn't rule it out either.

Apparently she only took up writing, encouraged by her husband, as a therapy after suffering a nervous breakdown.  She actually worked as a nurse and her first book was published when she was in her forties.

I like her characterisations, it's like she knew these people and the conditions in which they lived and The Mallen Series covers several generations - and is not as cheesy as you might expect.

The fact that her books are still in print proves that she remains popular and I know that longevity is a quality that's valued by some.

I'd say, give her work a go and make up your own mind.


If you want to read about Catherine Cooksons life a good place to start is a biography by Kathleen Jones called "Catherine Cookson The Biography"  it lives up to the blurb on on the back.

Which says...

"The most popular writer of the century Catherine Cookson's story is as dramatic as any of her novels.

Born in 1906 the illegitamate daughter of a domestic servant, she was brought up in Tyneside inone of the poorest communities of the western world.  Her mother once begged barefoot from door to door and they lived in constant fear of the workhouse.  But Catherine was determined to escape her situation and did so with enormous courage and energy.

Kathleen Jones has had access to early drafts of Catherine Cookson's own autobiography, hitherto unseen and hours of privately taped conversation in which Catherine discusses much that she chose after all not to reveal during her lifetime - her tortured feelings for her mother, her mental torment and terrors and her intense and devastating relationship with Nan Smith who almost succeeded in wrecking Catherines marriage to Tom"

I think that when you have read this it shed a new perspective on to her novels. Catherine Cookson herself wrote an autobiography of her relationship with her mother called "Our Kate" - which is the book she wrote as therapy after her breakdown (which Luna mentioned) but she did freely admit that she didn't tell the whole truth and it was a "rose coloured" nice version of events.  Aparently it is said that she intended to write a warts and all version to be published after her death but then changed her mind.

I would just like to add that I love Catherine Cooksons's novels as bookfreak said they provide a good comfort read and they are like an old comfortable pair of slippers who I can return to time after time.

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