Thursday, September 19, 2013

Is Chick-Lit getting a Bum Rap?

First Impressions

 

Let's face it, the moment we hear the term "chick-lit" our minds immediately go directly to those cheap books our mothers (or at least my mother) used to buy from the supermarket. You know the ones; they have very distinctive covers. Mostly you'll see a man's bare, upper body, rippled with muscles, in extremely close proximity to a woman who seems about to faint. Sometimes she'll be wearing one of those dresses that have tight corsets and push her boobs up to enhance an overflowing d├ęcolletage, which is only partially hidden beneath delicately gathered paper-thin muslin. (I've always thought that the tightness of their outfits were to blame for these women looking semi-conscious.) Those are the so-called "bodice-rippers" that Harlequin is still churning out to this day.

The newer version of this genre has been delicately renamed as romance fiction. However, you'll still be able to spot these a mile away - once again, because of their covers. Now the women are in haute couture satin dresses, silky lingerie or lacy wedding gowns. If there's a man in the picture, even if his upper torso is hidden, the guy's six-pack will be straining underneath its rice paper thin cotton covering. (Yes, yes - book; cover; don't judge - but how can you not?) Both of these are basically damsel in distress books, where the woman is only waiting for her white knight to gallop up on his trusty steed and sweep her away to safety and a happily ever after life of lust and luxury. But these are just sensationalist pulp fiction novels, and they shouldn't really be lumped together with the chick-lit books.


Chick-Lit and Women's Fiction

For quite some time now, publishers have been putting out books in the genre of women's fiction. This clever use of semantics immediately brings to mind a book that is more sophisticated than what you'd get in a romance novel. Where the former piles on steamy love affairs and sexual innuendo, the latter has real relationships. Not that all of these books are devoid of sex; but here muscles alone do not make the man.

Admittedly, many books in this genre get the chick-lit label because they are mostly fluff. Those are the ones that can be summed up with either the protagonist having or lacking everything a woman could want (man, job, home, money and looks). We know from the onset that she's either going to lose one, some or all of these, and have to rebuild her life, or she'll be going after (or accidentally obtaining) one, some or all of the missing pieces to this fictional puzzle of a perfect life. The fluffier of these stories center on the man in these women's lives, and the finding, getting, keeping or regaining of him.

The books that move beyond this fluff are those that seem to hold onto the women's fiction label. They take into account that not every woman's existence is defined by her romantic relationship status. She is a far more complex woman who can't be bothered to sit around wallowing in self-pity until some guy comes to rescue her. She's going to depend on her own intelligence and wits to get her through.

But even with this distinction, most of these books are still being called chick-lit - probably because the protagonist is female, which might be less appealing to male readers. One could easily put Jane Austin's novels into this category, and rightly so, since all of her stories are female centric, despite Austin's penchant for her protagonists pursuit of husbands. And yet, no one would dare use that derogatory term on the works of such a classic writer.

Personally, I think that there's a whole level of excellent women's fiction out there that's being snubbed as chick-lit. These are the books that even male readers might enjoy - especially those who lean towards literary fiction rather than typical macho genres. Take for instance, the Irish writer Maggie O'Farrell. Although her earlier novels were probably marketed as chick-lit, for the most part, her books can't be called "fluffy" in my opinion. This is because almost all of her female characters have far more important things to worry about than whether some guy likes them.


Where the Bum Rap Starts

As with Jane Austin's works, there are many books that are heavily relationship centric that shouldn't be ignored by being tossed into the chick-lit pile. One perfect example of this is Jessica Brockmole's debut novel Letters from Skye. Yes, it's all about finding, losing and regaining love, but it is so well written that it rises above simple romance and becomes a beautifully crafted character driven story. But some people may still call it chick-lit. Looking over just the books I've reviewed so far this year, I can pick out three that might be considered to be chick-lit. These are Lessons in French by Hilary Reyl, Melting the Snow on Hester Street by Daisy Waugh and The Wednesday Daughters by Meg Waite Clayton. But if you look at my reviews, you'll see that all of these have far more to them than just man chasing.

This is why I think the genre called chick-lit is getting a bum rap. From my experience, far too many books that are either written by women or have female protagonists get automatically lumped into this less than flatteringly named genre. Yes, some of the books that get this label are just fun romps in search of hearts and flowers. But there are just as many, if not more that go far beyond being superficial. So, the next time someone suggests a women's fiction book to you, I'd strongly recommend you not dismiss it offhand as chick-lit. If you do, you might just be missing out reading something really special. 



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