The greatest disservice the ‘chick lit’ moniker ever did was to suggest that all books shoehorned into the genre were of the same dismal standard. From Marian Keyes to Bridget Jones, from Jane Austen to The Time Traveller’s Wife there are countless of examples of fine authors and stories that have been lumped into the bracket partly because it is convenient for marketing departments and partly because women writing about romance is still seen as something that must be doused in pink ribbons, fairy dust and diamonds, a fact as vomitous as it is depressing.
Now before anyone blows a gasket yes, there are plenty of ‘chick lit’ books that aren’t worth the frothy mind-numbingness they’re written with but by the same measure there’s generally no shortage of crap in any genre you care to pick, including – dare I say it – the lofty heights of literature.
In university I had one professor whose open disdain for Jane Austen was bordering on venomous. ‘Parties and weddings, that’s all she wrote about!’ he liked to say, astonished that anyone could give a toss about such things. What he missed spectacularly, as Austen critics often do, is that people read Austen not just for the parties and the weddings but because love and the pursuit of love preoccupies everyone – men and women – at some point in their lives. That and because Jane Austen happened to be one the greatest storytellers ever, whose work I have no doubt will certainly outlive the misguided verbal farting of a crabbit English professor.
Publishers often don’t do women writers any favours either. Even books with little in them to merit the title of ‘chick lit’ are often marketed as such because hey, that’s what works folks! I remember the first book I read by Jojo Moyes*, absolutely loving it and getting quite defensive about the fact that it was pegged in a genre that to my mind downplayed its brilliance. It’s simply not fair that talented women writers with great stories to tell and important things to say get stuck in the pink ghetto of ‘chick lit’, while male authors have the freedom to write about anything they damn well please, including romance, without anyone feeling the need to treat them as a special interest group.
Perhaps the most annoying thing about the ‘chick lit’ genre is what the name implies; that the work of the women writing within its parameters is disposable, silly, undeserving of proper attention and criticism. While this may be true for some, it is certainly not true for all. As ‘chick lit’ is the one genre where women have a (dubious) head start in terms of getting published, ignoring it means we ignore the voices of already marginalized women writers and that’s unacceptable.
Sometimes the idea of taking ‘chick lit’ by its perky ponytail, combining it with its cinematic equivalent ‘the rom-com’ and burying them in a nuclear bunker somewhere so they can be adorkable together for all eternity without bothering anyone else is very pleasing to me. In the meantime, it would be nice if publishers tried to get a bit more creative about how they position and market female writers. The talent is there, the stories are there so why not try new things? Go a bit mad. And park the pink for a while. You might just be pleasantly surprised. I know a great many women readers and writers who definitely will be.
*This article started out as a review of Jojo Moyes’ The Girl You Left Behind. Alas, the article drifted but if you’re looking for a great read on the beach this summer I’d heartily recommend The Girl You Left Behind and another of Jojo’s entitled Me After You. Both are best sellers for a reason: they’re very, very good.