Genius column on the Guardian website today …
Don't patronise popular fiction by women.
I'm fed up with seeing some of our best novelists written off as 'chick lit' – you don't see the same belittling line taken with male writers. Until May, I had two jobs. I was a writer, with three novels out, and I was an editor at one of the biggest publishers in the UK. I was lucky enough to work with many bestselling authors, but eventually writing won out, and now I am a crazy person sitting in my pyjamas eating jaffa cakes and wondering from where the crying baby in the basement flat suddenly materialised.
When I was an editor, my books were in the genre known for some reason as "commercial women's fiction". We – my colleagues and fellow publishers – loved these books and knew the truth, which is that books bought by women prop up the book trade, and that we should be proud both of the product itself and the diversion it gives hardworking people who want a good read. Now I've left, I'm looking at it from the other side – and what I see alarms me.
I am passionate about this kind of writing, but it seems to me to come in for an extraordinary amount of bile and patronising comment which I rarely see applied to novels by men in the same vein. Books – both fiction and non-fiction – reflecting women's lives, whether young or old, are labelled. Hence "chick-lit": often a derogatory term used to mean books by young women drinking chardonnay and being silly about boys, without the thought that novels by women about women might accurately reflect their lives and thus have merit or, at the very least, relevance.
It winds me up that books about young women are seen as frivolous and silly, while books about young men's lives that cover the same topics, are reviewed and debated, seen as valid and interesting contributions to the current social and media scene. Take anything from Toby Young's How To Lose Friends and Alienate People to The Contortionist's Handbook to Toby Litt or David Nicholls's One Day, or the works of Dave Eggers and Jonathan Lethem. Often these books are far more sensationalist than those by the authors' female counterparts: about how many women the protagonists have slept with, how many drugs they've done, what a crazy nihilistic time they're having in London / New York. I'm not saying they're bad books: Jonathan Lethem is one of my favourite writers and One Day is probably my book of the year. I'm just saying they aren't belittled and dismissed in the same way on the grounds of their subject-matter.
The truth is, women happily read books (and watch films and TV) aimed primarily at men. That's because women buy more and read more, full stop. They read thrillers, travel books, biographies – and yet the majority of these books are marketed for men. Women know they'll like it and give it a go. They'll happily pick up a copy of Porno, with a plastic female sex doll on the front. But men rarely try women's fiction, because they've been conditioned to think they can't pick up a book with a pink cover.
It's a real shame, because if you want to read someone who reflects women (and men's) lives with authenticity and sharp observation, someone whose books will absorb you and make you cry, there are so many options. You can do no better than Lisa Jewell or Emily Barr, or the high priestess of "commercial women's fiction", Marian Keyes. For me, The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank is note-perfect, one of the best books of the last 10 years. Lauren Weisberger's The Devil Wears Prada is like a thriller of first-job hell, it's so tautly written. And Jennifer Weiner (Good in Bed, In Her Shoes, Little Earthquakes) is a genius. Her books are totally gripping, beautifully written, heartbreaking and hilarious. But I have yet to see a review of her which reflects this, except in magazines like Heat, which takes its commercial fiction seriously.
And don't get me started on the criminally undervalued women writers of the previous half-century: Dorothy Whipple, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym, even Joanna Trollope, who I think should be taught for A-level, she's so good.
It amuses me when people say, "Oh, it's a bit like Jane Austen", to denote a writer of romantic novels or sharp-eyed stories about mousy young women (Barbara Pym is always being compared to Jane Austen, I guess because they both write about spinsters. She's nothing like her.) There's something a little patronising about the tone of it, whereas books by young men are compared to older male writers as if it's a coronation, a welcoming to the literary canon. And quite often I'm left wanting to go – huh? I don't get it. There's room for both. And I know which I'd prefer to read.