Confessions of a Former Book Snob

1st Feb 2013

Chick Lit

You know what I’m talking about – the pastel covers, the swirly titles, the images of generic ‘girly’ items (handbags, shoes, lipsticks etc.), plus love hearts and flowers all spiralling off in different directions…

Yeah. What a load of fluff. Probably about some over-privileged “kooky” woman who just can’t bag herself a man until Mr Right turns up. People say “don’t judge a book by its cover” but I (like almost everyone else) still totally judge a book by its cover.

I didn’t want to read chick lit. I’ll admit that I didn’t want to be seen to be reading chick lit. I didn’t want to adhere to the girl stereotype and read the books for girls. I’m interested in things besides romance and shoes. In fact, I’m not really interested in romance or shoes.

My confession gets worse: at this point, I had never actually read any chick lit. I didn’t want to, because I knew that they were all about the same thing (finding a man) and I didn’t want to read about that.

Then my hatred worsened. Every time I spoke to someone about the novel I was writing, they would nod and say “ah, so is it chick lit?” I was furious at the assumption.

Did my novel sound like chick lit when I was describing it? I mean, I never mentioned shoes and handbags. Or romance for that matter.

Sure, it was a little bit about relationships, but not romance, not finding Mr Right. I was writing a novel with a female protagonist that was also about relationships. Did that, by default, make it chick lit?

When I started writing something new, I decided to actually read some chick lit – to be sure that I wasn’t going to make the same mistake again and accidentally write fluff, and I picked up  Sophie Kinsella’s  The Undomestic Goddess. I finished it within a day (unusual for me, I’m a slow reader) and several things occurred to me:

1. I enjoyed reading it.

It wasn’t the best book I’d ever read or anything, but yeah, I enjoyed it. It was a good story with interesting characters. Truth be told, there are loads of other books in other, more ‘respected’ genres that fail to deliver either of these things.

2. In no way did the pastel cover with a handbag full of cleaning items, flowers and lipsticks bear any resemblance, whatsoever, to the story.

The cover was obviously created by someone who hadn’t read the book, but had heard the title and was told it was for the chick lit market.

3. The story was very well structured.

That seems like a throwaway point to make but it isn’t. So often I’ve read books where absolutely nothing happens, sometimes for several chapters at a time, sometimes it’s the entire book. Each chapter left on me on a cliff-hanger, the book had multiple narrative threads and had a great pace.

4. It was funny.

It really was funny. I mean I wasn’t rolling around on the floor laughing, but it was funny and observant of real life situations.

5. The romance element was totally incidental to the main narrative.

And this is the most important bit. Okay, so there is a love interest and, yes, he’s the usual impossibly handsome and mild-mannered man you might expect, but the romantic storyline only compliments the over-arching narrative.

After realising that I had been wrong about chick lit for many years, that I’d been a snob with an unfounded prejudice, I started to wonder why this might be.

For starters the very term “chick lit” makes me a bit snarly. It’s a derogatory term and whoever thought of it has a lot to answer for. Secondly, what qualifies a novel as chick lit, anyway?

Is it the female protagonist? Is it the romance? What specifically deems a novel as lit fit only for “chicks” rather than commercial, contemporary fiction?

Next, the book covers. Remember when novelist Polly Courtney famously ditched HarperCollins for marketing her book It’s a Man’s World as chick lit?

She raised a similar argument – what was it about her books that defined them as chick lit rather than contemporary fiction?

Or maybe it’s that the genre sells well, and so anything that can vaguely fall in to the chick lit category does so, and is marketed as such. And so I can’t help but feel like we’re stuck with the pastel covers because they represent the genre.

I’m not saying that chick lit is for everyone, in the same way fantasy isn’t for everyone’s cup of tea, or that historical fiction might not float everyone’s boat, but I am suggesting that maybe we’d be more inclined to give it a chance if we phased out the term “chick lit” and binned the fluffy, pastel book covers.

Has anyone else had similar snobby feelings towards chick lit? What are your thoughts on the way chick lit is marketed? What qualifies a novel to be chick lit, anyway?

Image via Enokson

Jo Throup

Comments

  • Jane Bradley says:

    I wrote about this a while back for The Bookseller, and I found looking at the various views around the genre (from readers, publishers, author and marketers) really fascinating.

    I still have a lot of problems with the genre – the lazy gender stereotyping of the covers and the term ‘chick lit’ itself definitely make me snarly too. But the positive points you’ve outlined here are important, and ones that often go unacknowledged in debates about the genre.

    • Jo and the Novelist says:

      I do feel that there’s a tendency to tar all chick lit to the same brush – it all gets bundled together as a genre single genre.

      I almost feel like the pastel covers have become a marker for the genre and now we’re stuck with it.

      I’d like to know more about what different readers, marketers, publishers think about the genre.

  • Beulah says:

    Really interesting points and so fantastic that you’ve discovered a load of books you might have previously dismissed (I did the same thing with crime fiction)! But do you have any thoughts on why the majority of female writers are marketed by their gender rather than the contents of their books? You’ve asked some perceptive questions but it’s not clear what you think the reasoning is behind it.

    • Jo and the Novelist says:

      I honestly don’t know why gender is a factor. I was discussing this with a friend a while ago, We talked about David Nicholl’s “One Day” – if it had been written by a female author, would it have kept its orange and white cover and bold typeface? I doubt it.

      It’s still an area I’m wrestling with – so any thoughts would be a big help, if you’ve got any theories!

      • Beulah says:

        My tendency is to blame all such things on THE PATRIARCHY but I think a lot of it’s due to the devaluing of female culture – which is why I love FBS for addressing issues like this!

        It’s easier to dismiss women if the only books they buy and read are hideously saccharine. But at the same time feminism has sometimes played into that with women-only cultural spaces and Virago turning their apple into an appletini back in the chick-lit heyday.

        Maybe you could do a top 5 list of chick-lit prisoners or something? Writers you would have previously dismissed due to shoes and shags covers but who are actually really worth a second look?

  • Leslie H. says:

    I loved reading this post because the same “awakening” happened to me! I avoided chick-lit romance books like the plague. I ended up always getting so annoyed with the main female character who I felt was usually unrealistic, pathetic, and not easy to relate to. Luckily, I just finished a series of three books (The Look to the Future Series) by author Mary Metcalfe (http://www.lakefrontmuse.ca/). The books are “Winds of Change” “New Beginnings” and “Road to Tomorrow.” Mary Metcalfe’s writing can be compared to authors Nora Roberts and Jodi Picoult. They are all stories about second chances, dealing with loss and starting over again and allowing love and happiness into your life! I think all of her characters are easy to relate to, flawed, and loveable. I was rooting for their successes throughout each book. This began my new-found love for romance novels and chick-lit :) I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!!

  • Mikki says:

    Funny that I found ‘The Undomestic Goddess’ a while ago and it caught my attention, but put it back down again as I’ve had only bad experiences so far with chicklit books. I suppose I should have given it a read as I think I would really like chicklit if I could just find a book I enjoyed! Thanks for writing this, you’ve convinced me to give the genre another go.