You know you’re emerging from an unproductive period when you find yourself arguing internally about whether or not to blog a link that has been sitting on your desktop for a month. Er, right. Never mind. This isn’t about me.
Rather, let us start with Roxanne Gay, who tries to scrabble together an overview of a question that recently rippled through the publishing world:
When you write a book with the title It’s A Man’s World, with the tagline “but it takes a woman to run it,” you have to have some sense that your book is going to be marketed in a certain way. I haven’t read the book in question, but the title certainly gives an impression. Maybe it’s just me but when I see that title, I think “chick lit.” I also enjoy “chick lit,” so that label is not a bad thing. That book’s author, Polly Courtney, recently had a very public reaction to how her book was being marketed as “chick-lit,” announcing she was leaving her publisher, Harper Collins, so her writing wouldn’t be pigeonholed. As writers, we often have to worry about whether or not our work will be pigeonholed based on some aspect of our identity. No one wants their creativity limited or misrepresented; pushing back against rigid, often unfair categories is a natural response for a creative person.
In her explanation for why she was leaving her publisher, Courtney distinguishes between women’s fiction, which she writes, and “chick lit,” which she very much does not. I gather that women’s fiction is serious while “chick lit” is not. She writes, “Don’t get me wrong; chick-lit is a worthy sub-genre and there is absolutely a place for it on the shelves. Some publishers, mine included, are very successful at marketing this genre to women. The problem comes when non-chick lit content is shoe-horned into a frilly “chick-lit” package. Everyone is then disappointed: the author, for seeing his or her work portrayed as such; the readers, for finding there is too much substance in the plot; and the passers-by, who might actually have enjoyed the contents but dismissed the book on the grounds of its frivolous cover.”
Depending on the content of the book in question, Courtney is correct in noting that disappointment is possible for everyone involved in the consumption of a book. At the same time, isn’t a cover is just a cover? Eventually, the writing speaks for itself and either readers will like the work or they won’t. Readers are fairly sophisticated these days, aren’t they? I would like to believe readers will, more often than not, have a good sense of what a book is or isn’t about no matter what is emblazoned across the cover. Unfortunately, such does not seem to be the case and certain books are burdened by covers that alienate certain audiences.
For her own part, Polly Courtney explained the decision to leave HarperCollins in The Guardian:
The term “women’s fiction” has been adopted by publishers and retailers alike as a shorthand for fiction that involves shopping sprees, bodily insecurities and the hunt for Mr Right. No – hang on. That’s “chick lit”, isn’t it?
This is the problem. The line that used to define “chick lit” as a sub-genre of women’s fiction has blurred, giving publishers the authority to brand huge swathes of fiction in pink and green swirly covers, on the assumption that this is what women want. As Margaret Carroll, a fellow ex-HarperCollins author, put it: “Very ironic to find this is an industry run by women.”
I do not labour under any illusion; my novels are not literary masterpieces – but nor are they chick-lit. So, you may ask, why did I sign with an imprint that specialises in high-volume commercial fiction? The answer to this lies in the way that we are trained, as authors, to believe that even so much as a glance from a traditional publishing house is an honour and a privilege. They are the experts. They know more about books than the authors do themselves. We should be grateful that a prestigious publishing house will give us the time of day. It is like a gift from God when a book deal lands in our lap.
I don’t know, so I’ll leave it to everyone else to figure out. Read the rest of this entry ?