We all have spaces that make us feel like the universe is wrapped around us, squeezing us in one of those favourite aunt hugs that leave you a little out of breath but very warm. Some people go to church, and I can see why. The stony echoes, the impassive faces of angels. Little drawings on the wall done by children at Sunday School. I’m not religious, so I think the closest I get to a temple is a library, or a bookshop. It’s predictable, I know. But there’s something about rows and rows of other people’s stories that makes me feel a little less panicked about the dramatic irony and plot twists going on in my own.
In this vein, last week I put on my new red beret and trotted across town to the big Waterstones. It has a fancy staircase and, at this time of year, it smells like gingerbread and I am only human. It was full of Christmas shoppers and people buying coffee table books that would, undoubtedly, turn out to be a mistake. I think asking for recommendations in book shops is always a shout, and I asked the guy behind the desk what he thought of Sally Rooney’s ‘Normal People’.
‘It’s good, yeah’ he said, restacking a pile of books.
‘But is it uplifting? Or is it going to make me want to cry?’ I asked, revealing a little more of myself than I probably should have done at the Waterstones counter.
‘I mean, it’s quite light. Like, it’s ‘chick lit’ he said.
‘Great.’ I said. ‘Although, I think these days we call it ‘contemporary women’s fiction.’
And yes, I do feel a bit bad about making him stutter and apologise for a minute, but I honestly just don’t understand what people think chick lit means. Sally Rooney’s ‘Normal People’ was long listed for the Man Booker Prize, so I think even calling it light is a bit of stretch.
The phrase ‘chick lit’ is one of those patriarchal sayings that, when you break it down, makes absolutely no sense. Yet there it is, smugly nestled in our cultural vocabulary. If ‘chick lit’ means books by women, then that includes Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch, and Jane Austen, all of whom are more commonly found in the ‘literature’ section. If chick lit means books read by women, then that includes everything from The Communist Manifesto to The Bible.
Of course, I’m being pedantic. Chick lit means books by women, for women, normally concerned with themes like love, loss and other fairly universal human stuff. What are we saying when we imply that books about emotions are ‘for’ women? What are we saying when we call these themes ‘light?’ I can’t be the only one who thinks that only encouraging only women to read about the complexities of human emotion can’t be good for any of us. How can we emote together if we don’t have the same vocabulary? Why are we implying that feeling, even in fictional worlds, is a female domain?
It’s not like we have ‘dick lit’, which in my head are books written by men (looking at you, Hemingway) about one dimensional women getting badly fucked by emotionally impotent shit heads. The ways in which we categorise female artistic output demeans it, suggesting that women can’t make good art, or if they can, they can only make art that appeals to female audiences.
Women are constantly underrepresented in publishing. Here are some fun stats for those readers who think I pull my opinions out of my ass; a survey in 2017 found that women barely make up 40% of major literary publications output. Books by women are often priced at 45% lower than that of their male counterparts. And these stats just aren’t representative of the quality and popularity of literature written by women; the 2017 best sellers chart was dominated by female writing.
It’s disheartening as a woman who wants to be a writer of books that will definitely be about feelings, to go into a book shop and be told that a book I wish I was smart enough to write is ‘light.’ Women have stories worth telling, and I’m so bored of people acting like women are not capable of telling them well.