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Did Irish author Anne Dunlop invent chick lit in the early 1990s?

Exploring women’s literature and the formation of identity leads us from AS Byatt and Anne Dunlop to Madonna and Judith Butler

Romance novels. Illustration: Getty Images/Cathal O'Gara
The early 1990s were an era of excellent fiction. Illustration: Getty Images/Cathal O'Gara

Women’s writing in the early 1990s got off to a good start with AS Byatt’s Booker-winning Possession: a Romance. Alternating between 19th-century poets and the 20th-century academics who are researching them, this formally innovative novel plays with genre, combining campus, epistolary, romance, detective, gothic, poetry and history to highly entertaining effect.

I came to Possession many years after its publication, and while it undoubtedly stands the test of time, it cannot compete with the afterlife of another, darker campus novel of the same era, The Secret History: 32 years on, Donna Tartt’s audacious debut turns out to have something of a cult following. Part of Dark Academia, a TikTok and Instagram subculture celebrating “traditional academic with a gothic edge”, fans perform readings, role-play, and other lit-adjacent activities. Tartt has described the novel as a “whydunnit”.

We know from the first page that someone has been murdered, and by whom: “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.” The novel is about how it happened, and for Richard Papen, the first-person narrator, “the only story I will ever be able to tell”. Richard’s obsession is reflected in Tartt’s maximalist approach, the novel coming in at some 500 pages, but the literary page-turner never feels excessively long. What struck me when I read it in 1992, and perhaps core to its status as modern gothic classic, was Tartt’s keen understanding of the dark side of group psychology. With echoes of Lord of the Flies, Tartt’s self-regarding liberal arts students isolate themselves from society to enact Bacchanalian rituals, during which they will be tested and ultimately found wanting.

Feminist philosopher Judith Butler. Photograph: Paco Freire/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

I have not done the rigorous research to prove it but for my money Anne Dunlop invented chick lit. Before Derry Girls, before Marian Keyes’s Watermelon, there was Helen Gordon in The Pineapple Tart. Helen and her sisters escape from their home in Northern Ireland for pastures new in Dublin, where the plan is to shift as many men as possible. It was one of the first of many books shared with me by T, my new pal from women’s studies, and we howled with recognition.

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We were delighted when Dunlop followed up with A Soft Touch and The Dolly Holiday the next year. I often wondered what happened to the author after the trilogy, as there did not appear to be any new novels. For this series, I found out that Dunlop stopped writing but, crucially, began again in more recent years. Apparently there is a long list of reads for us to catch up on, but I hesitate. It may be that these were books of their time, for readers of an age, and I would not want to spoil the memory.

The early 1990s were an era of excellent fiction, or it could be that it was when I “discovered” so many excellent women writers. Other favourites include Jazz by Toni Morrison, Annie Proulx’s 1994 Pulitzer winner The Shipping News; and two from Carol Shields, The Stone Diaries and The Republic of Love.

But what about the poets? I had turned to women’s studies hoping to find out why all the greats were men. Spoiler: they were not; the system was gamed. For one of my college classes, I conducted a gender count in our most esteemed poetry journal, Poetry Ireland Review, first published in 1948. For this series, nothing is too much trouble, and I trawled through boxes in the attic, strongly suspecting that I am the kind of person who keeps old essays for 30 years. It turns out I am; I found my secondary school prose copybook (“Is this country ripe for dictatorship?”, anyone?), but alas, the Poetry Ireland Review research could not be found, my findings lost to time. I may not have the exact statistics of women poets published relative to men but I can attest that they were dire. Even worse was the editorship: 12 men (with one holding the post twice) to just two women, one a co-editor.

The poetry scene was somewhat healthier across the water, with poets of the calibre of Carol Ann Duffy, Jackie Kay and Kathleen Jamie emerging to create a “new generation” of British poets.

As a small child, watching my mother cooking dinner, I wondered when I would have to trade my purple flares and runners for heels, tights and knee-length tweed skirt, already having intuited that the mechanisms were in place that would make it so, along with the life in the kitchen surrounded by children that went with the outfit.

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Judith Butler’s seminal 1990 text, Gender Trouble, revolutionised thinking about sex, sexuality and gender for me. Butler argues that gender is socially constructed and often performative, and that this is the basis on which gender norms can be protested: “It would be a mistake to come up with a single definition of what a woman is. It would be parochial. It would be coming from a very specific perspective. It would be freezing a time and place into a definition and then imposing it on the rest of the world.”

The theories in Gender Trouble have been challenged, and Butler has developed and clarified them since, but it was this book and its argument against essentialist ideas of woman as an innate, fixed category that gave me the language for my apprehensions. I wish I could go back in time and reassure my five-year-old self that there are many ways of being a woman.

Growing up in Kildare, I was not exposed to a lot of contemporary theatre, yet we went regularly to the Abbey Theatre. A trip to the Big Smoke was always welcome, but the plays we saw were dreary to child and teenaged me – O’Casey, Boucicault, Synge. “Stephen and Shawn, lost in the great wind… Sheamus and his father and his own father again… Micheal and Bartley… They’re all gone now, and there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me.” How I groaned. It was misery lit, up there with Peig and Padraig Pearse’s poetry. In years to come, my drama lecturer would home in on my blind spot and grade me accordingly, but he did nothing to change my mind about Irish theatre.

Then, in 1994, Marina Carr swept the cobwebs off the Abbey with The Mai, her first full-length play. It features Robert, a cellist returned to his family after years of gallivanting, who literally plays The Mai like a cello (in Carr’s text: “Now he plays the cello bow across her breasts” before they “exit hand in hand to the bedroom”); Millie, their daughter, who narrates her own story from the side of the stage; and The Mai, played by the magnificent Olwen Fouéré, struggling to cope with her doomed marriage. Sure, it was more tragic rural Ireland, but it was modern, and recognisable to this midlander, and told by women. It would be the first of Carr’s midlands plays, followed by Portia Coughlan in 1996 and By the Bog of Cats in 1998. Carr’s accolades include the Windham-Campbell Literature Award (2017) and an honorary doctorate from UCD, where she studied English as an undergraduate.

American author and editor Glenn O'Brien, Madonna, and photographer Steven Meisel at a party for Madonna's book, Sex, in New York, 1992. The book was edited by O'Brien, written by Madonna, and features photos by Meisel. Photograph: Sonia Moskowitz/Getty Images

I cannot leave the first half of the 1990s without mention of one of the bestselling books of the era. Sex by Madonna, aluminium-covered, sealed in polymer, and stamped with a warning label, featuring provocative, erotic photographs of the mononymous artist, sold more than 1.5 million copies. I was not a Madonna fan (a lapse in taste since rectified) and in any case my student budget would not have stretched to the $50 price tag (€100 in today’s money). I settled instead for the homespun Handy Sex Hints for Irish Girls by Cliodna O’Flynn, published by an imprint of Marino-Mercier, where I was interning. When my friend T and I were invited to get involved in promoting the book, we were all in. Putting on our best leopard-print fun fur, hot pants and fishnets, we headed into Lillie’s Bordello for the photo shoot. What larfs! That is, until we turned up, as bould as you like, in one of the national weekend papers, to the consternation of our respective grannies. At least it was not the Sunday World, mine conceded.

Paula McGrath is a novelist and assistant professor of creative writing at University College Dublin

Reading list

  1. The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992) – campus fiction at its best
  2. Possession: A Romance by AS Byatt (1990) – in which 19th-century poets and 1990s academics are lightly roasted
  3. The Pineapple Tart by Anne Dunlop (1992) – the sex lives of students, 1990s-Dublin style
  4. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity by Judith Butler (1990) – the title says it all
  5. The Mai (1999) by Marina Carr – as good to read as to watch
  6. Sex by Madonna (1992) – soft porn for your coffee table