EDITORIAL DIRECTOR OF MSLEXIA, THE MAGAZINE FOR WOMEN WHO
Do you see women's writing as definable and distinct from men's?
I think women tend to be interested in different things, so the subject matter
they write about tends to be different – e.g. female crime writers tend to write
whydunits, looking at crimes with a psychological dimension; male crime writers
tend to write whodunits, more focused on plot and police procedure.
Do you feel that there's a difference between female-composed literature
and "women's writing"? As in, writing "for women, by women" rather than just
literature that a woman has written?
I’m not entirely sure I understand what you mean. There is a definite marketing
category called “women’s fiction”, which is indeed women writing for women,
where the books are packaged in a certain way that makes it clear who the
target market is – chick lit is a subset of this. The plots have women at their
centre, with stereotypically female concerns: love, female friendship, fertility,
adultery, family, domestic interiors, physical appearance etc. They tend to
be “cosy”, for want of a better word: i.e. unchallenging, air-brushed, feel-good.
The uglier, grittier, less palatable sides of women’s lives tend not to feature very
strongly in this genre.
That’s the difference, really, I think, between “women’s fiction” and literature
written by women. Literature written by women may deal with the same themes,
but does not flinch in the same way from exploring the more troubling and
complex aspects they entail in real life.
But there is another type of “for women by women” literature that came to
prominence along with feminism in the 1970s and 1980s. I’m thinking of novels
like “The Women’s Room”, “Woman on the Edge of Time”, the novels of Fay
Weldon etc. which dealt explicitly with feminist themes in both popular and
literary ways. Perhaps “women’s fiction” and literature by women are two
branches that have developed from this.
Do you feel "chick-lit" has something to offer the arts world? How do you feel
about "chick-lit" as a genre associated with women?
I think there’s good and indifferent chick lit. The indifferent stuff is pretty pap:
predictable tea-break fodder for people who don’t read much. The good stuff is
sharply-observed, well-written, sassy, witty, pacy, often laugh-out-loud funny. I
think it’s great to see women writing at this level. Is it art? Yes, in the same way
that the novels of PG Wodehouse are art: wonderfully entertaining creative use
of language to portray an affectionately observed world that few of us inhabit.
There's been an historical absence of women in the world of literature; from
George Elliot writing under an alias, and the Brontes being excluded from
London literary society, to Elizabeth Bishop retreating from the macho New
York literary scene. Do you think an element of this alienation, this pigeon-
holing of female authors still exists?
Yes, but to a much lesser extent than in the past. I think it still helps a woman
author to write under a gender-neutral name (JK Rowling, AL Kennedy). I think
there are still some male cabals in literature – the Amis faction in fiction, the
Muldoon faction in poetry. I think what I’ve referred to as the ‘male aesthetic’
still holds sway in the awarding of literary prizes and in assumed standards
of literary excellence. Women are also effectively excluded by the basic facts
of their lives: their greater responsibility for childcare, care of the elderly and
disabled, and domestic work means they simply have less time to devote to
their writing – which has a knock-on effect on their ambitions and achievements.
Is there such a thing as feminist literature?
Yes, but it’s a more amorphous creature than when you could only find it
between the covers of books in Virago green or Women’s Press zebra-pattern.
Feminist thought has (to some extent) entered the mainstream; women writers
are now published widely by all the main publishing houses.
What are you currently reading?
I’ve just finished “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett and “The Point of Rescue” by
Sophie Hannah – both bestselling novels with strong feminist themes.
Who's your favourite female author?
Too many to name just one.