Monday, March 5, 2012

"pretty maids all in a row" in defence of 'Chick Lit'.

Does anyone really heed the old adage "Never judge a book by it's cover?"  

A quick saunter around any bookstore will tell you no, definitely not. Book covers are yet one more way we further tailor our literary genre. Sometimes consciously, sometimes sub consciously, but none the less, these days a books' cover will tell you more than just the blurb on the back. 

Fiction can be categorised according to the type of story an author chooses to tell. And the main genres, (and most genres have sub genres) are easily identifiable by a cursory glance of the cover design. 

 The most polarising genre of all would have to be "Chick Lit" or "Women's Literature". All those pretty pastel covers littered with cupcakes, handbags, and shoes. 
I went through a phase of avoiding chick lit like the plague. There's a stigma attached to it that screams "Chick Lit: Faux Fiction, what you read when you don't really feel like reading."  which buys into the whole societal perception that women's stories and women's voices are frivolous and materialistic at best and well, who really wants to read about shoes and relationship woes and shoes, and why can't I ever find a man who'll help me with the dishes, and am I running out of time to have a baby and did I mention shoes? The kicker is, if people bothered to actually read the books they might find there is far more than meets the eye. That what looks like a romp in an urban world of navigating men, cupcakes, handbags and shoes, there are real stories being told and real issues being swept under the cover of a pastel coating. To which I say, fuck that.  

It's the publishing world's way of putting Baby in a corner and NOBODY SHOULD EVER PUT BABY IN A CORNER!   And we continue to allow the infantilisation of women's literature by the pastelisation and shopping whimsy covers we apply to their books.  

But where I once had trouble embracing and even tolerating the need to label certain books as women's literature, I now feel the exact opposite. We need this categorisation, we need a niche of our own so someone can stand up say, Guess what, Women's stories matter. Women's voices matter.  
That women are under represented in literary awards and reviews is common knowledge and yet for all that, the one area in which women ARE highly visible, we shun. We women, belittle our own. We need to defend these voices. We need to stand up and shout our stories are just like mens stories. In a perfect world, we wouldn't have to. But until we can write that world into existence, then it is a necessity to carve our own niche and defend it against those that would seek to destroy it. 

James Patterson's novels are as much about relationships as Cathy Kelly's are. Murakami is as much about relationships as Picoult. Miéville is as much about relationships as Valente. There isn't a fiction novel yet written that isn't about relationships, irrespective of the gender of the author or the genre for which they write. This notion that chick lit is somehow all about shopping, sex, shoes and ticking biological clocks and nothing else needs to stop. It is about those things, but it's also about so much more. 

We reinvent our world through fiction. With fiction we are free to ask big questions and posit all manner of consequences and answers. We are free to postulate on societal issues and  societal cancers and offer different visions for different outcomes.  Fiction gives us a platform through which to examine the world we live and the world we'd like to live in. We all live in the same world. Male, female, and what ever other variation of gender you subscribe to. Our stories help us make sense of our world, it's what fiction does.  And male authors are doing this just as much as women are. Whether it's a murder mystery, a steam punk novel, an anime adventure or a blood curdling horror, the commonality of all fiction is that they need relationships to propel the plot. Whether that relationship is a romantic connection to another character, a familial connection or even a connection created between narrator and reader, a relationship is required and all authors use them to move the story along. 

And if it popularised literature  isn't your cup of tea, don't judge someone else for reading it. Fiction can be about pure escapism as much as it can be about enrichment and diversity. People are not one dimensional, neither are most (well written) stories.  Escaping into a life so very different to your own can be cathartic on many levels. Getting to finally read a story you can relate because it seeks to make sense of a world you recognise as similar to the one you inhabit, is also just as cathartic.  When it comes to reading, life is too short to focus on reading books you think you should be reading in favour of books you want to read.  It's like being judged for your taste in music, if some douche wants to judge you by the cover of the book you're reading, they're probably already judging you based on a lot of other superficial cues too.  So go ahead and read that bodice heaver, erotic fiction, fantasy, suspense, YA, poetry book you want to.  

It's okay to dislike a book, or an author. I'm not saying you have to love all books and all women writer's. Sometimes you gotta dig to the bottom of the pile to find that one voice that speaks to your soul. But if you write off an entire genre based on some ridiculous notion that genre x isn't a real valid genre, you might just miss out on hearing that one special voice. 

So remember, before you sneer at the women's literature section (or any other section) at your local book store or library, just think about what you're really sneering at.  Is it possible, that by buying into the trivialisation of women's voices and stories, that in doing so, you trivialise and belittle your own?  


  1. Katie fforde. Love her Chickfic. It's always fun and real. And her heroines generally find their right way through interesting new CAREERS!

    1. I will have to sniff her out. I'm always game for trying some thing new.