independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Fiona O'Connell: 'Chick lit' label speaks volumes about prejudice

Lay of The Land

A NEW year often prompts positive resolutions to become better people. But given the epidemic of suicide in this country, they can also be a sign that we don't love and accept ourselves as we are.

Mental illness affects even those who seem to have it all, like bestselling novelist Marian Keyes. Her tendency to depression can hardly be helped by having her life's work branded as 'chick lit'.

For while labels may be necessary, 'chick lit' is an insidious and sexist one. It's foisted only on women authors who write about women's lives and admit to enjoying 'girly' concerns, like fashion. But don't women's lives include everyone and everything? Isn't an interest in style shared by both sexes?

'Chick lit' is generally formulaic and superficial fluff about bagging Mr Right. That's a long way from Keyes's work, which covers a spectrum of gritty issues, like addiction and bankruptcy. Yet every time Keyes brings out a novel, such as her latest, The Mystery of Mercy Close, many reviewers express surprise that she's written another moving yet funny novel on such deeply unfunny issues.

The prejudice doesn't stop there. Like most writers, Keyes doesn't always find the process easy. But she feels "like I've no way to talk about creativity because I'm not Salman Rushdie or a literary writer. When you're a mass-market writer, people think that you can just decide 'this happens' ... But with me, it does come from my soul and my core".

Perhaps a willingness or ability to master craft divides the genres. Keyes uses tools that have been around since Aristotle, such as plot and structure, to make her novels easy to read. And millions do. Yet despite, or because of, this, her work isn't deemed 'high brow'.

Even the labels speak volumes. 'Literary fiction' gets six indulgent syllables. While Keyes and other excellent female writers are allocated only two – which combine to make one powerful put-down. For the term 'chick lit' hollows out a writer's worth.

Let's apply logic to the labels. Shouldn't the opposite of 'popular fiction' be 'unpopular fiction'? Why does 'literary fiction' assume a kudos that hasn't been earned in the marketplace? Perhaps the emperor is wearing no clothes – pink or otherwise.

Because it takes life experience, especially of darkness, to value the light. Instead of belittling Keyes's love of humour and happy endings, she should be applauded for using her talent to make the world brighter for her readers. For she's a Dickens of our time. Who happens to be female. And to like shoes.

Maybe all of us who sometimes struggle with life should realise that we're good enough exactly as we are. So forget resolutions. And the begrudgers. Have a happy New Year.

Sunday Independent

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