I write stories. They’re about love and life, and they tend to make people laugh and cry. So far, all my central characters have been women. Somewhere along the lines of media and marketing the word ‘chick lit‘ was coined to describe stories about women, life and love that make people laugh and cry. So, I write chick lit.
In order to alert readers that my stories are funny and sad and about love, life and women, my publishers generally give them pastel covers, and they would probably put cupcakes on those pastel covers if I didn’t shriek "DON’T PUT CUPCAKES ON MY COVERS" fairly frequently. I have never written a character who has eaten a cupcake. Pork crackling, yes; cupcakes, no.
If my stories were made into films, they would be called romantic comedies, and they wouldn’t have pastel covers, they would be packaged with brighter colours and marketed to appeal more to men – so very possibly with a young woman wearing short shorts on the posters. This is the world we currently live in: marketing for men predominantly involves female flesh and sport, whilst for women it’s more pastel colours, cupcakes, and shopping. You only have to try and buy a birthday card to see this.
People despair at the term ‘chick lit’ and I can understand this. If someone called me ‘chick’ to my face, I’d ask them if they were feeling all right. "A chick? As in a baby chicken? What if I call you ‘puppy’? Is that not a bit patronizing and infantalising?"
Imagine if we’d called a genre of literature aimed at men ‘puppylit’? You’re right, it couldn’t sound more condescending if it tried. It’s also impossible to do any ‘puppylit’ imagining without first completely swapping the power structures that have been in place for hundreds of years. Men would have had to be denied a vote and kept in the home while women did the ‘world leader-y stuff’ – then it’s a bit easier to see how the less ‘important’ half of society could be referred to with language used for cute animals or pets. We’re still evolving into an equal society here; the term ‘chick lit’ was coined in the 80s – a far more sexist era. Good luck to anyone who wanted to introduce such a term now in 2014, I’m sure Twitter, in particular the mighty Everyday Sexism Project, would have something to say about it. Thankfully, much has changed since the 80s. (And much has not, ahem, Page 3).
Whatever I may think about the term ‘chick lit’, the fact is that I’ve cancelled everything in a day before to read a ‘chick lit’ novel; to be enveloped in the warm world of a character I was rooting for and carried along with the twists and turns of a brilliant plot. I’ve spent a long haul flight with my mum and my sister rocking with laughter as we read Bridget Jones. Similarly, I’ve sat with 18 members of my family watching Love Actually, and have seen my father wipe a tear.
Recently I heard someone I admired scoff at books with embossed covers, then she clocked me, went red and apologized. Did I mind? Not really. It was her snobbishness – I wasn’t going to let it embarrass me. And besides, I’ve given up on many a more ‘literary’ novel, because the plot felt sluggish – even though I might have been impressed by the odd sentence or two. But that’s just me. We all like to escape with books for different reasons. Some go to murder mysteries, misery memoir, sci fi... I wouldn’t knock them, sometimes I venture into those territories myself. However, I’m not going to apologise for enjoying books that focus on women’s careers, families and love lives. As a woman, as a person, discovering what I love to do, feeling empowered to do it and falling in love are pretty seismic events in my life, and ones I can identify with far more than discovering a murdered body in a disused car park.
It seems to me that ‘chick lit’, is a demeaning term for the romantic comedy genre, but it’s so annoyingly pithy we’re stuck with it. I dare you to venture behind a pastel cover.
Just a Girl Standing In Front of a Boy by Lucy-Ann Holmes is out now, published by Sphere. Photo credit Charlie Hopkinson.