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.


React Now

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

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Jihadist militants leading away captured Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit, Iraq, in June  

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Robert Fisk
India's philosopher, environmental activist, author and eco feminist Vandana Shiva arrives to give a press conference focused on genetically modified seeds on October 10, 2012  

Meet Vandana Shiva: The deserving heir to Mahatma Ghandi's legacy

Peter Popham
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home