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?

What I read on my holidays…

Ok, so this is two weeks later than planned, but here it is, holiday related blogpost no.2 (if you missed number 1 it’s here: http://wp.me/p1sVoH-T) – What I read on my holidays.

I read 11 books on holiday, which for a 16 night trip is a little slow, but it was a going-out-doing-stuff holiday rather than a sitting-by-the-pool holiday so that’s ok. It was still 3 books more than I packed, so involved scavenging from husband’s bookpile and wandering the streets looking for an English-language book shop (which is now pretty much a traditional part of all our holidays).

The books were, in no particular order:

Unsticky by Sarra Manning

Little Face by Sophie Hannah

Them by Jon Ronson

Funny Valentine by Amy Jenkins

White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Flat Earth News by Nick Davies

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

This Year It Will Be Different by Maeve Binchy

Mini Shopohlic by Sophie Kinsella

And I can’t even remember what the 11th book was. I know I bought it at the St Richard’s Hospice book shop, but I have no recollection of the title, author or content. Clearly, not one that made a big impression.

So out of the ten that impinged enough for me to recall them two weeks later, what do we think? I’m quite pleased with the mix. A bit of a preponderance of chicklit, but also one collection of short stories, one blokelit, one crime/psychological thriller, a couple of “grown-up” literary prize winners, and two non-fiction (or Real Books as much beloved husband terms them). No sci-fi or fantasy, but I’ve got a Jasper Fforde and a Neil Gaiman on my to-read pile, so I’ll excuse it.

That’s my first reccomendation then. Not a particular book, more an approach to books – read widely. A lot of readers I talk to get quite hung up on particular genres – “I don’t like crime” “I can’t stand romance” “I only read non-fiction. Made up stories are a waste of time”. And I do the same. I’m not a big crime reader. This is silly of me though. There are really only two meaningful genre categories – good books and bad books. Seek out the good books, regardless of genre or amount of blood on the cover. It’s totally cool to have personal preferences and favourites, but if you only read stuff you already know you’re going to like, you never get surprised, and being surprised by a story or a writer is one of the great pleasures of reading. So off you all go and read a book you’re not sure you’re going to like.

Wait. Wait. Come back. You can do the reading thing in a minute. Turns out, I haven’t finished. I have neither the time or the energy to review 10 books in full (only 10 – really bugging me now that I can’t remember no. 11), so I’m just going to give you the edited version.

Happily none of the books I read were terrible, but some were much much better than others, so here’s my top and bottom picks from the list.

The Top Three:

Unsticky by Sarra Manning

This is a great holiday read. Easy to read, funny, fast-paced but doesn’t make you feel like your brain is atrophying while you’re reading it. What Manning has done is taken a classic romance plot – rich, powerful, older guy meets younger slightly lost woman and a whole indecent proposal thing ensues – and made it feel modern. Even more impressively she’s managed to make both characters sympathetic, so her slightly lost heroine never feels pathetic, and her older guy, whilst deeply manipulative and occasionally really unpleasant, is also vulnerable and surprisingly sexy. Probably my personal favourite read of the whole trip.

Flat Earth News by Nick Davies

A book to read with your jaw on the floor in incredulity whilst all your worst suspicions about the inner workings of the British media are confirmed and exceeded. A lot of writers and commentators currently do a really good job of satirising and unpicking the worst misrepresentations that crop up in the media. Charlie Brooker and Ben Goldacre both spring immediately to mind, but, for me, this book, with it’s level of detail and specific examples, is the one to read if you are at all concerned about the impact of bad media on society as a whole. I could write a whole blog just about this subject but instead I’ll say read this book or check out the author’s website: www.flatearthnews.net

White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

This book won the Booker Prize in 2008 and whilst the Booker judges have a slightly patchy record at picking books that actually qualify as being readable, this is a corker. It’s a a first person narrative, written from the point of view of a Bangalore entrepreneur, who styles himself the White Tiger. He’s a fascinating lead character, full of humour and a good dollop of moral ambiguity, and there’s enough plot in there to make this a character study that also makes the grade as a page-turner.

And two that I didn’t like so much…

Little Face by Sophie Hannah

Hannah started her career as a poet, before moving into crime fiction. I believe this was her first novel, and it’s not a stinker by any means. The story centres around a woman who comes home and realises that the baby in the crib is not her child. You spend most of the book not sure whether her baby really has been abducted, or whether the lead character is insane, or whether there’s another explanation entirely. The story is told in two different timeframes with two narrators and the two narratives converge at the end of the book. It’s structurally interesting. The plot idea is sound and the method of telling is potentially effective. Ultimately, I just wasn’t feeling it. I think for this story to really work you have to engage emotionally with the main character and you have to care about what’s happened to the baby, and the writer just didn’t quite do enough to get me there. Close, but no cigar.

Mini Shopoholic by Sophie Kinsella

This is the latest book in the mega-successful shopoholic series. In a way I can’t complain about it, because you know buying a book in a series like this that you’re going to get exactly what it says on the tin, but actually that’s the source of my first problem. You get exactly what it says on the tin, and nothing more. Even within a series of novels, it’s great to be wrong-footed occasionally. The incomparable Sir Terry of Pratchett has written 38 Discworld novels, with the 39th due later this year, and at their best (see Night Watch or Monstrous Regiment) they can still push the series into new directions. Mini Shopoholic doesn’t seem to have any such ambitions. It is just another shopoholic novel; there’s nothing to make it stand out and sing on it’s own merits. My second qualm follows on from that thought and is about the story itself . There doesn’t seem to be a quite enough plot to sustain a whole book. Luke is quite busy at work. Becki organises a party. Minnie is a bit naughty. That’s pretty much it. The most interesting development, the involvement of Luke’s mum in the story, feels like a preparation for a future book, rather than an intrinsic part of this one. Personally, I think that, even within a series, each novel has to stand up on it’s own as a standalone story, and I’m not quite convinced this one does.

So there you have the books I read on holiday. Some I’d heartily recommend (and for the record Half of a Yellow Sun and Them only narrowly missed out on places in the favourites list), and a couple I wasn’t so taken with. Feel free to comment if you’ve read any of the above, or if you have any book recommendations for me. My to read pile is almost down into single figures and I’m starting to get twitchy!

Come back tomorrow (well, you know, maybe not actually tomorrow…) when I will be attempting to draw a coherent argument about stuff that encompasses Carol Vorderman making recomendations for maths teachers and David Starkey thinking the white kids talk like the black kids. It’s going to be an absolute ball.

And I’ve just remembered book number 11 – Jojo Moyes’ The Peacock Emporium. Pretty good, but not up to the standard of my favourite Moyes’ novel which I reviewed here: http://wp.me/p1sVoH-k  Oh, it’s a relief to have remembered though.

Goodbye.