Guardian demands ‘women with a backbone’ in fiction

So it’s as I have suspected and ardently highlighted these past ten years – female characters in some novels are not feminist-friendly. Fairly unsurprisingly, lots of women are tired of reading about dieting, shopping, romance and other subjects that do not apply to their own lives. Far from requiring a patronising dose of escapism thrust upon them, lots of women do not wish to make a substantial effort to suspend their belief and enter a nonsense world of cosseted, middle-class, silver-spoon giggling.

A Guardian newspaper article has declared the Bridget Jones character un-feminist and the chick-lit genre ‘tired’. The author of this piece has called for a post recession ‘Bridget Jones with a backbone’.

I have to admit that when I read the first Bridget Jones novel I loved it, mainly because I (at the time) identified with her binge drinking of a weekend and falling out a taxi with a bottle of Absolute vodka in her hand. A little middle-class for me, Bridget had no children and was accommodated by her comfortably-off parents, but even so I liked the idea. So much, in fact, that I decided to have a crack at writing chick-lit myself.

I had already written a full novel and a dissertation, so I knew I had the endurance. I knew the genre, being and avid reader of Fielding and Keyes, I knew the task before me was to create a woman who enjoyed her life, unhindered by real life problems (and if there were any debt or anxiety or depression or hormones or strife it would be temporary and managed by her much more sensible boyfriend).

The problem was that I just couldn’t do it. A I began to write, the jovial attitude of my MC became overshadowed by real-life. The protagonist, a nasty piece of work called Sean, didn’t sweep her off her feet or save her, he oppressed her with his own issues and loaded her already over-burdened life with his pain.

Sounds dark, doesn’t it? Dark, complex, intricate and emotional are all words that have been used to describe my writing. The MC’s are strong women who use their instinct and resolve to find solutions to their problems. One MC ‘invents’ another person to help her because she is so alone. Another cannot face reality when her relationship ends and stalks her ex-partner.

All my MC’s are Bridget Jones with a backbone. Bridget Jones with a baby. Bridget Jones working in the sex industry. Bridget Jones with a touch of fear. Bridget Jones bereaved. Bridget Jones with everyday emotions. Bridget Jones with a feminist edge, doing something about stuff.

In the spirit of supply and demand, listening to beta readers, press articles, writing groups and authors who are feeling instinctively that the tide is turning away from candy-floss chick-lit, women’s fiction is in dire need of something we can get out teeth into. Something that is about love but more complicated. More real. Something that resonates with women’s lives. Less escapism and more empathy.

I’ve recently submitted my latest novel, Life Immaterial, to several carefully selected agents. I hope that they have read the article in the Guardian about good old Bridget and considered the possibility that a more unsympathetic and less stereotypical MC is what is, as we struggle through a second year of financial downturn, women today need to hold their hand, walk beside them and lie reassuringly alongside on their bedside table whispering, ‘I understand’.

6 thoughts on “Guardian demands ‘women with a backbone’ in fiction”

  1. I have to agree. I have started to read and then put down books that are a bit to happy ever after, or where you see the supposed “life crisis” coming a mile off, it’s a crap crisis and you’ve seen bigger ones everyday by just stepping out the door.

  2. What a great post. Perhaps it’s an age thing, but I’ve moved on from MC chasing Mr Right through Chelsea in kitten heels. My (older) friends and I have different ideas about life and are facing different problems.

    It’s a pity there are so few books out there that straight talk women over 40 and discuss what really concerns them.

    Laura Essendine

  3. Interesting.

    I’m a avid crime reader first and foremost. I do love thought-provoking novels too, but I can’t help it…every now-and-then I pick up a chic-lit book! Read it, giggle a couple of place and forget all about it the moment I lay it down. Makes no imprint, mark or change of thought…

    So good look on your MC! Look forward to reading about Bridget with a back-bone

    See you around…

  4. Great post!

    One problem i’ve always had is that my MC’s aren’t seen as sympathetic enough – i remember getting some rejected chaps back from one agent and she’d pencilled ‘Likeable?’ or something by one sentence ie was looking to see from the very off whether my character was appealing.

    Good luck with your subs, Jacqui. It’ll be interesting to see if the credit crunch does have any lasting effect on the type of chick lit written.

  5. Very interesting post.

    Personally I hope there’s still a demand for chick lit at the lighter end of the spectrum, because that’s what I write – pure escapist romantic comedy. Despite being an ‘older woman’ myself that’s what I enjoy writing.

    I think there is a demand for stories for older women that reflect their lives, but there’s also a new generation of young women who are still in the looking for love phase. I would hope there’s room for both.

  6. I think you are absolutely right Clodagh, there is room for both. I might have been a bit harsh on Bridget Jones, I agree that we still need some pure escapist romantic comedy.
    I just think readers should be given a little more to choose from, in some ways it seems weighted in the favour of material aimed at younger readers – that’s not to say that there is anything inherently wrong with chick-lit and that older women should feel obliged to read more serious novels if they don’t want to.

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