Tuesday, 5 January 2010

The never-ending chick lit debate by Claire Allan

Do you like the term Chick Lit? Do sparkling covers and pastel covers make you want to read on, or throw up? I don’t think there is another literary genre which evokes such a strong reaction from writers and readers alike. I have writer friends - who write what could easily be defined as Chick Lit - who baulk at the very name of their chosen genre. I myself have, on occasion, referred to the fact that I write contemporary women’s fiction when I feel the crowd I’m talking to might not be receptive to the Chick Lit label.


Somehow we are ‘supposed’ to feel it is our dirty little secret. My book has a pink cover (and I’ve had a bright blue cover, a turquoise cover and a purple cover) and it has an illustration of a very fashionable young woman on the front. In some circles I’m supposed to be ashamed of that. I’m supposed to justify it, because the market dictates that readers of Chick Lit like these covers but I’m not supposed to actually like them.


I’m supposed - some would have me believe - to shrug my shoulders and say “Well, hey, what do I know? I’m only the author!” and not even think - even for one moment - that what I am writing is actually a valuable contribution to the arts. “Sure it’s only women’s stuff” - some say, but then again, “women’s stuff” is damned important. And writing in a way that is accessible to all women, which resonates with them, which makes them think, and laugh, and cry and escape the monotony of day to life is important to me.


It is also a great misnomer to think that we Chick Lit authors (and for the purposes of today, I am wearing my Chick Lit badge with pride) don’t write stuff that challenges or has literary merit. Kate Long’s description of the loss of a child in ‘Queen Mum’ is perhaps the most touching depiction of loss I have ever read - second only to the loss and pain of Marian Keyes’ depiction of a woman recovering from a miscarriage in Angels. Likewise Marian Keyes’ depiction of depression in ‘Last Chance Saloon’ hits the nail on the head in so many ways while in ‘My Best Friend’s Girl’ Dorothy Koomson tackles not only loss, but betrayal and inter-racial relationships beautifully.


Chick Lit doesn’t have to be about issues - but where it is, it is often done with a sense of empathy and emotion which is unparalleled. I pride myself that while writing about drinking Pinot Grigio and wearing nice shoes and dressing in the latest fashions my characters also have real problems - real issues which make them, well, real. Yes, books are meant to inspire and delight but you don’t need to use fanciful language to achieve those goals. You don’t need to create a world so removed from the norm that while the reader can escape to it, they cannot recognise even an ounce of themselves in the words you have written.


Great literature does not necessarily equate with a use of flowery language and sweeping descriptive prose. We shouldn’t like things just because we are supposed to, or because we feel intellectual and scholarly to have read weighty tomes with grey/black covers and bold, sans serif, fonts on the cover. For me, being a writer is about connecting with the reader. My ultimate reward is getting an email from someone who cried while reading my depiction of domestic abuse, or someone who experienced the same kind of Post Natal Depression as Grace in ‘Rainy Days and Tuesdays’.


It is about surprising the reader that beneath my brightly coloured covers; with their gorgeous swirly writing and funky illustrations lie raw, real and passionate words about life, love, longing and loss. For me, writing is about embracing the fact I am a woman and as such have experiences unique to being a woman. I don’t find the term Chick Lit pejorative - in fact I could be so bold as to say I find it empowering. To think of it as anything but empowering is to consider being a woman, and writing for women, as second rate. In that instance we would doing ourselves and our readers a great disservice. Oh, and for the record, I love my covers. Especially the pink one.


Claire Allan is a 33-year-old journalist and columnist living and working in Derry, Northern Ireland. She has a Masters Degree in Newspaper Journalism from the University of Ulster. Her first novel ‘Rainy Days and Tuesdays’ was published by Poolbeg Press in 2007. Following the book’s success, Claire was asked to act as a spokesperson for Aware Defeat Depression on the issue of Post Natal Depression. Her second novel, ‘Feels Like Maybe’ followed to critical acclaim in 2008. Jumping In Puddles, released in September, is Claire's latest novel. Claire is married to Neil and they have two children, Joseph and Cara.
Visit Claire's websites - www.diaryofamadmammy.blogspot.com and www.claireallan.com.

24 comments:

Samantha Tonge said...

Great article, Claire and i couldn't agree more.

I was advised to sub my work as 'contemporary women's fiction', not chick lit - as, apart from anything else, the industry has been saying for several years now that chick lit is on its way out.

Can't see this myself. I think chick lit has been such a success because it is so diverse and has changed with time - there's now lad lit, mum lit, gran lit... i could go on.

I see nothing wrong with light, fun reads and feel light chick lit serves a need for those of us who due to lifestyle or whatever else, have the attention span of a gnat and simply want an entertaining book they don't have to try too hard not to understand. Or there is the more issue-driven chick lit like your own.

Long live chick lit and those sparkly covers, i say.

Samantha Tonge said...

or rather, try too hard TO understand!

CarolineG said...

Thanks for a great post, Claire. I loved your line about writing being about connecting with people. I must admit that I'm not a big reader of the genre and have only read a couple of MKs, but agree that she, for one, is a writer who deserves so much more respect that kudos than she gets.

Gillian McDade said...

Excellent article Claire, which should give every reader food for thought! And I must admit that some of the more enjoyable books I've read are sparkly covered. One which springs to mind is Jane Fallon's 'Getting Rid of Matthew' which is not only a great contemporary women's fic read, but brilliantly written. Furthermore, I don't think any 'literary fiction' reader has the right to look down his or her nose at people who enjoy lighter fiction.

Olivia Ryan said...

Thanks for saying what so many of us think, Claire. I try not to care that there's a sizeable swathe of society (and even some of my friends) looking down their noses somewhat at my books - I just keep reminding myself that I've written them and had them published, whereas they ... merely look down their noses! My books do explore deeper issues, and aren't happy-frothy all through - but I always wanted to write stories for, and about, ordinary working people with ordinary lives (lives with problems as well as happy-ever-afters!)and that's what I seem to be good at. I don't mind what label my books are given. I just want people to read them!!

Fionnuala Kearney said...

Hear bloody hear!!!!!!!!
Well done Claire for highlighting this. I normally suffer with the label, constantly trying to find another way of describing what I write - 'A story of women for women written by a woman' blah blah. Long live Chick lit and all who sail in her!

Derek said...

I think good writing is just good writing. Any genre fiction, by definition, appeals to a particular audience. And if you're getting your work on the shelf then more power to your keyboard, whatever the genre!

Karen said...

Good point well made! I've taken to saying, when people ask, that I write commercial women's fiction, or that if my book was a film it would be a romantic comedy, but of course there are people who look down on those as well! You should be proud, as long as your writing is read and enjoyed.

Loved Rainy Days and Tuesdays by the way :o)

Geraldine Ryan said...

Great article, Claire. I'm a huge admirer of MK but often get stuck very early on with other writers of chick-lit, notably Sophie Kinsella and a few others whose names I've forgotten. I shall definitely give your recommendations a go, though, as well as your own books!

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Great post, Claire. I suspect that people looked down their noses at Jane Austen in her time, since she was writing her equivalent of Chick Lit then.
For me, I like a book to have a heart. If it has that, it's worth reading.
Susiex

Anna May said...

Interesting post, Claire.
Chick lit trashing is snooty and misogynistic. I can think of several dick lit writers who are outclassed by Marian Keyes, for example.

Anna May x
www.annamaymangan.co.uk

Phillipa said...

What an insightful post, Claire. Thank you for this.

Debs Riccio said...

Brilliant post Claire. I wonder who first coined the term chicklit and whether it was actually meant to be derogatory from the outset?
Whenever I've written in the genre, I've always told people 'it's a chicklit thing' and I'm sure 8 out of 10 of my brain cells damned myself for doing so even though I'm generally met with "oooh I love that kind of thing". CHICKLIT ROCKS!

Lydia said...

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! For everyone who reads it as well as everyone who writes it. Why does a book have to be tortured and written in flowery language to be given any credit? I write for womags, so I'm used to the world and his dog looking down their noses at my "little stories". I'm constantly asked (even by friends) when I'm going to write a proper novel. If I ever get around to it, "Chick-lit" is exactly what I'll write! Go Claire! Long live chick lit!

Lydia said...

Forgot to say: I'm now blogging here: www.lydiajones.co.uk/blog.
If anyone is remotely interested in my ramblings, I'd be delighted to see you there!

Chicklit Club said...

Great sentiments, Claire. I have watched chick lit evolve over time and every year I'm amazed at how many wonderful new books are written. It's a genre that authors should be proud to write for - and readers should hold those sparkly covers aloft with pride.


Steph
www.chicklitclub.com

Kate said...

Thank you so much for the mention of Queen Mum. I do think there is some tension between the content and what the cover suggests the book might be, and this has led to some interesting reader feedback!

Derek said...

Dick lit?! Unless it's Dick Francis you're referring to...

Ann said...

Enjoyed your post Claire. I think ChickLit gets a bad rap. It often explores diverse lifestyles and is very entertaining. Isn't that what reading is all about. Long live ChickLit!

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Rosy T said...

Great post, Claire - and sorry to be late to the party. You have summed up a lot of what I feel about my own writing and other people's attitudes to it. People (mainly men, but women as well) make jokes and belittle women's commercial fiction, and it's so hard not to be drawn into being apologetic about it, as a defence mechanism.

I find myself, when someone says, 'Oh, novels! What kind of thing do you write?', and anyone is present who knows what I write, all to often giving an answer which begins 'They're JUST..' or 'Oh, they're ONLY...' It's so hard to be 'out and proud' about writing fiction for women - so hard to remember that this stuff matters!

Bridget Whelan said...

Interesting post & discussion but I have a problem with a lot of labeling – not just chick lit - because it often serves to divide, limit, diminish…

Why for example cotemporary women’s fiction? Why not simply contemporary fiction? It’s as though women’s fiction was a literary niche, a minority pursuit instead of the majority. We are, after all 51% of the population (thank you Stephen Fry on this evening’s QI) – and a much bigger proportion of the reading population…so shouldn’t our fiction be the default position? Imagine walking into a bookshop and finding a shelf marked contemporary male fiction and the rest of the store devoted to Martina Cole, Jane Austin, Maeve Binchey, Toni Morrison…

...and labels don’t always say the same thing to every reader. My publishers (who obviously have enormous insight and good taste) market my book as historical romance which conjures up images of crinolines and blushing virgins rather than 1950s building sites…and I have since discovered that for some readers romance has to = happy ever after. Or, at a pinch, happy for now.

http://bridgetwhelan-writer.blogspot.com/

Claire Moss said...

A late comment but, as author of a book with a VERY pink jacket, a subject close to my heart! I agree with everything Claire has said - and Bridget makes a v good point re women being the greater part of the book-buying public. The jacket of my book was obviously designed to appeal to women, despite the story being told 50% from a male POV, because... women buy more fiction.
On the other hand, I have a (male) friend with a drink problem - I would love him to read Rachel's Holiday by Marian Keyes because it is so sympathetic and insightful, but he won't because of the pink cover - so maybe flowery jackets are nothing to be ashamed of, but they might alienate people who would otherwise love the book.

Aleeza said...
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