Nicky Wells reflects on the merits of ‘chick lit’ as Polly Courtney drops HarperCollins.

Quite recently, author Polly Courtney dropped her publisher, Harper Collins, because she felt that her work was being marketed wrong, and that the cover of her latest book was too racy and would not attract her target audience.  She’s adamant that she’s not writing ‘chick lit’ and she would like to be taken more seriously.  She has decided to go down the indie route… and fair play to Polly!  See the full story here:  http://www.channel4.com/news/does-the-chick-lit-label-dumb-down-womens-fiction

The story caught my attention for a personal reason, and these are my personal reflections on the subject.  While Polly is trying to distance herself from chick lit, I’ve been completely embracing the concept for my little indie marketing campaign of my novel, Sophie’s Turn. I don’t consider myself dumb, and I do love chick lit. Am I missing something here?  I have no insight into Polly’s history with HarperCollins, nor am I questioning her decision or her motivations.  I am not writing to discuss her actions or attack her views. But the story did get me thinking… about the merits of chick lit.

Why should ‘chick lit’ be a bad thing?  Or, for that matter, a ‘dumb’ thing?  ‘Trash’? I haven’t looked up any definitions (although I am sure they abound) but to me, ‘chick lit’ has always been short-hand for contemporary romantic comedy that is commercial by its very nature.  But that’s quite a mouthful, and the logical acronym (CRCCbV…?) isn’t terribly catchy either.  So ‘chick lit’ is as good a label as any, and it is just that to me: a label.  Not a worthiness judgement, but a label that signals to the reader, “here is a fun book that is lighthearted and entertaining.”

The unspoken deal between chick lit author and chick lit reader is that there has to be a happy ending because chick lit offers an escape from day-to-day routines and chores.  The idea is that the reader walks away happy, buoyed and cheered.  I view chick lit authors as my generation’s ‘new romantics’ (and don’t they always get a lot of grief?!?)  Undoubtedly there are certain marketing strategies typically associated with chick lit:  lots of pastel colours, a bit of glitz, a bit of glamour, stylised drawings (often involving flowers or butterflies).  In fact, in designing the cover for Sophie’s Turn, I deployed these pointers to make the cover appealing to my audience (pink background, lilac writing, picture featuring a flower and a butterfly).  So what?

In essence, chick lit to me is light, happy, pink, fluffy, and with an obligatory happy ending.  Does that make it any less worthy?  Chick lit doesn’t look at heavy-duty issues worthy of the label ‘literary fiction'; it doesn’t grapple with politics, economics or ecology.  Chick lit authors aren’t likely to win the Booker prize any time soon.  But that doesn’t by default mean that chick lit is ‘dumb’, or devoid of content or meaning.  On the contrary, chick lit considers the very root of human life: relationships.  Happy ones, and unhappy ones.  Chick lit heroines are forever looking for love, losing love, betraying love, cheating for love, fighting for love, despairing of ever finding love.  Increasingly, chick lit heroines are also moving on in the relationship cycle; having found Mr. Right, they would like to start a family.  It turns out that some can’t get pregnant, some miscarry.  Big issues are being tackled here! And then they move on into parenthood: the joys of being up all night with small children, changing nappies, feeling exhausted and weary and not in the slightest interested in S.E.X. while husband is cheerily demanding a quick return to normality… the challenges of teenagers and older children going off the rails, or starting their relationship cycles… More big issues being tackled here.  In fact, one might argue that chick lit, through its very nature, offers a kind of ongoing social commentary on our times.

I’d say that makes chick lit quite inspirational.  Consider the fact that the heroines usually get their happy ending; they may be bumbling or dipsy, but they get there in the end.  And the underlying message to the reader is: so will you!  Well then, what’s not to like? Don’t we all deserve a little TLC for the soul sometimes?

And all of this is a prelude for me to say: I am proud to be a ‘chick lit’ author, and I greatly enjoy reading chick lit myself.   I don’t think that in so doing, I succumb to any kind of sexism by way of marketing; it’s perhaps more that I respond to type.  So perhaps it boils down to personal choice.  And that’s just fine by me… :-)

4 responses to “Nicky Wells reflects on the merits of ‘chick lit’ as Polly Courtney drops HarperCollins.

  1. Whenever people used to ask me what I did work wise I used to say “I work in a bank” and then add the qualifier “just a secretary though”. When I left work after having three children and I was asked what I did, I would respond “I’m just a housewife/mum”. It was said in almost an apologetic way. Even as recently as 3 weeks ago when it came up in conversation that I had written a novel, I found myself saying, “it’s just romance.” I could kick myself. Why is everything “just….” when there’s actually no “just” about it. All three things I’ve mentioned have had an integral role to play. Without those spokes the wheel would stop turning.

    So now I’ve made a point of when talking about my writing to talk about it seriously rather than laugh it off as meaningless pink fluff. Blimey, I spent a good ten months of hard work writing my novel so why should I dismiss it in such an off-hand manner?

    Romance is serious stuff in real life, it makes us laugh, it makes us cry and stirs every emotion in between – it can be told in so many different ways. The tags are just there to point the reader in the right direction as there are so many different types of romance and Chick Lit is one of those. Just because Chick Lit is light hearted it doesn’t mean the author has no depth. Some of the best Chick Lit novels show a real understanding of human nature, the emotions, the feelings, how relationships work or don’t work. Authors should be praised for their insight.

    I think the reader appreciates all this too. Okay, they may very well know beforehand that there is going to be a happy ending, but it’s the getting there that makes it fun, interesting and captivating. For me, as a reader, the thrill is in the ride, the twists and turns, the ups and downs and the feel good factor that I can take with me afterwards.

    Long live Chick Lit! In fact long live Romance whatever the sub-genre.

    Thanks Nicky for a really interesting talking point.

  2. Sue, thank you so much for leaving a comment and starting a discussion. Hopefully lots of other folks with tell us what they think, too!

    You make some really perceptive points, and I love the way you describe the ‘just’ prefix syndrome (I suffer from this myself!). Don’t you think a lot of the ‘I just write romance’ attitude stems from the fact that it’s considered… well, light hearted and fluffy? And you’re absolutely right, just because that may be true doesn’t mean that the author has no depth. In fact, I think that it takes real skill and some considerable life experience to adequately capture, betray and occasionally carricature emotions. And I would add, once more, that just because romance is light hearted and perhaps fluffy doesn’t mean that it is devoid of meaning, depth, or content.

    Thanks again for joining me on my blog and leaving a comment, I really appreciate it. xx

  3. Thanks, Nicky. Well said. I figured out a long time ago that I wasn’t going to win any of those great literary prizes, but that’s okay. Sometimes I crave a lobster dinner and other times I want dessert. Books with humor and a light-hearted look at life are just as important as the more serious stuff—and for me, a lot more fun to read.

  4. Hello! Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment, and for your lovely feedback. D’you know, that’s exactly how I feel: I read a wide variety of genres myself, but often when I’ve read something more serious and heavy, I feel I’d like something more lighthearted and easygoing next. Cool that you like lobster dinners: they’re my favourite… and my heroine, Sophie, gets her fair share of those, too!

    Thanks again for stopping by, and come back soon!
    Nicky x

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