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Jessica Duchen
Wednesday 17th March 2010
Chicklit is Sexist

Interesting article in today's Independent interviewing Daisy Goodwin, chair of the jury for this year's Orange Prize for Women's Fiction. She is utterly depressed by the amount of "misery lit" out there. "If I read another sensitive account of a woman coming to terms with bereavement, I was going to slit my wrists," she says.

This is distressing, not least because I'm working on a novel that's in part, oh dear, a sensitive account of a woman coming to terms with bereavement... But there's a reason I'm doing this, besides all the psychobabble about the catharsis of creativity etc, and I suspect that a great many other women writers are experiencing the same motivation. We are sick to death of the assumption that because we are women we must be writing CHICKLIT. 

Chicklit sells in squillions, and so for far too long publishers in Britain have been trying to dress everything else up to look like it. They say they don't, of course - mine reassured me that they have a particular 'look' for their chicklit covers and it is not the look they have given my novels. Unfortunately, nobody has explained the difference to the readers. These days jolly-jolly, pretty-pretty, girly-wurly covers of all types are instantly assumed by the book-buying public to be chicklit. Most women writers who want to be perceived as tackling themes beyond the buying of high-heeled shoes and the seduction of Mr Perfect (plus their sequels re sudden relegation to Nappy Valley) loathe the concept of chicklit - which is a marketing phenomenon more than a literary one - and don't want their work to be mistaken for it. 

Therefore we have resorted to the tactic of choosing themes that are as dark and miserable as possible. So that nobody can possibly consider putting a girly-wurly cover on top of it. So that we have to be taken bloody seriously for a change. Because publishers - who are often women themselves - are perpetrating via their presentation a miserable sexist assumption that women writers only write fluff, and that that is all women readers want to read.

That's why, in the 21st century FGS, we still need the Orange Prize, which draws attention to serious writing exclusively by women. It shouldn't be necessary, when glorious novelists like Rose Tremain, Margaret Atwood, Lionel Shriver and A.S. Byatt prove with every word that the quality of women's writing can match or exceed men's, no question. But necessary it is. A plea to the book trade: stop window-dressing as fluff work that is not fluff and then maybe we'll feel more positive about the prospect of writing you some pleasurable, redemptive, interesting, grown-up books once again.

UPDATE, Thursday a.m.: Jojo Moyes has a terrific piece in the Telegraph saying much the same, but blaming critics rather than the book trade. All part of the same thing, I guess.

More interesting commentary: Joan Smith in the Independent.

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April 18th, 2012
3:04 AM
very good article!

Jessica Duchen
June 11th, 2010
8:06 AM
Jersey, when writing is truly a level playing field, then we can get rid of women-only prizes. But sadly, thus far it isn't. Also, I completely disagree that the outcome is 'low quality' - some real masterpieces (or mistresspieces?!?) have been brought to prominence by this prize!

June 10th, 2010
7:06 AM
Do women really feel that they can't compete with men on the level playing field that is writing so they need a women's only prize??? Where is the equivalent Prize for male fiction? Imagine the outcry if one was mooted. It sounds discriminatory and as ever with the results of discrimination, low quality of outcome.

Jessica Duchen
March 17th, 2010
1:03 PM
Kirsty, you're absolutely right: there is plenty of serious stuff out there in the 'chicklit' sub-sets; but the problem is the way it is perceived, and this is a function of marketing/design. People do judge books by their covers. I love those old Penguin paperbacks that are simply orange and white, with no difference whatsoever in presentation from book to book. With that, readers had to take each one on its own terms!

March 17th, 2010
1:03 PM
I can't remember which writer it was who challenged charges of miseabilism by wondering how that person's life came to be so jolly: which of us doesn't face bereavement of one sort or another, especially as we grow older, every couple of years? So dismiss that woman's rant as just a fatuous filling of column inches.

March 17th, 2010
11:03 AM
indie chick rock has suffered from this for AGES - you either get to be bubble-gum, or Lilith Fair, with all its attendant neo-hippie-isms and armpit hair. Either way, its an extreme and not taken seriously.

March 17th, 2010
11:03 AM
Interesting article. The world is full of misguided assumptions, it seems. Assumptions that because you are a woman you only write chick lit. Assumptions that chicklit is purely about 'buying high heels and seducing Mr Right' Books containing a sensitive account of dealing with bereavement include - GETTING OVER IT by Anna Maxted, ANYBODY OUT THERE by Marian Keyes and GOOD GRIEF by Lolly Winston. These books are also chick lit. Doesn't sound so fluffy to me. Kirsty Greenwood - Editor of

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About Jessica Duchen

Jessica Duchen is a music journalist and the author of four novels, two biographies and several stage works. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine. Her latest novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, is published by Hodder.

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