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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."

BOF Thu 25-Jul-13 12:36:44

Wildly literary= Hilary Mantel, Joyce Carol Oates, Iris Murdoch etc etc

BOF Thu 25-Jul-13 12:38:23

Actually, Mantel is writing historical literary fiction rather than contemporary, isn't she? But that kinda thing.

tumbletumble Thu 25-Jul-13 13:03:13

But BOF, don't you think that there is a difference between the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series and the Twilight series (in terms of the quality of writing, not the popular appeal) and it is fair enough to recognise that?

ButThereAgain Thu 25-Jul-13 13:05:39

As a "wildly literary" writer who has forced the literary establishment to take her seriously despite itself by dint of her sheer excellence and incredible hard work, I think that Hilary Mantel might have a lot more to say about the perception of women writers. She is very preoccupied with how confined women are by others' perception of their bodies -- how she is perceived as a large woman, how royal women are demoted to their body as an object possessed by royal men and by subjects, etc. She makes me think of the very American picture of the novelist as being a wild, unconfined man, alcoholic, degenerate. The wrecked body of a drunken male novelist is idolised as evidence of his dangerousness and romantic despair. But the body of a woman writer is always something that is used to undermine her seriousness as a contender for excellence. If she is fat, she is something safe, unthreatening, disdained. If she is beautiful/sexy, that kind of creates "permission" for her to be regarded as something that can respectably be consumed.
Beyond Black seemed to be about being a fat woman novelist (the main character's career as a professional medium looked like a metaphor for novel writing). There was a kind of exhaustion there in the face of the project of being regarded on one's own terms rather than through the fog of others' disdain.

That's maybe slightly off topic. But the piece BOF linked to distinguished two different ways of marginalising women novelists -- the chicklit label for commercial fiction, and the cold-shouldering of the literary establishment when it comes to women's literary fiction. They are two pieces of the same cloth. So the process by which Mantel wrestles respect for her literary fiction seemed of interest.

BOF Thu 25-Jul-13 13:20:22

Tumbletumble, I think that's up for debate- personally, I've only read some of Larsson, and I have to agree with the Slate writer that it was pretty unexciting in its use of language.

BOF Thu 25-Jul-13 13:28:07

ButThereAgain, thanks for linking that Lionel Shriver article, it's very illuminating thanks. Great point about the Body you are making too- this all boils down to women being automatically second-class and Other, doesn't it?

nkf Thu 25-Jul-13 14:23:52

I agree that women's voices have been marginalized and silenced but I am not sure that commercial women's fiction is the best example of that silencing.

TolliverGroat Thu 25-Jul-13 14:37:55

But just that phrase -- "commercial women's fiction" -- illustrates the problem. You don't have "commercial men's fiction". Fiction written by men is fiction. Fiction written by women is not just "women's fiction", it's "chick lit". And as "chick lit" it's packaged in unicorn vomit that pretty much ensures that no men will ever read it.

Obviously it's not the best example of the silencing/marginalisation of women's voices, but it's an interesting one because it's so recent, only introduced in the last 15-20 years.

nkf Thu 25-Jul-13 14:47:33

Some commercial fiction is clearly aimed at men. I'm happy not to use the term chicklit if it is off putting to people. The op described her work as chicklit.

nkf Thu 25-Jul-13 14:49:01

And why does it matter if men read these books?

tumbletumble Thu 25-Jul-13 18:26:02

Fair enough BOF. I may be biased as I really hate the Twilight series - much worse than pink covered chick lit IMO!

nkf Thu 25-Jul-13 20:43:49

I think they were about similar in terms of writing. Ie. neither was well written and both were very silly. I think they were perceived in similar ways. Good reads, not great literature. Escapist. A holiday read. One was aimed at young girls and the other at both men and women. But essentially the same grade of writing.

babybouncer Sat 27-Jul-13 22:45:19

Some interesting points of view here. I'd have to say that I would always avoid a 'chick lit-style' cover on a book as the genre is so varied in quality - I hate to get stuck with a pathetic and stereotypical female protagonist with a predictable storyline of finding a relationship. However, there are some excellent books here too (examples like Marian Keyes that people have already mentioned). I tend to wait to read these only after someone has recommended them - I was recently forced to read Me Before You and found it really intelligent and thought provoking and clearly the publisher who decided on such a weak and pathetic cover is barking.

Good chick lit can be feminist as long as it presents females (and our associated interests and challenges) in a non-stereotypical manner.

Incidentally, although it is not as big, I believe 'lad lit' is used to describe the male version of chick lit - this refers to male authors and male-oriented fiction, such as About a Boy'

BOF Sat 27-Jul-13 23:23:01

I prefer dick-lit- more of a ring to it grin

Trills Sun 28-Jul-13 19:55:28

Both sets are huge best-sellers, and both are horribly written (unless you like elaborate, repetitive descriptions of sandwiches).

Great line! grin

SolidGoldBrass Wed 31-Jul-13 02:15:46

Actually, this is kind of interesting from the perspective of someone who writes erotic fiction. There were things about the marketing and massive hype of 50 Shades that were basically about trivialising and marginalising women's writing. I mean, OK, the 50 Shades books are utterly bloody awful (though they are sincere - EL James was writing stuff that she liked and cared about, but that is never any guarantee of the end product being readable) but a lot of what seemed to be happening was this concept that women only want this very, very narrowly confined type of drivel as 'erotic' reading. It's got to be Vacant Virgin and Bastard Billionaire, and there's got to be expensive gifts, shopping and diets - because women are silly and trivial. My book's going out in a black cover via a supposedly 'male-orientated' imprint because it doesn't fit that setup, even though it's quite possibly going to appeal more to women than to men (though I could be being sexist here myself, just because it's full of yearning and wondering as well as BDSM shouldn't put the male reader off, should it?)

Trills Wed 31-Jul-13 09:39:57

I don't suppose you can do a pink cover and a black cover, with different taglines and blurbs, and see which sells more?

I can imagine the reviews of the pink-cover book being oooo, this is rather saucy, that's not quite what I was expecting

SolidGoldBrass Wed 31-Jul-13 12:14:45

<hollow laugh> I had enough trouble getting them to spell my fucking name right on the cover...

tumbletumble Wed 31-Jul-13 13:21:42

Now that would be a really interesting experiment!

SolidGoldBrass Wed 31-Jul-13 16:36:25

Tell you what, if everybody goes and buys my book I will have enough clout with the publisher (maybe) to get them to give it a try grin.

Actually, can't remember details of the link, but someone recently did this thing of reversing the genders on a lot of well known books and it was quite interesting.

ButThereAgain Wed 31-Jul-13 16:56:23

I think that was "Coverflip" --

There were some good reverses in that (and quite a lot of dull ones, too -- hard to avoid when satirizing a special kind of dullness).

Wuldric Wed 31-Jul-13 16:57:17

Interesting idea about dick-lit. Surely we have that already? On the top shelf?

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