THE LONG READ

It’s time we gave chick-lit the respect it deserves

When author Caroline O’Donoghue was forced to defend her book against “chick-lit” haters, she decided to investigate why the genre is so maligned – and ended up starting a podcast trying to fix it

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

About a year ago, and after almost forgetting the term entirely, I started hearing the term “chick-lit” a lot. I had just written my first novel, Promising Young Women, and people seemed to be taking their time deciding whether or not the term suited it. The book starred some young women (some of whom could arguably be described as “sassy”), had an urban setting and had a romance as its central plot point.

“It’s not… it’s not chick-lit though, is it?”

They said it as though it were an outdated slur that they would rather not use. And for a while, I played along. I spent a lot of time hyping up what I thought to be the more “literary” aspects of the novel – the magical realism, the body horror, the downbeat ending – as a way of communicating that my book was not like those books. Eventually, I got really, really tired of doing this. That happens when you’re promoting a book. People ask you what it’s about and you eventually pare down your explanation to its finest point, its neatest soundbite. That’s when you find out what kind of book it really is. “It’s about a girl who fucks her boss,” I started saying. And then, a few months after that, I shortened it to three words: “Girl fucks boss.”

“So, it’s chick-lit?”

“Yes,” I answered, resolute. “It is.”

I should probably clarify what I mean by “these books”. Chick-lit (or “commercial women’s fiction”, as it’s referred to in the publishing industry) refers to mass-market books that are for – and about – women. They are usually by women, although male writers like David Nicholls often slip through. A chick-lit novel can be about many things, but a romantic relationship is usually at its core. The romantic hero usually appears on page 12, falls out with our heroine at around 102 and is back together with her by 307. There is often, but not always, a happy ending.

When people want to be nasty about these books – and they very often do – they tend to attack this girl-meets-boy story structure. They say things like, “Oh, let me guess – they get together in the end?” as if they were the first person to ever say such a thing. I’m always dazzled by this sentiment – who, on hearing the plot of The Lord Of The Rings, says, “Let me guess – they destroy the ring in the end?” Quite simply, if you’re reading a chick-lit novel and you can’t guess who the main woman gets with in the end, you’re probably the least observant reader alive. You’re supposed to know from page 12. That is the point of literary tropes and traditions – they reassure us that the story is moving along as it should.

Chick-lit, like all genre fiction, has tropes. There are plot beats to follow. But while the archetypes and story arcs are common, the characterisations are absolutely unique. And because chick-lit writers tend to focus on domestic or suburban scenarios, some of the best – and funniest – writing about modern life can be found in chick-lit.

“Neither of my parents drank very much,” says Claire Walsh, in Marian Keyes’ 1995 debut, Watermelon. “And they kept very little alcohol in the house. No, I mean it. This was not a policy of theirs. This was not a stance they took. This is something that happened to them.”

Claire goes on to describe the silent decade-long war her sisters have been waging on their mother, of first watering down the vodka so much that it’s basically odourless (“Smell that. What does that smell like to you?” “Nothing, Mum.” “EXACTLY!”) and then their mother reacting by hiding booze in increasingly creative locations around the house, before eventually getting rid of the liquor cabinet entirely.

I read Watermelon when I was 14 and already experimenting with the vodka levels in my parents booze cabinet. Watermelon wasn’t the first adult book I had read (I limped through East Of Eden), but it was the first one that featured a world I absolutely recognised, despite being a decade younger than the characters. As a young woman, it felt, in many ways, like a playbook for the things to come. As a young writer, it was supremely reassuring. I had heard “write what you know” a million times before, but had assumed that it only counted if the things you knew were either adventurous, dramatic or depressing. This was Ireland in the early noughties, after all. The age of the misery memoir. I had convinced myself that if you didn’t have an Angela’s Ashes story in you, you didn’t have a story at all. That Keyes was writing about a suburbia of snack food and golf cardigans and purged drinks cabinets was more encouraging than a thousand Mizz magazine short-story competitions.

Chick-lit became the disguise that feminism wore for a generation of women who were too old for girl power and too young for Germaine Greer

So, I got into chick-lit. I read Marian Keyes and Sheila O’Flanagan and Annabel Giles. I read Jane Green and Sarra Manning and Candace Bushnell and countless other authors whose names I don’t clearly remember but whose plots crackle in my head like fuzz on a VHS tape. Sexy widowers, single girls, demanding bosses – I loved them all.

I didn’t love them all uncritically. I knew that some books were better than others. Anyone who reads extensively in one genre becomes very good at recognising wheat from chaff. Chick-lit was so hugely popular in the early 2000s that it became something a lot of women writers and journalists tried their hand at, hoping that by following a formula and chucking in a few jokes they would make a fortune. Paula Hawkins, who became a literary megastar with Girl On A Train, wrote four chick-lit novels under the pseudonym Amy Silver. This is not a past Hawkins likes to dwell on in interviews. She is never outrightly dismissive of chick-lit, merely forthright about how unsuitable she was for the genre: “I tried to write about people who were ambivalent about marriage and children, and to avoid writing as though a man and a baby is enough to make you happy. I think pinning all your hopes on a relationship is probably a very bad idea.”

As much as I respect Hawkins, I still feel the need to interject. If you read chick-lit and come away thinking that the point is the man and the baby, you are reading the wrong chick-lit. The man and the baby are there, sure, but are merely threads being woven into a larger piece. Chick-lit commonly deals with grief, addiction, long-term illness, self-image and – probably more than any genre – a woman’s work life. Step back and look at the larger tapestry, and you’ll see that chick-lit isn’t so much about romance as it is about drawing tiny, detailed pen-and-ink sketches of what it feels like to be a woman in a world that still isn’t built for you.

“Claire was a woman whose life was very similar to mine,” Marian Keyes tells me, when talking about her debut, Watermelon. “You see, at the time – this was in the early 90s – I was told I was a post-feminist. I was told that there was no need for feminism any more, and that my life was fantastic. But I knew my life was nothing like that, and I couldn’t see it happening to any of the women around me. None of that was being reflected in popular fiction.”

“The early 1990s were a very lost time for women,” she says. “We had no political or ideological school of thought to align ourselves with and we were bouncing around in this world that was not for us. We had no language to articulate that lostness. I was really afraid to identify as a feminist, and every woman I knew was the same. That’s a terrible thing to do to a whole generation of women.”

And so chick-lit became the disguise that feminism wore for a generation of women who were too old for girl power and too young for Germaine Greer. The genre boomed in the 1990s and early noughties, creating classics like Sophie Kinsella’s Confessions Of A Shopaholic, Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It and – perhaps the Ulysses of the genre – Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary. (Aside: amused to note that, after writing this sentence, I found a 1998 review of the book that called it, and I quote, “James Joyce it may not be”.)

Bridget Jones is, in many ways, both the exception and the rule. The book follows a very typical plot – imperfect city girl torn between charming bad boy and sulky-yet-honourable good guy – but both the diary format and the recognisability of the character made it a smash hit. It became that rarest of things: a book, intended for and enjoyed by women, discussed by the mainstream media. It was celebrated and criticised; taken apart and put back together. “It captures neatly the way modern women teeter between ‘'I am woman'’ independence and a pathetic girlie desire to be all things to all men,” marvelled The New York Times. There was an archness, a knowingness, an undeniable satirical edge to Bridget Jones. A cleverness that was present in many of its contemporaries, but never quite recognised by critics. People who loved Bridget but hated the idea of chick-lit elevated Fielding as a writer wholly different to her peers, when, in fact, many were doing something very similar.

Calling an author 'the new Nora Ephron' has come to mean almost nothing. It has become cultural shorthand for 'this chick writes about chick stuff, but don’t worry, it’s quite good'

This happens a lot with women’s writing. Every few years, a couple of authors who are essentially writing mass-market romance fiction are elevated to the golden halls of what is considered “real” writing. Both Nora Ephron and Fielding were respected journalists before their smash-hit novels, so their work was granted a gravitas rarely afforded to the genre. To this day, there are people who try to pretend that Heartburn isn’t chick-lit and that reading it is some kind of intellectual exercise that is the preserve of New Yorker readers. Sorry, guys. Heartburn is chick-lit. It’s really good chick-lit. But it’s chick-lit.

This is why, whenever a new book by a relatively young woman comes out, the cover quotes claim that it’s “Bridget Jones for the Twitter generation” or “the Nora Ephron of her time”. In the last couple of years, the following women have been selected for the honour of being either the new Bridget Jones or the new Nora Ephron: Dolly Alderton, Jean Hannah Edelstein, Sally Rooney, Lisa Owens, me, Ayisha Malik, Sloane Crosley, Daisy Buchanan, Holly Bourne and the entire website Refinery29. Calling an author “the new Nora Ephron” has come to mean almost nothing. It has become cultural shorthand for “this chick writes about chick stuff, but don’t worry, it’s quite good”.

The respectability of chick-lit has, undoubtedly, a lot to do with how these books look. The candy-pink covers, the predictable titles, the loopy chocolate-box fonts. These books are hyper-feminine and ultra-friendly, designed to jump out from the supermarket shelf at the woman with a trolley full of instant ravioli and Toilet Duck and say, "Hello. I’m your friend. You can read me in the bath. You can shove me at the end of a beach bag. I can be the three pages you read before you fall asleep, because life is hard and I am prepared to be the one thing in your life that goes easy on you."

“Titles and covers are such a minefield,” says Eva Rice, author of smash hit The Lost Art Of Keeping Secrets. “One thing that I find unbelievably irritating is the sort of catch-all that publishers who think that if we put a girl half-looking at the camera with a handbag and a flower on the cover, then this book is going to sell because that’s what women want to read.”

“I just don’t believe that David Nicholls would have got that One Day cover if he was a woman. I saw some covers for my last book, and it was the most upsetting thing I’ve ever seen! It was a meadow scene with a picnic. I was like: ‘When are they in a meadow!? When is there a picnic??’"

Now, the phrase 'chick-lit' no longer feels like a slur. It feels like a movement

“This might sound trivial and nit-picky. But cover design, especially in the age of #bookstagram, has far-reaching effects on how a book is perceived. The women’s magazines that used to feature chick-lit now won’t touch them,” a publicist from a major commercial publisher tells me. “It’s all about inspirational books, the stuff women think they should be reading.” The result is that most publications are endlessly promoting the same clutch of “worthwhile” books, while commercial women’s fiction is increasingly finding that nowhere will PR them.

Interestingly, the big books by women this year all have cover designs that take inspiration from the world of romance fiction, but subvert it. Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year Of Rest And Relaxation features a Regency-period heroine under bold pink lettering. Sally Rooney’s Normal People depicts two skeletons locked in delicate caress. Even my own cover – an illustration of a hand grasping a thorny rose, on acid yellow with scratchy black lettering – falls into this category. These are covers that take the books we were raised on and place them in a hard sugar shell of irony. They are covers that say: this book is feminine enough for you to enjoy, but not so feminine that you have to be ashamed of it.

That’s the main thing that bothers me. It’s the shame. It’s that truly brilliant authors are getting overlooked or undervalued because the current literary trends aren’t in keeping with the work they do. Most of all, what bothers me is that you can read a brilliant Rowan Coleman or Jenny Colgan book, and be desperate for a really meaty piece of criticism, only to search online and find almost nothing. Some Goodreads reviews, some Amazon recommendations. Some bloggers and fan sites who are just as angry that this genre is so seldomly covered. But no major media outlet is commissioning lengthy reviews or discussions of mass-market women’s fiction, which is why I decided to start a podcast that did review and discuss women’s fiction.

This week, I launched Sentimental Garbage, a bookclub podcast where I interview writers about the chick-lit novels that defined them, as well as talking to the authors of the books themselves. To my delight, I discovered that there are literally thousands of people who have been fuming about the lack of coverage for the genre, and who have been waiting for someone to do it. Now, the phrase “chick-lit” no longer feels like a slur. It feels like a movement.

@Czaroline

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