In which I wonder whether romantic fiction can be feminist

The same question has come up recently in three different conversations – is romantic fiction feminist?

So I’ve been thinking about just that, and I’ve concluded Yes. At least it definitely can be.

So that was good. All cleared up. Unfortunately clearing up tricky questions speedily does not make for good blogging, so I shall muse a bit on the topic anyway.

I think the idea that romantic fiction is somehow anti-feminist comes from the idea that romance is about a woman being rescued by a man, or a woman needing a man and a relationship to, in some way, complete her and make her a proper member of society. Now, neither of those things are in any way necessary or desirable features of romantic fiction. You can just as easily write ‘Man who feels incomplete without woman’ (although that would probably be merely different rather than actually better). I try to write ‘man and woman who deal with their own issues and then decide to be together’, although I try to do that with jokes and ideally at least one comedy sword fight.

I actually have a heroine in one of my books who ends up deciding that maybe the available man isn’t going to be the right ending for her (and I’m not telling you which book – if you don’t know you’ll just have to read them all to find out).

Of course, that’s just the content of the books, and fiction is much more than that. Fiction is a whole industry, and actually, ‘is the romantic fiction industry feminist?’ is a more difficult question. In some ways very obviously yes – it’s massively dominated by female authors and editors. I’m proud to be part of the Romantic Novelists’ Association which is a UK professional association for writers of romantic fiction. It’s predominantly female and you’d have to go a long way to meet a more forthright, intelligent, capable group of women.

But.

We do still work in an industry where ‘women’s fiction’ is a thing, distinct from proper mainstream fiction, and where female authors write ‘chick lit’ and male authors just write comedy. We also have a publishing industry where certain sorts of women are far more likely to feature in the stories we see published – young(ish), white, straight women. There would certainly seem to be room on bookshelves for a bit more diversity.

And in terms of content of books, can erotic romances centring around domination of a female partner be seen as feminist? Projecting the idea that physical or psychological domination of women is normal, or even an ideal, seems really worrying, but if you’re writing for predominantly female readers who enjoy reading a fantasy of giving up control, then surely those women have the right to their fantasy, and telling them that they’re not fantasising right is also worrying territory.

So, can romantic fiction be feminist? Yes. Definitely.

Is romantic fiction feminist? Well, yes, sometimes. It’s complicated.

I’m genuinely just thinking aloud (or at least on screen) now. Would be fascinated to hear more thoughts in the comments…

In which I consider what’s in a (genre) name

‘So what do you write?’

‘Books.’

‘But what sort of books?’

‘Er… well…. erm…’

That’s a conversation I have at least a couple of times most weeks. I usually end up saying I write ‘Romantic Comedy,’ but usually follow the claim with a rambling disclaimer about the consistency of the funny and the frequent absence of hearts and flowers, and because of those disclaimers it’s not a terribly satisfactory description. So what might  be my better options?

 

Chick Lit?

Wikipedia describes chick lit as ‘genre fiction which addresses issues of modern womanhood, often humorously and lightheartedly.’ That’s probably as good a description of what I write as any, although I’m quite interested in issue of modern manhood (oo-er missus) as well, so why aren’t I 100% comfortable with the term?

I think it is simply the mental association that I have between between the term chick lit and ideas of pink, glittery covers with pictures of shoes on them. And having just typed that sentence I now feel an overwhelming need to add a disclaimer making clear that there’s nothing wrong with a pink sparkly cover – but somehow they don’t quite float my boat anymore. Perhaps it’s time to revisit that assumption though. It does seem clear that pink, sparkly, shoe covers are somewhat out of vogue. I quick skim of the chick lit bestsellers list on Amazon shoes that there’s still a fair amount of pink, but substantially less sparkle and hardly any pictures of shoes, so maybe I need to update my assumptions, woman-up and come out as a proud Chick Lit Author.

Or I could tell people that I write…

Women’s Fiction?

Women’s Fiction or Commercial Women’s Fiction (for those writers who want to make clear that they’d like to get paid at some point) are popular terms in the publishing industry, and encompass rather broad church of stories and authors. They’re terms to which I have only one objection. It’s the word ‘Women’s’. And actually it’s two objections. That is to say that my objections to that one word are twofold. Firstly, why on earth are books about love and family and emotion only for women? Men deal with all those things and it seems plausible that quite a few of them might be interested in reading about that stuff too. Why on earth would we want to create a banner across the top of our books that says ‘Men not allowed’? And secondly, I get the sense of an sneaky little implication that this isn’t quite Proper Fiction. It’s just for women, bless their sparkly pink stilettos. It saves their fluffy little brains from the effort of trying to read the Real Books. It irritates me in the same way that the Women’s section in Sunday newspapers irritate me. I feel like I’m being shepherded away from the real news to look at some nice soothing pictures of dresses. Again, that might say more about my tendency to make assumptions that anything else.

 

So Chick Lit/Romantic Comedy/Women’s Fiction writers of the interweb help me out! What sort of books do you write?

 

And if you fancy finding out what I actually do write, you can buy ebooks and actual paper short stories here.

A rare Friday blogpost. It’s crazy, crazy behaviour, I tell you.

A rare Friday blogpost for you. And a rare posting of a short story rather than a random rant.

This is the story I wrote for last week’s 42 event in Worcester. 42 is a spoken word event focused on gothic, fantasy, sci-fi and horror writing, so I described this story as “what happens when you get a chick lit writer very drunk and insist that she writes horror.” The piece was written as a monologue to perform, rather than as a story to be read quietly to oneself, so in that spirit I do expect you to read it aloud to yourself (and to any adjacent people or animals) putting on your best The Only Way is Essex voice. Off you go…

 

<<Space where title would go, if I’d thought of one, which I haven’t>>

1st January. Weight 12 stone (12 whole stone, which must be 95% sage and onion stuffing. I like totes don’t even like sage and onion stuffing).

New Year’s Resolutions.

This year I will:

Number 1: lose 2 stone.

Number 2: only drink responsibly and in moderation.

Number 3: open a savings account to facilitate the buying of Manolo Blahnik heels (I’m realistic – last season’s off of Ebay is like fine).

Number 4: find Carrot. I feel a bit guilts about not looking for him last night but it was like New Year’s Eve and he’s a cat so it’s totally not major. Cats are all right outside for a like a few nights, aren’t they?

Number 5: And I will totally do something about my neighbour, cos the noises are like freaking me right out. Yeah. Totally. Like tomorrow. Yeah. Tomorrow I will totally do something about my neighbour.

Number 6: I will spend less time on facebook.

I go to update my facebook status about my resolutions. There seems to be some new joke going round about brains. Like whatever.

 

 

17th January. Savings £6.74 Weight 12 stone 3, but everyone bloats a bit in winter. Don’t they?

So I didn’t have to do anything about my neighbour in the end. They came, like someone came, with an ambulance and they knocked on the door and then it sounded like they maybe broke the door. And he’s gone now, so that’s fine. It’s good. I don’t think I could have put up with the moaning noises very much longer.

I put the news on when I got in from work. It had gone all weird though, so I put it on Hollyoaks and opened a bottle of Pinot instead. I read through facebook on my phone. Loads of people have got this “Brains. Brains. Brains” thing on their status. It’s totes annoying. I hate not knowing what the joke is.

There’s still no sign of Carrot.

 

 

19th January Savings 74p (due to unexpectedly having to pay overdraft fee from Christmas). Weight 11 stone 12, which is like 5lbs in 2 days cos I’m on this totally incredible detox thing that Amanda Holden does.

 

Anyway, that’s not even the most exciting thing. The most exciting thing is that there are totally like TV cameras in my street, and the police came back last night and they’ve put like all this tape stuff around my neighbour’s house and all these guys keep going in wearing these like really ugly onesies. It’s like totes fabuloso.

So this afternoon, I put on an extra set of eyelashes, and squeezed into my little black dress, the nice one from Jigsaw, not the skanky New Look one, and I just stuck my head out to have a little look, cos I thought maybe I might get on the telly. They like to interview the neighbours don’t they? You know, like all those weird old women you see saying that the man in the flat downstairs never looked like the sort to do a crazed stalking.

As soon as I got outside though all these police came running and yelling at me to stay indoors, which is like totally unfair, cos if there’s telly in my street I like totally deserve to be on it. And I’d already texted Andrea to tell her I was going to be on the news, and she’s all going to think I was making it up.

So I then put the telly on, to see what they’re talking about that’s better than interviewing me. You could like see my house but they weren’t even talking about my neighbour though. They were all wittering on about some dude called Patient zero. Boring!

Still no sign of Carrot.

 

 

20th January Savings – still 74p. Weight 12 stone, which is totally not really my fault.

 

There’s still police next door, and now there’s one outside my house too. He’s called Anthony. He’s actually kind of cute. I totally friended him. Would going out with a policeman be cool? Uniforms are hot, but it’s not like he’s a fireman. Maybe, I could persuade him to become a detective. That’s definitely cooler, isn’t it? And I bet they like earn more.

Anyway, it’s totally Anthony’s fault that I put 2lbs back on. I was happily doing my detox, and then he was all standing outside my door saying I couldn’t go out, but that they could bring me some food. And I meant to say, “No thanks, babe. I’m detoxing,” but then I saw that one of the tv cameramen had a bacon sandwich. So like yeah.

Oh yeah, that’s the thing. No-one in the street’s allowed to go out. Apparently my neighbour was this Patient Zero dude, which sounds weird. Patient Zero sounds like something out of Doctor Who. I say that to Anthony, and ask if my neighbour was plotting to take over the universe. He just looks at me and shakes his head. Not much sense of humour, Anthony. He’ll have to work on that if we’re going to be together.

I put the telly on for a bit, cos I’m not allowed to go anywhere. It’s some Jeremy Kyle thing with a woman saying her ex-boyfriend “turned” and ate her bull terrier’s brains. Like how gross is that?

Still no sign of Carrot.

 

 

22nd January 2am.

It’s gone quiet now, which is good I think. I take a tiny peek out of my bedroom window, but there’s no-one in the street. Not even Anthony. He’s probably gone on a break, or maybe he’s gone altogether. Maybe it’s all over now, and he’s been allowed to go home.

I think that might not be it though, because before it went quiet it went really really loud, and there was shouting. Not shouting. Screaming. And it sounded like it might be Anthony screaming. But it probably wasn’t. I think that probably he’s just gone on a break, and that if I pull the duvet up over my head and go back to sleep, everything will be all right again in the morning.

 

That didn’t work though. I kept thinking about the man who came to see me yesterday. The man – he said he wasn’t police, and he wasn’t from the council and he wasn’t a doctor, but he wouldn’t say what he was – just that he was here to make sure everything was safe. And that seemed good. Like safe is good. Right. And he asked me all about my neighbour, and I gave him my best performance, even though it wasn’t on the telly. He seemed a bit cross when I told him about the noises, and then he asked if I had any pets and I told him about Carrot being missing, and he just rolled his eyes. And then he asked me if I even watched the news, and I said I didn’t really see what that had to do with anything, and I asked him when I’d be allowed to go out and go back to work, cos I need to get on with saving for my Manolos, but I don’t think he even knew what Manolos were. Some people are just like totes ignorant.

I couldn’t get back to sleep, so I went on facebook, but people’s statuses are weird. Half of them are still doing this “Brains, brains, brains” thing and the other half are all about how someone’s coming or about how France has got it too and it’s not safe on the continent. I don’t know what that’s about. Probably something to do with the euro. See. I totally know about the news.

In the end I put the TV on, but that was just some spoof documentary thing about zombies. It was actually really well done, like it’d been filmed in real streets and stuff. The zombies looked a bit crap though, like they’d just stuck some bits of flakey skin onto regular people.

 

There’s someone at the door. It’s half past two in the morning. Why the fuck would there be someone at the door? They’re clattering the letterbox and shouting through. “Brains. Brains. Brains.” Great. That again. It sounds like Anthony though. It’s like totes unprofessional for him to be pissing about when he’s on duty. I pick up my phone and update my status. “Brains through the letterbox. Lol.” And I go to answer the door.

Where I muse on chick lit, writing and accepting feedback

There’s a bit of a rumpus in chick lit world at the moment. Earlier in September the author, Polly Courtney, publicly dumped her publisher, Harper Collins, ostensibly for marketing her books with what she felt were misleadingly chick lit-ish covers. She explains in her own words more fully here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/sep/16/chick-lit-womens-fiction

This was closely followed by a flurry of news stories detailing the fall-off in chick lit sales (for example http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/have-we-fallen-out-of-love-with-chick-lit-2361445.html), and topped off by this delightfully reasonably headlined piece by Harriet Walker in the Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/harriet-walker-saccharine-silage-that-fails-women-2361506.html

Obviously, what this debate needs is another random internet opinion, so here we go. To start off in any sort of half intelligent debate, it’s important to agree about what your terminology actually means. Doing so can avoid a lot of unneccessary bickering over stuff it turns out everyone actually agrees about. So what do we mean by chick lit?

Probably most of us who frequent bookshops or spend inordinate numbers of hours browsing on Amazon can bring a picture into our minds of what we perceive as a classic chick lit novel. You’re probably picturing a pink, or predominantly pastel coloured, cover with sparkly writing and a semi-cartoonish picture of a woman wearing shoes. Alternatively, you might be picturing one of those stylised photo covers showing just a woman’s legs, or a pair of hands entwined. But that’s just the cover. What makes a story chick lit?

Again, the classic understanding would probably suggest that we’re talking about a youngish single-ish female protagonist, a plot that’s heavy on romance, a contemporary setting, a good dash of humour, and usually a story that involves some sort of self-discovery or self-development on the part of the heroine. So let’s look at a couple of those writers that the Independent cites as being emblematic of the fall-off in chick lit sales. Do they match that template?

We’ll start with Dorothy Koomson. I would suggest that Koomson’s early work fits well into that classic chick lit template. The Chocolate Run, for example is a story laced with humour and centred around a heroine learning to trust rather than run in a developing relationship. But Koomson’s work has shifted and developed over time. Her more recent novels, notably The Ice-cream Girls (which is fabulous – you should all definitely read it) would probably be better described as psychological thrillers. The cover art, though, remains stylised and heavy on the pastels.

Marian Keyes is another interesting author. Often described as one of the first chick lit writers, she has been seen as one of the big players in the genre for over 15 years. Her work is certainly funny, and generally follows female protagonists. However, in a number of her novels, for example This Charming Man  or Rachel’s Holiday, any romance is a secondary plot, while the story’s main focus is on an issue such as addiction or domestic abuse.

So, it looks like it’s actually kind of tricky to define what we mean by chick lit, and that’s before we even start to try to unpick the broader term used by some booksellers, “Women’s Fiction.” What is, perhaps,even more fascinating is the level of vitriol towards what is perceived as light entertainment aimed at women. You don’t generally see a lot of newspaper opinion pieces arguing that the wide availability of action thriller novels has stunted male intellectual development, so it makes me uneasy that female writers are expected to in some way represent their whole gender.

There are essentially only two types of book that matter to me as a reader or writer. There are good books, and there are lousy books. There are lousy books in most genres, and chick lit is by no means exempt from the lazy and the formulaic, but there is also some really classy and interesting work out there. (I’m particularly liking Sarra Manning at the minute). Being light, being funny, and being by and about a woman, does not make your story intrinsically inferior. Suggesting that it does was daft when people did it about Jane Austen and it’s still daft now.

Which shouldn’t be taken to imply that I have no issues with the way that fiction by women, and about women, is sold and marketed at the moment. Here I can only write from my own prejudices and opinions, so please jump into the comments and argue with me if you don’t agree.

About 3 months ago, I attended a talk by a editor from a very large mainstream publisher of popular fiction, who said that they were looking for chick lit that was lighter, frothier and more escapist. That made my heart sink a little. There is absolutely a place for those books, and for writers and readers who love those books, but looking at writers like Marian Keyes, tells us that in the past chick lit was a much broader church. It does worry me slightly that publishers aren’t seeing a place for more issue-led or just slightly edgier romantic comedy. And it’s also concerning that books like Dorothy Koomson’s more recent work might be being marketed in such a way that is making it harder for them to reach the widest possible potential readership. The pastel cover will attract Koomson’s existing readers who recognise her “brand” but will it encourage regular readers of crime and thriller novels to give her work a go?

It’s also interesting, I think, to look at another standout successful romance novel of recent years, this time by a male writer. David Nicholls’ One Day was a huge hit with readers, and spawned the obligatory bestseller’s movie. The book was published under a very gender-neutral orange and cream cover, the colours and artwork being striking but very un-girly. My guess it that the same book, by a female writer, would have been marketed quite differently, in a manner that could have alienated a potential wider audience, including a lot male readers.

And this brings me onto my own writing. Now I don’t normally blog about writing. I do have a slight sense that writing about writing is a tad on the self-indulgent side, which given that in this sentence I’m now writing about writing about writing, probably means I’m about to drown in a torrent of my own self-importance. Moving on…

I have just received my feedback report from the RNA New Writers Scheme on the current draft of my first novel, which would probably fall under the broad heading of “chick lit”. There were some really positive comments, and some really useful feedback about plot and pacing which has got my head buzzing with rewrite ideas. I am, though, unsure whether those ideas will ever make it into the manuscript, as there are elements to the book, which I’m starting to feel are too fundamental to change, but really weaken the chances of interesting an agent or publisher in the finished manuscript.

For example, the story is told from the point of view of four different first person narrators, a technique which I now realise was quite ambitious for a first novel! I also now realise that a lot of readers (and writers) just don’t like first person narration. So do I rewrite the whole thing in the third person, as my feedback report suggests? I’m unenthusiastic about the idea at the moment, partly just because that’s a massive job, but also because I, personally, really like the different narrative voices, and do I really want to end up with a novel that I don’t like as much?

So, what to do next? Redraft using the feedback on pacing/plotting but leave the narrative style alone, accepting that the chances of publication in that form are beyond super-super-super-slim? Redraft fully into a third person narrative, and risk losing part of what I love in the manuscript? Or just chalk this down as novel writing attempt number 1 and move onto something else? At the moment that last option seems to be beckoning. I have an idea for novel number 2 which is buzzing at my brain, but would that be “giving up” too easily? Would it be better to do another redraft of number 1 and try to follow through with that piece of work? Decisions. Decisions. Comments about chick lit and suggestions on the writing both welcome – do you always take all feedback on board, or do you make decisions about when to accept feedback points and when to stick to your guns? And when do you walk away from a work-in-progress?