The curse of being called Sharon

Sharon Bolton learned the hard way that people were quick to make judgements about her based on her name, which is why she published her books using her initials. Now, she's had enough.

He could have been six-two, movie-star gorgeous, brilliant of brain and side-splittingly funny; he could have adored me, but I still couldn’t have walked down the aisle with a Kevin (passionate Man United fan), a Darren (climbing his way up the estate-agency ladder), or a Wayne (dreams of breeding pit-bulls). Because after years suffering the stigma of being Sharon, no way was I going to compound the misery by hooking up with what society might perceive to be my ideal mate.

For a few years in the late Sixties, all was well. In the working-class north of England, Sharon was a cool name, more unusual than the Susans (chunky thighs and NHS glasses), Eileens (quiet, reliable, bit dumpy), and Lindas (more time behind the bike sheds than in the classroom) who littered the playground like discarded free-milk bottles. But the Seventies saw a blossoming of Sharons: in TV shows, lampooned in our newspapers. And these Sharons were rather common (to use the parlance of the day), not terribly bright, given to public displays of flesh, possibly a bit loose about the morals. They were the vacuous, uninterested shop-girls, the cheaply dressed bar-maids, the council-estate-dwelling single mothers. The name Sharon became synonymous with a) background, b) character and c) lifestyle. To this day it conjures up images of Pauline Quirke slouching around Chigwell in a shell-suit.

I learned the hard way that people are quick to judge; will jump at the chance of a cheap ego boost at another’s expense. For a shy and rather sensitive girl it became agonising. I was introduced at social gatherings and saw instant judgment forming. Had there been a socially acceptable way of refusing to give my Christian name, I’d have found it. Guess, I could have said. Oh, you think I look like a Camilla? (Horsey type, dirty sense of humour.) How kind. Call me Camilla.(Let’s be honest,though, I’d have sounded like a hooker.)

"I don’t want to talk to any old Sharon," a disgruntled caller once told my secretary, as though I were a species, not an individual.

In an accountancy evening class an Irishman called Roger (lives with his mum, thinks she doesn’t know about his porn collection) asked my name. "And do you dance round handbags in your white stilettos with your mates Tracey and Wendy," he replied upon learning it. WTF! This was an educated man who considered himself intelligent. He wouldn’t have dreamed of being openly racist, blatantly sexist, or making a disparaging remark about a disabled person, but I – on the basis of a choice made years ago by OTHERS - was entirely fair game for his snap judgment and instant derision.

I’ve learned to modify my behaviour so as not to be the Sharon that others expect, at the same time dreaming of the fun-loving extrovert I might have become had I been called India (frightfully posh, rather deliciously bohemian) or Felicity (captain of Trinity College Ladies’ coxed eight). They can misbehave and be considered great gals, but if I get drunk and fall over at a party, well, isn’t it just what you’d expect? In my cash-strapped twenties, I shopped at Austin Reed because Sharons went to River Island. I steered away from bright colours, flouncy fabrics and anything tight, over-compensating for my acquired inferiority complex with sensible, sober suits. Amandas (plays tennis, mixes a stonking Moscow Mule) could wear white, high heels. Sharons had to stick to elegant black courts.

What’s in a name, well-meaning folkwould say. Everything! I wanted to yell back at them. Our names are an integral part of the faces we show to the world. If we’re judged first on outward appearances, we’re assessed next on our names. Change it then, they’d urge, but without considering how difficult it would be to do so.Or how pretentious I’d seem were I suddenly to announcethat I was to be known as Octavia? (Posh names always end in "a", have you noticed that?)

Nobody, I’ve learned, can resist a Sharon and Tracey quip, and I’ve yet to hear a funny one. I’ve met charming, intelligent, amusing women called Tracey and avoided them like suppurating sores because I will not be a part of a real-life Sharon and Tracey.

I’ve never once corrected someone who got my name wrong. Want to call me Sarah? (It’s usually Sarah.) By all means. So flattered you think I look like a Sarah.

So in 2006, when my first book was about to be published, I had qualms. Sacrifice had been described as "a dark, serious, exhilarating thriller". I already knew that men in the UK could be reluctant to buy a book by a female author. Could I honestly expect anyone to buy one written by a Sharon? So on the advice of my UK publishers I chose a sexless anonymity and published my first five books under the semi-pseudonym, S J Bolton. I was happy. I could hide behind a genderless, classless persona and let my creepy, psychological murder-mysteries speak for themselves. 

But you know what, I’m over fifty now and I’ve had enough. Keith Waterhouse, who was responsible for the stigma in the first place, is dead and his stupid prejudice should die with him. The Sharons (and Traceys) of today aren’t vacuous girls in their twenties with perma-tans and X Factor obsessions, they are grown women in their forties and fifties: married, mothers, educated to various degrees and in diverse occupations and I just happen to be one of them.

So here it is, my coming out. My name is Sharon. My books are published (and reviewed favourably) all over the world. They’ve been shortlisted for numerous awards and even won one or two. Above all, they are written for people who believe the quality of the story is more important than the gender, social standing, background or given name of the author.

My husband’s name, by the way? Andrew Charles: posh enough for the both of us.

Like This, For Ever by Sharon Bolton is published this week (Corgi, £6.99)

 

 

Pauline Quirke, Lesley Joseph and Linda Robson as Sharon, Dorien and Tracey in "Birds of a Feather".
RICHARD KOEK/REDUX/EYEVINE
Show Hide image

Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era