Novelist Polly Courtney, who self-published two books before signing up to a three book deal with HarperCollins imprint Avon, has ditched her publisher, after the launch of the third book, because she believes that they have marketed her as ‘chick-lit’. According to her, ‘chick-lit’ is perceived as being “about a girl wanting to meet the man of her dreams”, as opposed to dealing with “social issues”, as her books do.
I have a couple of issues with this. Firstly, although, yes, as a further reinforcement of a redundant and restrictive gender binary, marketing products specifically as ‘women’s’ fiction is wrong, it is not ‘condescending’. Men are not superior to women, and considering a book having been written specifically for a woman does not make it a lesser book. It is the attitude that because a book is written by a woman about issues that modern women are thought to be interested in it therefore must be a lesser book that eventually leads to less women writers being present on Booker shortlists. Presenting a book in a pink cover doesn’t patronise women; writing off that book as somehow lesser because pink is not as good as spunk does.
Women have always written, and read; the first book written in the English language was written by a woman, as was the first autobiography. Because, historically being a woman is to be treated as to be stupid, not as good as, and not as worthy as being a man, by default anything that women enjoy en mass must be stupid, not as good as, and not worthy of attention as what men en mass are interested in. In ‘Northhanger Abbey’, Austen defends the populist novels that were read by many young women, who were shamed for this by the intellectual (male) elite. She demonstrates how women fail to own what they like, rather that stand up and say ‘yes, I like reading sensationalist, witty, prose. What is wrong with that?’.
Polly Courtney’s main issue is, without disparaging the term ‘chick-lit’, her books are about social issues, and that chick-lit books aren’t. This is incorrect.
In the 90s, when the serious marketing of ‘chick-lit’ began, publishers catered, as they always do, to a demand. If a book with a picture of a lovely garden on the front is a best seller one year because of the quality of the writing in that book, you can guarantee that the year after there will be three best sellers that all have pictures of lovely gardens on the front, despite the quality or otherwise of that writing.
Early chick-lit wasn’t all handbags and shoes, the first cover of ‘Bridget Jones’ Diary’, widely thought to be the bastion of the genre, has a silhouette of a woman smoking. However, the promotion of materialism marketed specifically at women in the boom period led to publishers following this to it’s obvious conclusion; matching the book jackets to the lifestyles ascribed as acceptable by the market as a whole. The Sex And The City generation, five years down the line still merging their store cards into one affordable monthly payment on meagre incomes and rising costs of living.
If you look at the label ‘chick-lit’ on goodreads, one of the most popular book reviewing social networking sites on the Internet, the description distances the genre from romantic fiction because of the emphasis on family and friends within the books as well as romance.
Best selling ‘Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic’ is bright pink and covered in bags, but the story is of a young, independent journalist dealing with a serious debt problem; an incredibly important social issue in 2000 that many many women were dealing with. Yes, she finds love at the end, but so does Elizabeth Bennet, heroine of the fifth favourite ‘chick-lit’ novel on the goodreads reader-voted list.
There is nothing wrong with reading a book about your own life. If you are single in your late twenties, and being told repeatedly by society as a whole that you are a pariah, you are going to want to meet someone with whom you can empathise. There is a reason, in a country where one in three children will have suffered neglect of abuse in their lifetimes, leading to one in three adults having suffered, that the miseryography genre is so popular, especially with emerging readers. I see this every day at work, young women (and it is women) who have been in care, or are returning to education as adults owing to failures of the system in their childhoods to pick up on reasons they might have had for not going to school love to read about people whose lives they can relate to. By the same token, women working in office jobs on seventeen grand a year, that haven’t been taught to aspire to better, that are dealing with threats of violence or harassment on a daily basis, that have no money but good friends, and that would really like to meet someone who loves them just the way they are, need relatable heroines. And there is nothing demeaning about writing them one.
If you want to read a book about the stock market, read a book about the stock market. But don’t go telling me that I’m not as good as you cos I’m reading a book about my life.
Again, obviously, this is my view point, not that of LeedsBookClub