Chick-lit? Really? My Artistic Licence column (5/08) on Maeve Binchy

Did you feel it recently? The flickerings of anger? It came in the past week when several reporters, writing about the passing of the wonderful novelist Maeve Binchy, decided to brand her style of fiction `chick-lit’, not seeming to realise or care that it was a diminution.

Tweeters complained about the term having been used. Radio contributors — including Sheila O’Flanagan on Morning Ireland — also expressed their annoyance. When publications such as the New York Times gave Binchy her due and described her sprawling novels accurately, there was a sense of relief that Binchy had been given the credit owed to her; that they would not dim the bright light of her fiction in her death.

Women have been diminished often over the years for their fiction. Women might read more than men. They might sell more than men. But still, and particularly when it comes to commercial fiction, we’re fragile specimens as authors, with only the cardboard of our self-worth for shields, ever fearful someone will tell us we shouldn’t be at the party; that for all we might care about fiction, we still don’t really count.

Praise from men still counts for too much. At the Dalkey Books Festival (at which Binchy gave her final reading), the Irish Times journalist Fintan O’Toole was asked to comment on chick-lit. O’Toole said he had found something great in the work of Marian Keyes, and spoke about the qualities that made her fiction rich and compelling.

Later, a breathless Tweeter sent a tweet to report to Marian Keyes that Fintan O’Toole had praised her work. I laughed reading it — I don’t imagine Keyes — and bless her for it — would have been massively fussed about his opinion one way or the other. But it didn’t escape my attention that someone had felt it important she be served notice that a male intellectual had liked her work. Was she supposed to feel good about that? Was she — a bestselling author loved by millions — supposed to feel validated by his recommendation?

Perhaps the reason the answer is `yes’ is because there’s still an intellectual snobbery at work today, even for the female authors we most love.

It bothered me that Roddy Doyle — in his newspaper column on Maeve Binchy — appeared to file her work under a female-only category. For his piece, Doyle conjured up a fictional dialogue between two males, who had never read Binchy’s books, but had partners who did: “Whenever she had her hands on a new Maeve Binchy buke, yeh knew it was goin’ to be a quiet fuckin’ night.”

Maybe Doyle is right. Maybe only women do read Binchy. And maybe I’m being over-sensitive. But it still felt like he was limiting her, and the scope of her fiction, with his generalisations.

Interestingly, on Thursday in the Irish Times, of the eight letters about Binchy, five of them were from men. “I read her work, devouring it, and was shrouded in its humanity, its consideration, its hope,” wrote Patrick Dowling in a beautiful missive.

There is such a thing as chick-lit fiction. I’m not denying that. Chick-lit is plot-driven candyfloss, designed for the beach and the airport. And there’s nothing wrong with that, if it gets a reader through.

But Binchy deserves better than that appellation. A generous writer — in her spirit and her fiction — she was someone who carried the world with her, and who put it into her fiction. Her legacy in writing should never have the word `chick’ in it.

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