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?

Another review… The Last Letter from your Lover

Well, three posts in, this seems to be turning into a reviews blog, which wasn’t really what I was intending, but these are the thoughts that are popping into my brain, so I’m going to go with the flow for the time being. Although, that in no way implies the adoption of a definite theme – I totally reserve the right to mainly be thinking about Marmite by this time tomorrow.

So, another review, but a book this time: The Last Letter from your Lover by Jojo Moyes. This was the Romantic Novellists Association’s Romantic Novel of the Year at their Pure Passion Awards, and they were right. It’s a great book. Go out; buy it; read it. That is all.

Now anyone who is feeling in a hurry can depart at this point, having gleaned the central elements of the review. For the rest of you, here’s a bit more detail, and a (slightly belated) attempt at a bit of critical balance. The book is one of those wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey narratives with a present day bit and a historic bit, and a bit of a literary device with a newspaper and some letters to marry the two halves together. In the past, the story centres on Jennifer, suffering from amnesia after a car accident and, somewhat inconveniently, losing all recollection of her ongoing extra-marital affair. In the present, Ellie is a journalist who’s currently dating a married man. Both narratives have elements of classic romance, but also explore fidelity and, more to the point, infidelity.

I should state up front that I loved this book. It drew me in and made me laugh. It didn’t quite make me cry, but I’m a hard northern bird and it still came pretty damn close. I believed in the characters and I had to keep reading to find out what would happen to them. This should serve as a health warning on this review, because  it’s tricksy to critically analyse something you simply love. It’s like being asked to evaluate your own baby. Objectively, they may look a bit Gollum-y, but they’re still your baby and you (hopefully) love them despite, as well as because.

I think the love is more because than despite in this instance though. What I liked, more than anything, about this book was the intelligence of the storytelling. Very often romance stories are so tightly bound to the necessity of a happy ever after, that the jeopardy along the way doesn’t work – you know full well that Girl always ends up with Boy. It’s like watching the bit in Grand Designs when Kevin tells you it’ll never be finshed – we believed him in series 1, but now we know that he says that every week. The “Girl loses Boy” bit of most romance stories is much the same deal. This book manages to undermine those certainties, and is, in many ways, as much about the ends of affairs as their beginnings.

A lot of the plot and structural ideas are ones that have been seen before, such as the deployment of amnesia as a plot device, but here they’re just done better. The books feels like the Jojo Moyes crafted it, and cared for it, and kept tweaking and polishing until she achieved her just-right Goldilocks novel. At least I hope she did. If I hear that she wrote it all in one go without shifting out of first gear, then Moyes might actually manage to make me cry.