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‘Wimmins Fiction’

It was disappointing to read that Jeanette Winterson recently burned reissued copies of her books because she hated the ‘cosy little domestic blurbs’ which ‘turned me into wimmins fiction of the worst kind’.

Not content with trashing the work of the sub-editor who’d written the blurbs (and who must surely have sent them to Winterson for approval in any event) the feminist author has also insulted any female author whose work isn’t considered to be literary fiction. It would seem that the rest of us can only write cosy domestic novels of suburban lives.

It was precisely because so little was written about suburban women that I started writing my first novel over twenty years ago. And it’s precisely because there is so little that’s cosy and domestic about those lives that novels like mine are internationally successful. It’s wearying to have to point out, yet again, that ‘wimmins fiction’ (also known as ‘chick-lit’ and then ‘hen-lit’) covers a wide range of human dilemmas and emotions, from grief and love to alcoholism and abuse, from betrayal and revenge to coercive control and escape. It’s equally wearying to have to point out that the best novels of any genre rely on emotional connections to engage the reader with both character and plot. It is beyond wearying to wonder what the subjective ‘wimmins fiction of the worst kind’ actually is.

If ‘wimmins fiction’ can be accused of anything, other than examining the lives of a diverse range of female characters, it is that those characters are usually in a more positive place at the end of the novel than at the beginning. It’s baffling to think that, in a literary sense, it diminishes them to have developed as people, overcome obstacles and faced the future having learned more about themselves and the world around them.

In some countries books like this are called ‘feel good’ or ‘uplift’ fiction’. Not because they end with everything neatly packaged up (this is not always the case) but because they bring the reader on a journey with a hopeful conclusion where there may still be many possible outcomes.

There are, of course, many literary works of fiction that achieve this too. But obviously the blurbs that come with them must hint heavily that they are not, as Winterson feared hers might be ‘tame and obvious’ but ‘playful and strange’. They must show that there is the heavier hand of worthiness about them that ‘wimmins fiction’ will never be able to attain.

The general view is that Winterson’s book burning was a PR exercise and has successfully generated column inches. But it is sad to think that any writer would want to achieve this by insulting others. And it’s something that most of us who swim in the pool of ‘wimmins fiction’ would never do, playfully or not.