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How the term 'chick lit' can impact a woman's sense of self-worth

‘One way to keep an oppressed people down is to belittle what they love.’

I WAS 11 when I first delved between the pages of a Marian Keyes novel.

keyes Source: PA Images

Admittedly years too young for its content, I treated its completion like a clandestine mission I had to fufil before the end of a two-week family holiday in the west.

I read it intermittently – snatching it up whenever an older cousin set it down – and ultimately ploughed my way through the story of Rachel Walsh and her recovery from drug addiction.

Over and over I was told it wasn’t suitable for me, and after reaching the chapter which features Rachel, Luke, and the backseat of a New York cab, I knew that my hand-wringing mother probably had a point.

But by that stage I was hooked, and over the course of my teenage years I steadily made my way through Marian’s work.

One of my all time #favoriteauthor s (and that's no small deal) is @marian_keyes. Among other books, she's the #author #writer of the fab #WalshFamily #books. I unfortunately stumbled upon the last one first and then read them all in a completely haphazard fashion. Still #LOVED each one of them as they're great even as standalones. She writes about #difficult subjects like alcoholism, depression & even death and yet manages to keep the tone of her books #light and easy to read. If you haven't read her yet, pls don't waste any more of your time! And unlike me, start off in order (with Watermelon, which I've read but don't own yet. Will buy to complete collection). #MarianKeyes #Mariankeyesbooks #Irish #IrishAuthor #Love one of my #Favorites.

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After reading Rachel’s Holiday in the summer of 1998, I got my hands on Watermelon, Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married, and Sushi for Beginners, until I was eventually up to date with the back catalogue, and could purchase each new release as they hit the shelves.

There are few writers who have left as strong an impression on me as Marian Keyes, who has made me laugh uproariously, nod in empathy and feel like I truly knew the women whose story she was telling so convincingly; so authentically.

Certain turns of phrase, quirks in syntax and deeply-felt sentiments contained within the pages of her books have stayed with me for the guts of 20 years – from primary school right through to adulthood.

Like song lyrics, lines from Marian’s books often make their way to the forefront of my mind; sometimes revealing themselves apropos of nothing, and other times through a connection I have made between my lived reality and a character’s storyline.

And yet while devouring her work over the last two decades, I felt, on some level, that my connection with the characters and my appreciation of their individual stories was not something to be celebrated.

Chick lit, frivolous and frothy, cheap airport paperback, handy holiday read; nothing about these terms suggested anything of worth.

A voracious reader as a child, I was under the misconception that a book was there to present a challenge.

Indeed, for every ‘classic’ I might have wade through as a kid, I was allowed to read a Babysitters Club book as a reward.

And while I considered Marian’s books, which dealt with a variety of issues from addiction to depression in a distinct style unique to the Irish author, a reward in themselves, both internal and external voices ultimately devalued them.

After years spent reading, enjoying and learning from her books while simultaneously (and guiltily) downplaying their impact in a wider context, I was heartened to hear an explanation for my own conflicted response by none other than Marian herself.

Speaking on Desert Island Discs in 2017, Marian explained why her body of work, which has sold in excess of 35 million books and has been translated into 33 languages, is not held in the same regard as other authors.

And disappointingly, it seems to comes down to two simple facts -  she’s a woman, and women are her predominant fanbase.

For good or for ill, lots of women enjoy my books and they relate to them. And in my own little way, I feel that they are quite empowering and I think that anything that empowers women or makes them feel like ‘Hello there, could I have some equal pay?’ or ‘How about access to the management jobs? Anything that makes us uppity has to be slapped down.

As disheartening as it is to contemplate and acknowledge, this attitude infiltrates so many elements of the arts; and from chick lit to chick flick, women are programmed to feel vaguely ashamed of anything that seeks to empathise with or appeal to their gender.

And so, if we like something, by telling us it’s rubbish, it makes us feel a bit silly for having liked it in the first place.

Marian accepts that she will never be as highly-regarded as writers whose work is known to appeal to both sexes, or authors who produce prose so complex it leaves you feeling vaguely disorientated.

And she is absolutely fine with that.

I am very proud of the books I write and the reach that they have, and I’m prepared to put up with a pink cover if it makes me more accessible. I don’t see anything wrong with being accessible. But it means then that I am patronised and categorised as not terribly clever, my dear.

Similarly, Marian makes the point while appearing on Jarlath O’Regan’s An Irishman Abroad podcast that had Ireland borne witness to the same number of successful male authors as it did female authors in the 90s and noughties, the response would have been considerably different.

I often think if – instead of a cluster of Irish women writing around that time -  it had been young men, they would have been given titles like ‘The Young Turks’. They would have been lauded, you know. They would have been treated as a literary movement whereas we were women, and like anything that is done by women, it’s automatically given some reductive title because women are paid so much less than men still.

So, what did this mean for female readers who gravitated towards Marian’s work?

Well, put simply, it meant that we felt our enthusiasm for each new release was something to be vaguely embarrassed by.

One way to keep an oppressed people down is to belittle what they love and by calling my books and Cathy Kelly’s books and Cecilia’s books ‘chick lit’, it made women feel mortified; a little bit ashamed and embarrassed about reading them and it just reinforced that core conviction that they just weren’t worth as much as men.

While Marian admits to feeling hugely misunderstood at the time, she says she knew that her books had more to offer, adding: “They weren’t just fluff or froth, but as the years have gone by I don’t mind anymore, I understand whats going on.”

I know the worth of what I do. They’re well-written, they’re written from the heart and they help people and they make people laugh and even if all a person gets is three hours of entertainment on a plane, that’s grand. I’m quite happy to know that I’ll never win literary prizes because it’s horses for courses.

As a reader, it’s hugely comforting to finally understand what might have led me to outwardly dismiss something from which I derived genuine pleasure, and perhaps even more comforting to know that the author, herself, doesn’t blame me for it.

I’m a storyteller and I do it well, and it’s still uncomfortable for me to say that as an Irish person – self praise is still very much frowned upon. But if I don’t say it nobody is really going to say it.

But that’s where she’s wrong.

A reader who has bought her books and cherished her stories will say it.

Marian Keyes creates characters, scenarios and storylines that have enriched the lives of millions of readers, given her audience a voice when they have felt silenced, and provided countless with a body of work they will no doubt find their own daughters leafing through years before they’re old enough.

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