Everybody who loves chick lit knows that it has an entirely undeserved reputation for being frivolous and silly. It seems this label is bestowed by those who don’t read books in the genre. They, whoever they are, take one look at the mauve or pink book jackets and declare the contents contained within not worth their time.
I have to admit to having been infected by this unfair characterisation of chick lit in the past. When people asked about the books I wrote, I would “um” and “ah” and look at my feet and explain they were romantic comedies about women, their careers, friendships, families and love lives. In essence, chick lit. Then I’d rush to add caveats and explain that this didn’t mean they were just about shopping for shoes.
Chick lit never is. Those of us devoted to the books dubbed “chick lit” know them as stories that nut-out issues arising from infidelity, work place discrimination, family friction, infertility or social exclusion. The central themes tend to be private matters. Say, the bite of unrequited love, as opposed to the fallout from an epidemic or the machinations of a political campaign. (Though don’t think chick lit is excluded from delving into such areas, as Jessica Rudd proved with Campaign Ruby.)
This makes so-called chick lit books an important source of information on, and exploration of, issues that often aren’t openly discussed. When social affairs are aired in the mainstream media, the articles tend to spring from a narrow piece of research. The reports are trend-based (a popular new social media app like Tinder for example), or broad proclamations based on sound bite from a psychologist. They rarely prod and probe the many difficulties that come with discovering you’re infertile, for example, or trying to make a long distance relationship work. An article headlined: One in Four Couples Fear they’re Infertile, does not tell a story of what that fear feels like or how it changes your life. Nor does it delve into how your relationship with your partner and friends are affected, which is information a person who is going through such a thing would no doubt seek out.
In one of the very few comprehensive pieces of research I was able to find on long distance love – the subject of my latest novel Chasing Chris Campbell – the Canadian psychologist behind the study revealed she had become interested in the area because she was in a long distance relationship and found there was little information for couples in her situation. There was no book or thesis she could turn to for reassurance that the feelings and challenges she and her partner were dealing with were normal.
Chick lit plays an important role in offering insight, empathy and thoughtful exploration of private matters. Often very painful ones, like divorce or miscarriage. To balance this drama and tension, the classic chick lit novel tends to be imbued with warmth and humour, friends who would do anything for each other, and very often happy endings.
This seems to be one of the things behind the criticism directed at the genre. But really, what is wrong with a happy ending?
It makes the book a pleasure to read, and it offers hope at the end of 500 pages about a daughter who is being bullied, or a businesswoman whose enterprise is facing problems. In providing hope, it offers escapism. These are the twin gifts of this type of writing: an exploration of private issues, and relief from the weight of them at the same time.
This brings me back to my point about why I personally felt a little bashful when admitting I write chick lit. It has very little to do with the genre and everything to do with who I spend my time with and what they know about me.
I found it a little hard to admit filling my nights with shiny, hopeful chick lit because I’m a crime reporter who spends my days dealing with the worst rapes, murders and violent crimes in Melbourne. Compared to such atrocities, my side projects did, indeed, feel a little frivolous.
But, it is because of my daily proximity to murder and violence that I must fill my nights with these lighter, sunnier stories.
When I leave the office, I want to escape. Shutting out messy, grim reality helps me come back to work the next day and do my job with a clear mind. That’s the magic of any form of entertainment. That’s what chick lit offers to all of its readers and it is the job of entertainers: to balance out the serious side of life.
When I’m rolling this notion over in my head, I always think back to the first episode of Friends to be screened after the 2001 September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, and the Shanksville crash. While the United States was in crisis, and one of the most recognisable cities in the world devastated, six beloved fictional characters who lived near the epicentre of the tragedy carried on uninterrupted. At the end of that episode was a dedication to the people of New York. Now and forever, it said.
There was nothing in the episode (the One After ‘I Do’, immediately following the wedding of two of the characters) that acknowledged or engaged with what had happened in the real New York. Nor could there have been. It existed separately. And its creators, writers and actors, amid the devastation and shock, went to work and plied their trade.
This meant that the families across the country who were shaken by what had happened could rely upon this outlet to offer a sense of normalcy. It meant parents with frightened children, and anxious teens, could count on a little stability in their after-dinner/pre-bedtime routine.
Friends, like chick lit, is a light-hearted, and funny reflection of life. They both offer a little escapism from whatever their audience is they are dealing with.
I write these types of books because I want to be taken to a place that isn’t populated by crime and tragedy. I believe people read them because they are seeking a little pleasure, a little light relief. And because the genre is so broad, they may choose a title that they know will have relevance to their lives. A single woman who has had her heart broken can rely on Brigid Jones to make her smile. A mother distraught that her daughter is having trouble making friends at school can look to Deborah Disney’s Up and In.
They can crack the spine on their book (or in a growing number of cases, download it) and be taken away from their troubles. They might find the story contained within liberating, sympathetic, and empathetic. And if not that, then at the very least, they can rely on it to make them smile.
Genevieve Gannon is a Melbourne-based journalist and author. She wrote stories for music and fashion street press magazines while at university before moving to Canberra to do a journalism cadetship. In 2011 she joined the national news wire, Australian Associated Press, where she covered crime, politics and entertainment. Her work has appeared in most major Australian newspapers including The Age, The Australian and The Daily Telegraph. She currently lives in Melbourne where she is a court reporter. At night time she writes romantic comedies. Chasing Chris Campbell is her second novel.
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Chasing Chris Campbell – Blurb:
Violet is saving money: living on rice and beans and denying herself chocolate éclairs all in the name of saving for a home deposit. Once they save enough, she and Michael can buy a house, settle down and live happily ever after. But when Michael does the unthinkable, Violet is forced to rethink her life choices.
A chance encounter with Chris Campbell (first love, boy-next-door, The One That Got Away) spurs her into travelling to exotic locations she never dreamed she’d explore – Hong Kong, Vietnam, Varanasi – on a quest to catch up with Chris and lead a life of adventure.
Armed with hand sanitiser and the encouraging texts of her twin sister Cassandra, will Violet find true love before it’s too late? Or will the nerve-wracking experience of travelling send her back to Melbourne in search of safety and stability? Can she work out what she really wants before she is left with nothing?