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Guest blog: can 'chick lit' be feminist?

(72 Posts)
KateMumsnet (MNHQ) Fri 19-Jul-13 12:18:14

Are you a reader of 'chick lit'? If so, do you feel ever so slightly blush about the fact - or do you display your well-thumbed collection proudly on your bookshelves?

Mumsnet Blogger Rosie Fiore, who writes over at Wordmonkey, is the author of two well-received chick-lit novels . In today's guest post she argues that the genre has been unfairly characterized as 'mindless entertainment' and 'fluff' - with the unspoken implication that commercial women's fiction is inherently 'unfeminist'.

Tell us what you think here on the thread - and if you blog about it, don't forget to post your URL. We've got ten copies of Rosie's latest book Wonder Women to give away - post here to go into the hat!

"My name is Rosie Fiore, and I'm a chick lit author. I have had two novels published by Quercus (Babies in Waiting and Wonder Women), both of which have had pastel-coloured book covers with curly writing, and which feature skinny cartoon female figures wearing heels. Here are some other things you should know about me.

1.I bite my nails and do not own any nail varnish
2.I wear make-up perhaps once a fortnight and never blow-dry my hair
3.I am 45 years old
4.I have zero interest in clubbing and minimal interest in cupcakes and shoes
5.I am a feminist

Yes, I'm a loud and proud feminist, blogging about women's issues frequently both on my own site and a previous guest post for Mumsnet. And sometimes, I find myself wondering if that doesn't sit somewhat at odds with my novel writing career.

I should also mention I am a social media addict, and I love the fact that I can use it connect with other authors, both in my genre and beyond. I get a glimpse of them as people, beyond their 100-word biographies. It struck me that when I read tweets or Facebook posts from other writers of commercial women's fiction, many sound rather more like me than they sound like the stereotypical heroines of the genre. They're generally strong, independent women, often mothers, and are well-informed and concerned with issues of social justice. I contacted a few of them to ask whether they considered themselves feminists and how they saw that play out in their writing.

To a woman, they all identified as feminists too. Talli Roland, author of The Pollyanna Plan and The Hating Game, who has just signed a two-book deal with Amazon Publishing, had this to say: "'Feminist' seems to have many different definitions these days, but whatever its meaning, I definitely admire strong women who don't let obstacles stand in their way. I write romantic comedies, and the heroines in my novels are sometimes criticised as being cold and unyielding. While they may not conform to the chick lit stereotype of high heels and cupcakes, I still find such feedback surprising. To me, my characters are focused and driven, and I don't see those as negative qualities. Even in romantic fiction, women don't need to dither around, and they don't always require a man to rescue them. In my books, the hero only comes back into the picture once the woman has figured things out - herself."

For my own part, I've had my novels described as mindless entertainment, light reading and fluff (generally by those who haven't read them), despite the fact that I deal with issues including abortion, post-natal depression, bereavement and rape. I would argue that if you've never read a book with a pink cover, it's easy to dismiss the whole genre, but then you miss out on the great storytelling of writers like Jojo Moyes, and the depth and wit of Lisa Jewell and Marian Keyes to name but a few.

So why do I write what people call 'chick lit'? Well, I write what I would prefer to call commercial women's fiction quite simply because I want my work to be read. If I am going to devote a year of my life to writing a book, I would love as many people as possible to read it, and like it or not, writing commercially is the way to achieve this. Last weekend, when the news broke that JK Rowling was the real author of the 'well-received debut' The Cuckoo's Calling, the most interesting fact was that up until the revelation, it had sold fewer than 500 copies in hardback. Anne Enright's exquisite The Gathering, which won The Booker Prize in 2007, sold just 834 copies before it was nominated, and statistics show that 60% of British authors earn less than £10,000 a year. Stella Newman, bestselling author of Pear Shaped and Leftovers concurs: "My books have pink and purple covers. I have never bought nor read a book, that has a pink or purple cover - I'm not a pink / purple person. Nonetheless, if pink covers mean my books reach a wider audience, so be it".

It should also be noted that until an author is extremely successful and influential, they have little or no control over the way their book is marketed - the cover, sometimes even the title, publicity plans, the blurb - all of these are decisions ultimately taken by the publisher. The only part of my books over which I retain control is the text, and that is where I seek to make a difference.

I don't want to preach to the choir. I don't want to write books that are only read by people who hold exactly the same views that I do, and can nod along in a self-satisfied way. I want to write books which fit the commercial mould, but present characters who are credible role models, who experience challenges and rise to them, and for whom a man is not a saviour or a solution. I hope that readers will recognise themselves in my characters, will identify with the situations and will take strength from the fact that not all women represented in popular culture need rescuing or have their tits out.

Abby Clements, author of Vivien's Heavenly Ice Cream Shop and Meet Me Under The Mistletoe, does something similar: "I try to create protagonists who reflect women I admire in real life, passionate about their work or hobbies, and willing to take risks. There are aspects common to certain women's fiction novels that I consciously leave out - an obsession with body image, and guilt/ self-loathing connected to eating. My characters love to eat! I hope that they are positive role models for younger women. Not perfect, by any means, but more focused on what they do and say, fulfilling their ambitions and creating relationships than on what they look like, wear or weigh."

Stella Newman adds: "I write books in which women take responsibility and control of their lives; they work hard, in real jobs, and they reap the benefits; they make mistakes, they learn from them. The most important relationships in my books are the heroines' relationships with themselves. 'Be the heroine of your life, not the victim,' said Nora Ephron, a woman who followed her own sage advice to 'break the rules and make a little trouble out there...on behalf of women.'"

So on behalf of Talli, Abby, Stella, me and countless other writers, please don't dismiss books because at first glance they appear to be 'chick lit'. Read some reviews, ask some friends. You might be surprised what you find."

LeStewpot Mon 22-Jul-13 20:08:16

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

scottishmummy Mon 22-Jul-13 22:31:58

I think your grimly stretching a point how many rl beckys inhabit fab media life,marrying loaded man?

LeStewpot Tue 23-Jul-13 09:01:52

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

nkf Tue 23-Jul-13 11:01:46

Usually, the narrative drive of "chick lit" is the heroine meets and (after various misunderstandings) marries a man who is richer than herself.

BOF Wed 24-Jul-13 19:27:44

I disagree; I don't think that's been true for a few years now, nkf. You can still buy traditional romances, it's true, but most of the major break-out authors on the "chicklit" scene more recently have dealt with themes of self-discovery and female friendship and family relationships, or been inter-generational sagas which focus on motherhood and women's changing roles. Interestingly, many hugely popular contemporary novels by authors like David Nicholls, Nick Hornby, John O'Farrell etc, deal with much the same subject matter (often, but not always, from a male perspective), and if they were written by women I am SURE that they would receive the same pink cover treatment as Keyes et al. As it is, they tend to attract broadsheet reviews and far more serious consideration for what is, essentially, the same brand of genre fiction that the popular "chicklit" authors write.

I think we do women writers a disservice by assuming that they mostly conform to the kind of romance writing popular in the seventies. They just don't.

I get frustrated by the pink cover treatment, but as an ex-bookseller, my impression was that it was overwhelmingly women who bought fiction: if they saw themselves as more serious readers, they'd avoid the pink (which is a shame, as they could be missing out on some great writing, in my opinion), and if they were less highbrow/holiday readers, they made a beeline for it. I like to think that they were mostly getting access to some really decent stuff, and that they were reading a far broader range of themes and fewer stereotypical clichés than they might have plumped for a generation ago. I've certainly heard of women who have been inspired by books like Keyes' Rachel's Holiday to actually make real changes in their lives. Just my impression.

LeStewpot Thu 25-Jul-13 08:53:27

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

ButThereAgain Thu 25-Jul-13 09:19:21

If that's the case, though ( and I'm sure you are right), then "chicklit" doesn't really name a "genre" at all. It labels both genre-writing (stereotypical romance stories and wot-not) and writing which isn't particularly a genre at all but is shoehorned into one solely on the grounds of being written by a woman. I mean, you could say that stuff written by Hornby and similar (self-discovery as a man, male friendships, etc.) and similar stuff by women from a female perspective is a "genre" which is only characterized as such when written by women and presented as chicklit. But, really, those themes are broad enough and capable of such broad treatment that they don't count as a genre at all (otherwise all fiction would be genre fiction).

It wasn't clear in the OP what the writer really meant by "chick lit" and this unclarity feeds a tendency to pull a whole load of non-genre stuff under the label just because it is written by women. As if being a woman writer was a genre in itself. Which of course is how women's writing is treated. Just like being a woman full stop is converted into a genre in our society, i.e. a pigeon-holing definition that makes gender into essence willy-nilly.

As used, chicklit doesn't succeed in naming a real category of books, it names a marketing strategy that trivialises women's novels. In case it hasn't been linked to yet, can I link to this angry comment by Lionel Shriver about the way her books are marketed.

ButThereAgain Thu 25-Jul-13 09:33:40

One possibility is that there is an equation to be made between genre-writing and commercial writing. As I recall the OP suggests that equation, implying that she consciously writes in a manner that is commercial, wanting to gain a big audience (fair enough!) and that therefore her books come under the label of chicklit. The depressing thing here is that there are lots and lots of ways of writing commercially, lots and lots of genres - horror, crime, romance, historical, misery, ... none of which is called blokelit but some subset of which is called chicklit. So that men-readers and men-writers can be a, b, c, d, or whatever, but women are always w.

ButThereAgain Thu 25-Jul-13 09:34:27

(the strikethrough was an accident!)

nkf Thu 25-Jul-13 11:29:29

There is a marketing strategy at work that puts a whole lit if books in the same place and with similar jackets. Presumably it works. It signals to the reader that a certain type is being offered. The marketing people.might call it chick lit. The rest if us might have a different definition if chick lit. I use the term to mean romantic comedies with a contemporary setting and a happy ending. If people say oh but they are often about domestic violence and drug abuse, then I wouldn't call it chick lit.

BOF Thu 25-Jul-13 11:45:54

But it would look like chicklit (or Romance, under your definition), because of the marketing. Indeed, as far as the marketing is concerned, and its reception by the reviewers, by and large, it IS "chicklit".

nkf Thu 25-Jul-13 11:52:09

It would look like chick lit and that might well be deliberate - as a way of maximising sales. Not necessarily doing a disservice to the author.

BOF Thu 25-Jul-13 11:59:05

It's keeping women's writing artificially contained as genre fiction though, which prevents it being taken seriously. Male writers are treated with so much more respect, even when they write the same sort of stuff.

nkf Thu 25-Jul-13 12:06:56

Well, genre is a way of creating categories. And some categories are more useful than others. And without being specific, it's hard to know who and what we are talking about. Some names have been mentioned. I'd categorise Marian Keyes and Nick Hornby together. U wouldn't call either chicklit and I prefer Keyes.

scottishmummy Thu 25-Jul-13 12:07:23

Chicklit is false creation of a divisive category,like high art,low art.a false dichotomy
Art is neither high nor low,it's good or bad. Chick lit is artificial genre
The literary equivalent of wimmin know your place

ButThereAgain Thu 25-Jul-13 12:09:32

Quite possibly it is an effective way for a publisher to maximise sales. Just like the hyper-gendering of children's toys and clothes presumably does maximise sales too. Publishers wouldn't do it otherwise.But that doesn't mean it isn't seriously damaging to us as readers and to a lot of women writers.

Consider, for example, that the publisher's interest is not (primarily) to maximise sales of a particluar book, but to maximise profit across their entire list. That might mean that it makes sense for them to adopt a short-hand artificial cost-effective set of generalising signals as an alternative to marketing each book in a more individualist way. There might also be a host of other factors that separate the publisher interests from the author's interests, and certainly from readers' interests.

nkf Thu 25-Jul-13 12:10:07

And I would have said those two writers attract similar amounts of respect. I presume they mean respect from literary critics. Both get rave reviews from women's mags and the daily.mail.

nkf Thu 25-Jul-13 12:18:19

As to good or bad, it begs the question who decides? One more point came to me. The idea that fiction is serious because it deals with serious topics is not true. Jackie Collins often features rape, abuse and the mob. But her books are easy reading. It's how a writer writes , not just what they write.

nkf Thu 25-Jul-13 12:20:01

Women, know your place. On the bestseller list. At the Front if w h smith.

BOF Thu 25-Jul-13 12:21:32

This is an excellent article which covers a lot of the debate we are having- really interesting.

(I had a feeling Eugenides was a bit of a wanker, having suffered a rather turgid novel of his recently grin)

TolliverGroat Thu 25-Jul-13 12:24:39

I agree with BOF: essentially, all contemporary fiction (other than the wildly literary) written by women and featuring female characters is being genre-ised into "chick lit" more-or-less regardless of tone and content. I think the marginalisation of women's writing is the real issue, rather than "can chick lit be feminist?"

nkf Thu 25-Jul-13 12:26:05

If I were some of the female writers referenced in that article, I'd bank my cheques and ignore the critics.

nkf Thu 25-Jul-13 12:27:15

What does wildly literary mean

BOF Thu 25-Jul-13 12:29:14

The comparison of Steig Larsson (^Girl With The Dragon Tattoo^ etc) and Stephanie Meyer (^Twilight^) is very apt, I think. Both wrote smash hits, yet one is sneered at, the other lauded. Authors naturally want critical respect, but just as importantly, readers deserve respect: when female-focussed popular fiction is viewed as schlock, the women who read it are derided by association.

nkf Thu 25-Jul-13 12:36:02

I don't recognise that. People rave about both those writers.

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