Have you ever felt your cheeks go hot with embarrassment as a stranger catches the title of the novel you’re reading? Whether it’s the train ride home from work, the beach, or at a local cafe, I generally have a book in hand. Often I’m too preoccupied gallivanting with characters (who have much more exciting lives then my own) to notice odd glances in the direction of the cover I’m reading. However, I am ashamed to admit that I have been guilty of removing the plastic book covers from my well-worn Danielle Steels, leaving a blank, anonymous book in my hands. Poor Danielle, it’s not her fault that I’m embarrassed to read her novels in public. After all she is one of the bestselling authors alive! It’s purely due to the fact that I feel subjected to book snobbery when I read women’s fiction.
I know this may sound silly, I’m a woman and I like women’s fiction. I shouldn’t feel the need to refer to the genre as my ‘guilty pleasure.’ Because it isn’t my guilty pleasure, it’s my all the time pleasure. Yet due to the slightly degrading term ‘chick lit’, which women’s fiction is often referred to, I do feel a little insecure.
Wikipedia refers to ‘chick lit’ as being ‘genre which addresses issues of modern womanhood, often humorously and lightheartedly.’ And although Wikipedia is often criticised for its credibility, I actually think this is a fantastic definition of the term. However, I guarantee if you were to ask a handful of your friends (who don’t indulge in the genre) to define ‘chick lit,’ you may find descriptions such as ‘romantic dribble with no substance,’ ‘books for spinsters’ or ‘beach reads.’ In comparison the high and mighty term ‘literary fiction,’ is reserved for the work of ‘critically acclaimed’ authors or those who produce ‘serious’ pieces of writing.
As a female living in the 21st Century, I feel it is my duty to note that the issues that women face on a day-to-day basis are extremely serious. I believe that if an author can help us to navigate through the tangled and often terrifying path of being a woman, then they deserve to be recognised. Not as creators of ‘chick lit’ – a term which I believe discredits both authors and women alike, but as creators of witty, inspiring characters who often act as our best friends. Heroes and heroines of this genre offer support, guidance, exasperation and most importantly a sense of humour when life is looking grim.
I can’t tell you how reassured I feel when I stumble across a fictional character who shares my confusion of the opposite sex, is in a constant state of indecision and will admit the un-admittable. Women’s fiction is my safe place. It’s where I go when my world is a little too chaotic and I would prefer to witness someone else’s dramas, almost always with an understanding nod or a sympathetic sigh. Although my issues may seem trivial or unworthy of being considered subjects of ‘literary fiction,’ they are the issues of the young modern day woman, and you have to ask: why should that mean they are less literary?
My TV equivalent of reading great women’s literature is watching the American series ‘Girls.’ Even though it’s fictional, it is so honest and uninhibited that I cringe and laugh and cry with Lena Dunham as she shows us what it’s like to a young woman in today’s world. Dunham’s candidness offers a truly refreshing outlook on the lives of young females. She strips away the glamorous pretences of being youthful, and instead highlights the period of contradiction that we experience during our 20’s. Many of us are stuck between being children and adults and struggle to put the pieces together to form the ideal women that we are expected to become. Dunham uses humour to communicate some of the very real issues we experience growing up - social pressures, career pressures, anxiety, meltdowns and heartbreak.
Although her tone is comical and her protagonist ‘Hannah’ is considered supremely self-absorbed, she is undeniably loved by my generation, because she represents what is real. She doesn’t set unrealistic benchmarks for the rest of us to admire, she lives our lives and isn’t afraid to show us failure. In the film industry Dunham’s work may be considered the ‘chick lit’ of the television world, but I guarantee her work is far away from ‘a beach read with no substance.’ She has impacted my life, and taught me more about being a woman than any award-winning film.
Similarly, many of the romantic novels I have read have given me more pleasure than the books I own which are considered literary fiction. Being a self-confessed romantic, I admit that I thoroughly enjoy being taken along whirlwind love stories, many ending in fulfilment and happiness. However, I have also held on to many other truths from these books, for example David Nicholls’ novel One Day portrays the cruelties of fate and analyses the impact that our decisions can have on the rest of our lives.
Nicholls did an incredible job communicating the harsh realities of growing up and the realisation that given the opportunity to spread our wings, we don’t always succeed. It was very confronting following Emma and Dexter through their journey of self-exploration. I could relate to their naivety and willingness to explore, and felt their loss and anger as they finally came to grips with their feelings. One Day provokes us to consider the role of fate, choices, love and death, all of which I believe deserve intense recognition.
I understand that not all romance fiction novels provide the same level of intensity or insight, but I believe that if a book can give someone pleasure, joy and understanding it is worthy of credibility. The way that someone may rejoice over reading the complexities of religion, politics and world science (all of which I consider ‘serious’ topics) is the way that I feel reading about the complexities of the modern day woman.
I believe that writers of women’s fiction have the ability to speak to us on another level, the level of a best friend. And I believe that having a best friend to influence us, guide us, and support us is one of the most precious gifts in the world. If a book can give us this gift then the term 'chick-lit' doesn't do it justice.