‘Chick Lit,’ Indeed

The genre of books referred to as ‘chick lit’ is almost universally derided, even by the people who read them; I know a number of people who talk about ‘trashy novels’ while carefully kicking their copies of Bridget Jones under the dust ruffle. People say that this genre is vapid, and trashy. Many of the same comments made about romance readers are made about people who enjoy chick lit, whether as an occasional reading item or their main literary diet. People who confess not just to reading, but actively enjoying, chick lit are sneered at like they are incapable of critically evaluating the books they read.

I don’t read a lot of chick lit, but it’s not because I think the genre as a whole is vile, more than I just…haven’t read a lot of books in this genre. Really, it’s nothing personal. It’s dangerous to make sweeping statements about a whole genre and chick lit is not only broad, but disputed. Some books I might place there are things other people would not, and vice versa. There’s a lot of wiggle room in a genre that is surprisingly difficult for some people to define. Chick lit usually features hip, young women, often in urban areas. There’s often a lot of fashion, but not always. There’s often a lot of focus on careers, whether characters are building them or changing them.

But this is a superficial view of the genre. At its core, chick lit is about a lot of things that I actually find very interesting. Starting with the fact that these character-driven books usually focus on women and their lives. Not on men. Some feature romantic elements, but the woman is the centre of the story, as are her female friends. This is a marked departure from, uhm, pretty much every literary genre ever.

Women in chick lit tend to be independent and feisty. They know their minds, they know what they want, and they are strong, complex characters. They’re actually pretty good role models, for people who think that characters in fiction need to be role models. I can see a lot to admire in the characters populating books many people seem to eager to mock. ‘Chick lit,’ people say, dismissively; not just people who say ridiculous things like ‘who would want to read about women’ but people who say things like ‘all these books are so shallow and superficial.’

Sure, some of them have a heavy focus on frivolous things. Not all women are like the characters in most chick lit; there’s a reason the genre is not to everyone’s taste. But many people are dismissive of the genre haven’t actually read very many samples of it. They’re basing their opinions on what they hear, what other people say about the genre, what they think it’s about. The very name kind of sets up an adversarial position from the start, because it sounds so twee, superficial, and patronising. Yet, if you start digging around in the genre, you find a lot more than white women in New York City. While women of colour are not heavily represented, they are there. Some books even deal with disability. There are lower class characters. The genre tends to fall down on the job when it comes to trans women and lesbians, though, I will freely admit! It is not perfect by any means.

And these are books about complex relationships between women. They are about friendships. They are about women supporting each other. They are about women having fun together. The characters deal with tough things and complex subjects. It is not all shoe shopping and salad eating. This focus on the intimate details of women’s lives is pretty unique for fiction, actually, although it has old roots; Jane Austen, for example, wrote books that would probably be considered chick lit if they were coming out today.

There’s a prevailing attitude that the lives of women are frivolous and not of interest, that serious literature needs to feature serious characters, which usually means men. That reading stories about women’s lives is a waste of time and doesn’t contribute in a meaningful way to your literary or emotional development. This is a reminder, yet again, that many people think women are lesser. Books akin to those found in chick lit, but featuring male characters, are hailed as great works of modern fiction, commentaries on society. They are converted into PBS miniseries events. They are widely discussed in the print media. Swap the genders and the names, and where are the fawning reviews in the Times? Where are the television adaptations?

The same people who mock chick lit read dude lit quite happily and will tell you how great it is and how important it is to literature. The divide when it comes to how these books are received is a direct consequence of misogyny and what surprises me about it is that many people who claim to be aware of this divide, even to be actively fighting it, buy into the idea that chick lit is a bad, terrible thing and that the people who read it are awful, shallow people.

In fact, the people who read chick lit are like pretty much everyone else, because more people read it than you think. There’s a reason the genre is expanding so rapidly, there’s a reason books in this genre bedeck the shelves at the bookstore. It’s because people are buying them, and people are asking for more of them, and people are reading them, and some of those people are even talking about them, at least behind closed doors where they won’t be subject to snobbery on the part of people who think they’re above all that.