Tuesday, September 18, 2012

WHEN GENRES ATTACK authors fight back!

At the Sydney Writers’ Festival this year I sat in the audience of a panel titled ‘Old Scrags and Other Sheilas’ about creating memorable female characters. I was with author Lisa Heidke  and I was there largely to enjoy the wise words of Susan Johnson who had just released My Hundred Lovers.  

It was during this session that I found myself fuming when a comment by an author suggested that writing chick lit was the lowest form of writing you could possibly do. There was much debriefing needed at the Sebel following the session, especially seeing as Lisa had only days earlier post a blog titled Chick Lit is not Dumb Lit.

Joined by award-winning crime novelist Pamela Newton, we decided we should have a conversation of our own in supporting the value and strength of women's writing - regardless of genre or age of writer! - and we sashayed off to Shearer's in Leichhardt for the discussion. In preparation for the event, Lisa blogged for the fabulous bookshop in Norton Street.

 Barbara and Tony Shearer with yours truly!

Below are just a few words shared at the event we titled: When Genres Attack: 50 Shades of Chic Lit 

Susan said:
"I think the way the term "chick-lit" is used in a derogatory, patronising way is part of a broader issue about the way women's writing is seen in general. Whoever has heard of "men's writing?"

If you look at a writer like, say, Nick Hornby, he is writing the same sort of stuff as many other women writers; on the same subject (relationships between men and women, parents and children etc) yet his work is given a certain respect. This is a complex subject that would take a PhD to cover in depth but -- essentially -- I believe there is a conversation to be had about what we regard as the template for writing if you like, and how it is more usual for male writers to be include in this template or for male writers to be seen as the "default position" and for the work of women writers to be seen as the deviation or the exception. Look at which writers are regarded as forming America's finest, for example: Roth, Updike, Mailer, Franzen etc and the same for the UK: Amis, Barnes, McEwan etc. Hilary Mantel has only very recently broken through to the same league but she has been writing well for years and years.

With this in mind, I was happy to represent the Queensland arm of the Stella Prize (named after Stella Miles Franklin) -- a new literary prize similar to the UK's Orange Prize but which will reward one Australian women writer (from any genre: plays, poetry, fiction, non-fiction) with a yearly prize for the best book. A group of writers, academics, publishers, publicists and general fans of women's fiction -- most of whom live in Melbourne -- have put in some hard work to get the prize up and running. Next year -- 2013 -- will be the first year the $50,000 prize will be offered. Yay for women's writing I say! And good luck to Australia's excellent women writers!"

With the lovely Emily Maguire at the event

I said:
When writers trash a genre, they are not only belittling the author but also the reader. I write for my readers, and it seems some writers FORGET they write for readers.  I want people to read my books, because I write what I believe matters and I have issues and messages I want the broader community to engage with. Commercial women’s literature is the perfect mechanism to get to an audience that mightn’t normally engage with Indigenous Australia in any medium or context.

The universal experience of things like love and related loss is one that is not bound by geography, race, class, and politics. And it’s the theme that drives much of my chick lit. It doesn’t mean the subplots and other themes in the works can’t be political, cultural, and / or have reflections and broader commentary on society at large.

My Mr Right and Dreaming novels have made comments on socially important issues such as:
·      The NT intervention,
·      Indigenous intellectual property,
·      Black deaths in custody and the relationship between the police force and the Aboriginal community.
·      Inter-racial relationships
·      Australian history
·      Reconciliation Week, NAIDOC, January 26 (Australia Day/ Invasion Day)
·      I’ve showcased real Indigenous artists across EVERY artform
·      I’ve covered Indigenous artists from the US and those exhibited in Paris
·      I’ve written about strong, capable, educated, feisty, sexy and sassy Aboriginal women as I know them in the 21st century

And I’ve had great sex and shopping along the way (well my characters have!).

Author of four novels, Lisa said:
‘I’m often asked what I think the next ‘big thing’ in publishing will be. I shake my head, stare at the ceiling and take a deep breath. The market is almost impossible to predict. Instead, be true to yourself and write what’s in your heart. Write the stories you want to read.

Having said that, the two hottest genres in Australia right now are rural romance and mummy porn (yes, I hate the term, too), so why not try combining the two. The birth of rural cliterature is imminent!’

So the next time you hear someone trashing chick lit of or commercial women’s fiction, remind them that stories about women matter, and men never have to defend their writing the way we do!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter!


Anonymous said...

Great post, Anita. What are my thoughts? Right (or is that Write?!) on!

I'm not a huge reader of so-called genre - not crime or sci fi, not fantasy or romance - but I detest the trivialisation of women's writing and reading, and am unashamed about having a preference for reading women writers (though I still do read men ... And many of them). Surely, given the preponderance of women as readers and book buyers, "they" diss women at their peril!

Dr Anita Heiss said...

Thanks Whispering Gums - you are absolutely right! I think it's offensive to the creators and the audience to diss any genre. We all read differently, and in this the National Year of Reading I think we should be encouraging people to read as widely as possible!
Much peace,