Chick Lit to Smith Lit

The worst thing that can happen to young female authors is that they are taken so damn seriously.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth, won the Guardian First Book Prize, the Whitbread First Novel of the Year Award, and in January 2001 narrowly missed out on the Whitbread Book of the Year Award (1) – proving that, when it comes to publishing their first novels, young women can no longer get away with fluff.

Since the publication of White Teeth Zadie Smith has become, as one news report put it, ‘the 25-year-old new darling of the literary establishment’ (2). Her book, an epic multicultural tome set in north London, has been endorsed by Salman Rushdie and lauded by others for its Rushdie-esque qualities. As it goes, the book is not that good. But Zadie Smith was not catapulted to fame because of the quality of her writing.

When Zadie Smith hit the scene in January 2000, the UK’s cultural critics had just got bored of endlessly debating the phenomenon of ‘Chick Lit’ – the swathe of novels published by young women in the wake of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (3). This fictional diary cataloguing the obsessions of a professional, partnerless, female in the 1990s hit the bestseller lists and stayed there; dog-eared copies were passed among female friends who would stand on the London Underground in their suits at rush-hour, murmuring to themselves, ‘it’s so true!’. Sniffing the money, publishers started giving huge advances and massive publicity to first-time young women writers who looked like they could do a Fielding of their own.

Chick Lit did not take long to go from popular to controversial. The debate came to a head when, judging the 1999 UK Orange Prize for women’s fiction, Lola Young of Middlesex University bemoaned the ‘cult of big advances going to photogenic young women to write about their own lives, and who they had to dinner, as if that is all there was to life’ (4). She castigated these authors for writing ‘piddling’ and ‘parochial’ books that avoided big plots and big ideas. That other cultural commentators endorsed Young’s comments helps explain their orgasmic reaction to White Teeth. Zadie Smith has all the attributes of the Chick Literati – plus some. As the UK Daily Telegraph’s Mick Brown put it rather over-excitedly, ‘She is young, black, 25 years old and startlingly photogenic’; but she is also ‘ferociously articulate and outspoken’ and ‘very clever’ (5). And there is nothing ‘piddling’ about White Teeth’s wide-angle, 400-plus page take on life.

But that Zadie Smith’s rise to fame has been so inextricably linked with the demise of Chick Lit does neither side any favours. The over-hype around White Teeth – and the over-critical response this has provoked from some quarters – has killed any sensible discussion of what the book actually is: not a masterpiece, but an above-average first novel. And the widespread piddling of Chick Lit that now goes on fails to give both the credit, and the criticism, that these books are due.

If you ever doubted that Chick Lit was a phenomenon, and thought it was merely a handful of well-publicised newbies getting lucky, you might want to flick through Girls’ Night In (6). Described by the online bookseller Amazon as ‘a collection of short stories by 32 of the UK’s most up-and-coming female authors’, Girls’ Night In shows that the Chick Literati clearly know who they are: youngish women, whose novels chart the fate of youngish women caught between the enjoyment of their independent lives and a desperate desire to find ‘The One’ with whom to settle down.

Chick Lit brought us Libby, heroine of Jane Green’s Mr Maybe (7), the girl with designer tastes who fell for a doley wannabe novelist – how could she reconcile her image of the perfectly furnished classy life with the fact that she loved this guy? It brought us Polly, Chloe, Sally and Cat – Freya North’s cute, lovable girlies variously suffering from commitment issues (8). Then there was the lads’ perspective – not only in the ‘Lad Lit’ that slouched cynically in Chick Lit’s wake (Mike Gayle’s My Legendary Girlfriend, and others of that ilk) (9), but in the atrocious Come Together, co-written by Josie Lloyd and Emlyn Rees, and surpassed only in its banality by the sequel Come Again (10). And there was Lisa Jewell’s Ralph’s Party, in which best mates struggling-artist Ralph and city-worker Smith, emotionally wrestle with themselves and each other over winning the heart of the elusive Jem (11).

These were only the headline-grabbers; but it gives you the idea. Along with many of my friends, I fell instantly in love with these books about girls who want to be in love. Not only were they easy, trashy, lively things to read on the way to work: this Chick Lit captured something about young women’s lives at the end of the century.

Chick Lit’s insight was into the dilemmas of the first generation of young women who knew they could ‘have it all’ – career, partner, kids – but could not work out how to get it all. Protagonists in the more subtle Chick Lit struggled with working out what ‘it all’ was, and whether they wanted ‘it all’ in the first place.

Take Jane Green’s Libby – sexy, mid-20s, works in PR, owns her own small flat, hates cooking, hates pubs, likes being taken out to restaurants and wine bars by rich men. She meets Nick, wannabe writer who lives in a grotty bedsit and hangs around in dingy pubs with lefty mates. Yes, she falls for him, but what will it take actually for her to be with him? Compromising the lifestyle she has so carefully cultivated as a single, professional woman; foresaking the trendy, classy ideal she dreams of.

It may have been ever thus in love stories: but in the past, women had less to give up and fewer choices to make. Libby, like many of the Chick Lit heroines, is fiercely protective of the life she has created for herself, and is loath to give it up just because she falls in love. Lifestyle features strongly in Libby’s definition of ‘having it all’; and it is only when she tests the ideal, with a sweet-but-fundamentally-unfanciable investment banker who adores her, that she opts for love instead.

Then there are Freya North’s heroines, the school teachers Polly and Sally, who seem to have the love thing sorted but spend a few hundred pages deliberately putting it to the test. Polly, originally half of the much-envied couple ‘Maxanpolly’, ‘finds herself’ during a year teaching in the USA. She has an affair, so does boyfriend Max; and by the end they are starting again as two different people (but better for it). Sally, homely and slightly eccentric cutesy primary teacher, turns herself into a vampish extrovert to seduce rich Richard. When he falls in love with her, she backs off, terrified that he does not know the ‘real her’. (Of course he does – it just takes several chapters for them to work it out.)

If Sally is mousier than most of the Chick Lit characters, the dominant theme is the same. Independence.

What Chick Lit offered professional young women was the understanding that singleton life is great, but so are long-term relationships. It threw up the dilemma of how to reconcile the two, and came up with happy endings, invariably involving compromises all round, but not – and this is the key – sacrifices. These fluffy, comforting books told the women reading them that, yes, they could have it all – only that they should recognise that the reality of ‘it all’ was not necessarily the same as their ideal. Talk about speaking our language.

So Chick Lit had a novel insight; and for that, it deserved at least to be popular. But although shops are still selling it in bulk, and people are still reading it, by the time the Chick Literati got around to publishing their second or third novels, it had fallen out of vogue in the publishing world. Why?

One reason has to be that, quite simply, Chick Lit just isn’t very good. Once the insight had been had, there was nowhere for it to go.

One of the defining features of Chick Lit was that so many of it authors were young first-time novelists. Forget the tradition of writers scratching away unsuccessfully on their youthful angst for years, until they gain enough experience and maturity to write a decent book: as far as this phenomenon went, it seemed the more immature you were, and the narrower your life experience, the better. Chick Lit worked because it was so, so narrow – girl meets boy, in the modern world. The end.

Was it that the Chick Literati were signed up for two-book deals all along – or did the publishers get carried away with themselves? Who knows. But when the famous first novelists did it again, they failed. Freya North has a particular style, in which she-the-author comments on her characters’ actions, in italics; almost as though she is having a conversation with them. The first time round, it’s different, cute and engaging: by book three it seems pretentious and repetitive, and gets on your nerves.

Lisa Jewell deserved her accolades for Ralph’s Party, which is light, original and fun. Thirty-nothing, the second book, is a completely different story (12). The story of two lifelong best mates who don’t fancy each other and spend the book realising they do is entertaining enough, if a bit When Harry Met Sally. But the plot is so derivative that even the characters can be found gasping, ‘Oooh, it’s just like When Harry Met Sally’.

Perhaps the worst thing that happened to Chick Lit, though, was its sudden and self-conscious worthiness. The best thing about these books was their fluffy, funny, feel-good factor. But it seemed that the authors, put on the defensive by critics attacking their air-headedness and the desperate desire, now the first novel was published, to write something ‘worthwhile’, suddenly started introducing ‘causes’ into what would otherwise be nice little books.

Jane Green’s Bookends is not her greatest work (13). But the introduction of a best-gay-mate-with-AIDS in the final few chapters is seriously weird. Fair enough to deal with this in a serious book, or even as a plot in its own right – but this reads like a sudden attack of social conscience with no idea about where it might go. Freya North’s Sally brings domestic violence into things – why? And Lisa Jewell’s Thirty-nothing has a chunk about child abuse, sequenced somewhere between boy-loses-best-mate and boy-realises-he-loved-her-all-along. Fantastic. It really helps speed things up.

Then there are the members of the Chick Literati whose first novels, or all of their novels, have dealt with ‘serious issues’ all along – pushing them, as it goes, to the point of parody. Marian Keyes’ Rachel’s Holiday is actually about a young woman in denial of her drug addiction; her Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married is about an Irish alcoholic father, and how the pattern is repeated in Lucy’s choice of boyfriends (14).

Topping it all, though, is Serena Mackesy (15). The Temp starts off with some funny anecdotes about temporary work and graduates in houseshares; then, before you know it (but a fair way through the book), there is a rape scene. Suddenly, the plot goes haywire – the victim’s friends wreak revenge by framing the rapist for embezzlement and for downloading child porn. He is arrested; and what do you know? He was embezzling before they even framed him (and he is such an arsehole, you can believe he was into child porn as well). The temp saves a major oil company from disaster, is offered a dream (permanent) job, and gets it together with her best friend and housemate – who used to be a boy-band star who fell on hard times but has suddenly become famous again. Whoppee! I bet that doesn’t happen often, down at Office Angels.

So desperate are the Chick Literati to seem worthy that they haven’t stopped at perverting their plots around good causes. Girls’ Night In was actually a Band-Aid style publishing jobbie, with all proceeds from the book’s sale going to the charity War Child. Do they really have to feel so bad about being fluffy? Isn’t it okay just to write a fun book?

By lambasting Chick Lit for all the wrong things, critics have not only given its authors a bad attack of the guilts. It has made them run scared from what made their books worth reading in the first place. And as for the new darling, Zadie Smith – her current success seems only likely to destroy her.

White Teeth is not Chick Lit. Its appeal, to publishers and critics, was that it is anything but. Yet by overhyping this young photogenic Chick for not writing Chick Lit, publishers and critics have failed to take White Teeth seriously – just as they failed to put Chick Lit into perspective.

Yes, White Teeth is good, but it’s not brilliant. There is some clever use of language and some interesting insights and twists. But it is twice as long as it should be, pretentious in places, boring in others, and when the plot finally kicks in it is unconvincing. It won the Whitbread prize for the Best First Novel, as it probably deserved; but one of the Whitbread judges claimed that it had got ‘nowhere near’ the final round of judging (16). And why should it? Since when was an author’s first novel expected to be her best?

Smith herself recognises that White Teeth is ‘too long’, ‘quite naive’ and ‘has a lot of problems’. ‘If I thought it was the best book I could write’, she told Mick Brown, ‘that would be incredibly depressing’. But will publishers and critics give her the chance to prove that she can do better, with the publication of her second novel in summer 2002? Or will Smith Lit go the same way as Chick Lit – over-hyped, then over-scorned, then consigned to history before the author makes it properly out of puberty?

Read on:

Piddling the books, Jennie Bristow’s interview with Lola Young, from LM, issue 122, July/August 1999.

(1) White Teeth, Zadie Smith, Hamish Hamilton January 2000. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(2) Daily Telegraph, 24 January 2001

(3) Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding, Picador, October, 1996. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(4) See Piddling the books by Jennie Bristow, LM 122, July / August 1999

(5) Daily Telegraph, 13 January 2001

(6) Girls Night In, eds Fiona Walker, Jessica Adams, Chris Manby, HarperCollins Trade July 2000. Contributors include Marian Keyes, Lisa Jewell, Wendy Holden, Amy Jenkins and many, many more. Buy this book from Amazon (UK)

(7) Mr Maybe, Jane Green, Penguin June 1999. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(8) Polly, Freya North, Arrow, new edition May 1999. Buy this book from Amazon (UK). Chloe, Freya North, Mandarin May 1998. Buy this book from Amazon (UK). Sally, Freya North, Mandarin, new edition April 1997. Buy this book from Amazon (UK). Cat, Freya North, Arrow June 2000. Buy this book from Amazon (UK)

(9) My Legendary Girlfriend, Mike Gayle, Flame February 1999. Buy this book from Amazon (UK)

(10) Come Together, Josie Lloyd and Emlyn Rees, Arrow February 1999. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA). Come Again, Josie Lloyd and Emlyn Rees, Arrow July 2000. Buy this book from Amazon (UK)

(11) Ralph’s Party, Lisa Jewell, Penguin May 1999. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(12) Thirty-Nothing, Lisa Jewell, Penguin September 2000. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(13) Bookends, Jane Green, Penguin June 2000. Buy this book from Amazon (UK)

(14) Rachel’s Holiday, Marian Keyes, Penguin January 1998. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA). Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married, Marian Keyes, Mandarin February 1997. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(15) The Temp, Serena Mackesy, Arrow October 1999. Buy this book from Amazon (UK)

(16) Daily Telegraph, 24 January 2001

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Topics Politics


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