By Polly Courtney
Some would say that an author’s decision to ditch her publisher over charges of sexism just as she needs publicity for her new novel are cynical. Having read It’s a Man’s World, in which shrewd capitalist nous rules, I can see why Polly Courtney did it. She’s a smart businesswoman. And while I don’t doubt her good feminist intentions, I cannot help but question her methods.
Everything Courtney said in the flurry of publicity surrounding the launch of It’s a Man’s World and her strategic unshackling from publisher HarperCollins was sound. She doesn’t have a problem with the existence of chick lit, she said, only that the line between it and the broad ‘genre’ of women’s fiction is blurring to the detriment of readers and authors. “My writing has been shoehorned into a place that’s not right for it,” she said. “It is commercial fiction, it is not literary, but the real issue I have is that it has been completely defined as women’s fiction… Yes it is page turning, no it’s not War and Peace. But it shouldn’t be portrayed as chick lit.” There are lots of things to unpack here, but the main one is her acknowledgement that her writing is commercial in its outlook. One has to be wary of an author who implies that she sits down at her desk and thinks how to tell a story that will sell rather than one that will move its readers. She’s admitting that her objective is money, not art. We should not be surprised by this: she graduated from a City career to one that combines commercial fiction with corporate consultancy. Moreover, her protagonist in It’s a Man’s World is charged with transforming a failing business into a profitable one. Alexa is incentivised to do that by her desire to succeed in the corporate arena and – just in case anyone doubted her capitalist credentials – a £20,000 bonus.
Courtney concentrates on exposing corporate sexism and the impact of sexism on its victims. The novel is effective at showing how people are hurt by sexism, and how seemingly innocent choices can create a sexist culture. Although many of her characters are walking clichés (the misogynistic pig, the clean-tidy-friendly gay man, the charming but characterless boyfriend, etc), Courtney manages to expose the injustice and hypocrisy of sexism. Alexa looks down on the office’s busty, giggly assistant Sienna, who turns out to be a classic Machiavellian using sex to climb socially and professionally. At least we feel from Courtney that this is wrong – not that Sienna chooses to behave promiscuously, but that she feels that society gives her no other option. But here’s Courtney’s hypocrisy: although Alexa disapproves of Sienna’s behaviour, she spends a lot of time fretting about her own appearance before important business meetings. In one early scene, Alexa even recognises the irony in her desire to look glamorous while wanting to be judged on her performance. Alexa is just another version of Sienna: using image to get ahead – less leopard-print, more Jimmy Choo.
So this is where Courtney falls down: she points out Sienna’s lack of choice, but is not brave enough to direct her protagonist to subvert it. Instead, the only character who does make a stand against this awful sexist situation is Georgie, the unattractive, aggressive feminist activist burdened by a man’s name. It seems that Courtney isn’t the only one with a shoehorn. Georgie is not motivated by appearance or money or status (as Alexa is); Georgie is focused on demolishing sexism. It’s most unfortunate that in Courtney’s world, Georgie is an outsider, portrayed as utterly different from Alexa and Sienna and every other woman who ‘just wants a career’. In Courtney’s world, it seems that Georgie will never be accepted. Although Alexa comes round to Georgie’s way of thinking, she can no longer operate in the phallocentric corporate world. She has to work for a small, non-profit organisation instead – a job offered to her in a honey-dripped Hollywood ending.
This brings us back to Courtney’s description of her work as commercial, and reveals a great deal about this writer. It appears that she is resigned to the fact that feminism and capitalism are incompatible. And her decision to write commercial fiction shows that while she has the interests of Alexa, Georgie and Sienna at heart, she just cannot bring herself to operate outside of money-dominated patriarchy. She wants to make money, not art.
It is true that capitalism and feminism are strange bedfellows. More than that, they are locked in epic battle. Make no bones about it: the reason for the persistence of sexism is capitalism. The reason why feminism became something only for the intellectual classes after the Seventies was because everyone else – including the liberated women – concentrated on making money instead. I don’t mean to say that they wanted money for the sake of it; everyone wants money for all sorts of different reasons – usually top is providing for one’s family at the basic level. The fact that Alexa has to be up to her nose in sexism before she’ll even acknowledge that it’s a hindrance shows just how diverting cash actually is. That sexism continues despite the various revolutions, in parallel to the onward march of capitalism, is no coincidence.
It’s why a feminist such as Courtney shies away from writing a book about Georgie (and humanising her away from a stereotype). The promise of cash would be much less than if she writes a book about Alexa, who wants to drink fine wine, look good, return a business to profitability and liberate the sisters before bedtime. Courtney’s novel admits that this cannot be achieved. Perhaps her departure from profit-hunting HarperCollins signifies a new path, new tactics and new objectives.