My Favorite Chick Lit Writer is Depressed and it Sucks

Don't let the dippy cover art fool you; Marian Keyes is a literary genius.

Jun 9, 2011 at 11:02am | Leave a comment

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I was going through a bad break-up (surprise!) when I bought my first Marian Keyes book. My life felt very heavy and I wanted something light and dippy to, if not completely pull me out of my funk, at least alleviate it for a few hours.

I found "Sushi for Beginners" in a row of similar books packaged unapologetically as chick lit with pastel bindings and silvery raised font. I don’t know why exactly, but I decided I needed it. I was embarrassed to buy it, the cover made me feel girly and stupid. Jesus, the title. Maybe I could pretend I was a grad student and it was research for something.

As I waited to checkout I prayed that I would get the frumpy-looking woman as a cashier and not the attractive judgy-looking guy with the glasses. No such luck. I got the guy and gave a slight eye-roll at my own purchase as he scanned it. “It’s for my agentic onto-formative studies course.”

I soon recovered from my shame and happily sat outside with a Popsicle and my new book. Marian Keye's writing wasn’t stupid at all. It was insightful and endearing and funny and raw. Her characters were like my friends, in turn tough, hilarious and brimming with insecurities. That book made me feel connected to the world again. When I finished it I wanted more.

I remember thinking as I read, that if someone like Jonathan Franzen -- whose weighty tomes contain similar post-modern angst and familial struggle --  had written "Sushi for Beginners," it would be considered literature and be called something weighty. Like "Freedom." Instead, Keyes is relegated to the pink shelves.

Not that she probably minds much. In 2006, Zadie Smith, officially a literary heavyweight, called Keyes "one of the most important feminists" in modern writing. In an open letter to Keyes she wrote, "Whether or not you fancy the label 'feminist', I think you're one of the more important ones, because you have a massive audience -- much bigger than mine."

Her stories about women dealing with depression, addiction, abusive relationships and run-of-the-mill low self-esteem are suffused with humor and empathy. Most importantly, Keyes never makes women feel guilty or ugly or shallow or stupid. What she does, at least in my case, is make me feel more connected to other women.

I’ve read everything she's written. I no longer care if the covers look stupid. It’s what’s on the inside that counts, right? I might as well just embrace what I like book-wise. (I went on a few dates with the bookstore glasses guy by the way. Turns out he doesn’t even read. Not since Dune in high school, so there you go.)

After a two-year break with no new Keyes to read, "The Brightest Star in the Sky" came out in November 2009, but by this time she had updated her newsletter to tell readers she was "laid low with crippling depression" and was already out of commission.

Once every few weeks, I look at her website and Google her to see if there is news -- if she has begun to write again, or is baking more cakes, something she had started doing to try to pull herself out of her funk, much as I used her writing to pull me from mine. I know it is silly, but in my mind I've tied her recovery to my faith in other things, because if Marian Keyes, a famously inspiring survivor -- she overcame alcoholism to begin her writing career at 30 -- wants to die, the world we live in is somehow sadder for me too.

Look at this woman! I love her!

I deeply hope she recovers. In the meantime, I don’t know what to buy that will fill the Keyes-shaped void on my bookshelf. I tried to read some of the other pastel, puffy-lettered crap on the shelves surrounding her books and it was bad. Painfully, depressingly bad. Like it was written by a man pretending to be a 12 year-old girl pretending to be a pony pretending to be a woman.

Any ideas? Are there any other women writers who you feel have gotten the shaft when it comes to the seriousness with which people view their writing?