Evening Standard - 14th July 2003
"I read your last book," a female acquaintance confided at a party recently. "Really?" I said casually, idly hoping for some complimentary comment.
"I was surprised at how good it was," she concluded goodnaturedly. I tried to cover my slight annoyance with a smile. "I don't normally read that sort of thing," she went on with sledgehammer sensitivity. "But yes," she mused as she sipped her Pimm's, "I thought it was really quite good."
The woman wasn't being deliberately impertinent - her amazement was genuine; but I've long since got used to such remarks. For if you write the kind of contemporary women's fiction I do - light, commercial and prettily packaged - the assumption is that it can't be much cop. Barely a week goes by without some sneering reference to chick-lit which has become all but a term of abuse.
Why this should be is not clear - simple envy, perhaps, at our huge sales and concomitantly large advances. Or the belief that because these books are easy to read, they're easy to write. They're not. But I think there is something much deeper at work: a snobbish distaste for popular writing full stop.
It is as though there is this wondrous thing called "literary fiction" that is pure and untainted (however dreary), against which all massmarket fiction is set. When people ask me what sort of books I write, I reply that they are romantic comedies about self-deceiving women - women who fail to acknowledge the mess they're making of things - because that's precisely what they are.
Whoever wants to call them " chicklit" - which is no more than a marketing label - can do so, I really don't mind. Those who dismiss the genre wholesale fail to recognise that a lot of chick-lit is good. Many of the best are very well written. Take the opening of Claire Calman's Love is a Four Letter Word, for example: "She sees herself fall in slow motion, the toe of her shoe catching on the edge of the paving-stone, her arm reaching out in front of her, her hand a pale shape like a leaf against the sky."
Or Ralph's Party by Lisa Jewell: "The girl standing in the doorway was tiny, about 5ft 2in, black curly hair held on top of her head with pins and clips in some complicated but very feminine style that looked as if it should have sported ivy wreaths ..."
The better chick-lit novels are also well executed: they are witty, polished comedies, that have come far from Bridget Jones. For chick-lit no longer reflects the self - absorbed, Chardonnay --fuelled lives of the man-less, c a lor ie --counting, thirty-something. The genre has morphed into something else.
There is a myriad of subgenres - henlit for the over-35s (Jane Green); mum-lit for the child-encumbered (Allison Pearson); lad-lit for single men (Nick Hornby) and dad-lit for fathers (Mike Gayle). These are not trivial distinctions.
Many of the books address serious issues. Anna Maxted's wonderful debut, Getting Over It, is a fictional expatiation upon bereavement, as is Calman's Love is a Four Letter Word. Drug dependency runs through Rachel's Holiday by Marian Keyes; and in Maxted's Behaving Like Adults there is a brutal rape. Lisa Jewell explores the darker side of step-relationships in Thirtynothing, while I wrote about adoption and child abandonment in Rescuing Rose.
"The genre is bending in so many ways that I don't know whether chick-lit is a valid way of describing these books any more," says my literary agent, Clare Conville. "For example, Katie Pearson's debut novel, Don't Try This At Home, is about a woman coming to terms with breast cancer, and yet, because it's also very witty and upbeat, it is being marketed as a lighter 'chick' read."
"I sincerely wish for the demise of the chick-lit label," adds Sarah Broadhurst, chief fiction reviewer for The Bookseller. "Like the term 'Aga saga', it's very unhelpful-because a) the variety of novels within the genre is so wide now, and it pitches in the good with the bad." For, like romantic fiction, which has also struggled for a better press, chick-lit is judged by the worst rather than the best. Because the fact is that in a very wide field, there are chick-lit novels that are juvenile, formulaic, sloppily plotted and badly written. Try this: "I lie on my stomach on the sofa and stare at the carpet.
My head is truly in a mess. Before my date with Jack on Friday I was so sussed. I thought I had my strategy all worked out. I was going to be cool and take things slowly and I definitely wasn't going to sleep with him ... but then I remember Brighton and the memories seem so fresh that they sting my eyelids."
This is the kind of writing that gives us all a bad press and exposes us to cheap satire. Toby Litt's recent novel, Finding Myself, was intended to be a send-up of chick-lit, complete with a hugely successful, but rather dim, "chick" novelist as a "heroine".
I was asked to provide a cover quote for Toby, one of Granta's heavily promoted 20 Young British Novelists, but when I sat down and read the book I knew I couldn't, for the simple reason that I hadn't enjoyed it much. The problem was, it was dull. It could not compete for entertainment value with the thing it was seeking to satirise. For what chicklit does, for better or worse, is to amuse and divert and uplift its readers. That is all it sets out to do.
"I don't know why people get their knickers in a twist about it," says Wendy Holden, whose new novel, Azur Like It, is published in September. "I see it as a branch of light entertainment. I want to entertain as many people as possible, and I don't really care what people call it as long as they buy it, because the point is I want to make them laugh." Chris Manby, author of Seven Sunny Days, agrees. "People read these books for the same reason as they'd go to see a film like Notting Hill or Sliding Doors. They watch a Reese Witherspoon film to see her get the guy. People pick up a chick-lit book for exactly the same reason: to feel a bit better about life when they close the last page. And what's wrong with that?"