In the four months since my first novel came out, I’ve had the same conversation probably a dozen times.
“What’s it about?” a well-meaning stranger will ask. “Well,” I’ll reply, “it’s the story of a woman choosing between two very different men – as well as technology, divorce and the precariousness of renting in …” “Oh!” they’ll interject. “You mean one of those books with high heels on the cover? That must have been fun to write.”
So I wasn’t surprised to find that the Times and Sunday Times’ best books of 2021 round-up did not, as they claimed, represent “every genre”. It’s a terrific list, full of books that have made an otherwise constraining year feel infinitely full of possibility. But in spite of crime fiction, historical novels, thrillers and science fiction all having their own categories, romantic fiction failed to get a look in.
I’m an author of what I’ll call – for the purposes of this piece – women’s commercial fiction (more on that later), and I was one of the many writers who took to Twitter to express their frustration at this omission. I don’t think anyone at the Times was deliberately snubbing women’s commercial fiction. But the same omission keeps happening, in review pages and on award longlists. Although we may no longer call these books “chick lit”, they’re still treated in many quarters as an embarrassing afterthought. Jeanette Winterson was so incensed earlier this year when a box of her newly reissued novels arrived looking like what she called “wimmins fiction” that she burned the lot.
This sniffiness stems from two outmoded beliefs that desperately need challenging. Firstly, that any book written by women about women’s relationships is a capital-R Romance novel by default. And secondly, that Romance is a genre without substance or literary merit.
The whole question of genre is something that female writers of all stripes have to contend with far more than their male counterparts. Just look at people’s obsession with categorising Sally Rooney. The idea that a young woman’s pastel-covered novels about millennials falling in love might qualify as literary fiction causes a fair few commentators to start frothing at the mouth: in 2019, Will Self dismissed her work as “very simple stuff with no literary ambition” during an interview to promote (and I swear I’m not making this up) a line of macarons for the restaurant Hakkasan.
However you define it, women’s commercial fiction is as diverse as the people who write it. Far from being lacking in what Winterson called “playful or strange or the ahead of time stuff”, it’s brimming with it. But there’s a tendency for all of that to get stuffed into a box with a label on it: romance, high-end commercial, up-lit and so on. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with labels: they’re invaluable in conceptualising a novel’s “package”. But they can also be limiting, and there’s no getting around the fact that their application is heavily gendered. We don’t call novels with titles like Bravo Agent Mincemeat and The Leonardo Enigma “men’s commercial fiction” – we just call them “books”.
To move on to the second misconception, that women’s commercial fiction has nothing important to say – what makes a novel “serious”? Is it the subject matter, the quality of the prose, the author’s ability to connect with readers? By every one of these metrics, it’s the real deal. It’s generally accepted that Marian Keyes and Jojo Moyes, both globally successful and beloved, write novels with weight. And Helen Fielding has had a bit of a reappraisal recently, with authors like Candice Carty-Williams citing Bridget Jones’s Diary as a formative influence. But they’re framed as the exception rather than the rule.
Just a glance at the pile of books by my bed right now would tell you that isn’t the case. There’s a proof of Laura Kay’s Tell Me Everything, about a queer therapist’s intimacy issues, and The Mismatch, Sara Jafari’s sensitive look at first love and cultural differences. Each word of Mhairi McFarlane and Sophie Cousens’s sentences is weighed and measured. And you only have to watch the Sylvanian Families trailer that Lindsey Kelk made for On a Night Like This to know that you’re in the hands of a serious comic talent. My own novels devote just as much space to subjects like bias in dating app algorithms, premature ovarian failure, abortion and mental illness as they do to falling in love.
Another thing that’s serious is the amount of money that women’s commercial fiction is worth to publishing. As bestselling author Milly Johnson (who at the time of writing had only been outsold in the week’s paperback fiction chart by Richard Osman) made clear in a recent blogpost, romantic novels are one of the backbones of the industry, flying off the shelves in their millions. “We make profit,” she wrote. “No one gives us publishing deals because they feel obliged to.”
As any reader of romances knows, you often find love where you least expect it – usually by setting aside your preconceptions. Next year, I hope that the people who put together the Times list of the best books of 2022 can do just that. And maybe one or two old-guard Booker nominees can too.