Harriet Walker: Saccharine silage that fails women

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

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.