Do you feel defined by the books you read – or write?
I don’t – but plenty of people think I should do. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard or read negative views about women’s fiction or, worse still, ‘chick lit’: that those who read it must be dumbed down, maybe even slightly stupid.
As for the authors... at best, they’re cynical Cartland-esque clones, seeking a quick buck.
Last year, the headlines that greeted a decline in sales for all fiction – but especially the pastel-coloured kind – took the chance to stick the stiletto in once again. ‘What women don’t want’ and ‘the death of chick lit’ were typical. As someone who loves reading, and writes books that are marketed as women’s fiction, I saw red.
Or should that be pink?
I decided to go beyond the headlines, and ask readers what they thought. Over three hundred readers – 90% of them female – responded to a survey I posted on my website and promoted across the web. They told me how many books they read a month (from less than ½ to 20+), where and why they bought them. But for me, the most fascinating responses came when I asked readers to list their favourite books from the last few years.
Move over chick lit – this is broad lit
Very few readers restricted themselves to one genre. The stereotype of a woman existing on a literary diet of only romantic comedy or Mills & Boon was just that – something I found in few responses. Even those women who did express a preference for the most escapist fiction, were very discerning – they didn’t simply pocket a book because it was marketed as chick lit.
As I get older, the chick lit label has a certain ironic frisson, but I don’t like it: I’ve never written about single girls drinking Cosmos in Manolos.
But the research has given me a new definition – I’m a broad lit writer, serving a huge audience of ‘broadivore’ women readers – who, like me, pick and choose their next book to suit their mood, from a toppling-to-be read pile that might include commercial fiction, factual books and – gasp – even literary novels.
I think I’m a pretty typical Broadivore reader. Right now, I’ve got two books on the go: Sanctus by Simon Toyne, and an advance copy of When I Fall in Love by Miranda Dickinson. On my Kindle there are forty titles waiting to be read or finished, including The Emperor of All Maladies (a ‘biography’ of cancer), six thrillers (including Let the Right One In and The Wicked Girls), five YA titles (I love the opening of The Fault in Our Stars), literary fiction by Kazuo Ishiguru and Emma Donaghue, plus, yes, lots of women’s fiction by Jojo Moyes, Lisa Jewell, Lucy Diamond and Sarah Rayner. Fifty Shades of Grey is on there too. For research, you understand.
It would seem that writing women’s fiction hasn’t stopped me being able to appreciate a great story, however it’s packaged.
Three Little Words?
The research didn’t just ask about authors – it also asked readers what were there favourite qualities in the books they loved. Funny scored 39% of the vote, thrilling and moving both scored 40%. And number 1, with 55%, (drum roll, please) was:
Now what provokes my thoughts might be different from one provokes yours – Fifty Shades has certainly made me think differently about the other people in the Homebase queue. But it’s clear we want fiction to stimulate us in many different ways.
Over to you
And what of the authors? I asked fifty of them how they felt about publishing. Almost all were both excited and worried by the eBook revolution – especially as the trend towards free or 20pm books means many will be looking for alternative careers. There was also a feeling that copycat marketing of books has trapped some female writers in a ‘sparkly pink ghetto’ where the jacket doesn’t always reflect what’s going on between the covers.
There’s a logic to designing covers that appeal to female readers – women make up 80% of fiction buyers – but there’s a danger that they can all blend into one.
I’m the first to admit the research was small-scale – but I found it fascinating and enlightening. If you’d like to read more, I’ve gone into more detail on my webpage. And I’m also planning to set up my own Reader Panel to canvas more opinions (you can join by emailing me via my website). In the meantime, what do you think?
Are you a ‘broadivore’ – and do you judge a book, or reader, by the cover?