This weekend I was at my baby cousin’s wedding. It was gorgeous, touching, funny and perfect. My cousin was a beautiful bride, her husband a handsome groom, and the guests were all shiny, happy and successful. The wedding couldn’t have been lovelier.
As the night progressed and the champagne flowed, I ended up having a conversation with a fairly drunk girl who’d been dancing hard. When she asked what I did for a living I told her that I write, and when I was pressed, I explained further – I write novels.
Obviously when you tell someone that you’re a full-time author, people tend to be impressed. Yet when the conversation turned to the sort of novels I write – I categorise them as ‘chick lit’ as the majority of booksellers and readers seem to – her interest waned. Her darting eyes narrowed, her smile became pursed, and she uttered the following line:
“Do you think you’ll ever write a real novel … you know, one that isn’t superficial?”
I paused for a moment in shock, and the girl smiled kindly.
“Superficial means shallow,” she explained slowly, and I concentrated on the film of sweat that covered the girl’s smug, annoying face. It was my baby cousin’s wedding and I wasn’t about to get into a heated argument, so I uttered my excuses and walked away …
… Until now.
The fact is that if you’re a chick-lit writer, people often think you’re dumb. This wasn’t the first time I’ve been patronised, and it definitely won’t be the last. The notion that readers – and therefore writers – of the genre are thick isn’t limited to drunken conversations between strangers. It’s everywhere.
Earlier this month, two wannabe-feminists complained to WH Smiths about the labelling of fiction for women as ‘women’s fiction’. They moaned that the only other section in the store with a similar point of sale was for children, and they suggested (on Women’s Hour on Radio 4) that this degraded women. They also said that stocking lots of pink-covered books in this terrible ‘women’s fiction’ section was degrading, and then they basically whined a lot and pretended to be feminist. Honestly, it was ridiculous. And to think they did it on a BBC radio show called Women’s Hour. I doubt they saw the irony.
Anyway, the conversation I had during the reception reminded me of this bizarre outburst from Disgusted of Tonbridge, Kent, and on the long drive home from the wedding I got to thinking about how (apparently) clever women often judge books by their covers. I know we’re supposed to judge books on appearance’s sake – how else are we to delve further and discover if we want to read it? - yet there’s a definite amount of prejudice from (mainly) middle-class readers when it comes to a book that has a hot pink cover with sparkles on the front.
- Some women see ‘chick lit’ books in a shop or on Amazon and immediately buy it because it has a pink, sparkly cover and they know – at the very least – the story will be entertaining;
- Some women buy a book ‘like that’ in secret and don’t admit to reading or owning it (treating it as her guilty pleasure);
- And some women will see a mass-market women’s fiction novel, sneer at it, and will read a Booker-nominated one instead.
Obviously these are the extreme ends of the spectrum and there are lots of readers who enjoy all sorts of novels regardless of their categorisation, and I have used these examples purely for examples’ sake. But the overall assumption to anyone who knows books is that if a book is marketed to a young woman and features a ‘girlie’ colour, high heels, sparkles, or something whimsical it will be ‘light’, and therefore not intelligent.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
The fact is that like all books, you take what you want from it. If we use the example of my latest novel SPOTLIGHT (and why not, it’s my site so I can pimp if I want to), you can either read it as a book about a girl who wins a TV talent show, or you can delve a bit deeper and consider the notions of identity within our celebrity-obsessed society.
And just like books, all authors have different shades of intelligence. Some are incredibly clever and have day jobs as doctors, lawyers or other hard-gained professions, and others – like me – have been able to carve out a career based on street-smarts and intuition rather than academic prowess. What we all have in common, however, is drive, determination and talent – and an intelligence that allows us to write at least 70,000 words that other people want to read.
The fact that I can write novels that both touch and entertain my readers is something I’ll never take for granted. But when people make the assumption that a) my readers are dumb because they enjoy my books, and b) I must be dumb to write something with a hot pink cover, I’m always going to defend them and myself. I’m always going to defend a woman’s right to read whatever she wants, and an author’s right to write whatever she wants without her level of intelligence being called into question.
It was only 150 years ago that Mary Anne Evans had to write under the pen name of George Eliot to be taken seriously, and this is something we need to remember when 29-year-old women complain that WH Smiths is insulting them by stocking ‘chick lit’ novels under a category called ‘women’s fiction’. It really wasn’t that long ago that women weren’t encouraged to read – let alone write – and if a bookshop has a category dedicated to fiction purely for women this should be something to be celebrated, rather than dismissed as patronising or degrading. We should be thankful that the market for women’s fiction is so large (apparently 80% of book sales can be classed as ‘women’s fiction’) that it warrants it’s own area of a shop, and that it is promoted rather than pushed aside.
If you think that the books with hot pink covers are fluffy, lightweight or dumb, maybe pick one up and read it and work out why so many women want to read it in the first place. Is it about a woman who obsesses over shopping and finding Mr Right? It might be – and so what if it is? But what you’ll probably find is that it touches on many other issues, and is reflective of a large segment of our society. WH Smiths (rightly, in my opinion), used the term ‘women’s fiction’ as a sign-post to tell women where these books are in the shop, and publishers use hot pink covers (as an example) as a way to communicate with potential readers – readers who pick up these books because they identify with the characters and the stories inside. My novels are about girls who claw their way out of sticky situations through hard work and ambition. That they speak to so many readers shows that plenty of today’s female readers can identify with that and are hopefully doing the same.
The women who buy and enjoy books categorised as ‘women’s fiction’ aren’t as shallow and as prejudiced as those who judge a book simply on it’s cover and write it off because it is hot pink, has sparkles, or appears on first glance not to have much literary ‘merit’.
Ultimately it isn’t chick lit books – or the stores that stock them – which are superficial. It’s the women who write-them off as ‘simple’ who actually are.