Chick lit vies for top book awards
The term may no longer be as flattering as it once was but the genre is still full of great stories, says Lorraine Courtney
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a neurotic single woman in possession of a lousy job, kooky friends and a shoe fetish makes perfect fictional material. But it's also not too hard to understand why authors are so touchy about the chick-lit tag. Like its previous incarnation, "women's literature", the expression is often a gender loaded label, used to dismiss any book that features female characters and relationships.
This is the sixth year of the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards, which are dedicated to honouring Irish writers drawn from across the publishing spectrum. Cecilia Ahern (The Time of my Life), Ross O'Carroll Kelly (NAMA Mia!), Patricia Scanlan (Love and Marriage), Sheila O'Flanagan (All For You), Sinead Moriarty (Me And My Sisters) and Emma Hannigan (The Pink Ladies Club) are the motley assortment that make up the Eason Irish Popular Fiction Book of the Year shortlist, showcasing just how the "chick-lit" genre in all its diversity continues to thrive here.
It was Virginia Woolf who decided that what every woman writer needed was a room of her own. These days it would be a bathroom floor, glass of Chardonnay in hand, screaming, 'OMG! I'm turning 30'. The 1996 arrival of Bridget Jones's Diary launched a tsunami of copycat books on the literary landscape in something that was less a trend than an effort to take over the world. From Sophie Kinsella's Shopaholic series to Meg Cabot's Size 12 Is Not Fat, the cliché of the young woman struggling to make it in the urban jungle became as worn as the heels on a well-trod pair of Jimmy Choos.
Ultimately the cat fight over chick-lit is the age-old spat between high art and pulp fiction. But it comes with the added anxiety that is the woman writer's fear of all things girlie. The source of this unease probably lies with a gut feeling that, historically, achieving any kind of publishing profile for womankind has been so hard that we're not going to blow it all on handbags and shoes.
Are there any badly written, derivative examples of chick-lit out there? Of course. Has this sector been over-published because it has made the book industry a lot of money? Arguably. If there's a problem here it's the word "chick". Somewhere along the line chick-lit was probably a fun marketing slogan but it now seems to be an all-encompassing slur on lots of warm, witty and wonderfully written books. Perhaps some smart marketing executive needs to come up with a new name for these novels that examine everything from infertility to marital breakdown.
But until that happens, don't fear the pink. Rather, embrace it. Chick-lit isn't meant to change the world. It's meant to go rather nicely with a hot bath and a glass of wine. Somewhere behind a soft-focus cover could be a book that might not actually change your life but will give you several pleasurable hours escaping from it. Besides, consider the comfort reading of the last century: Elaine Dundy and Dodie Smith. Then, think back to the chick-lit of other ages: Jane Austen and Aphra Behn -- all dismissed at some stage in their careers as trivial, and all demonstrators of the way in which girliness can be turned into art.
On the shortlist is the former Taoiseach's daughter who rose to become the envy of the Irish chick-lit sorority. Cecilia Ahern has carved out her own peculiar niche of sentimentality and magic realism but for whatever reason, this all makes surprisingly good reading. The saccharine novelist is back with another offering: The Time Of My Life and this time it's all about Lucy, a 30-year-old who arrives home from work one day to find a gold envelope with an invitation to meet with Life. Her life. It seems that Lucy has been neglecting her life and needs a tough reality check. So far, so reassuringly predictable from the author whose pastel-jacketed novels have sold a staggering 10 million copies worldwide and whose personal fortune is estimated at around €10 million too. But Ahern's skill lies in her ability to spin a powerful yarn and Lucy Silchester's tale is touching, droll escapism.
Paul Howard is the only man on the list. He was a leading sports journalist who spent a season following the Leinster Schools Rugby Cup. After one match, Howard overheard one Senior Cup rugby player loudly announce to his parents, "I don't give a fock how you think I played, just crack open the wallet," and his indomitable protagonist was born. Thirteen years, countless columns and seven books later, what started as a cynical parody of the SOCODU rugby subculture, albeit in grotesque exaggeration, has become something of a 'ledge'. The vapid, vain, sexually incontinent stereotype worked and the whole phenomenon has evolved into something far more lasting and significant than its creator could ever have dreamed. And while Ross's sexual exploits and rugby fanaticism have always remained the main theme, not many developments, either cultural or political, escape Howard's acerbic commentary. Topical and hilarious as ever, NAMA Mia! follows Ross through a recession of unemployment, emigration and DIY hair colouring.
It was Patricia Scanlan who started the boom in Irish contemporary women's fiction and her latest book Love And Marriage is pretty damn good. A sequel to Forgive and Forget and Happy Ever After?, it invites readers back into the world of those characters. The result is, yes, a "chick-lit" book -- passion, tragedy, family crises and women dealing with the challenges of being a woman in our time -- but something also a bit more searching. Her sincere depiction of both sexes' psyches uncovers the gamut of human emotions -- from frailty to compassion, jealousy to uncertainty, all bottled into characters that bubble with pleasing imperfections.
Sheila O'Flanagan's journey to the top of the bestsellers lists came via a stint in banking. It was only in her 30s that she first put pen to paper and ever since has been pouring out a stream of very engaging reads that encompass all of life's emotional problems such as broken friendships and romances, infidelity and bereavements. All For You's heroine is Lainey, a TV meteorologist whose love of the weather is surpassed only by her love of love itself. Lainey's been engaged twice, only to be dumped by her husbands-to-be. But she doesn't seem to have learned much and this book is all about her latest flame doing a runner. So far, so predictable, but O'Flanagan is a very skilled writer and keeps her reader thoroughly absorbed throughout.
There are also authors who are expanding the genre's boundaries. Sinead Moriarty's debut novel, The Baby Trail, dealt with a couple's failing attempts to have a child. Praised was showered on In My Sister's Shoes, a breast cancer story that perfectly captured reality. She followed it up with Pieces of My Heart, a novel about anorexia. Now Moriarty is tackling a woman's loss of identity after having children and the inability of some mothers to bond with their babies. Her ability to weave a thread of darkness through a frothy tale equals that of Marian Keyes and proves that chick-lit is capable of packing a powerful punch.
Finally, Emma Hannigan translated a lengthy personal battle with cancer into a best-selling memoir, Talk to the Headscarf, and the novel Designer Genes. Her third outing, The Pink Ladies Club, explores women sharing their experiences of cancer and supporting each other. Cancer is a difficult subject but Hannigan's novel, much like the vivacious author herself, is brimming with hope, joy and inspiration. As the blurb on the back says, these women come to learn that fighting the illness is life-changing and even life-enhancing.
You can cast your vote on the best books of the last year via the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards website at www.irishbookawards.ie and everyone who votes will be in with a chance of winning one of five €100 National Book Token vouchers. Votes can be cast until midnight on November 13. This year, for the first time, RTE Television will be broadcasting the highlights on RTE One on Thursday, November 24, at 10.45pm. So dive into these books as you would a particularly soft sofa. Their messages are many, but the strongest is: don't write chick-lit off just yet.
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