Penguin has recently reissued a load of literary classics – Lolita, Great Expectations, that kind of thing – along with a few, more recent books in a new ‘Red Classics’ line, complete with colourful, glossy covers. When I found a display of them in Borders, I was pathetically thrilled and duly bought three for the price of two. In fact, so enamoured was I of this new packaging that I later went on to the Penguin website to see what other titles there were in this range.
It all seemed appealing, until I read the announcement that they plan soon to introduce some ‘women’s fiction’. By women’s fiction, they meant Jane Eyre, North and South, and all six of Jane Austen’s novels.
I know that saying this is likely to mark me out as some kind of militant feminist and maybe I oughtn’t to bother getting so annoyed, but really, I can’t think of anything more sexist, or demeaning, to both authors and readers. I accept that these are works more likely to be read by women than men, but that shouldn’t diminish their literary standing. These are some of the most popular and widely read books in the English language.
In 2003, both Emma and Jane Eyre made it into the top twenty of the Observer’s ‘100 Greatest Novels Of All Time’; in the same year, only The Lord of the Rings managed to beat Pride and Prejudice in the BBC’s ‘Big Read’, to find the nation’s best-loved book (and that was at the height of Tolkien mania, when the final instalment of the film trilogy was about to be released).
Nearly two centuries after her death, the affection for Jane Austen’s novels is still so great that there is going to be an ‘Austen season’ on television at some point this year, with fresh adaptations of four of her books. Meanwhile, in 2000, The Eyre Affair, which was about Jane Eyre and how treasured it is by the public, became an international bestseller. It was written by a man called Jasper Fforde.
While I don’t want to make sweeping generalizations, the fact remains that he loved Jane Eyre enough to devote an entire book to it, and that, in turn, suggests that Jane Eyre’s power may, just possibly, transcend gender barriers.
That’s not my point, though. The very idea of a thing called ‘women’s fiction’ is what drives me mad. What does the term even mean? That females are just fluffy creatures who like a nice dose of literary syrup from time to time? Of course, that’s what Austen and Charlotte Brontë boil down to, essentially. They don’t touch on any real issues, like proper authors do. No, they’re just the nineteenth century equivalent of ‘chick lit’ (don’t even get me started on the misogyny of that phrase). What self-respecting man would bother to read such trash?