Gendered genre

Beyond Chick Lit, 11 May 2012, Franschhoek Literary Festival, Franschhoek.


Beyond Chick Lit: Lynda Gilfillan discusses the dismissive label genre fiction with Zukiswa Wanner (Behind Every Succesful Man) and Cynthia Jele (Happiness is a Four-letter Word).

I was one of only three men in the audience at this session, prompting Lynda Glifillan to ask:  If the session had been entitled Dick Lit, would we have had an audience of men?

Well, probably not, the gender distribution at Franschhoek being what it is, but yes, the audience demographic very graphically embodied the problem being discussed: the limiting effect of genre labels such as “Chick Lit”.

In the end, perhaps inevitably, the session was not so much a discussion of genre as of gender. Perhaps unintentionally, this emphasis reinforced the idea that chick lit limits itself to the discussion of what are seen as women’s issues.

Zukiswa said that she had a problem with the term chick lit: “nobody classes men’s literature as dick lit.”  But of course, some men’s literature is indeed classed as dick lit; and conversely, some women’s literature is not classed as chick lit (the mind boggles, for instance, at the notion of Nadine Gordimer turning out chick lit.) The label seems to attach itself to a particular kind of subject matter that is perceived or packaged as dealing specifically or exclusively with “women’s issues”.

Lynda drew attention to the packaging of both novels (the preponderance of pink on Zukiswa’s cover, the handbag on Cynthia’s), clearly designed to signal to a potential readership what we might call the fictional reach of the novels concerned. But packaging is of course the province of the publisher, who after all has to market the novel, and apparently niche marketing is easier than selling novels that deal with a complex web of issues. As Zukiswa said, a genre label guarantees you an audience, but it does exclude some of the people you might want to include.

Zukiswa, though clearly less happy than Cynthia with the chick lit label, pointed out that the circumstances of the South African writer and reader more or less guaranteed that even so-called chick lit would not be as trivial as the label might suggest: when Bridget Jones, she said, loses ten kilograms, it’s a cause of rejoicing to herself and her readers; when a South African protagonist loses ten kilograms, people think she’s got Aids. In other words, even given the upward social mobility that is reflected in both these novels, they still reflect a more troubled society than their overseas counterparts.

It was clear from the discussion that both writers, though themselves emancipated, highly articulate women, feel that the dice are still heavily loaded against women in South African society (as one audience member said, in a somewhat unfortunate formulation, a woman’s situation is still determined by what she’s prepared to swallow). Zukiswa quoted Tony Parsons’ statement “we are living in a matriarchy that is posing as a patriarchy to make the lads happy”. This suggests that although the real power lies with the women (Zukiswa pointed out that most of our breadwinners are women), keeping the lads happy is still the priority: “the street sweeper thinks it’s okay to hit on me while I’m talking on my BlackBerry.”

The task and instinct of the true feminist, she said, is to bring up boys that will turn into the kind of men that she would like other women to know. Her own “dick lit” novel, Men of the South, in fact examines South African masculinities from the point of view of various men who for different reasons do not conform to the standard notions of masculinity. This interestingly suggests that chick lit and dick lit are not necessarily two different genres, but complementary aspects of gender: “A conversation about the women in SA can’t be sustained without looking at the men.”

Cynthia took a more hopeful view of gender relations; her characters, she said, have the freedom to do what they want; hence the happy endings of the four related relationships in her novel. Zukiswa, on the other hand, sees happy endings as untrue to the way things are, at best a concession to publishing priorities. Although she maintains that her novels (in particular her first novel, The Madams) are not formulaic, there is thus then to this degree a certain pressure to conform to the expectations of her publishers and, presumably, readers.

As I’ve said, the session as a whole perhaps said more about gender than about genre; but then, chick lit is by definition a gendered genre. Hence the shortage of men in the audience. The lads, it seems, are happier talking to the lads.