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30m book sales: what's so 'fluffy' about that?


Marian Keyes

Marian Keyes

Marian Keyes

Picture in your mind's eye a chick-lit book, and there's a rather good chance that the resulting image is… well less than rosy.

Oh, it'll likely have a pinkish hue alright, but there will be something sugary, cutesy and low-calorie about it. A fag break for the brain. A slice of cocktail hour on your commute. The truth, of course, is much different. The glittery, pinkish covers are a thing of the past, and the explosion of female writers using a dazzling breadth of styles, tones, experiences and voices means that chick lit - both as a term and as a concept - effectively hangs in the balance. Little wonder, then, that writer Marian Keyes made a plea to ditch the term once and for all. Speaking at the Hay literary festival, Keyes noted of the genre: "It's definitely a pejorative term," she said.

"It's a simple fact that one way of keeping women shut up is to call the things they love 'fluff'. And I think people probably aren't even aware that's what's going on, but it's absolutely innate in our society that anything pertaining to women will be treated with less respect and given disrespectful names."

In the US, writer Jennifer Weiner (15 million sales after 11 novels) has also waged a war on the term chick lit.

"I do think there is an inherent double standard," she has said. "What men produce is deemed art; what women produce is deemed craft. Any woman who ever put pen to paper, or finger to laptop, has had to deal with sexism, discrimination and double standards, has had to fight harder than a man to get published, to get noticed, to get reviewed, to get profiled."

Fighting words, certainly… but still, there is a grimy grain of truth in Keyes' and Weiner's observations. The Dublin writer has sold 30 million copies of her books and had them translated into 36 languages. Her books run the proverbial gamut of the human condition, from addiction and mental illness to domestic violence and pregnancy. Her work hits the same tonal notes - not to mention the same ambitious scope - as Tony Parsons, David Nicholls, David Mitchell and Nick Hornby. All of life, in its most confusing and messy iterations, is found in the stories of each. And yet… the chasm between Keyes and her male contemporaries appears to remain.

In 1996, a New Yorker piece consolidated the term, describing the proliferation of 'girlishness' in the writing of voguish female columnists like Helen Fielding and Candace Bushnell. For better or worse, the title has stuck since then. Lauren Baratz-Logsted, writing in the book This is Chick Lit, describes the genre thus: "Although often with a modern twist, chick lit represents classic stories and classic entertainment, which is why chick lit (albeit without the label recently bestowed by marketing types) has been around for centuries."

So where this snobbery surrounding women's fiction came from, few are any the wiser. Attempting to pinpoint the coordinates of the origin of such elitism, some cite newspaper arts pages; others, like Keyes, note patriarchal society at large. A none-too-distant relative of the 'chick flick', there's nonetheless a subtle but tangible subtext: chick lit isn't quite 'grown up', its escapism aimed at those yet to consign Barbies, white knights and romance in general to the attics of their souls.

Closer to home, Stephen Boylan, books category manager at Eason, pinpoints a time in the late 90s where a cluster of female writers released a number of commercially successful titles. There was a commonality, albeit not a particularly offensive one: female authors creating female characters who were dealing with life and/or love, in books shot through with humour and warmth.

"It was a quick and easy term coined to talk about a certain type of book at a specific point in time, but the name stuck around for much longer than it should have," he asserts. "(The industry) has really outgrown it now, and the term 'chick lit' doesn't reflect the breadth and depth of writing involved. It's certainly not a term we use; in fact, we made a conscious decision to stop using it."

Boylan points out that the industry itself considers female writers to be very much at the upper echelons of publishing's totem pole. The way most industry insiders tell it, books by female writers sell staggeringly well not because readers are inexorably drawn to the chick-lit tag… it's because the books are good.

"People go back time and time again because there's a huge amount of diversity with each author," he says. "Certainly, they are so commercially important, and we couldn't do what we do without them."

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Representing Cecelia Ahern, Sinéad Moriarty, Patrick McCabe and David McWilliams, literary agent Marianne Gunn O'Connor has seen the chick-lit debate from several vantage points.

"For women there are two genres," she explains. "You're either literary or you're not, and if you're not, you get branded as 'chick lit'. One of my authors was asked to review books for summer reads and she was told, 'strictly no chick lit'. That in itself is pretty serious.

"Chick lit is certainly a put down," she adds. "It makes something seem flippant and light and devalues (the writer's) achievement. If you're a big commercial hit, it's a way of bringing you down. Put it this way, there is no term like it used to define men."

Ciara Doorley, editorial director at Hachette books, also notes that the term is obsolete in her office.

"These days, I don't think that sort of thing matters to a reader," she notes. "They know what they like and they don't get hung up on what it's called. These days you have really strong female writers like Louise O'Neill and Emer O'Toole, writing from a very strong female perspective and winning lots of awards along the way."

While the term 'chick lit' has more than outstayed its welcome, the good news is that, in Ireland, we are enjoying a genuine embarrassment of riches when it comes to compelling new literary voices. Some are straddling a gossamer-fine line between literary and 'popular' fiction. It just so happens that many of them are women, among them Lisa McInerney, Sara Baume, Eimear McBride, Emma Hannigan, Ciara Geraghty and Máire T Robinson, and are spearheading a megawatt-bright scene.

Still, as Doorley points out, one or two of them are still prone to simmering with indignation at being attached to that niggling chick-lit label.

"It kind of puts a label on what they're doing and that can be frustrating," she muses. "I think there could be some truth in the idea that some female writers might have to look a little harder to be taken seriously, but the sheer volume of female writers that are so successful, and selling the world over…well, it speaks for itself, really."

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