After twisting its shapely ankle on a strappy, five-inch heel caught in a sewer grate, Chick-lit has bravely righted itself, adjusted its skirt so only a sliver of panty is visible, wiped away its drunken mascara tears, and screamed, “Fuck you, asshole!” into the night. It’s, like, transformative.
When I was an editor, my books were in the genre known for some reason as “commercial women’s fiction”. We – my colleagues and fellow publishers – loved these books and knew the truth, which is that books bought by women prop up the book trade, and that we should be proud both of the product itself and the diversion it gives hardworking people who want a good read. Now I’ve left, I’m looking at it from the other side – and what I see alarms me.
I am passionate about this kind of writing, but it seems to me to come in for an extraordinary amount of bile and patronising comment which I rarely see applied to novels by men in the same vein. Books – both fiction and non-fiction – reflecting women’s lives, whether young or old, are labelled. Hence “chick-lit”: often a derogatory term used to mean books by young women drinking chardonnay and being silly about boys, without the thought that novels by women about women might accurately reflect their lives and thus have merit or, at the very least, relevance.
It winds me up that books about young women are seen as frivolous and silly, while books about young men’s lives that cover the same topics, are reviewed and debated, seen as valid and interesting contributions to the current social and media scene. Take anything from Toby Young’s How To Lose Friends and Alienate People to The Contortionist’s Handbook to Toby Litt or David Nicholls’s One Day, or the works of Dave Eggers and Jonathan Lethem. Often these books are far more sensationalist than those by the authors’ female counterparts: about how many women the protagonists have slept with, how many drugs they’ve done, what a crazy nihilistic time they’re having in London / New York. I’m not saying they’re bad books: Jonathan Lethem is one of my favourite writers and One Day is probably my book of the year. I’m just saying they aren’t belittled and dismissed in the same way on the grounds of their subject-matter.
Eggers early work I can get, but Lethem compared to Trollope? We’re into talking bananas and figs here people. And for the record, I strive to be an equal opportunity belittler of poorly written, philosophically vacant, socially inexcusable prose. But it’s hard when the market is flooded with SO MUCH of the crappy escapism this woman wants us to take seriously.