Do you have a favourite of your own books?

My favourite of my own books has always, so far, been the most recent, whatever it is. (This gets confusing with a book of short stories. You don’t want to play favourites, but you probably will. I want to say that I don't quite disappear over my head into short stories the way I do novels, but I sink into, say, Pool in the Desert or Hellhound with gurgling noises too.) Then that most recent stays my favourite till a stage middling-late in the writing of the next one, when the new one has become its own individual self and we both know it, and I'm thundering toward the end of the final rewrite (what I hope is the final rewrite). And then it stays my favourite till some time middling-late in the writing of the next one....

Hindsight makes my attitude toward my books move around a little. I find Sword pretty embarrassing because my eleven-year-old self's fantasy of the perfect life is so nakedly exposed in it. I don't mind revealing myself as a Romantic with a six-dimensional capital R, but I feel there are limits of taste and discretion which I ignored in that book. I have become defensive of certain books or certain scenes in certain books that I think are too often not read on their own terms: if one more person tells me, accusingly and aggrievedly, that The Outlaws of Sherwood isn't Howard Pyle, for example, I am going to hit them over the head with a quarterstaff. If it were Howard Pyle, why would I be bothering? If you want Howard Pyle, read Howard Pyle. Although the comments that really make me break out into a rash are the ones about the reprehensible presence of so many pushy women in Robin Hood's band. Everyone knows that Robin Hood's band is made up of merry men. (Everyone knows that medieval women stayed at home with their hands folded, just like women do now.) Yes, and I think the end of Howard Pyle's version is loathsome misogynist propaganda, and I was so glad suddenly to be old enough to think so, rather than to believe that it's just that women are natural betrayers. (Oh yes, and Robin and Marian is not my favourite movie. Dressing up betrayal in a lot of smarmy modern psychobabble doesn't make it not betrayal. I didn't like The Lion in Winter either, for similar reasons: emotional melodrama straight out of afternoon TV taped over the fancy dress historical setting. It just didn't bother me as much because Henry II and his family aren't big personal idols.)

Unfortunately I think it's possible that part of the reason a nearly-and-just-finished book is my favourite till the next nearly-and-just-finished book is because as soon as it's out there with strangers reading it my feelings toward it get confused by what other people think of it. People not liking something -- or disliking it for the wrong reasons, see above -- is depressing; but people liking something too well is disquieting. Like being given a diamond necklace in thanks for an embroidered pillow-case. This doesn't make you happy, it makes you feel fraudulent. This makes me sound like a wishy-washy neurotic ('neurotic' is not without truth but I deny 'wishy-washy') but as I keep saying, a storyteller only functions if she's got an audience to tell her stories to. I can't change the story to please an audience -- the story is the story -- but I can try to tell it in a way that will reach as many people as possible. And so I listen to what people tell me about the experience of reading my books. But this system depends on people reading, as it were, cleanly. Reading what's there. Or at least being aware that if the heroine is reminding them of their second-grade teacher who almost put them off reading for life, that's a personal detail and not the book's fault. Or if a writer who’s best known for nice clean adventures and retold fairy tales suddenly comes all over with sex and violence—or a writer known for her Women Who Do Things heroines suddenly writes a book with a teenage boy as narrator—it doesn’t necessarily mean she’s done it wrong, or that the book is a bad book. You’d be surprised how many people do not understand these essential principles. I had a letter about Sunshine protesting the barely-there-even-when-it-is-there sex, saying that the writer did not wish to know what I did in the bedroom. This may come as a shock, but I rarely consort with the undead.