Three Cheers for Bitch Lit: A Fictional Top Ten

In 2013, American novelist Meg Wolitzer commented that ‘One thing I’ve noticed that’s a kind of disturbing trend is fiction about and by women who the reader is meant to feel ‘comfortable’ around – what I call slumber party fiction – as though the characters are stand-ins for your best friends.’ I know exactly what she means (although there ought to be novels to suit every mood and surely we all need our ‘comfort reads’ at times?) but, thinking about all of my favourite books, I realise that for every Jo March, Elizabeth Bennet or Flora Poste there are at least a half-a-dozen female characters who wouldn’t be anybody’s best friend (assuming, that is, that they knew as much about them as the reader does). In trying to compile this ‘top ten’ list, I found that I was spoiled for choice –  Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind, Catherine Earnshaw from Wuthering Heights, Bertha Dorset from The House of Mirth, Cordelia from Cat’s Eye and Edith Stoner from Stoner are just a handful of those who didn’t quite make the cut, and there were plenty of others.

All of the women on this list are physically beautiful. Their faces, however, are not the indexes of their souls… And – surprisingly, perhaps, given the time at which the various novels were written – not all of them come to bad ends.


=10. Faye Greener from The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West, 1939 and Netta Longden from Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton, 1941

A pneumatic 17-year-old blonde, Faye, a would-be Hollywood starlet with no real acting ability, is manipulative and sadistic. All artifice, with little or no empathy, she is cut from the same cloth as the beautiful but callous aspiring actress Netta in Hamilton’s frowsty masterpiece of British Noir.


  1. Brenda Last from A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh, 1934

Regularly cited as one of the worst mothers in literature, adulterous Brenda, when told of the death of ‘John’, first believes that the deceased is her lover, then expresses relief on discovering that it is, in fact, her young son. Shock can, of course, make people behave in strange ways, but this would seem to be taking things a bit too far…


  1. Pamela Flitton in A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell (12 volumes, 1951-1975)

A sadistic beauty with a long list of conquests and a positive zeal for humiliating people, cold-hearted Pamela takes pleasure in first undermining, then destroying, any man with whom she is involved.


  1. Daisy Buchanan from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925

Selfish, shallow, snobbish and cushioned by her wealth, Daisy, who is presented as ethereally gorgeous and routinely linked by the author with the colour white (dress, flowers, car, etc) for its associations with purity and innocence is, in fact, a one-woman moral vacuum, who kills her (equally horrible) husband’s mistress in a hit-and-run.


  1. Helen Grayle/Velma Valento from Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler, 1940

Chandler had a habit of writing unpleasant female characters (Carmen Sternwood, Orfamay Quest, etc), and in most (if not all) of his novels, the killer turns out to be a woman. Helen Grayle, however, the ‘blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window,’ seems to me the worst of the lot. Calculating and unscrupulous, she has no hesitation in killing to protect her interests.


  1. Becky Sharpe from Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, 1847

An impoverished orphan who becomes a ruthless social-climber, Becky exploits everyone within range in order to claw her way to an opulent lifestyle. She’s a rotten mother, and Thackeray hints at murder, too – that of Jos Sedley, brother of her naive friend Amelia, who mysteriously dies after Becky has gained possession of his money.


  1. The Marquise de Merteuil from Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, 1782

Like Pamela Flitton, the scheming Marquise enjoys mortifying and degrading others, but the targets for her malice are female. She gets revenge on an ex-lover by ruining his virginal fiancée with the help of the equally unscrupulous Vicomte de Valmont, who she aids in his seduction (and destruction) of the virtuous Madame de Tourvel.


  1. Phyllis Nirdlinger from Double Indemnity by James M. Cain, 1943

Femme fatale Phyllis seduces Walter Huff and gets him to assist her in killing her husband for the insurance money, in a plot that is thought to be based on the case of Ruth Brown Snyder, who, in 1925, persuaded her lover to help kill her husband, having first persuaded him to insure his life.


  1. Rebecca de Winter from Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, 1938

Although dead, the eponymous Rebecca, with the aid of her living familiar, Mrs Danvers, dominates this novel. This peerless hostess and apparently devoted wife was actually a compulsive liar and an adulteress who flaunted her affairs in front of her husband, then goaded him into killing her when she discovered that she was dying of cancer.


  1. Cathy Ames from East of Eden by John Steinbeck, 1952

Delicately beautiful Cathy drives one of her teachers to suicide; burns down her family home, killing her parents and shoots and wounds her husband when he tries to stop her deserting her twin baby sons. She then kills the madame of a whorehouse in order to take it over – then she gives the girls drugs, caters for the most depraved tastes, and blackmails the clients afterwards. Described by her creator as a ‘psychic monster’ with a ‘malformed soul’, she is as thoroughly evil as a character with no supernatural powers can be.

(c) Laura Wilson, 2015Laura Wilsonthe wrong girl

Laura Wilson is the author of twelve acclaimed and award-winning psychological crime novels, the latest of which is The Wrong Girl (Quercus). She is the Guardian’s crime fiction reviewer, and she teaches on the Crime/Thriller Writing MA course at City University, London.



NaNoWriMo (that’s National Not Writing Month)

The language we use to talk about writing under pressure is all fairly ominous. Deadline. The critical path. Drop dead date. Committed . . .

But the four words that strike pure terror into my heart are National Novel Writing Month. Every year, NaNoWriMo challenges writers to produce 50,000 words in November. There are milestones. There are graphs. There are prizes. There’s a daily target of 1,666 words.

There’s also a very good chance of failing completely.

The creative process is a mysterious thing – too much stress deadens your mind. Too little, and you might never get around to starting. But there’s an artificial kind of tension from having a daily deadline, a target number of words – any words, not necessarily the right ones. Panic sets in. The numbers on the screen assume too much importance. Failure lurks at the end of every day.

Writing a novel is ten per cent typing: the rest happens in your brain. There’s a rhythm to it that you can’t force. There are days that you write well, and days that you don’t. That’s normal. But it won’t get you through NaNoWriMo.

Some writers adore the challenge and do it every year, using it to kickstart a novel or taking the chance to explore different genres. NaNoWriMo is a well-intentioned idea and it has legions of fans, both amateur and professional. If you enjoy it, more power to you. I’d rather stick pencils up my nose than try it. My first novel came out in 2010 and I’m writing my eleventh at the moment; I’ve often been called prolific and I probably deserve that tag. I would have no chance of completing NaNoWriMo with anything worthwhile to show for it, and I fear the consequences. There are people who drop out of NaNoWriMo convinced that they can’t write a book. Some of them might try again next year. Many won’t.

A writer’s confidence is a fragile thing at the best of times. We’ve all had that moment where we feel we’ve been too ambitious, or that we just can’t do it. We’ve all wanted to pull the plug on a book that isn’t working, especially when the clock is ticking. The only thing to do is to keep writing, a little at a time. Find your way back from your dead end. Finish what you start. Learn from the failures or turn them, through time and sheer hard work, into triumphs.

And try not to worry if that takes longer than a month.



Jane Casey has written seven crime novels for adults and three for teenagers (the Jess Tennant series). She is currently writing the seventh in the award-winning Maeve Kerrigan series of London-set police procedurals. She was born and brought up in Dublin and lives in London with her criminal barrister husband, two sons and a cat named Fred.

Jane’s latest novel is After The Fire





Women’s lives tend to run in cycles so why should the publishing cycle be any different?

People who know me well can tell how I’m progressing with my lastest book by my size. Though I haven’t officially weighed myself in years (40th birthday present to self) I am, by now, very familiar with the cycle of expanding and  contracting, the tightening and loosening of the waistband, which accompanies every new project.


At the thrilling, nerve-jangling start, before I’ve even put finger to keyboard, when an idea is beginning to build and it feels as if I’m reaching for something I can’t quite see but which is most definitely ‘out there’, I can go for days without thinking a whole lot about eating. During that initial, heady period, I don’t want to be around any kind of distraction (other than internet shoe sites which I find oddly calming) because I’m too busy with the mental treasure hunt that is involved in imagining a new book.


But the phase only ever lasts a few weeks. The time arrives in every creative endeavor when you have to leave the realm of fantasy and commit.  During the long, slow slog of getting the words down in the right order in a way that will, I hope, enthrall, excite and move the reader, I become increasingly invested in food. As the manuscript begins to grow I can feel myself growing with it. A lot of this is emotional eating. A knot in the plot can send me flying down the stairs to the kitchen to grab the first thing I can find to shove into my mouth. When I’m in this phase I try to keep the fruit bowl topped up in the hope that the first thing I scarf down will be at least vaguely healthy, though that doesn’t always work. More often I’ll find myself beset by a months-long urge to eat crisps or yoghurt raisins or gherkins and then nothing else will do.  And yes, I’m aware that this is slightly obsessive-compulsive and yes, I have tried to substitute the eating for, say, listening to a favourite track, smoking, watching cat vines, making some yoga shapes or taking a brisk walk in the park, but this is only to defer the inevitable. I know I will cave in eventually, so why not cut to the chase? A psychotherapist friend tells me I’m stuck at the ‘oral’ stage of development but there are plenty of studies to show that human beings have a finite supply of self-regulation and in this phase most of mine is taken up with sitting in a chair for eight hours a day dreaming up winning characters and a story that will do them – and me – justice. I don’t have any self-discipline in the bank for stopping myself snacking. And I don’t care much either. Writing a book requires both a kind of obsessive-compulsive energy and an opening up of the subconscious and if one of the byproducts of that is emotional eating that’s just how it is.


By the time I’ve completed a first draft I’ve gained a dress size. Chins abound. My muffin top has developed into a shelf. I’m heavier, but so is my book. I’ve completed a first draft.  Whoop and hoopla. Time to celebrate. Why would I even think about dieting now?


The next task is to edit. I edit a lot, and as I’m trimming the fat from my story, I’ve noticed that I’m almost always melting away some of my own. This doesn’t happen in any conscious way, but seems to go with the territory, probably because, compared to first drafting, I find editing and rewriting breezy and fun. Plus I might do a bit more yoga because I don’t have the daily pressure of having to make my word count. By the time I’ve finished the edits – several months – I’m not back down to my original size (sitting in that chair takes its toll) but I’m not so very far off. My manuscript on the other hand is way leaner and fitter, ready both for the short sprint of editor’s revisions and the long marathon of copyediting and proofreading.


With the manuscript finally off my desk, I’m mentally exhausted so some regular time in the gym or at the yoga studio rediscovering the physical aspect of myself feels like a treat. Plus there’s the added incentive of trying to squeeze into at least one of my handful of ‘event’ outfits by the time publication comes around. Do I diet? No. But I do rediscover the willpower to walk away from those bowls of popcorn, family size crisps and buckets of wine.


I’m hardly the first woman to notice the cyclical nature of creativity. In an article in Forbes magazine, novelist Emily Griffin compares writing a book to a pregnancy. ‘The first seed of a novel feels like a miracle. Then I go through enormous struggles – both physical and mental – and wonder if the book will ever really happen. Then, about nine months to a year later, the book is born and I get to share it with the world.’ In the same article Allison Winn Scotch says, ‘writing a book is so similar to having a baby that it’s almost uncanny.’


I haven’t had a baby, but, looking back over the early years of my writing life, I notice an unsettling parallel between the process of a writing a book and my romantic relationships. There was a time in my twenties and thirties when my boyfriends lasted about as long as a book project. This would constitute top-draw bitchery if it had ever been intentional or even conscious but it was never either of those things.  I absolutely did not set out to make my romances fit my writing life, and maybe it was just coincidence, but there’s no denying that the cycle of meeting a stranger, falling in love, building a relationship, then letting it go can feel strikingly like the process of making a book.


Though I’m glad to have straightened that particular wrinkle out, I have neither the willpower nor the desire to kick all my bad habits.  So much of writing a book, like any other marathon, is about knowing when to push forward and when to cut yourself some slack. And, really, what’s the worst that can happen? You go up a dress size, you acquire a couple more chins, your muffin grows a twin. But at the end of it all there’s a book, which, for better or worse, is yours  and which, for better or worse, goes out into the world.



Writing as MJ McGrath, Melanie McGrath is the author of the Edie Kiglatuk Arctic mysteries. White Heat and The Boneseeker were both long listed for the CWA Gold Dagger and the series is published in 18 languages. Melanie is currently completing a psychological thriller.

Twitter @mcgrathmj


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