I’m reading Us by David Nicholls at the moment – I’m about halfway through. It’s a good read, if a bit slow. It’s mildly, wryly funny. It’s quite sweet in parts. In short, it’s okay.
On the front of the edition I’m reading are quotes from its review in The Times, The Sunday Times and The Observer. On the back it proudly proclaims that it was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2014.
I’ve got to be honest, I don’t think it deserves those accolades. I think it’s a very nice, very safe, very readable romantic comedy. Just as One Day was. And I think if it had been written by a woman it would have been filed under chick lit and ignored.
The gender gap in literature is staggering. Fiction written by women is dismissed as being fluffy, insignificant, not of great worth – while that written by men is given much greater consideration. Commercial women’s fiction which, let’s not forget, is the stuff that sells, the stuff everyone wants to read, isn’t reviewed in the books section of The Times or The Observer.
There is nothing wrong with writing books that people want to read. It’s kind of the point. So why are women who do that, mocked or dismissed while men who do it lauded as heroes? The brilliant Jennifer Weiner calls this Franzenfreude (after bestselling author Jonathan Franzen, who’s become her nemesis) – the lauding of middle-aged, white, male novelists while female-focussed fiction by female writers is ignored.
If you trawl through the Amazon best-sellers list you have to get to number 38 before you hit anything that could be considered remotely literary fiction (and it’s Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, which has just been made into a film so does that still count?). Eight out of the top 10 books are written by women. Number 10 is written by my friend Holly Martin (that’s not relevant, I’m just proud). I’ve just been sent the latest Danielle Steel; the press release with it tells me she’s written more than 90 novels and sold 600 million copies of her books. Let’s just think about that for a minute – 600 MILLION BOOKS. That’s like 10 books for every person in Britain.
Reading Us I can’t help feeling that it must be one of a few commercially successful novels the broadsheet critics, and the Booker judges, have read. Of course they’re gushing about it because it’s really readable and it’s about normal people – like commercial fiction is. And they’ve not read enough commercial fiction to know that actually, Us is fairly run-of-the-mill. It’s not nearly as good as Me Before You by Jojo Moyes (about a young paraplegic man who wants to go to Dignitas to die), or The Mystery of Mercy Close by Marian Keyes (largely about depression and mental health but written with such heart and humour it’s an uplifting read). It doesn’t compare to Spare Brides by Adele Parks (covering the aftermath of the First World War) or Before I Met You by Lisa Jewell (all about inter-racial relationships in the 1920s). And why aren’t those critics and judges reading those books? Because they’re written by women. And that makes me very angry indeed.
What can we do to change this? I’d love to hear your thoughts…