When I was starting out as an author, my publisher told me to perfect my elevator pitch – you know, the 15-second soundbite you use when people ask you what your work is about. I was immediately nervous. I love writing, I hate talking about it. How the hell would I sum up my book in a few easily digestible sentences?
I said as much to a friend of mine, who immediately replied, “What are you talking about? That’s easy. Just say you write chick lit.”
As a female author of stories about women, primarily targeted at female readers, this label has dogged me for quite some time. I am frequently labelled a “chick lit” or “women’s fiction” author. For a while, I didn’t think much of these terms: as long as people included authors like Nick Hornby and Tony Parsons in these genres, and as long as they didn’t mean anything negative by the terms, I didn’t really care how people viewed my work. I was just happy they were viewing it at all.
But a few months ago, that all changed. I was having a pregnancy massage when my masseuse asked me what I did for a living.
“I’m an author,” I said with a muffled voice. (If there’s anything I hate more than being asked about writing, it’s being asked about writing while being massaged. While pregnant.)
“An author! How amazing. What do you write?”
“Um. I’ve written two books,” I said, stumbling over the words even after a few years of practice. “They’re about, um, women. One woman in particular. Who agrees to have a baby for her friend. And then in the second book, she has a baby of her own. Um. I guess you’d call it… women’s fiction.”
“Oh!” said the (female) masseuse, cheerfully. “Don’t worry! I bet you only do it for the money, right? The women’s fiction stuff? And then later, when you’ve got some money behind you, you can write what you really want to write.”
I can’t remember what I said after that, because I was exactly 40 weeks pregnant to the day and so tired I could have slept standing up while operating a jackhammer, but I know what I wish I could have said, and it goes a little something like this:
- Nobody in Australia writes books “for the money,” unless they are a reality TV star selling a bikini body bible or a radio presenter cashing in on the lucrative kids’ picture book market.
- This is the stuff I really want to write. There is no plan B. This is it. And why the hell would there be anything wrong with that?
I’m not the first person to unpack terms like “women’s fiction” and “chick lit” and label them for what they are: completely and utterly sexist. But please, could I be the last?
Because defining entertainment as exclusively for women automatically diminishes it and makes it “the other.” It means that, by default, everything else is for men, and therefore, better and worthier. Which is complete and utter bullshit.
Because as well as diminishing female authors and readers, labels like chick lit and women’s fiction also diminish the importance of the issues discussed in these books. Issues that are important to women. Issues that affect us. Issues like domestic violence, like in Big Little Lies. Issues like Alzheimer’s, like in All Fall Down. Rape, in Luckiest Girl Alive. The beauty myth, in The Regulars. Racism, in Small Great Things. Existential crises, in The Nanny Diaries. Career problems, in Bridget Jones’s Diary, The Devil Wears Prada and The Mummy Bloggers (to name but a few: and geez, is it any coincidence, that with a persistent wage gap and titanium-tough glass ceiling, that books dealing with women’s career crises are so rife?!). Abortion and miscarriage, in Circle of Friends. Ageing parents, in The Scent of You. Politics, in Campaign Ruby. Infidelity, in The Other Side of the Story. Drug abuse, again in All Fall Down. Grief, in You Be Mother. Surrogacy, in The Greatest Gift. Sisterhood, in In Her Shoes. Juggling early parenthood with career, in I Don’t Know How She Does It. Ageism, in How Hard Can It Be?. And yes, royal weddings, in The Royal We. All issues that matter to women.
All issues that affect us, all throughout our lives. All issues that deserved to be acknowledged and discussed and dealt with. And gosh, when you put them all together – politics, rape, existential crises, grief, infidelity, royal weddings – it sounds an awful lot like Game of Thrones, doesn’t it? Which is anything but “chick lit.”
Of course, one of the best things about being a so-called “women’s fiction” author is that, yes, a large number of my readers are women, and a great many of them have taken time out of their busy patriarchy-smashing schedules to write to me, telling me that my books have resonated with them (indeed, that’s how I met the publisher of Women’s Agenda, Angela Priestley). It is a huge privilege to write about issues that affect women, and a complete honour to know that something I have written has meant something to someone. That it has made them feel heard and seen. That it has made them laugh. That it has made them understand something. Hearing that words I wrote, characters I created and scenes I dreamed up struck a chord with a real person? Someone who was actually sitting down with my book, the one that I wrote out of nothing but my head and my 35% charged laptop, and nodding their head saying, yes, I feel this way, too?
I mean, that is just extraordinary.
That is my plan A. There’s simply no other label for it.
Lauren Sams’ latest book is Crazy Busy Guilty.