Forget chick lit and lad lit: here's blithe lit

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The Independent Online

I have always fought the notion of "his and her" literature. Sure, there's "chick lit" and "lad lit", but the majority of that is more lifestyle-orientated than literary. People buy it in the way they buy Lynx or Impulse, because that's what the marketing maestros tell them being a girl or a bloke is all about. But when the writing is truly good, there's no reason that gender should determine your enjoyment.

I have always fought the notion of "his and her" literature. Sure, there's "chick lit" and "lad lit", but the majority of that is more lifestyle-orientated than literary. People buy it in the way they buy Lynx or Impulse, because that's what the marketing maestros tell them being a girl or a bloke is all about. But when the writing is truly good, there's no reason that gender should determine your enjoyment.

Many women devoured Nick Hornby's High Fidelity while I know men who lapped up Bridget Jones. And once you swim into the broader canon, there's no certainty as to who's buying the latest Tremain or McEwan. Which is not to say some books don't exude a strong whiff of the jock strap while others hint of petticoats. Conrad, Lawrence, Updike and Roth are all clearly in the locker room, while the Brontës, Woolf, Drabble and Byatt whisk you through the parlour. Women don't share their menfolk's profound empathy for Portnoy's obsessive masturbation and no man I know harbours fantasies about marrying a plain little governess called Jane. But anyone who loves novels will have some sense of both territories. Fiction's very point, after all, is the reader's willing submission to alien imaginations.

Having said all that, there are some novels from the female pen that are too damn alien for the male gaze. These books are passed down from mother to daughter and sister to best friend without their unbridled femininity ever floating gaily across the male horizon like a sliver of peachy chiffon.

The criterion for inclusion is that these works give women readers the spiritual boost that can only otherwise be provided by an afternoon's lolling on the sofa with a purring cat, a box of Belgian truffles and Casablanca playing on the video. Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm is a prime example, as is anything by a Mitford (although these works have recently been made familiar to a wider public by TV adaptations). But the genteel romances of Georgette Heyer and Elizabeth Goudge remain the exclusive province of the cognoscenti. Goudge's Little White Horse is one of my all-time favourites, as is Enid Bagnold's National Velvet (both classified as children's books, but don't let that deter you).

The distinctive top note of these diverse novels is that they are all uniquely blithe. None of their authors lets a bit of death or disaster stand in the way of prevailing jauntiness. They are, simply, far too blithe for blokes.

It will be intriguing to see what effect the forthcoming film of I Capture the Castle will have on male cinema-goers. "I Capture the What?" Precisely. Half of you haven't got a clue. No male I've met this week has ever heard of the supreme standard-bearer of "blithe lit". This company of men includes my editor on these pages, a literary agent and Jamie Byng, head honcho of Canongate who published this year's Booker Prize winner. Meanwhile my mother, my sister and most of my closest friends rate Dodie Smith's 1949 bestseller among their all-time favourite works of fiction. If you think Smith sounds familiar, that's because she's now rather more celebrated as the author of The Hundred and One Dalmatians. Never mind the fact she also wrote several hugely successful plays in the Thirties. (The first one premiered while she was still working at Heals, inspiring the Evening Standard headline "Shop-girl writes West End Hit".) Disney and co got hold of one of her works and it's been cute spotted dogs ever since. Except among the sisterhood. We cherish Dodie Smith for her spirited account of the Mortmain family in their dilapidated castle: clever Cassandra, whose journal provides the book's narrative, her mesmerising older sister Rose, and Topaz, the two girls' artistic stepmother, who puts "velvety inflections on each word". Then there's Stephen the family retainer, who looks "like a Greek god", and Father, who housed his family in a near-derelict castle and once "wrote a very unusual book called Jacob Wrestling, a mixture of fiction, philosophy and poetry". It's the kind of writing where one sister says to the other, "Rose, there isn't a towel on this earth that could make up for marrying a bearded man that you hate."

Male stomachs may already feel a little queasy at such high-density blitheness. Even I felt this could be delicate territory for cinema. One inch too fey, too arch, too darn Mitford with knobs on, and the drama's down the Swanee. So I am delighted to report that I watched a preview this week and it's an out-and-out triumph. The skilful adaptation and stellar performances will delight the book's fans but, crucially, it's a film men can see without vomiting.

I laughed, I cried, and so did my husband. (This is a man whose idea of a good date movie is Point Blank.) As a further bonus, there's time enough to read the book, published by Virago, before the film goes on general release in the spring.

The evil that is soft furnishings

After a glorious day's flotation on planet Blithe, I crash-landed on planet Earth. It was the new brocade curtains that did for me. I had rashly told my husband that if he arranged their assemblage with the nice ladies at John Lewis, I would pay for them. This was before I realised that three sets of bog-standard pleated curtains can set you back £650. I mean, how can that happen? Curtains don't wash your clothes or play your CDs. They're just a prettier way of blocking out the light than a bin-liner and tape. My husband immediately accused me of "not living in the real world". I pointed out that this was a curious accusation to level at someone who knows how much a pint of milk costs (31p, m'lud) but happens not to have the foggiest how much the Conran crowd spends on soft furnishings. If that's what curtains cost, what's the damage on sofas, beds and all that kitchen malarky? No wonder British households are billions of pounds in debt.

I would understand it better if there were any pleasure in the purchasing. But, unless you are filthy rich, the purchase of home wares involves marathon traipses round crowded department stores in which whey-faced couples bounce forlornly side by side on the sofas Wallpaper* forgot.

The lowest ebb of my married life was the rash occasion six years ago when we went to Ikea. We had no idea that once inside its gates there is no way back; you must proceed, sheep-like, to a far-distant exit before escaping. My husband suffered a major panic attack. He later told me that his last conscious thought was of a scene from George Romero's film Dawn of the Dead in which zombies overrun a shopping mall, thronging the aisles and riding the escalators. The accompanying dialogue goes something like this. A still living (but not for long) member of a beleaguered Swat team asks his colleague, "Why are they here?" "I guess because it meant so much to them when they were alive," comes the deadpan reply.

Since Ikea, our only new furniture has been a Thirties wardrobe I bought for £15 in the Red Cross shop. We don't have a three-seater sofa or spare bed and none of our chairs matches, but we do have malt whisky and a DVD player. You see, it's not just the money that's worrying me about the curtains – those nice ladies at John Lewis are bearing me away from civilisation and off towards the zombies.

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