In justifying a genre, are we automatically demeaning it? And what has this got to do with my glossy hair?
Like all truly great women, I’m multi-tasking the bejesus out of it, because I’m writing this in a hair salon. I come here awfully regularly, to get de-badgered. And because I no longer have the sort of life where I can dedicate an hour to just one thing, I thought I’d bring my laptop with me while I dealt with three things: the grey hair which has been part of my life since I was 17; a new blog post, and internal conflict.
Many many years ago I embraced the fact that I’m a narcissist when it comes to my hair. Even though I tell myself I’m not high maintenance, I had to get comfortable with the fact that every 4 weeks, without fail, unless something untoward happens (such as getting kidnapped by Instagram assassins, or a last-minute invitation to interview the Dalai Lama about his feet – that sort of thing), I pay someone a significant amount of money to ensure that I don’t look any older than I really am.
If I hadn’t embraced all this, every trip to the hairdresser’s would turn into an identity crisis. Otherwise, how could I ever be okay with the fact that I pour more money into my hair than I do into charity? How else could I scoff at social influencers on social media, whilst telling myself that I would never be that shallow – yet still hold my ultra-coiffed head up high and say “feck it, I have to wear my hair every day”?
The conflict doesn’t end there. Because while I’m here, getting my head seen to, I also thumb through the free glossy magazines, which now tell women how strong and powerful we are, whilst simultaneously telling us that we’re not beautiful enough, not thin enough, and not young enough.
They tell us that women are doing amazing things, and should be lauded; but also that we are not the women they’re talking about, and we never will be (unless maybe we buy certain stuff).
The glossy magazine women are talented, but we are ordinary, and just a little bit shit, no matter which filters we apply. They have everything we’re supposed to want. We are sitting in a high street hair salon, salivating over beauty, and justifying the fact that we’re concerned about our appearance – ignoring the fact that we’re not okay with it really, or else we wouldn’t be justifying it at all.
That Bit Where I Try And Tie It To The Title
The same strikes me about so-called women’s fiction. We say we’re all right with it, but we’re not, really. We can’t be comfortable with anything we’re constantly justifying. We’re saying it’s just as good as anything else – but if it was, it wouldn’t need justifying, would it?
Recently, I spoke to someone who said they didn’t want to speak up in a conversation about books because she “only read chick-lit”. She believed that ‘only’ reading chick-lit meant nobody would think she had anything worth saying.
And do you know what? She was right. Because no matter what lip service we’re paying to true empowerment, most people will only stick up for acknowledged literary women’s fiction. The popular stuff still doesn’t get a look in, no matter which universal truths it deals with.
If a major book-related discussion strikes up, who amongst us would introduce our favourite chick-lit into the conversation as an example of our point?
Could it be something to do with the fact that we’re constantly celebrating womanhood by making women feel inadequate?
In recent years, female authors have become really successful in other genres – but those genres still have to be specific.
It’s really heartening to see the new breed of bestselling female authors who are killing it in what were once male-dominated genres, most notably crime and crime thrillers. The surge in popularity of domestic noir or grip-lit has also seemed to favour women, both as readers and writers.
What’s most striking about this, however, is the fact that even in those genres, story elements frequently associated with women’s fiction – such as romance or relationships – are played down. Even if they’re the strongest elements of the book.
When I read a crime thriller, it’s always a toxic friendship, an evil family member or an enigmatic spouse which interests me most. Yet when a woman writes these books, we often don’t mention that. We focus instead on the radioactive Maguffin or the fight scene or the minority character STRIVING TO GET AHEAD. (Block caps because EMPOWERMENT. Etc.)
It’s as if we don’t want to mention the elephant in the room.. which is that a woman wrote it.
It’s as though we’ve forgotten the days when nobody even noticed tired old trope of the investigator or renegade whose only motivation was the death or abduction of [insert female relative here], and how lazy and crap that was.
So when it comes to general fiction written by women, known to the world at large as ‘women’s fiction’ (because unless a female protagonist is written by a man, most men won’t read it), even though outwardly readers and writers are all saying ‘it’s just as good as any other fiction’, inwardly, we’re still justifying both reading it and writing it.
And do you know what? I don’t think it’s the marketers who are doing this. We’re doing it to ourselves. There’s no ‘women’s fiction’ shelf in a bookshop. It’s not even on Amazon. It’s all in our heads.
We need to do two things. We need to stop justifying ‘women’s fiction’. And we need to start bringing books written by women into serious literary discussions, without apologies or qualification. Because they’re not ‘only’ anything, any more than someone could nowadays be ‘only’ a woman.