I have invented a new literary category, chic lit, to describe all the books written by elite females (Lena Dunham, Caitlin Moran, Elizabeth Day, Dolly Alderton, Sally Rooney, ad infinitum) for elite females. If you’re not one and can’t stand any of them, god help you. Their books will be forced on you anyway. Publishers can’t hear you scream. There is no metric for books kicked around living rooms or dumped in charity shops. Sally Rooney’s Normal People, for instance, is the worst novel I’ve ever finished. I had to. I was that appalled.
According to Fleabag star Phoebe Waller-Bridge, all a woman wants nowadays is ‘someone to tell me what to eat, what to like, what to hate, what to rage about, what to listen to, what band to like, what to buy tickets for, what to joke about, what not to joke about… what to believe in, who to vote for, and who to love, and how to tell them’. Add to that, and most important: what to read. For highbrow status, the Booker Prize shortlist (out now) will do the job, but to be a woman really worth contending with, you must have waded through the chic lit canon.
The American website Vox explains: ‘It is now aspirational to be the kind of person who has read Sally Rooney. She is a signifier of a certain kind of literary chic: if you read Sally Rooney… you’re smart, but you’re also fun — and you’re also cool enough to be suspicious of both “smart” and “fun” as general concepts.’
Normal People, Rooney’s second novel, has sold two million copies and counting, making it the finest example of chic lit on the market. It appeared on GQ’s ‘30 Fail-Safe Gifts for Her’ and is loved by all whom Patrick Bateman would want to kill. Even Taylor Swift lent her celebrity endorsement before she started flogging her own cardigans.
I’d let this go if Rooney weren’t compared with James Joyce while composing sentences such as ‘her mouth tasted dark like wine’, ‘her mouth tasted sour like tequila’ and ‘her mouth tasted alkaline like toothpaste’. Her books are not good books. And leftist as they are, feminist as they claim to be, the plot of Normal People is clearly an exercise in class fetishism for anyone whose mother employs a cleaner. In the Hill household, we do our own damn scrubbing.
I can’t be the only one who finds this situation sinister, not to mention deeply traumatic for lovers of actual literature. As Rod Liddle has complained: ‘As a kid growing up on Teesside, my two great escapes from what, sullenly, I considered the suffocating boredom and orthodoxy of my surroundings were Fearnley’s record shop on Linthorpe Road and a bookshop in Redcar which sold both secondhand and new volumes. I read everything I could, never pausing to wonder if the book I had just bought — a biography of Mussolini, Updike’s Couples, Turgenev’s First Love, Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, Left Book Club stuff from the 1930s by Spender or Zilliacus, poems by Yevtushenko — accorded with my own political beliefs. And so I got a rounded view of the world.’
#MeToo, as we girls say these days. But the fiction in bookshops is now in a wretched state. And anyway, a girl is no longer free to find her own way — to be educated by surprise. Everything is curated or recommended by people already indoctrinated into the chic lit cult. Before she sashayed off to head up her own imprint at Hogarth, Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker was instructing members of the American Library Association what to borrow. On googling her ‘picks’, I found her verdict on Rooney’s Conversations with Friends: ‘This book. This book. I read it in one day. I hear I’m not alone.’ If that is her definition of a ‘good’ book, where — I howl — can I find all the books she wouldn’t be seen dead with? You can read these books in one day not because they’re brilliant, or because you’re brilliant, but because they’re undemanding. This then is the real marketing genius: to have persuaded the public that high-end airport fiction is in fact a masterpiece.
The memoir and cultural essay section may be classed as chic lit too, for it also belongs to the mimsy of the middle classes. Every hack hopes to land her own deal some day, so no one — save me — is so suicidal as to start slagging off Elizabeth Day.
Nor can you trust the prizes. Often, the purveyors of chic lit become so celebrated they are promoted to the committees that dole out the awards. But how can any of the people on these panels judge when their own books are so pedestrian? Does anyone seriously think a Booker panel would identify a Jane Austen (having failed to finger Muriel Spark) if last year its crack team couldn’t decide between a black female author who dispensed with both capitals and punctuation and Margaret Atwood, patron saint of the pink pussyhat brigade?
Books are now status symbols: souvenirs for suntanned selfies. Holidaying in a snow-bound hotel? ‘Here’s Sally…!’ At Christmas, the Waterstones Book of the Year functions like a product upgrade on a pair of socks.
The elite in society used to indicate their exalted position by buying silver spoons, wearing corsets and renting pineapples. But conspicuous consumption is déclassé compared with the ‘inconspicuous’ kind. This is why Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race soared to the top of the bestseller lists at a time when ‘gammons’ in Nuneaton were forming a protective ring around a statue of George Eliot. Because who wouldn’t want to invest in a title that proclaims that the whole of society is ignorant and racist but, behold, I am the exception that proves the rule. Thanks to chic lit, we can all be judged by our book covers.
spectator.co.uk/podcast - Emily Hill and the Times’s deputy books editor James Marriott on chic lit.