So-called ‘chick lit’ novels have been a booming romantic fiction subgenre for nearly two decades. On the eve of International Chick Lit Month, I think it’s high time we found a new way to describe funny, romantic books about women.
I am both an author and a voracious reader. My favourite stories, both to read and to write, are about women making their way in the world; women striving to live life on their own terms; women refusing to settle for less; women seeking connection with other human beings.
Apparently this means I read and write chick lit.
No. No, actually.
It’s high time – in fact, it’s way past time – we put the term ‘chick lit’ out to pasture. It winds me up firstly because the word ‘chick’ winds me up. Mostly because ‘chick’ is almost always used as a sexist pejorative (let’s be honest, you’re unlikely to ever hear anyone say, “Phwoar! Check out the phD on that chick!”), but also because it just doesn’t make sense. (I’m a journalist by profession; I like it best when things make sense.) Chicks are baby birds. They can be female or male. So why is it women exclusively that are called chicks?
Why, world? WHY?!
Labeling books that tell women’s stories as ‘chick lit’ is also pejorative, and it’s reductive to boot. The label boils these stories down to a handful of stereotypes. The One About The Ditsy Girl Who Loves Shopping! The One About The Cocktail Swilling Magazine Girl! The One About The Girl Who’s A Bit Fat And Generally Hopeless But Lands A Sexy Barrister Anyway! It conveniently ignores the many wonderful books and authors tackling really meaty stuff in their work. My own published novels, for example, address thorny issues including postnatal depression, alcoholism, domestic violence and grief. With jokes!
Of course, stereotypes become stereotypes through overuse, and there were admittedly a lot of vacuous heroines traipsing about in four-inch heels some years ago, when every publisher and his dog was desperate to find the next Bridget Jones’s Diary or Shopaholic series and consequently polluted bookshelves with some fairly terrible novels. But Bridget was published in 1996 and the first Shopaholic book in 2000. The world in general has changed immeasurably in the past two decades; is it really so inconceivable that books about women could have changed, too?
The thing is, the term ‘chick lit’ is essentially just a marketing tool – a way for book publishers and marketers to classify and sell a certain type of novel. But there seems to be no rhyme or reason in how the term is applied. In the world of romantic fiction (and it’s a big world, accounting for more than US$1 billion in annual sales in the United States alone) a chick lit novel is defined as one in which the romantic plot is not necessarily the major storyline. In my books there are romantic relationships, but there are also friendships, sibling relationships, even a woman who is deeply bonded to her rescue dogs. This is an important distinction from romance novels, in which the love story is the main (and sometimes only) relationship in the book. Generally speaking, chick lit novels are also funny, and not all have a ‘Happy Ever After’.
So with that in mind why aren’t Pride and Prejudice or Emma marketed as chick lit? Romance? Tick. Other important relationships? Tick. Hilarious? Tick, tick, tick! Why aren’t the late Nora Ephron’s novels and essays branded as chick lit? Why isn’t The Girl on the Train a chick lit novel? (It’s about a woman looking for love, and it’s definitely funny, depending on your sense of humour.)
Could it be because marketers would have us believe only women write chick lit? Or that novels in this genre must have female protagonists? But bestselling UK author Nick Hornby has written funny, romantic books about women, and yet you’re not likely to find his books on the same shelves as chick lit’s high priestesses Marian Keyes, Jane Green and Jennifer Weiner.
I know plenty of authors who don’t mind that their books are called chick lit. Many welcome the classification, because they feel that the packaging that goes along with it helps guide readers to their books. To be clear, I am ridiculously grateful that a publisher saw fit to send my little books out into the world, and I’m grateful for anything that helps readers find and connect with my work. I wouldn’t mind my books being called chick lit if this was the best way of describing them. But it’s not.
It’s not because every time a book that speaks to women is dismissed or mocked simply because it has a pink cover or its title is written in a jaunty font, it saddles not only the books but the women who read them with an entirely undeserved reputation: I am trivial and silly! You will learn nothing from me! Don’t waste your time!
(Incidentally, my first novel has an aggressively pink cover, and I LOVE IT.)
Without exception, the women I know who write and read so-called chick lit are fiercely intelligent, wildly interesting and about as far from trivial as it’s possible to get. They’re also vastly less pretentious than some of the ‘I only read high-brow literature’ bores who make a point of sneering at chick lit. I take it personally when any one of those women is shamed for reading or writing stories that move her.
These days, I tell people I write romantic comedy novels, because I think it’s a better description of what my books are about. It also seems to go some way toward cutting through preconceived ideas about romantic fiction in general and chick lit in particular. I’m not ashamed of writing or reading chick lit, though others would shame me for it. But I do find it shameful that smart, funny, moving stories about women continue to be lumbered with a reductive descriptor that doesn’t actually describe the books or the people who write them. These books deserve to be read.