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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."

Trills Fri 19-Jul-13 13:07:44

Do you know if the people who write blurbs and choose the pink covers actually read the books?

Maybe the question should be can a feminist-friendly book be marketed under "chick lit"? and the answer is undoubtedly YES.

LittleSporksBigSpork Fri 19-Jul-13 15:14:31

Of course it can. The issue isn't with the literature, it's that media aimed at women is degraded in the mainstream. 'Click lit', 'Chick flick'. There is just as much if not more mindless media aimed towards men, but they get the general categories: action/adventure, sci-fi, and Michael Bay films...

Trills - for many authors, usually not. There's an author (Kelley Armstrong) who spoke about it quite openly, she ended up changing part of her story because the publisher wanted a particular kind cover art (all had necklaces but the necklace's amulet changed colour on the cover art for each book in the trilogy so she came up with an instory excuse for it which she never intended). They've even given her books titles based on what they think people will pull off the shelf, even when it left us readers confused as it had nothing to do with the book. There have been a few cases for other authors where the main character depicted on the front doesn't match the main character in the book because they thought more people would pick that up (mostly involving characters being whitewashed, big protest a few years back in young adult books when it happened to several books with Black characters in a row). It's a big industry, lots of systems upkeep.

addle Fri 19-Jul-13 15:45:31

have a look at jenny crusie's blog (argh ink) - firstly she writes great (feminist)romantic comedies and secondly she writes really well about writing. she's also very good and funny and titles and covers of said romcoms. am a huge, huge fan and would ideally like to be her or at least more like her

wanderingsheila Fri 19-Jul-13 16:30:29

I'm a big chick lit fan. I don't think it is fluff at all. I really love Talli Roland's writing and many other authors in this genre and will continue to read copious amounts of these books because they are highly enjoyable.

Rulesgirl Fri 19-Jul-13 17:53:01

Escapism is so good for your read

GW297 Fri 19-Jul-13 20:06:08

I'm a huge chick lit fan too! I particularly admire authors such as Marian Keyes, who write about hard hitting topics in an accessible, easy to read way. I've also recently read and enjoyed 'Me Before You' by Jojo Moyes, which does similar.

I also love Sophie Kinsella - although not a huge fan of the Shopaholic series - and authors such as Jane Green, Lindsay Kelk, Jane Costello etc...

timidviper Fri 19-Jul-13 20:42:17

I'm not keen on chick-lit myself although I do like some books within the genre but, surely, the whole point of feminism is that women have the right to choose whatever they want and a "pink and fluffy" novel is as valid a choice as War and Peace, Dickens, etc

The original post confuses me a bit. There is a difference between an author being a feminist and her writings being feminist but, quite honestly, it's each to their own as far as I'm concerned.

Cheeriomydeario Fri 19-Jul-13 21:40:29

Hi timidviper, this is Rosie Fiore, author of the original post. My point in the post is that firstly we as chick lit writers are feminists, and secondly that we (or certainly the ones I spoke to), are doing our best to convey positive feminist messages in our books. I worked for a bookseller for some years, writing sales copy, and before I did, would have dismissed any and all women's fiction as being fluffy, superficial and anti-feminist. But in my job I read great books by so many writers, including many mentioned above, and now I would say that this is far from the case. It's a pity to dismiss a whole genre because of some of the worst excesses at one end of the spectrum.

scottishmummy Fri 19-Jul-13 21:48:20

I hate the term chick lit,it's derogatory and dismissive of the author and reader
I have read the shopaholic books,loved them.escapism and completely enjoyable
If a author has genre and style that sells,then yes they will market and hope for profit and sales

timidviper Sat 20-Jul-13 00:23:37

Thanks for the reply Rosie. I understand what you mean by the whole of chick-lit not being pink and fluffy which is why I pointed out that I have enjoyed some books within the genre and put the pink and fluffy phrase in inverted commas.

I would never dismiss all women's fiction and freely admit I have not read widely within this area but my impression is that a sizeable proportion of these books are about relationships / meeting "the one".
I did read and quite enjoy a book by one of the best known women's fiction authors and quite enjoyed it so bought another of hers. I thought I'd accidentally bought the same book twice but no, it was just that the plot of both was identical which put me off a bit!

I do not dispute that many of the writers are feminist and will have a look for something of yours for my next holiday to see if you can convince me that I am missing out! smile

tumbletumble Sat 20-Jul-13 14:33:06

Hi timidviper

I enjoy lots of different kinds of books by women - for example I love chick lit, but also really enjoyed The Gathering (mentioned in your OP).

I'm afraid I haven't read any of your books (yet), but I have read books by Jojo Moyes, Marian Keyes and Stella Newman. While I enjoyed them all (especially JoJo Moyes), I'm not sure I agree about them sending feminist messages. For example, while I agree that the lead character of Pear Shaped is a strong and likeable character, it's still basically a book about meeting "the one" isn't it? Not that there's anything wrong with that!

YoniMatopoeia Sat 20-Jul-13 15:30:29

I have never read a chic.lit. book. I have to admit that the pink/purple swirly writing, stiletto and cup cake imagery has put me off. I have always presumed.that it is all a bit Bridget Jones, about finding the one etc. Maybe I should stop judging books by their covers.

I also have to say that I don't like the concept that there is some segregated set of books that I should automatically like because I am a woman, or for that matter men might not. It's like the pinkification of toys.
For that reason I think I have been (subconsciously) boycotting them (now that I come to consider why they don't appeal to me).

Allthingspretty Sat 20-Jul-13 15:47:09

I think I saw something recently on channel.four neqs about an author who writes and actually did something so that the covers of her books did not fit the typical marketing strategies to appeal to women. I don't think a fiction book primarily aimed at mean would be called bloke lit or man lit so to be honest the chick lit label needs to be changed.

That being said I read chick lit because I enjoy it and I do think you can be feminist and write chick.

PlentyOfPubeGardens Sat 20-Jul-13 19:19:58

The only book I own with a pink cover is Wifework grin

I looked at your book pages. I was expecting to see romance but they seem to be books about women's friendship, enterprise and motherhood (although 'finding love' is mentioned in Babies in Waiting).

Like Yoni though I am put off by the covers. I think publishers do a massive disservice to female authors by marketing their work like this.

I am downloading Wonder Women to my kindle which has a serious looking black cover. It looks like a good read but I would be embarrassed to be seen with a book with that cover. It looks like a children's book.

What is it that makes a book 'chic lit' exactly?

Wuldric Sat 20-Jul-13 19:29:41

For me, two issues are being conflated. I don't like chick lit especially as most of the books are badly written. But there is nothing inherently anti-feminist in chick lit as there is in (for example) porn or mills and boon romances.

So for me writing chick lit is. As innocuous as someone writing children's books. It is possible that a chick lit writer could be feminist or anti-feminist.

SolidGoldBrass Sun 21-Jul-13 00:11:01

I think quite a lot of books that are dismissed as chicklit are quite strongly feminist - the most obvious example being Marian Keyes This Charming Man, which is about a bunch of women defeating a really dreadful abusive man by getting together and speaking out. I've read others which feature women escaping/surviving/recovering from abuse with the help of other women. I do find that quite a lot of them send the unambiguous message that abuse is not sexy and that you can escape it.

nkf Sun 21-Jul-13 17:02:21

I don't buy into this idea that feminism is necessarily about strong women who don't let obstacles etc...

I think feminism is a point of view, a way of seeing the world.

I think lots of so called chick lit is doing something else. Marian Keyes is an interesting read and not particularly about finding the one. I know her first was but one was about recovery from alcoholism.

The original post in this thread with the oh so jaunty list of cupcakes versus feminism made me cringe.

Cheeriomydeario Sun 21-Jul-13 20:47:57

Dear nkf,this is Rosie Fiore, author of the original post, I am sorry my post made you "cringe" but I think your reading of it is somewhat simplistic. I'm not sure you read the whole post. At no point did I suggest a comparison between cupcakes and feminism, I began by making the point that many people (me included), frequently confuse the artist and the art... and I merely illustrated the point by pointing out that in no way do I resemble the stereotypical heroine of the most cliche type of chick lit book. If you take the time to read some of my blog posts, you'll see that feminism as a way of thinking and a filter through which I observe the world and culture is very important to me, as it is to the writers I interviewed. All of us feel, as purveyors of popular culture that we have the responsibility to represent women (and men) who defy sexist stereotypes.

WilsonFrickett Sun 21-Jul-13 23:53:23

I hate, hate, hate the term chick lit. Anyone who calls me a chick in my hearing will pretty soon learn the error of their ways. It's a media label suggesting that writing aimed at women is somehow 'other' - by implication inferior. Makes me stabby.

That said, I am a huge fan of contemporary fiction. Is it feminist? Well, for a book to appeal to me there has to be something in the characters that grip me. As a feminist myself, that's unlikely to be a pwetty pwincess who hangs around for 230 pages waiting for someone to rescue her, is it?

Where I think the genre is particularly strong at the moment is a move to more complex, flawed characters. Characters who are trying to overcome themselves, instead of contrived circumstances. Jane Fallon and later Lucy Dawson books I'd put in this category. And I bow to no-one in my love for Marian Keyes. The woman is a genius.

PlentyOfPubeGardens Mon 22-Jul-13 07:47:47

Cheerio - All of us feel, as purveyors of popular culture that we have the responsibility to represent women (and men) who defy sexist stereotypes.

Clearly this statement doesn't include the publishers who market women's writing with such dreadfully stereotyped covers. Are you actually happy for your work to be marketed like this?

What is it about your writing that makes it 'chick lit'? What are the characteristics of the genre?

LeStewpot Mon 22-Jul-13 10:30:05

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

nkf Mon 22-Jul-13 18:50:30

I think it might be pushing it to say that the Shopaholics series is about women's lives. Or a Mills and Boon novel. They might be about some of our fantasies but they don't stand up to much scrutiny on the insight into women's lives front.

scottishmummy Mon 22-Jul-13 18:53:54

Most literature doesent reflect real women life,other than autobiography,biography
Much Literature has aspect of embellished or well told shopaholic
Sometimes I read for escapism with knowledge it's not reflecting real women life

nkf Mon 22-Jul-13 18:55:53

I was responding to Lestewpot's email. I agree with you. Lots of books are read for escapism.

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