On John Murray’s radio show on RTÉ 1 this morning, Sheila O’Flanagan posited that if Colm Tóibín’s novel Brooklyn was written by a woman it would be categorised as chick-lit. Really? I don’t think so, mainly because it’s not like chick-lit at all. I didn’t particularly like Brooklyn, I found it too episodic and the main character was an irritating wuss, but it patently doesn’t have the ingredients of chick-lit: stock characters, clichéd language and predictable plots.
Why are chick-lit authors so defensive? They are generally upfront about the fact that they are in the business of providing light entertainment, and yet they want to be taken really seriously. Do other writers of light books – humour etc. – want to be taken so seriously? Chick-lit authors’ books sell in their millions – surely they should find deep satisfaction in the fact that they have millions of appreciative readers and they earn a good living from their writing. Why the need to earn critical acclaim on top of all that?
As a female writer in Ireland (of literary fiction) perhaps my biggest difficulty is with the wholesale promotion of chick-lit. The problem I find is that in Ireland – despite Irish-woman Anne Enright winning the Man Booker Prize; Emma Donoghue being shortlisted this year, and iconic writers such as Edna O’Brien – chick-lit is held aloft as the women’s genre, as if no Irish women writers were writing books of worth.
Literature often reflects the cultural assumptions and attitudes of the time it represents, including attitudes towards women: their status, their roles, their expectations. But if that literature is dominated by the chick-lit model of woman as greedy, empty-headed, needy consumer, in pursuit of a man-saviour, where are the role models for younger women? For strong, independent, individualistic women? Where are the diverse faces of society, the poor, the intellectual, the lesbian? For me, and for many of my friends, chick-lit books don’t present a convincing picture of the world we live in. Most intelligent women readers do not find their own lives reflected in the pages of chick-lit novels because these books are peopled with conservative, conformist women whose main goals in life are shopping and man-hunting (with a view to a happy ending). The heroines may be sassy and they may hold down great jobs, but they rarely consider a life that does not involve man-as-minder.
These types of women must exist outside the pages of commercial women’s books but I don’t personally know any of them. I often think that the characters’ lives read like a schoolgirl’s fantasy of what it means to be an adult woman, rather than the actual reality of 21st century life. They are novels about rich women in the main – chick-lit books are not set on Council estates and they are not peopled by those who shop in lower-end high street shops or charity shops. The women in the books are driven by a rampant materialism; and, it seems, chocolate cake, an old movie and the love of a rich and handsome man are the answers to most of their problems.
In case you haven’t guessed, I’m not a fan of chick-lit or commercial women’s fiction; I’m not drawn to it because it doesn’t speak to anything in my life. I’m happy for its authors that they can earn a living but to expect to be lauded for great writing on top of all of that seems unrealistic at best.