Chick lit, the cover-up
Published in Know Magazine 2013.
I used Sophie Kinsella, Marian Keyes, Kate Long and other female writers as examples for the works my novel might end up on the bookshelf next to when pitching to publishers. This led me to thoughts about genre and it was then I realised that I had to find a better term than ‘chick lit’.
My issues were dark; loss, grief, abusive relationships and learning difficulties, told in a light and sometimes humorous way. So why was I trying to steer away from chick lit? What did I have against the term?
The phrase ‘chick lit’ was first appeared during the 1980s. The term took off after the 1995 anthology titled Chick Lit: Postfeminist Fiction. More recently everyone refers to (or blames) Bridget Jones instead.
After some initial research beyond basic definitions (in which Helen Fielding’s character kept being used as an example), it became clear why I was wary. From an article in The Independent I got a definition of ‘sex, shoes and shopping’, which appeared to be a trend in media descriptions of chick-lit.
However, Wikipedia defines it the following way, ‘Chick lit is genre fiction which addresses issues of modern womanhood, often humorously and light-heartedly. Issues dealt with are often more serious than consumerism.’
But in the media it was most often described as frivolous, and even dangerous. The Guardian recently ran an article reporting that a Virginia Tech study found fictional representations can affect female readers’ self-esteem and that women’s body image is negatively affected by chick lit. Again a photo of Bridget Jones looking ‘fat’ was used to accompany the article.
In my search to uncover the cover-up of chick lit, the most surprising thing I found was the reaction of some female authors themselves, who also seemed to see the genre as dangerous, but to their portrayal as an author and not their dress size.
This took me back to The Independent. The piece they ran in 2011 asked if we’d fallen out of love with chick lit. They were talking about a slump in sales but I was particularly interested in the back-lash against the genre they mentioned. The article stated that: ‘Literary experts believe that readers are rejecting the identically-jacketed “sex, shoes and shopping” tales pushed by publishers in favour of more complex, psychologically ambitious novels by women writers.’
In this article Eithne Farry, literary editor of Marie Claire, blamed patronising marketing campaigns for this rejection. She said: “Chick lit has become a derogatory term. I’m surprised when I see that a lot of books are sold in covers with shoes and cupcakes because often the subject matter of the book inside isn’t frothy and frivolous.”
It also reported that Polly Courtney publicly dropped her publisher, HarperCollins, in protest at the “condescending and fluffy” sleeves they had chosen for her books. She said that her work should not be reduced to ‘chick lit’ because it dealt with social issues.
Even Cosmopolitan had a go at the genre. In a 2009 article it said: ‘Word is out that chick lit is having to get real in these credit crunch times.’
The co-author of this article, who called herself ‘Venus’ (seen reading a book in her underwear on a fluffy white pillow on the web picture), says that chick lit doesn’t provide the right role models for ‘ordinary’ girls. She wants to bring ‘a touch of reality to the bookshop shelves’.
In her opinion chick lit lacks all of the following: ‘The tales of women who are drowning in debt, unlucky in love and actually have to go to work to earn a living.’
In the views of ‘Venus’, the genre is all Prada shoes, dashing lawyers and champagne cocktails.
I combined that throw away attitude with something someone I know said to me recently. “I had an idea for a novel but then I thought it was just so basic and chick lit style, I’d be able to bash it out really quickly but there wouldn’t be a market for it because there’s loads of books like that.” Hmmm.
Lots of things annoyed me about that, mainly that writing is in any way easy, and that chick lit is even easier. Maybe she was a female Jack Kerouac. I doubted it.
But is the problem in the PR? Mars agreed with me in this case. That is Cosmo Mars who writes the column with Venus. He admits to never having read chick lit but still hating it. He does make a valid point though as he says, ‘Carrying one of those books around feels about as shameful as carrying porn.’
And on Marian Keyes he added, ‘So when I read reviews of her ‘Rachel’s Holiday’ on Amazon and it says “don’t be fooled by the bright pink jacket, this tackles the issue of addiction sensitively but also manages to be entertaining and funny” I want to shout, “Then why put it in a pink jacket?!’
Before this turns into a Leveson Inquiry into the treatment of Chick Lit it does touch on the issue that the media’s responsibility is to get their facts straight, and to thoroughly research something before making claims. If you can label an entire genre of books, shouldn’t you read more than a few of them and back up your claims with proof? Or should the blame lie with the publishers and not the media?
In February 2012, Jenny Geras editorial director for fiction at Pan Macmillan was talking in The Guardian about the main problem with chick lit being the name.
She commented, “Because as a publisher of commercial women’s s fiction, I seem to spend an awful lot of time these days reading articles by intelligent women asking – as questions like “Why a woman of Kinsella’s intelligence would want to write about women at their silliest”. And why other women would read it.”
She brings up the issue again that the journalist making these comments hadn’t read much chick-lit.
“Some of Sophie Kinsella’s heroines do indeed have silly and ditzy aspects (though some of them also do not) but that’s no surprise: she is writing comic fiction. The bigger question is: why is so much energy expended on patronising this particular area of the market?
“Book jackets are made by publishers. We decide what a book looks like and this is a complicated decision, influenced by what we think looks good, what we think will position the book most clearly in the marketplace, and how best to signal quickly to both retailers and readers what kind of book it is.
“The downside of this labelling process is that a whole range of completely different books get lumped together and confused. The only thing that these books really have in common is that they’re written primarily by women and about relationships.”
Because I work in PR and it’s important to think how I will present myself as a writer this was especially interesting to me. My MA Writing tutor had mentioned the typical book covers before, woman hanging out of a bath, shopping or looking upset. I think I’ve managed to find typical examples from my own collection, although no shoes or cupcakes disappointingly. I want to present the books as evidence against all this and really go under the cover of the books.
Giving Up on Ordinary by Isla Dewar – is about bereavement (loss of a child) and an unfulfilled life with lots of questions about missed opportunities. There are some very good observations about grief. But here we have a woman in a bath with a glass of wine.
Flora’s Lot by Katie Fforde – a young woman struggling with a new career and getting a hold on a family business while being treated like shit by her cousin and fiancé. It’s about finding your feet in life, career-wise and in relationships. On the cover we have a girl in a top that shows off her stomach dusting a cat.
This Charming Man by Marian Keyes – brutal domestic violence – quite disturbing. You can be forgiven for missing this point with all the stars and pink lettering on the front of the book.
The Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella – terrible family relationships – a Mum who doesn’t care, a job that has taken over her life, no work-life balance, lonely and intense insecurities – and she’s a lawyer with an IQ of 158. Yet there’s a lovely red handbag is on the front spilling out make-up and cleaning products. Oh but there’s a calculator sticking out too so that must be the mark of intelligence.
The Bad Mother’s Handbook by Kate Long – here we have a stick woman on the front cover waving and smiling. This should be a pregnant stick drawing at least – in a school uniform. This books deal with difficult issues very effectively including teenage sex, teenage pregnancy, dementia, being a mother at any age and family relationships. A lot of people commented on being thrown by the cover in reviews when they realised the deeper issues of the book.
The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice – this is about growing up in post-war Britain, with children who lost their father in the war and how the family copes. There are money worries, generational conflicts especially between mothers and daughters, coming of age, war guilt, rationing, drugs and being a teenager. This cover shows a girl in a pink dress drinking tea and playing with pigeons.
Me Before You by JoJo Moyes – about a girl who looks after a man who is wheelchair bound after an accident. This is both heartbreaking and insightful, throwing up questions often debated questions about assisted suicide. However the cover is a girl throwing a bird up into the air set against a pink sun.
From this quick list you can see that underneath the covers these books do contain social issues. Many of them are funny. They are comedy based on tragedy. In terms of my own writing, they mostly seem to suit the key themes I study, of loss, grief, abuse, relationships and real life – which must be why I’m drawn to this genre. They are books that on the cover look like ‘easy’ reads but are far from it.
Broadly chick lit covers – childbirth, relationships, working in another country, right a wrong in life, make new friends, find a new place to live, get ahead in career, figure out how to fix life problems, get over an ex-boyfriend/husband who has really messed up a life, dating and relationships to grieving over lost family members, cancer and miscarriages. And everything in between you can imagine.
The genre is also a truly fascinating character study. A chick lit author can take a character and put them through a series of mostly realistic ordeals – many that many women can relate to. The end result is usually very interesting, detailed, fun-to-read and satisfying.
And some of the best, deepest, most well-written literature is hidden behind brightly coloured covers with alluring titles. So if this is chick lit as a genre then I’m proud to be part of it.