Review by Woodrow Phoenix
After completing her serial Gemma Bovery (1999), a reworking of Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary, Posy Simmonds was absent from the pages of the Guardian newspaper until she returned to the Review section in November 2002 with the weekly series Literary Life. This book collects many of the strips from that run, including two six-page short stories, ‘Murder at Matabele Mansions, a Christmas Mystery’ and ‘Cinderella’.
In these strips Simmonds drops the cast of her previous stories to draw on a broad selection of new characters as she covers the lives of the authors who create books, the shops that stock them, the readers who buy them and the world of book publishing generally. There’s lots of literary pastiche and parody, and when she chooses to show what the life of a professional author is like there’s a very enjoyable insider quality to her observations. She shows writers tired from a succession of boring book festivals, giving very standardised responses to clichéd questions; booksellers in small independent bookshops who find they can obtain stock cheaper by buying it from deeply discounted supermarket promotions than from their own suppliers; and lots of variations on the writer trying to finish their novel and driving their loved ones mad in the process.
There are some recurring strips which emerge in this new series, including ‘Ask Doctor Derek’, a parody of 1970s medical romance stories where readers’ and authors’ problems are diagnosed and cured by the handsome literary doctor and his beautiful nurse. As usual, her observations are very much the preserve of a soundly middle-class demographic both as targets and as audience, but that narrowness of focus excludes almost everybody else from the jokes. The only non-white characters to be seen in this book are distantly in the background of one or two panels. There’s not a single strip about an Asian, Chinese or black reader or author which may say a lot about the kind of world that British publishing still inhabits, but also something about what she feels comfortable with depicting.
This book looks very different from previous collections as this time around Posy Simmonds has abandoned her sharply graphic black line for a much more delicate watercolour and pencil style. The lighter textures allow her to create some beautiful drawings varying from cartoony to much more naturalistic or illustrative when the imagery needs it. This slim collection is funny and well put together, and Literary Life will delight fans of Gemma Bovery and Tamara Drewe.