Speaking at this week’s Bath Literature Festival, David Nicholls gave an interesting response to a cheeky question about chick lit, commercial vs literary writing and whether some women novelists miss out on critical acclaim. Here’s the transcript of that part of the conversation:
Me: I want to ask you a slightly mean question. It’s a question about your work which really has nothing to do with you. But I’m very interested to know your views on it. And it’s this: There are a lot of women novelists who feel very overlooked and would love to have your success and who think that if you were “Davina Nicholls” you would not have had the success that you’ve had.
So I’m not sure how you’re supposed to answer that. But I wonder… Seeing that Us was Booker-longlisted and I was very sorry that it didn’t make the Booker shortlist and I felt strongly that it should have done… There are a lot of women writers who would say that there is no way that if a love story like that had been written by a woman that it would be on the Booker longlist. And it would be called chick lit.
DAVID NICHOLLS: I’m torn. The first thing to say is to say that Karen Joy Fowler was shortlisted for the Booker and that is a family drama. But at the same time I don’t want to disagree that there’s a kind of snobbery about books that are about love and relationships and family. I mean, I think that is absolutely the case. I think there are exceptions like Anne Tyler who writes about family relationships and is absolutely critically acclaimed. And AM Homes or Lorrie Moore. They are all writing books that are about relationships and family…
Me: They are all American…
DN: Yes, that’s true. I suppose the distinction is between literary and popular and where you fall on that scale. I suppose the reason… I mean, I haven’t dodged this issue… But I’m perhaps not the best person to answer this because I’m not the best judge of where I fall on that scale. And I think it’s very unhealthy for writers to try and place themselves on that scale.
I certainly think there are a lot of great authors. I mean, the writing of Marian Keyes… If you read the books — which I have — they’re absolutely tough. About mental illness and depression and drug abuse. Or someone like Jojo Moyes — a brilliant writer and books that are discreetly but absolutely political. So I would be inclined to agree [that women are overlooked].
But for me this gets difficult. Because I have read articles that seem to say that I am fantastically over-rated. [Extensive audience laughter]. Which might be true. But it’s not necessarily something that I want to be told. [More laughter.]
I just want to say that, yes, they have a point [that women can be overlooked].
Me: I think that’s a very sensible answer.
DN: I don’t think I have answered it. But I wanted to try and answer it because I think there’s a lot to be said. But it involves classifying and rating myself in a way that would be ridiculous.
Me: It’s not your fight.
DN: No. But a lot of the writers we’re talking about are friends of mine so I’m trying to be bold.
More on this exchange here.