Beauty Standards, Female Rage and Friendship in You Could Be So Pretty by Holly Bourne
By Emma Rogers
It Only Happens in the Movies, The Manifesto on How to be Interesting and Am I Normal Yet? are just a few of the novels you may have heard of from the UK’s YA (Young Adult) queen, Holly Bourne. Bourne spent six years working as an agony aunt for a youth charity, helping young people talk about their relationships and mental health, which inspired her to start writing teen fiction that educates teenagers about feminism. Her books with Usborne have sold over half a million copies, been shortlisted for The YA Book Prize four times and featured on the BBC Radio 2 Book Club.
We spoke with Bourne about her upcoming novel You Could Be So Pretty, the themes she explores within the book, and what to look out for from her over the coming months.
Your new novel, You Could Be So Pretty, is out on 28 September 2023. What can our readers expect from this upcoming book?
I initially pitched it as The Beauty Myth for teenagers. It’s a dystopia exploring the impossible beauty standards young girls are expected to adhere to under the ‘doctrine’ of choice feminism, as well as the normalised sexual violence against them. It’s a dual narrative between two girls – Belle and Joni – one Pretty, one Objectionable. Sworn enemies who begin to realise they can learn from each other. I love all my novels but this one feels particularly special and I’m so excited for everyone to read it.
What was your inspiration behind the novel?
The book came from a melding together of lots of different sparks of inspiration. I found the rhetoric around Billie Eilish’s Vogue cover really interesting, and then Adele’s Vogue cover about her weight loss. The fact there was such a huge amount of public discussion about the way these two women looked highlighted to me something much bigger is going on with how we view beauty. I was also horrified (though sadly unsurprised) by what teenage girls were telling us about their education experiences through the Everyone’s Invited website. And, finally, I worked with young people at a youth charity for five years and saw first-hand what pornography was doing to our teenagers. I’ve wanted to write about this issue for a long time and this felt like the right story to tackle it.
This is your first dystopian novel. Why did you choose to write a dystopian and how did the writing process differ from your YA (young ydult) novels?
I’m hoping it’s clear to the reader by the end of this book that this story isn’t a dystopia at all, but a contemporary YA novel written using dystopic language. I wanted to make a point about the worrying things we’ve completely normalised, and everything in the book is already happening to our teenage girls. So, in that way, I didn’t have to use my imagination any more than usual (which is quite depressing to be honest, I wish this book was more fantastical than realistic). With that said, I did want the book to have the generic conventions of a dystopia, so I had to work on the language, sense of unease and suffocation, and have characters that want to fight back. I got to read a lot of dystopian fiction in my research, which was great fun!
Our narrators are on opposite ends of the spectrum, but their complex relationships with their mothers are similar. What did you want to highlight in these relationships?
There’s so much to say about how we view mothers in fiction, especially in regards to beauty. There’s such a cliché about the pathetic older women clinging onto her youth or resenting a younger woman’s beauty, like the wicked stepmother in Sleeping Beauty. Belle and Joni’s opposite ends of the spectrum allowed me to explore how different women may react to the pressures of ageing in a society that makes it very clear that to visibly age is unacceptable. I’m hoping the book will show the mothers as victims of wider pressures, rather than villains. As a feminist, it’s so important to me that we unite across our generational differences so we can learn from each other and empower each other.
You created your very own language in You Could Be So Pretty. Was this difficult to create and maintain?
Getting the language right was certainly the hardest part of the writing process. I didn’t want the book’s words for things like make-up or pornography to be too obvious or too jarring. I was hoping each word-swap would be seen as clever by the reader, so I gave a lot of thought to every individual part of the glossary. I took further inspiration from The Beauty Myth. It highlights how the beauty industry almost defies models and the quest to look pretty, so I tried to lean into religious language – swapping ring lamps for ‘halos’ for example, and calories for ‘sin’ (which is actually the same language used by Slimming World).
What do you hope your readers will take away from You Could Be So Pretty?
I always say the same things about my books – I don’t want to tell my readers what to think, but I certainly hope my books get them to think. I want readers of this book to never be able to look at the beauty industrial complex in the same way. I’m not going to tell someone to stop wearing make-up when there’s such huge societal consequences for rejecting modern beauty standards, but it would be great if readers really explored why they’re getting eyelash extensions or using heavy filters on themselves and spending thousands of hours (and pounds) chasing this impossible version of themselves. The book points out the wider conspiracy of this. I really hope it wakes young girls up to why we have such unattainable beauty standards and what purpose this has in our wider societal oppression, and how that’s further intensified when we look at diversity issues.
You Could Be So Pretty is your seventeenth novel. What have you learnt since you published your debut, Soulmates, in 2013?
Ha! That writing a book never gets easier. Each one is its own sweet and painful marathon where you’re the only lonely runner, wondering the whole time if the pain is worth it. I guess I’ve been in the publishing game long enough now to have learned some useful things. Always write what’s in your heart, never for the market. The market changes too quickly. Know that a book is never finished, never perfect, and therefore you should never read your novels back as it’s too cringe-inducing. Part of the process is knowing when to let your ruined idea out into the world because it’s a good-enough ruined mess of an idea.
And you’ll never please everybody and you’ll go mad trying.
I now see a three-star review as more concerning than a one-star review. If someone has given me a one-star review, I’ve really moved them with how much they dislike what I wrote. That means there’s power in my writing, even if they won’t admit that to themselves. But for someone to read a whole novel – a whole year of your life’s work – and to shrug and say, “meh, it was OK, I guess”? That’s when I’ve learned I’ve got something wrong.
Mental health is an ongoing conversation, both in your novels and the real world. How do you hope your books impact those struggling with their mental health?
Books are such powerful vehicles for reassuring people that they’re not alone. They’re not weird. They’re not the only person to think such things, feel such things, worry about such things, find particular things so difficult. I really hope my books soothe my readers.
I also believe mental suffering is a natural response to an unhealthy and unjust society and all my books make it clear that it’s society that is unhealthy, not my beloved readers. To end mental illness, we need to end poverty, abuse, racism, sexism and all the other endless things that cause lasting suffering.
Are there any characters in particular across your novels that have a special place in your heart?
The three girls in the ‘Spinster Club’ series will always remain my favourites. They were all so gloriously fun to write, and they were all so funny. I miss them a lot! It’s strange to think they’d be in their twenties now.
Do you have any future projects in the works?
My schedule is to write one YA in a year, and then an adult novel, and then back to YA, and so forth. So, I’ve just finished writing my next adult novel, which I’ve warned my editor is “totally batsh*t” and set over one day at someone’s baby shower.