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Thursday, 23 August, 2001, 07:21 GMT 08:21 UK
Female fiction 'dumbs down'
Rene Zellwegger in Bridget Jones's Diary, the film adapted from the successful Helen Fielding novel
Has chick lit reached the end of the line?
By arts correspondent Rebecca Jones

Women are spoilt for choice. Go into any bookshop and there will be a pile of paperbacks, written by women, about women, who are invariably searching - for men.

Among those on offer is a sweeping tale of love between cousins on an Argentinian ranch.

As people spend so little time reading it's a pity they perhaps can't read something a bit deeper

Beryl Bainbridge
Another is about a frustrated florist whose life "isn't coming up roses" and yet another promises to be "an eye-wetting read" about a smart single girl.

Women buy more books than men and the publishing world is falling over itself to sell them what's become known as "chick-lit".

But a literary row is brewing. The novelist Beryl Bainbridge has dismissed chick-lit as "a waste of time, this froth sort of thing".

Author Doris Lessing
Doris Lessing is not a fan of literary dumbing down
Beryl Bainbridge is one of the most influential writers of her generation, and is favourite to win this year's Booker Prize.

On Friday she will be speaking at the Edinburgh Book Festival, discussing her new novel According to Queeney, about the last years of Dr Johnson. She despairs of literary dumbing down.

"As people spend so little time reading it's a pity they perhaps can't read something a bit deeper, a bit more profound, something with a bit of bite to it," she says.

The writer and feminist icon Doris Lessing agrees. And she cannot understand why women want to write what she calls instantly forgettable, poor literature.

"It's a pity that so many young women are trying to write that," she says. "I wonder if they're just writing like this because they think they're going to get published?

Helen Fielding attended the London premiéré of Bridget Jones's Diary
Helen Fielding thinks critics miss the point
"It would be better perhaps if they wrote books about their lives as they really saw them, and not these helpless girls, drunk and worrying about their weight."

The godmother of the genre is arguably Helen Fielding, who created Bridget Jones's Diary - about a single girl's struggles with sex and slimming. It has sold more than 1.5 million copies.

It's all the muck in the middle I mind - I hate anything that's middle brow

Jeanette Winterson
Helen Fielding thinks critics of Bridget Jones have missed the point: the book is not meant to be taken seriously.

"It's good for women to be able to be funny about women and not to be afraid to be funny," she says.

"Sometimes I've had people getting their knickers in a twist about Bridget Jones being a disgrace to feminism and so on.

"But the point is, it's good to be able to represent women as they actually are in the age you're living when you're a writer."

Feminist author Jeanette Winterson
Jeanette Winterson' loves Bridget Jones's Diary
But if Bridget Jones, and the hundreds of pale imitiations she has spawned, merely hold a mirror up to women's lives, they will never expand horizons or stretch intellects in the way serious literary fiction can.

Surprisingly perhaps, the writer and feminist Jeannette Winterson, does not think that matters.

"Look, I'm unashamedly high art, there is such a thing and we need it in our lives," she says.

"But I also like entertainment. I have no problem with chick lit, I love Bridget Jones's Diary, it's just great.

"It's all the muck in the middle I mind. I hate anything that's middle brow. Let's have art or let's have entertainment."

And Pat Barker, a former winner of the Booker Prize says that type of entertainment is just a phase - ultimately it is something readers should grow out of.

"I think chick lit and lad lit are to do with age," she says. "I think young people, because they have an insecure sense of their own identity love reading books which confirm that identity, which mirror their lifestyle choices back to them.

"I think as people get older they need that from their reading less and less - most of us end up much broader-minded about what it is we're prepared to read."

See also:

10 May 99 | Entertainment
Writers slated for 'Bridget Jones' novels
15 Aug 01 | Arts
Bainbridge is Booker favourite
04 Apr 01 | Film
Men, women and Bridget Jones
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