Harriet Walker: Saccharine silage that fails women

These books have retarded the progress of women's literature some 20 or 30 years

Share

Hot on the high-heels of the film adaptation of I Don't Know How She Does It comes news that sales of "chick lit" have tailed off like a bad storyline. Given the dismal reviews of IDKHSDI, one could argue there was a direct correlation between the two.

Perhaps this is a breakthrough of the sort denied to Mary-Ann Evans during her lifetime. Perhaps authors and readers alike will be free at last of the age-old literary shackles that the term really represents: the fact that female writers are not accorded the respect or allowed the heterogeneity that male pens can confidently expect.

Whether it is the market or the authors themselves who are saturated, it seems we are no longer interested in the plights of the high-flying ad exec who has it all except a boyfriend, or the stressed mother who rediscovers her sense of self by becoming a florist.

People are spending less on books these days, that much is true. But could it be that readers are simply bored with being fed pap by publishers who have, for over a decade now, lumped anything written by a woman under this umbrella and given it a suitably naïve, illustrated dust jacket in various shades of pink? We all know the sort: elaborately calligraphied titles, and waspy waisted silhouettes with flowing hair tripping along in kitten heels.

Once upon a time, there were books that were written by women that were not categorised as such, but instead subsumed heartily into the canon. They were robust psychological thrillers, frank portraits of the human condition, searingly poignant memoirs. They were not paeans to shopping or speed-dating, or multi-volume monographs on motherhood and the misery of not fitting into your jeans.

Of course everyone, from the ad-execs to the mums, is cutting back right now. There are fewer spare pennies to put toward anything, let alone paperback dreck in the supermarket. And with the rise of the Kindle, the spur-of-the-moment Tesco read has become a thing of the past. The suburban aisles were their demesnes, these queens of the genre, who were stacked proudly alongside the BOGOF offers and freezer cabinets, and their success was inherent in their downfall; after all, not much survives a supermarket with its integrity intact.

The initial flurry of excitement in the genre came in the late 1990s, when the likes of Bridget Jones became totems for a new "singleton" society of financially independent, commercially savvy women. Thank goodness they did, because the decade's earlier fad for bonkbusters was getting old, and readers wanted believable, intelligent and self-aware heroines to imitate. But as plots became ever more infantilised and happily-ever-after, the serious authors and the witty scribes deserted the shelf, leaving it to the likes of Louise Bagshawe and Sophie Kinsella to clean up. It wasn't so much a room of one's own they needed, so much as some shoes and a designer handbag. These books have retarded the progress of women's literature some 20 or 30 years.

The fact is now that female authors are all tarred with the same brush, in a way they weren't before this amateur jetstream of saccharine silage. If Doris Lessing were to write The Golden Notebook now, it would come with a glittery cover and a blank page at the back for "thoughts and dreams"; Iris Murdoch wouldn't even get a look-in; Charlotte Bronte would have to revert to being Currer Bell.

To be clear, the problem is not with happily-ever-after literature in itself but with the notion that this is all female writers can turn their hand to. The Seventies and Eighties birthed plenty of big names – Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson – but our latter-day literary heroines have been manipulated and squashed into a flimsy rendering of their real talents, and pressed like flowers within their own pages.

h.walker@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Lawyer - Cheshire

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CHESHIRE MARKET TOWN - An exciting and rare o...

Austen Lloyd: Residential Property Solicitor - Hampshire

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: NORTH HAMPSHIRE - SENIOR POSITION - An exciti...

Recruitment Genius: Gas Installation Engineer

£29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Gas Installation Engineer is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor

£28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor is req...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Michael Brown was shot and killed by police in August  

Ferguson: Sad truth is that Michael Brown was killed because he was a black man

Bonnie Greer
A protestor poses for a  

Ferguson verdict: This isn't a 'tragedy'. This is part of a long-running genocide of black men in America

Otamere Guobadia
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

Colouring books for adults

How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

Call me Ed Mozart

Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
10 best stocking fillers for foodies

Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

'I am a paedophile'

Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

From a lost deposit to victory

Green Party on the march in Bristol
Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

Winter blunderlands

Putting the grot into grotto
'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital