In defense of Chick Lit

Photo by Graeme Robertson. Image: Four Mills and Boon novels laid out in a fan shape.

 

I have a confession to make.

I read romance novels. I enjoy reading romance novels.

But confession is a bad choice of words. I’m not ashamed of reading Julia Quinn, Meg Cabot, Cindy Dees, and the rest, indeed, of enjoying them.

But, according to some people, I should be.

According to some people, there are two kinds of literature. One that’s worthy of being read, and one that isn’t. 

And chick lit falls near the top of the latter list. 

If I had a tenner for every person who’s expressed shock that someone like me (read: someone smart) reads chick lit, and romance novels at that, I’d be a rich woman indeed. 

 

Let’s start with the name. Chick Lit. That tells you all you need to know about public opinion of this category right here. Chick Lit isn’t something to be taken seriously. It’s quick, easy, eminently forgettable. In short, it’s not Real Literature.

But the funny thing is, there’s no male equivalent for Chick Lit. There’s no, for want of a better word, Dick Lit. Granted, there are definitely books that fit this category, because I doubt James Patterson, Dick Francis, Michael Chrichton and their ilk are putting out literary masterpieces. Their books have much the same faults as traditional Chick Lit: formulaic plots, 2D characters, and substandard writing. And yet none of them earn the same kind of derision that, say, Sophie Kinsella does.

Is it, perhaps, because Chick Lit books are geared toward women? Society has a long history of devaluing anything considered feminine. For the longest time, women were considered either chattel (according to the Manusmriti) or little better than dumb beasts (pretty much the vast majority of Western philosophical thought, come to think of it.) Even now, in our supposedly more egalitarian world, a man can be obsessed with technology and not have anyone bat an eyelid, while a woman who is interested in fashion and makeup is considered, at best, shallow and superficial.

But even without that, there’s a stigma associated with Chick Lit. They’re formulaic, badly written, and not very deep. They’re not Literature.

But that’s not entirely true, at least not of all chick lit books. Just as every genre has good books and bad ones, so does chick lit. And there are some turkeys out there. (Stephanie Meyer, I’m looking at you.) But the ones that aren’t… still aren’t Literature.

So what? 

So what if they aren’t Literature? So what if they aren’t Serious Books with deep plots and complex characters and sub- and inter-textual significance? So what if they’re the literary equivalent of fast food, designed for quick, easy consumption with a minimum of fuss? So what if they’re simply fun?

But that’s the thing, isn’t it? We’re supposed to be above all that. We’re supposed to read and enjoy only Literature, because, after all, isn’t that what smart people do? Read Nabokov and Tolstoy and Hardy and the Bronte sisters, read books that are sufficiently intellectual enough that we can point to ourselves and say, Look at me. I’m not one of Those People who read /gasp/ Chick Lit.

Which is ridiculous. When did reading become another form of snobbery rather than merely something one does for pleasure? And where on earth do you get off judging someone for their reading habits, Twilight aside? (Kidding. Mostly.) 

And while I’m not saying that we should entirely give up Austen and Dickens for Meg Cabot and Charlaine Harris, I do think that some Chick Lit in a literary diet is a good thing. Case in point: Me. 

I was your textbook intellectual. I’ve been reading years above my age level all my life; in fact, I enjoy getting my teeth into a nice challenging tome. If I read Chick Lit, it was because I was bored and didn’t have something heavier on hand or at the library and so was left with no other option. And I made sure to let the world know about it. Because, after all, intellectuals only read Serious Books, right?

Two years ago I went to Uni. And because I never bought chick lit, only borrowed it from the library, the only books in my collection were Serious Books. You know the type. Massive volumes that would serve me well if ever I needed to defend myself against intruders. I had a whole bookshelf’s worth of these, to the point where I had to have them shipped home because I just couldn’t fit them in my carryon baggage.

The funny thing? I barely read any of those books.

It was only later that I realized why. The problem with Serious Books is that to read them, you need to engage. To actively use your brain to understand the various threads and layers woven into the text. And I couldn’t. Why? As they say, all work and no play makes Poorva a dull girl. After the intellectual rigour of a grad school workload, all my brain wanted was to disengage, to indulge in the literary version of popcorn and candy, and here I was feeding it bucket after bucket of salad. No wonder my poor, overworked brain pretty much shut down until I came to my senses and started feeding it a more balanced diet. I’m of the opinion that what you consume mentally is just as important as what you put in your body. And sometimes? That means a big old heap of candy rather than a bowl of carrot sticks. 

So I’ve learned my lesson. I’m still trying to make my way through my stack of unread Serious Books. But this time, I’m making sure I get enough Chick Lit in between. Because sometimes? All you want is a beautiful woman, a handsome man, a semblance of a plot, a dash of romance, and a happy ending.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. 

 

__________

Photo credit: Graeme Robertson

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