When women write cheerful, upbeat stuff about aspirational females out and about in the world, they are bluntly informed that it doesn’t count as literary, it’s just chick lit. Thus women authors have quite a hoop to jump through: how can they write about their own gender and give their characters exciting lives and happy endings without being swiftly relegated from literary to flittery? A tricky question, and one that many women solve by abandoning their Booker ambitions and taking the money.
This situation means that there is a vast sea of books by female authors out there that
are too well-written and quirky to be trashed, but which by their nature (written by
women, about women, for women) do not qualify as literature. Here on the desk beside me are a few examples.
As “chick lit” applies to all books about young women starting out in life, so “therapy novel” designates books about older women rethinking their lives, usually in the wake of failed relationships. Nicci Gerrard’s ‘Solace’ is a good example. The marriage is not the story but the back story: rather than happening on the last page, it breaks down on the first, and after a bruising fall the woman in question picks herself up, dusts herself down and discovers what she’s really made of.
Gerrard’s narrator, Irene, discovers that her husband Adrian - whose acting career is just about to take off after years of her supporting him through the lean times - has fallen in love with her best friend’s younger sister, Frankie. To compound the situation, Irene and Adrian have three young daughters whose lives will be torn apart by the consequences of his treachery. The brutality of the ensuing break-up and the colossal storm of Irene’s anger are brilliantly evoked by Gerrard, whose life as a thriller writer (in collaboration with husband Sean French) has clearly honed a talent for plumbing the depths of human rage and fear. Her prose style is natural, not especially poetic but emotionally unguarded. Maybe that is why I have never before read an example of this genre that so accurately portrays the disintegration and ultimate death of self caused by the discovery that all your past existence was a lie and the future you were moving towards is no longer possible. In fact, this part of the novel is so good that Irene’s reconstruction of a new self comes almost too quickly and risks seeming a trifle pat. The ending, however, sails closer to what feels like truth.
Anne Fine is known as one of the best children’s authors writing today, and ‘Raking the Ashes’, the sixth novel she has aimed at adults, displays her familiar cool, unfussy style. Tilly, a fiercely independent woman who likes to tell it how it is, is initially attracted to Geoff because he is gentle, supportive and unchallenging. However, Geoff comes with baggage - two children and a needy ex-wife - and, as time goes by, Tilly watches with bewilderment, then fury, as Geoff allows his trio of dependents to walk all over him and (by default) her. Soon our rather terrifying heroine decides that Geoff’s unstinting good nature is in fact gross idleness and self-deception. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to rid yourself of a man so supremely talented at ducking confrontation. While Tilly is a great judge of other people’s motivations, she has precious little self-knowledge, so this certainly doesn’t qualify as a therapy novel. This is female revenge upon men who waste our time. Anti-romantic comedy, perhaps?
In ‘Innocence’ Kathleen Tessaro tells a story intended to resonate with its target audience: 30-plus woman suddenly realises that if she’s ever going to achieve her dreams she should be lacing her skates up now. Evie was once a brilliant actress whose tempestuous relationship with a fledgling rock star sabotaged her career; since then she has bobbed along with her head only just above water, minding her son and teaching drama to dismal failures. Enter Robbie, an old friend recently killed in a car accident and returned as a ghost to remind Evie of her lost self. Tessaro throws in a fascinating insider’s look at the acting profession (she herself was an actress) and off we go for the ride. The curious thing about this novel is that, despite promising a predictable formula (and being dashed off in lively, unpretentious prose), it becomes increasingly weird. By the end, events have become so ambiguous they are almost dreamlike. This is the 30-plus equivalent of a coming-of-age novel: a coming-awake novel for women who have wasted their 20s on cheap men and rough wine.
Talitha Stevenson’s ‘Exposure’ is the only novel on this list that would pass for literature in the accepted sense. Alistair Langford is a prosecution lawyer who contrives to ruin his career by accidentally (or that’s his excuse) sleeping with a witness for the defence; meanwhile his son Luke is obsessed with a highly strung but beautiful actress who grinds him under her pretty heel until he can take no more. Stevenson is an exceptionally talented writer, still only 28, whose debut, An Empty Room, was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award. In ‘Exposure’, she dissects her characters with eloquent, dispassionate attention to detail. Literature? Bang on the nose.