Last week, author Polly Courtney received more mainstream media coverage than most women writers of commercial fiction ever get, when her attack on HarperCollins and the covers it had supplied for her books was featured in national newspapers from the Guardian to the Daily Mail.
After a three-book deal with HarperCollins’ commercial women’s fiction imprint Avon, Courtney is returning to self-publishing for her next novel. Orchestrated publicity stunt or otherwise, the public spat has once again called into question the way major publishers market writing by women.
When it comes to commerciality (and let’s face it, that’s the priority for publishers, especially with the industry in its current anxious state), genre fiction is the most straightforward, with a prescribed template in terms of target audience, advertising demographics and cover design.
And chick lit, equal parts loved and loathed as a label by readers and writers around the world, has become a catch-all term for commercial fiction written by women that can’t be classed as crime, romance or any of the other genres.
Courtney claims that her books were given "condescending and fluffy covers" that didn’t reflect their content, saying: "[My books] shouldn't be portrayed as chick lit. The implication with chick lit is that it's about a girl wanting to meet the man of her dreams. [My books] are about social issues."
While much has been made of the disconnect between content and cover design in the chick-lit market, is Courtney doing the genre a disservice with this dismissive attitude? Contributor to the literary website I edit, For Books' Sake, Jess Haigh thinks so, retaliating with an example: "[The cover of] Sophie Kinsella’s bestselling novel The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic is bright pink and covered in bags, but the story is of a young, independent journalist dealing with a serious debt problem; an incredibly important social issue in 2000 that many, many women were dealing with. Yes, she finds love at the end, but so does Elizabeth Bennet, heroine of the sixth favourite 'chick-lit' novel on the Goodreads reader-voted list."
While authors will continue to face frustrations when it comes to creative input into their books’ covers, publishers face their own frustrations with marketing fiction written by women, ones that may necessitate formulaic cover designs and simplistic marketing strategies. With last year’s VIDA stats showing that only about 25% of the books reviewed in mainstream media were by women authors, there’s more to this issue than chick-lit squabbling and snobbery: systemic sexism and gender stereotyping.
While pastel-coloured cartoon handbags may be shorthand signifiers to a certain audience when it comes to choosing their next read, they reinforce and perpetuate simplistic gender stereotypes. And for me, that’s the disturbing trend that should be at the centre of this debate.