In defense of chick lit

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Note: I use “chick lit” to refer to female-driven stories which often combine romance and humour. I use this term both for simplicity, and because I refuse to be ashamed of this description.

My first loves were Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield. Their beautiful, perfect lives in sunny Sweet Valley were the stuff of fairy tales, and I couldn’t get enough. Growing up, I made weekly library trips where I formed a sky-high stack of Sweet Valley books that I rushed home to devour.

The Sweet Valley universe involved kidnappings, love triangles, stalkers, and betrayals among friends. I learned about writing all kinds of different plots, and the various elements of character development. The books also gave me hope that although I was the polar opposite of the Wakefield twins, with my brown skin and frizzy dark hair, I too could have an active social life, friends, and an attractive boyfriend.

The Babysitter’s Club soon joined my rotation of books. I learned about the power of female friendships, and followed the gang as they solved countless mysteries — sparking an interest in the mystery genre as a whole. Inspired by Claudia, I explored my artsy, creative side; as a soccer player, I delighted in Abby’s love for the sport and threw myself further into it.

In my teens, I read what would become one of my favourite books: Bridget Jones’ Diary. It was my first time reading a book in the comedy genre, which introduced me to a whole new, wonderful side to reading. As I laughed so hard that tears streamed down my face, I realized that books weren’t only meant to be an escape; they could simultaneously be funny too.

I remember also feeling relief at finally seeing myself in a character — a messy, disorganized woman, prone to daydreams and time-blindness. I found comfort in the realism of Bridget, a woman who was constantly on a quest for self-improvement and weight loss, only to repeat her same patterns of behaviour. I reveled in the fact that such an imperfect woman still got the man and job of her dreams, giving me confidence in my own imperfectness.

Bridget Jones then led me to another iconic literary character — Becky Bloomwood, of the Confessions of a Shopaholic series. Her ridiculous, over-the-top nature (which was, at times, unnervingly relatable) provided a familiar, inviting form of storytelling.

Throughout my foray into chick lit, I’ve continued to be amazed by the ability of these female authors’ abilities to create vivid and hysterical escapades, and deftly perfect the balance between realism and escapism.

When I read Something Borrowed and Something Blue, I fell in love with the idea of telling the same story from different perspectives. It’s fascinating to consider how our personal worldviews impact our perceptions of a factual event.

I later read First Comes Love, written by the same author, which explored the complexities of relationships. Long after finishing the book, I reflected on the compromises that are necessary in romantic and platonic relationships, and what it truly means to support a loved one.

I’ve often thought about why chick lit tends to be either overlooked or met with disdain.

Are the storylines simply too unrealistic? But that doesn’t account for the popularity of stories with male protagonists who are, all at once, spies, fighting champions, tech-savvy, attractive, muscled, and fluent in multiple languages. And yet, the Bourne series isn’t dismissed as simply being “bro lit” on account of its non-realism. Why was it then so hard to respect a story involving a clumsy female magazine editor who finds love?

Is the writing in chick lit too elementary? I’m no professional critic (though I sure like to criticize), but I don’t recall John Grisham displaying the pinnacle of impressive writing. Without pitting male and female authors against each other, I haven’t noticed that chick lit authors are (generally) any less adept at writing than their counterparts in other genres.

In fact, in my experience, comedy writing is the toughest form of writing. It’s incredibly difficult to make jokes come to life on paper and to articulate the quirky nuances of a character — much more difficult than, say, writing about a car chase. The fact that so many chick lit authors weave in both comedy and romance is a skill that deserves more respect.

Are chick lit plots too simplistic? I can accept that not a ton happens in these stories; boy meets girl, an obstacle comes between them, the obstacle is overcome.

But… don’t bestsellers and award-winning books often contain equally simple storylines? There isn’t anything particularly complex about a male federal agent tasked with taking down a spy (and falling in love in the process). Nor does it blow me away to read about a male drifter who takes a long road trip. And does anything *truly* happen in The Great Gatsby?

Is chick lit not progressive enough? There is certainly an argument to be made that chick lit promotes outdated concepts: the “need” to be in a relationship, heteronormative romance, and a general lack of diversity. I don’t disagree. But the question here isn’t whether chick lit is problematic in and of itself — rather, why is it that chick lit is dismissed compared to other genres?

There are precious few critically-acclaimed books that have any diversity (though this is starting to change). There are even fewer books that don’t involve a romance of some kind. So why does chick lit get the brunt of the criticism?

It’s also worth noting that the disdain towards chick lit has been around for a while — long before woke culture entered the scene. I’m hard-pressed to believe that this is the true reason for why this genre is looked down on.

(And if we’re being candid, chick lit’s harshest critics tend to be men. I’m not convinced that their concerns are rooted in feminism and equality.)

So where does that leave us? If it’s not the above reasons, why is chick lit the target of so much derision?

It’s difficult to not boil it down to one simple reason: it’s a woman’s realm. It’s the same reason that religion is revered, while witchcraft is dismissed as kooky nonsense (news flash: they are the same thing). It’s the same reason that female-dominated industries, such as hairstyling, administrative work, and cleaning, are among the lowest-paying professions.

At the risk of sounding dramatic, the work, skills, and accomplishments of women are often devalued. Chick lit is no exception.

But rather than pretend it’s any less worthy of respect, I proudly read and support chick lit. I openly peruse the “beach reads” sections of bookstores (albeit, virtually, for the time being). I showcase my beloved pink-jacketed paperbacks on public transit, and unashamedly tell my colleagues that, why yes, I am reading the newest installment of the Shopaholic series.

Chick lit has immeasurably shaped my life and my writing. It has made me laugh in dark times, made me think about the intricacies of relationships, and introduced me to imaginative ways of storytelling. I am in awe of the fearless, talented female authors who have brought these stories to life, and will continue to support their work every chance I get.

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