entertainment

Chick lit is worthless fluff. Bollocks. Discuss.

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I’m on the bus reading Confessions of a Shopaholic. I’m loving the book – in fact, I hardly even want to get off the bus because it means I have to put it down. And yet, I’m reading it in a carefully crafted position that ensures that the cover isn’t visible to all the surrounding men in suits. Because they will presumably judge me negatively for reading a book with the word “shopaholic” in the title.

I know that I’m an intelligent, well-informed individual that is capable of having a serious conversation about everything from the economic situation in Greece to how to tell the difference between crocodiles and alligators. Yet I still feel like a lesser person when I walk into a bookstore and see the rows and rows of Penguin classics that I’m yet to read, having spent the last few years devouring – amongst many other chick lit novels – things like Lauren Conrad’s series of L.A. Candy novels.

My bookshelf at home is a mass of book covers in various shades of pink and other pastel colours, usually accompanied by swirly print and drawn pictures of things like handbags and shoes. I try to balance out the pastels with books from other genres, but pink has a way of standing out.

I’ll tell anyone who glances at the shelves that chick lit is my “guilty pleasure” – a term so often used by women in relation to the trashy novels and tv shows we actually love, but shouldn’t really be admitting to enjoying. It’s because we’re made to feel like we need to be consuming things that are more.. wholesome. Clever. Things that will add a litany of six-syllable words to our vocabulary and make us feel smarter for even having purchased them.

So why don’t men have to make the same excuses for the books they read? And why doesn’t popular fiction written by males experience the same kind of contempt direct at the females who write chick lit?

This brilliant article by Jenny Geras in The Guardian answered a few of these questions for me:

Why is so much energy expended on patronising this particular area of the market?

What publishers know very well, and what the “chick lit is fluff” lobby often forgets, is that book jackets are decisions made by publishers. We decide what a book looks like and this is a complicated decision, influenced by what we think looks good, what we think will position the book most clearly in the marketplace, and how best to signal quickly to both retailers and readers what kind of book it is. The downside of this labelling process is that a whole range of completely different books get lumped together and confused. The only thing that “these books” really have in common is that they’re written primarily by women and about relationships. Apart from that, they encompass as wide a range as any other genre. Kinsella and Jennifer Weiner, say, have no more in common than do Alan Hollinghurst and Jonathan Franzen, or Lee Child and Mark Billingham. But I’ve yet to read an article in which either of the latter two pairs have had to defend their difference from one another and the rest of the genre, or engage in hand-wringing analysis about why their books sell so well.

What I kept thinking of, reading Decca Aitkenhead’s piece, was the question Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman suggests we all ask ourselves on a regular basis, and that is, “Are the men doing this?” Why do I so often hear intelligent, educated women admitting that they read commercial women’s fiction, but only as a “guilty pleasure”? Are there millions of clever men out there feeling guilty about reading John Grisham? Why are Jane Eyre, Kate Reddy and Becky Bloomwood even being discussed together in the same paragraph? They have nothing at all in common apart from being female characters created by female authors.

Decca Aitkenhead admits that the chick lit debate has been on a “literary loop” for the last 20 years. So here’s how to close that loop: let everyone read what they enjoy reading and stop sneering about others’ literary choices.

Bravo. And this from Jessica Rudd, who wrote the brilliant Campaign Ruby and Ruby Blues (both of which I bought and devoured. Anyone who can make politics understandable – and more importantly – hilarious, is a total winner in my book [no pun intended]). Jessica asks why there’s no such thing as “dick lit” on the shelves:

Jessica Rudd

I’d much prefer my work to be devoured by many than nibbled by few. I write to be read. If people are going to spend money on something I write I want them to get bang for their buck. I want them to laugh out loud on the train on the way to work and get stared at by the Sudoku junkies.

What bothers me is that we don’t celebrate the kind of fiction vast numbers love to read. When did enjoying literature that speaks to us become a guilty pleasure? For heaven’s sake, it’s not porn (even if there are saucy bits).

Sophie Kinsella, Candace Bushnell, Helen Fielding, Marian Keyes—they all write the lives of contemporary women and their books will be thumbed for generations to come.

Herein lies the answer. I reckon if these were the stories of men—and dare I say written by men—they wouldn’t be tagged as frivolous.

There are blokes who write for blokes but their work is not sneered at by the la-di-das. As friend and fellow-author Anita Heiss put it, we don’t call books by men and about men ‘dick lit’, even if they are commercial.

Chick lit is commercial for a reason. People buy what they like to read—I certainly do. I don’t want to spend forty bucks on a great lump of bound paper that’s going to bore me senseless until it graduates un-read from bedside table to bookshelf where it will sit until Christmas when I dust it off, scan it for dog-ears, wrap it up and chuck it under the tree with a gift tag.

I have so many of those great lumps of bound paper lying around. I didn’t buy them because I wanted to – I bought them because I felt like I had to.

So guess what? I’m reclaiming chick lit. I’m reclaiming it as brain food, just as I claim books like The Great Gatsby and To Kill A Mockingbird to be brain food. Only the chick lit I love feeds me in a different way – and usually comes wrapped up in a prettier package, too.

Check out our gallery of the best-selling chick lit novels:

Chick lit. Thoughts?

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