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About this book

Imelda Whelehan provides an overview of popular women's writing from the late 1960s to the present, looking at how key feminist texts such as The Women's Room, Kinflicks and Fear of Flying have influenced popular contemporary fiction such as Bridget Jones' Diary and Sex and the City. Whelehan reconsiders the links between the politics of feminist thought, action and writing and creative writing over the past 30 years and suggests that even so-called 'post feminist' writing owes an enormous debt to feminism's second wave.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Introduction

Abstract
I have been wanting to write a book about feminist bestsellers for years. In fact, when my PhD was nearing completion and I had my first meeting with an academic publisher, I pitched two proposals — one on Second Wave thought and one on the relationship between the Women’s Movement and novels such as Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (1973), Lisa Alther’s Kinflicks (1976), and Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room (1977). The publisher plumped for the first proposal,1 which was probably very sensible since at the time I had no clear overall plan for the other project; just a sense that these writers were engaging in a dialogue with the Women’s Movement without getting much of a response. There was little work on these writers at the time (the early 1990s) and feminist critics were only really beginning to take a broad interest in popular women’s fiction at all. By the time I finished my first book, other, more achievable, projects came along and the original proposal lay in its buff folder until the turn of the new century. By then other critics had written on this and related topics and in writing this book I am grateful to be able to draw on the assiduous research and insightful thinking of Maria Lauret and Lisa Maria Hogeland, who both produced books covering many of the issues which had sparked my interest in this topic, not to mention other critics, such as Maroula Joannou, Gayle Greene, and Lorna Sage, whose work was also of direct relevance to me. Collectively their work allows me to move the debate forwards in a new direction, since there is certainly no need to write a book which covers much of the same ground.
Imelda Whelehan

The Second Wave

Frontmatter

1. Sex and the Single Girl

Abstract
Before I embark upon an evaluation of the emergence of Second Wave feminism and consider the relationship of feminist bestsellers to feminist politics, it is worth considering the legacy of some earlier works of popular fiction and non-fiction which give some insight into an informal ‘tradition’ that later women writers draw upon. As shocking as some of the material in the feminist bestsellers was, it is apparent that they were able to follow the success of earlier women writers whose work similarly caused consternation in its time, but was devoured hungrily — especially by women readers. These books are remembered mainly for being scandalous — usually for elements of sexual explicitness in their content — but looking back, they are inevitably a commentary on their time, containing some profound insights into women’s lives. It is reasonable to assume that the act of reading these texts might have been found liberating if these books were able to confirm personal insights normally concealed or obscured in the more sedate literary publications of the time. These kinds of books were sometimes banned and were always censured for their immoral content; yet it is certain that even where they were disapproved of, they were passed between friends and perhaps more clandestinely by girls who might use these novels to try to obtain insights reserved for married women.
Imelda Whelehan

2. Burnt Offerings: The Emergence of Radical Feminism

Abstract
This chapter will concentrate on the early years of radical feminism in Britain and Europe from 1967 to around 1975. It wasn’t that Second Wave feminism died in 1975 — in many ways it was just getting really established and becoming rooted in the popular consciousness and in academe — yet, nonetheless, the heady period of activism was on the wane and intra-feminist groupings were becoming more clearly demarcated than they had been. One chapter alone could not do justice to the history of radical feminism, even over these eight years; instead I intend to focus on what brought feminists together from other political movements and what they sought from a new kind of politics. The intention is to set up a context in which the fiction discussed in the following three chapters can be placed, and also to give a vivid enough snap-shot of early Second Wave feminism even for those new to the topic. Second Wave feminism, as will rapidly become clear, emerged from the energies of small groups of women disaffected with their male peers in civil rights and New Left movements; the early writings are exploratory, often full of anger and incredibly bold in their identifications of the world’s wrongs.
Imelda Whelehan

3. Mad Housewives

Abstract
The novels that began to appear around the time the Women’s Liberation Movement emerged are testament to the attractions of feminist thought for a wide range of women. Fiction allows for the luxury of experimentation and can give voice to taboos and contradictions, and these writers, some card-carrying feminists (in the sense that they concerned themselves with the political agenda of Women’s Liberation), were able to depict scenarios familiar to their readers, but which perhaps had never been articulated in words before. The life stories which are the staple of these feminist bestsellers tantalized the readers with the promise of the kind of deep dark revelations of autobiography. In these popular novels we find evidence of the twin pulls of Friedan’s call for a new individual self-determination and a utopian wish for collective action resulting in massive social change. Whether or not the writers were feminists, the themes chimed with the feminist debates being held on both sides of the Atlantic. Quite often these novels included an account of each stage of a woman’s life, from adolescence through to motherhood, and these shared thematic concerns revealed a recognition that the indoctrination of women into the ways of femininity runs deep.
Imelda Whelehan

4. Women’s Spaces: Marilyn French, Erica Jong and Marge Piercy

Abstract
The developing Women’s Movement confirmed that house-work was drudgery and politicized the perceived relationship of women with the home. The ‘mad housewife’ novels also contributed to this changing and radical response to house-work and were better suited to chart the ways in which the housewife felt oppressed — especially since the source of their oppression had up to this point seemed invisible, because there was no language in which to describe it. The consciousness-raising novels of the mid-1970s were to show further how women’s domestic identity allowed for no creativity or sense of self. Ann Oakley’s analysis of domestic labour in Housewife (1974) crystallizes these views and demonstrates, ‘“House-wife” is a political label after all, a shorthand symbol for the convenience to a male-oriented society of women’s continued captivity in a world of domestic affairs — a one-word reference to those myths of woman’s place which chart their presence in the home as a natural and universal necessity’ (Oakley 1974: 240). Having rejected the naturalness of the association between women and housework once and for all, women writers were concerned with the means by which the authentic female self could be constructed beyond this sphere.
Imelda Whelehan

5. Forbidden Fruit: Sexuality

Abstract
I have already noted that the consciousness-raising novels were often seen derogatively as owing more to ideas generated by the Sexual Revolution than the feminist movement, and when it came to the massive success of writers like Erica Jong it was assumed that the titillating content of her work drew in the mass readership, rather than any new insights she may have had on feminism and contemporary relationships. Novels such as Fear of Flying were launched more noisily than the mad housewife novels at the turn of the decade; whatever Jong’s feminist or writerly credentials, Fear of Flying was also being aggressively marketed for its ‘sex appeal’. Lisa Alther’s Kinflicks was similarly marketed as a sexually explicit exploration of female desire and, given the huge success of Fear of Flying, it was inevitable that Alther’s novel would be branded similarly and that the publishers would be attempting the twin aim of marketing the novel both as a ‘woman’s book’ (a category feminism had made most lucrative for mainstream publishing) and one which could be read by both sexes as a thrilling take on the new sexual freedoms available to young people.
Imelda Whelehan

‘Post-feminism’ and Third Wave Feminism

Frontmatter

6. Crashing of the Superwoman: The 1980s

Abstract
Feminism didn’t invent the career woman, yet moving into the 1980s it is surprising that the term didn’t become enriched with more positive indications that the status of women in the workplace was changing or that women’s rights were increasingly protected by feminist-informed social policies. Sadly, the clear tension between the two words — after all, one doesn’t talk about career men — said it all. Women with careers would continue to be seen as oddities, and by the late 1980s they were often portrayed as selfishly putting their own needs before that of their family. There would be no straightforward way for women to gain access to the top of their professions without the perception that their success had cost them dear in personal terms. Thinking back to Helen Gurley Brown and her manifesto for the working woman in Sex and the Single Girl in addition to the emergence of career-oriented women in more significant numbers after the Second World War, it is clear that the career woman is a product of women’s increased access to education, a buoyant post-war economy, and a changing ideology of femininity, not to mention less consensus about what is or isn’t expected of women.
Imelda Whelehan

7. Where Have All the Feminists Gone? The Anxiety of Affluence

Abstract
In Fay Weldon’s Big Women (1997), a novel about the fortunes of Medusa, a feminist publishing house, and its founder members, Saffron — the daughter of one of the feminist friends of these ‘big women’ — tries to find out who is responsible for her mother’s suicide when she was a child. She wavers between blaming her father, who burned some of her mother’s manuscript even though it had been accepted by Medusa (a fact he didn’t communicate to his wife), and the feminists at Medusa, whom she regards as having indoctrinated her mother Zoe with theories which made her unable to continue her domestic life at all.
Imelda Whelehan

8. Hooray for the Singletons!

Abstract
On 19 February 2003, the Radio 4 literary quiz The Write Stuff ended with a round where the contestants were asked to produce a pastiche of Virginia Woolf writing chick lit. The fact that the contestants were able to reproduce the ‘formula’, and that the audience clearly enjoyed the recognition of certain features of both the Woolfian sentence and the chick litters’ world as one populated by ‘things’, suggests that chick lit has arrived, if only on the borders of the literary. Its appearance alongside Virginia Woolf on a literary quiz throws up a lively tension between the high and low in women’s writing and is testimony to the massive success of the genre. Though Woolf might not have had such novels in mind when, in A Room of One’s Own (1929), she urged a new generation of women to write ‘all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast’ (Woolf 1977: 103), chick lit novelists are producing some of the most commercially successful women’s writing of the past decade and they do possess the material wealth and the space to write their fiction unhampered. The most successful of these writers and the one who has come to define chick lit is Helen Fielding, whose second novel Bridget Jones’s Diary became an astonishing publishing success. By the time a film adaptation was made in 2001, the novel had sold in excess of eight million copies and had been translated into over thirty-three languages. Its significance moves far beyond the context of bestselling fiction and Bridget Jones the character is notorious as the definitive single girl, summoned to represent the choices facing young women today.
Imelda Whelehan

9. Urban Sex

Abstract
In the previous chapter, my main aim was to propose that while Bridget Jones’s Diary came to be regarded as the defining chick lit novel, there were precursors which demonstrated that Fielding had merely tapped a nerve with her own writing which already existed. What emerged from Fielding’s success was a more general tendency for young women to write popular fiction which stuck very closely to the conditions of their own lives and adopted a confessional tone of narration — first person, diaries, emails, or a mixture of all of these. Links to Bridget Jones remain in the work of chick litters moving into the millennium, but their work has also grown up and diversified, suggesting that if in the reception of Bridget Jones’s Diary a ‘genre’ was identified, newer writers coming into the marketplace sought to expand it and incorporate wider aspects of female (and male) experience. In addition, whereas original chick lit writers (and readers) were in their twenties and thirties during the mid-1990s, many are now creeping into their thirties and forties, and the generational specificity of original chick lit is starting to broaden and blur.
Imelda Whelehan

Conclusion

Abstract
Jenny Colgan, one of the most vocal defenders of chick lit and its writers, argued at the 2003 Edinburgh Book Festival that the term chick lit is being used as a catch-all category to embrace a certain kind of popular literature which can then be casually dismissed. She is particularly caustic about ‘hairy legged’ critics, whom she sees as leading the vanguard of this trivialization of the fiction (Gibbons 2003), while she seems to ignore the machinations of publishers who brand and homogenize such work by the use of packaging and marketing. It is fascinating that a young woman so conscious of the negative effects of over-generalized categorization should resort to one of the most well-known put-downs against feminism — second only to ‘bra-burner’ — used over the past thirty-five years. She need not use the word feminism in her riposte: it is enough to call these critics ‘hairy legged’ for every general reader to be aware that Colgan is talking about feminism and that, furthermore, feminists represent a legion of women devoid of true femininity and hostile to ordinary young women who want to live their own lives. It may be that chick lit is used frequently as a term for dismissing any possible literary worth in a text which deals with the intimate life of a young urban professional single woman, but it is also the case that Colgan herself was all for willingly embracing this term on the grounds that the writers sold under this category knew what they were writing, who they were writing for, and what the genre’s limitations were in cultural terms. The colourful covers featuring line drawings of a martini glass, a shoe, or a handbag are as recognizable in identifying this clutch of novels as is the Mills & Boon rose.
Imelda Whelehan
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