Friday, May 03, 2013

WRITING: Is Chick Lit really just a woman's world?

The other week, I went to an author's night which included the rather wonderful Polly Williams (who, it turns out, is a friend of mine's sister-in-law - I know - this means we're essentially related) speaking on a panel about her current book.  She was joined by Veronica Henry and Ciara Geraghty ( both brilliantly engaging too - Ciara in particular is hilarious: if you get a chance to see her at a book event, go. She also has awesome hair).  All three were super bright, articulate and funny - it was such an inspiring night I came out all aglow.

But, since then, something that Polly said during the course of the evening keeps snagging in my head. She was sharing an anecdote about how a stuffy literary broad-sheet critic had savaged one of her early books and how, a few years later, she happened to be seated next to him at a wedding. He was, of course, nervously charming and everything ended up happily, but the review still stung.

Polly was incredibly discreet and did not name or give away any identifying features but from what was said, he was clearly a middle-aged white man.  I'm guessing of the kind that's predisposed to calling you 'dear' from the moment you're introduced. (Veronica Henry guessed straight off who it was, btw, (and was equally discreet) because he'd also ripped one of her books apart.)

I can't remember exactly how he'd done it, but it was a fairly ruthless assassination of Polly's book that, in the main, women had embraced and enjoyed.

But we all laughed at how of course he'd be a shit about those books.  Of course he would because they weren't aimed at him, anyway!

Which is what's stuck with me: that it was accepted in that room, by practically everyone, that this stuffy old fart wouldn't like Polly's book.

It seems that we all accept that genres, in particular gender genres, are still very much alive and kicking. We are accepting that this book - the one with the soft, feminine cover - this is for girls. This one here, with the  sweat sheen muscular forearm with a smear of car oil beneath a bright yellow, angry font. That's for boys.

Are we still writing in sexes?

It's not about women writers. Not at all.  There are men writing Women's Commerical Fiction now too and plenty of women write Literary fiction (isn't all writing literature??? Whatevs, don't get me started on THAT).

It's about the audience.

One of the most frustrating things is that women readers, as a sex, are a genre.

If you asked Andy McNabb (sorry, he's the most opposite of Polly Williams I can think of) who his audience was, would he say 'Men'? No. He'd say: 'People who like fast-paced, violence-rich, kind of non-story stories'.

Do you think Hilary Mantell says 'Women?'. No. She says 'People who are interested in challenging, literary historical fiction'. (I guess. I'm pretty sure she'd put it a whole lot better than that. Hilary Mantell is AWESOME).



We even have a specific CATEGORY for us: Women's Commercial Fiction. What authors are in Commercial Fiction? What's the difference between that and the category with the word Woman at the front?

And the WORST thing about it is this: it is totally acceptable for fiction written for women to be seen as the easy option.  It's okay for people to say the word Chick Lit with a sneer, even by some who write within the genre. It's expected for books tackling tough subjects - Jojo Moyes' for example - to have soft, girly covers. It is a given that fiction written FOR WOMEN will not get a decent review from a man who writes for a broadsheet newspaper. Commercial Women's Fiction, for those outside of the circle, is dismissed as fluff and nonsense. It fills their pretty little heads and keeps them quiet for the weekend.

Why don't we expect critics to like books written in this genre, even if they are old farts?  Why do we accept being marginalised?

If we really think 'oh he just won't get it' then we'll never get out of the sidelines. What's to GET? It's a funny, touching, romantic etc. story with a (in the main) female protaganist. WHAT IS SO HARD TO 'GET' ABOUT THAT???  If the Old Fart wouldn't connect with that story, why did the newspaper ask him to REVIEW IT????

When I first published my Chick Lit book on Amazon, it was uncategorised, but I was still surprised that the first person to read and report back on it was my ex-boyfriend from school. A very Alpha male ex-boyfriend who said it wasn't what he'd usually read but he'd actually really enjoyed it. He knows I'm married so I'm guessing it wasn't part of some ruse to get me back (we snogged for three weeks 20 years and 20lbs ago). Which means there's a whole world of books out there that this man who, it appears, always wears sunglasses and likes guns, would absolutely love but he's not been made aware of.

I call that a travesty. A TRAVESTY.

BUT ...

Having said that: do we want to come out of the sidelines? It's not as if money's not being made over there and it's offering talented women (and men) success.  Do we, readers and writers of Women's Commercial Fiction, actually choose to be in a world of our own where are stories are discovered by people like us and adored in a way that few other genre books are. Do we care that Old Farts don't like them?

And how much does it matter anyway? Polly Williams' career was hardly destroyed by that dreadful review.

I guess the itch that can't quite be scratched is the acceptance of marginalisation. I like that there is a whole network out there of greedy readers who can't wait to get their mitts on the latest release. I guess that what makes me sad is that it just feels like we're limiting ourselves.  These are, at the end of the day, REALLY GOOD BOOKS and those people who dismiss them as 'just' Chick Lit don't know what they're missing.  That's all.

So am I right? Is it time to rise up against the ChickLit dismissers?

Or am I less right - is being part of an exclusive club a powerful place to be?

Download my book from Amazon today for a sunny Bank Holiday read!

One Way Or Another - Lucy Barker


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