Saturday, 17 September 2011

A Grumpy Chick

A British novelist by the name of Polly Courtney has publicaly ditched her publisher, Harper Collins. Courtney is miffed that Avon, a Harper Collins imprint with which she had signed a three-books deal, decided to ‘shoehorn’ her novel ‘into a place that is not right for it.’  

The place where the publishers believed the novel fitted was women’s fiction. In other words chick lit.

‘The real issue I have,’ Courtney explained (at the launch of the novel, funded, I guess, by the publishers), ‘is it has been completely defined as women’s fiction.’ Which, Courtney will thank us to remember, it most certainly isn't.

What is it then? Lest the readers mistake the novel (entitled incidentally It’s a Man's World) for some gigantic Russian classic that would be a cure for insomnia, Ms Courtney hastens to add, ‘It is not War and Peace.' 

Well, thank f**k for that. Imagine going to Waterstone’s (this shouldn't require too much imagination), spotting It’s A Man’s World, thinking to yourself: this seems exactly the kind of novel like Leo's War and Peace, buying it and rushing home because you can’t wait to find out the impact of the Napoleonic era on Tsarist Russia, and finding out, instead, that it’s about a chick who works in a lad’s magazine and participates in a witty banter. 

What is chick lit anyway? WIkiPedia defines it as genre fiction that addresses issues of modern womanhood, often humorously and light-heartedly.  

What is It’s A Man World about? Not having read the novel I couldn’t be absolutely sure, but according to The Guardian, it follows the life of Alexa Harris who heads a lad’s magazine and is subjected to light-hearted misogyny of her male colleagues and hate campaign of women’s rights activist. 

Does it sound like chick-lit to you? It does to me.

Mind you, I have nothing against the genre of chick-lit fiction; in fact I have nothing against genre fiction at all. Frequently I find that genre fiction is more interesting and entertaining than literary fiction. (Recently I ploughed through two unreadable award winning literary novels: The Road, which won the Pulitzer a few years ago, and The Tiger’s Wife, which won this year’s Orange prize. I usually have a high threshold for crapola, but these two novels crossed it by the width of Siberia.) As for the genre of chick lit I have read a few, which I have enjoyed. I quite liked the first Bridget Jones novel (not its sequel, though), which unleashed an army of Bridgets. I remember enjoying an early Lisa Jewell novel, too, the title of which I forget. These novels were fast-paced, entertaining, had well defined plots, and had witty dialogues, which is more than what you get in a Martin Amis novel (which has witty dialogues but no plot to speak of and progresses at a pace slower than that of a shuffling Parkinsonian victim). I am seriously thinking of borrowing from the library Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic Diaries.

It all comes down to connotations and implications. Polly Courtney has nothing against chick lit (she says). But her novel, she insists, is not chick lit. (We have already established that it is not War and Peace either.) Helpfully, Courtney provides us with her definition of chick lit. ‘The implication,’ Courtney says, ‘about chick lit is about a girl wanting to meet the man of her dreams.’ Whereas Polly Courtney’s books, she would like us to note, are about ‘social issues, this time [her most recent novel] about a woman working in a lad’s mag and the impact of media on society and feminism’. And how has Courtney dealt with this weighty social issue? According to her, the novel is ‘commercial and page turning’.

What about the jacket of the novel? It is apparently a chick lit staple. It shows a pair of slender legs in high heels, wrapped in a tight skirt that hides what you suspect is a very shapely ass. 

Courtney, a former investment banker who left the city and self-published her debut novel before she was picked up by Harper Collins, is not happy about the jacket. Her objections are: the jacket is ‘degrading to her writing and ultimately degrading to women. It’s sexist.’ ‘They dressed up my book,’ Courtney complained, ‘as something frivolous, light, and racy, which is the complete opposite of what is inside the books.’ So Alexa Harris, the heroine of It’s A Man’s World, might be working in a lad’s magazine and participate in witty banter with her light-heartedly misogynist male colleagues, but it is a serious book about an important social issue that gives a sombre social message. And it wouldn’t do at all to trivialize it by wrapping the message in a saucy jacket cover (which, heavens forbid, might make all those out there, fans of chick lit, buy it, and millions of copies might be sold), says the woman who, according to her official website, has posted saucy pictures of her poledancing on the Internet.

What we have established is It’s A Man World is a work of fiction about a young woman working in a lad’s magazine and, according to its author, it is commercial, fast paced and page turning.  But the author has a problem with it being labelled as chick lit. It’s a bit like your very popular local Chinese takeaway (which ladles out mouth-watering quantities of grease and mono-sodium glutamate at bargain prices) taking umbrage that it is not awarded a Michelin Star.

We all have pretensions, and, like most pretensions, they serve the function of making the pretenders comfortable.