Sunday 4 December 2016

Is the chick-lit train running out of steam?

Published 19/02/2012 | 06:00

Last week, amongst the new books that landed on my doormat, was what I assumed to be a typical chick-lit novel. A pastel-coloured cover featuring a jaunty illustration of a couple and an endearingly abbreviated author's name in pretty font.

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I conjured up an image of this woman with the abbreviated name, perhaps bestowed upon her by affectionate friends, I thought, but as I turned to the the biographical information I discovered this author was actually a man.

Does the arrival of men writing under the guise of female pseudonyms mean we've finally come full circle?

Or is this some sort of inverse sexism at play, the opposite of what poor Acton, Ellis and Currer Bell had to do to be taken seriously before they had earned enough respect to emerge into the light as Anne, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, a way for men to appeal to eager hordes of female readers and sell some books?

Men, it seems, are hopping on the chick-lit gravy train, but that train may have left the station.

Late last year, it was reported that chick-lit sales had taken a dive, with some bankable authors losing as much as 70pc of sales from one book to the next. But perhaps women have simply replaced shoes 'n' shopping romances with vampires, werewolves and angels. Maybe it's time to move on anyway.

Chick lit has turned into a kind of giant self-destructive and self-perpetuating dying star whose gravitational pull is taking down everything in its path, polluting the world with a landfill of pink high-heels and purple maribou feathers, spreading out from fiction and taking in film and theatre in its wake, with the likes of Girls Night Out and Sex And The City (does anyone even remember how good the TV series was?).

It has become so all-consuming that if you are a woman who has written a novel, that novel has a critical risk of being categorised as chick lit.

I think the only thing standing between Lionel Shriver and a pink book cover is the fact that the marketing people haven't figured out yet that she is a woman.

Chick lit is more of a marketing device these days -- as evidenced in the uniform book covers -- than an actual genre, and its resultant blanket application to practically any novel written by a woman in an attempt to shift units has had a damaging effect on female authors' morale, leaving many of them boiling with rage.

The rift between popular male and female authors has been simmering like a pressure cooker over the past decade, with unseemly bursts of scalding steam emerging from time to time.

Think about the mutterings of Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner around the time of the publication of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. They pointed out that Franzen wrote about domestic life, relationships and was praised for doing so while women who did the same were dismissed as frivolous.

While you can't blame a man for wanting a piece of the sales success that chick lit enjoys, women may also be dangerously close to returning to the time where they wrote under male names just so their work will be judged on an equal footing. It is a serious issue.

However, with more men writing as women and women writing as men, perhaps there will be a neutralising effect on the issue of gender.

If we don't know whether the author is a man or a woman perhaps then we will have to judge books on their merits alone, instead of whether the writer's first name happens to be Jonathan rather than Jodi.

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