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What's the Booker Got to Do With Chick Lit Anyway?

25/10/2013 12:20 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 23:58 GMT

On 17 October, The Times published an interview with the 2013 Man Booker Prize winner, originally under the headline "Does Eleanor Catton's Booker mean the death of chick lit?". The story, by Kate Saunders, made the point that, "She's a chick, but nobody could mistake her work for any kind of chick-lit." It's hard to know whether that's more insulting to Catton, to people who write fiction for women, or to their readers. I'll settle for thinking it's offensive to all women, actually.

It's hard to imagine a male Booker winner being received in this way. Would an interview with a man focus so patronisingly on appearance - Saunders describes Catton as possessing "a pretty, Glee-like nerdiness; just the sort that's fashionable among clever teenage girls"? Would a male winner of the prize be assumed to have implications for an entire, unrelated genre of fiction? Think "Julian Barnes wins Booker - is the thriller dead?". Hardly.

Besides, Saunders is by no means the first Cassandra to have foretold the death of chick lit. If the headlines are to be believed, it's had more lives than a very lucky cat; those of us who write in the genre should by rights be doing the zombie walk and searching for rotting flesh to consume. The genre was declared to be in its death throes in the New York Times in 2006, and since then obituaries have appeared in Salon, The Economist, The Atlantic and of course on these very pages. The Telegraph detected a pulse in 2011, while The Guardian debated the patient's prognosis; a website was even launched to declare the genre's robust health, in a manner of which Mark Twain would surely have approved. And still the books keep selling.

As I write, the two top-selling ebooks on Amazon are Jojo Moyes's tender romance Last Letter from Your Lover, a Helen Fielding's Mad About the Boy, the surprise sequel to the Bridget Jones novels. Of the top 20 Amazon best-sellers, 15 are written by women. You might argue that these aren't chick lit - where are the cupcakes, the stiletto heels, the martini glasses that have come to define the genre? Where is the pink? And herein lies a problem: the term "chick lit" has been used to describe - and dismiss - books by women with an incredibly wide range of subject matter.

I'm happy to call my novel chick lit - it's a frothy urban romantic comedy with lots of mentions of shoes (although none of cupcakes). But many writers dislike the term, and it's easy to understand why. It carries with it the implication that women writers and readers need a special genre of their own, one that caters for their small, domestic, romantic interests. Catton made that point herself in an interview with The Guardian, in which she said, "I have observed that male writers tend to get asked what they think and women what they feel."

This perceived triviality has been used to dismiss the work of woman writers from Jane Austen, whose work Henry James damned with the faint praise "instructive and charming", to Barbara Pym, dumped by her publisher for being too old-fashioned, but who Phillip Larkin considered the most underrated writer of the 20th century. More importantly, though, it dismisses women readers, who buy far more books than men and account for the lion's share of sales across all genres.

Of course, there's a lot of badly written chick lit out there - that's true of any genre. There's also a trend towards violent misogyny in some fiction aimed at women and marketed as romance, which is far more disturbing. But many novels written for young women address serious issues - substance abuse, bereavement, domestic violence, rape - and do so with warmth, humour and skill. To dismiss these books on the basis of the gender of their writer or the colour of their cover does women no favours at all.