The critic Daniel Mendelsohn has argued that the first role of the critic is to self-criticise. A critic’s choice of words is very revealing about the extent to which they have appraised their own values in the course of reviewing a book.
Like many fellow readers, I have been eagerly awaiting the release of Charlotte Wood’s new book The Weekend. In following the press surrounding its release, I was very disappointed to read a review in the Guardian by Susan Wyndham that stated:
Behind the laughs there is deep humanity, intellect and spirituality, qualities that mark The Weekend as much more than old-chook lit.
What exactly is old-chook lit? Is it a genre of novels about older women for older women? Because if it is, what exactly is the problem? Older women do exist and deserve to be written about. The implication in this phrase that novels featuring older women should just be read by women only perpetuates their social and literary marginalisation. This feeds into the broader problem of the dearth of literature that portrays older people, not just older women, as complex human beings in their own right, as Ceridwen Dovey has detailed in the New Yorker.
There have been flare-ups of the discussion about the invisibility of older women for as long as I can remember. Initially Wyndham’s review put me in mind of this debate. Women are constantly struggling to be seen and heard on their own terms, rather than on terms dictated by or in relation to men. So this seemingly knee-jerk characterisation of work dealing with women’s experiences as frivolous struck me as deeply problematic. It is also surprisingly out of tune with our current social context, in which the Stella and VIDA counts lay bare the gender disparity in publishing and reviewing, and the physical appearances of women writers, rather than their work, still become the subject of so-called reviews.
Further still, there is a heavy dose of irony in the use of this phrase, as Wood’s novel explores key issues around women and aging, such as financial security, the aging body, and the way older women are treated by their families and by society (see Sophia Barnes’ review in the Sydney Review of Books). Wyndham acknowledges this, writing ‘Ageism is another face of sexism: older women are shut out of work, love and financial security; men are still dominant, and now young people are patronising.’ Given this, it is even more odd that she thought it appropriate to use the phrase ‘old chook lit.’
Perhaps Wyndham was attempting, in a clunky way, to draw a distinction between popular and literary fiction. Old chook-lit falls into popular fiction, Wood’s work into the literary category. However this is also problematic, particularly because literary value has a long-held association with male writing, a connection evident as soon as we ask ourselves who gets to decide what has literary value and which writers can enter the canon.
The ANU Academic Julieanne Lamond wrote a wonderful article in the Sydney Review of Books earlier this year that teases out these questions. She traces the rise of the novel as a form, and argues that it started to be regarded as serious, rather than just entertainment, when more men started writing novels. Our idea of the canon, she argues, is shaped significantly by modernism which ‘formed itself in opposition to a notion of feminised, rapacious, disastrous popular culture. Especially popular fiction.’
Emily Maguire has also written about encountering the literary canon when she commenced university education at the age of twenty four:
When I got to uni I read a lot of amazing books I never would have come across otherwise, and I’m forever grateful for that. But I also got infected with this idea of the canon, and the associated conviction that books outside the canon are fine for a certain kind of person – but not for serious readers. Definitely not for serious writers, which is what I wanted to be.
Also, most of the books in the canon were by men. Most of them white. Many of them dead before I was born. And hey, what do you know, it turns out most of the fine-for-a-certain-kind-of-person books – the kind I’d read – were by people who didn’t fit those categories.
So the canon tells us that literature equals greatness equals men, while popular fiction equals inferiority equals women. Lamond argues further that this ‘deeply held association between masculinity and literary value’ makes it ‘easier for a work by a man to cross the line between the popular and the literary than it is for a work by a woman.’
To bolster this claim, Lamond looks at two categories of popular fiction: romance and crime. She asserts that crime fiction, a commercially successful genre, is granted more literary validity because it is dominated by men, while romance is ‘has to keep in its corner. If it’s lucky, it gets released into a bigger corner: variously described but most recently by publishers as ‘commercial fiction’, which is also feminised, also sequestered from the literary.’
Which brings us back to ‘old-chook lit.’ Granted, in a bookshop you are more likely to find Charlotte Wood’s books in the literary fiction section rather than general fiction, but taking this distinction for granted, rather than engaging with the substance of Wood’s work, is a disservice to both the author and the reading public. Critique the representation of women in a novel if it is shallow or the characters are one dimensional in a way that it reveals the author’s sexism or internalised misogyny. But don’t sideline books just because they focus on women.