Thursday, March 15, 2007

On hating chick lit, romance, and [insert your genre here]

Diane Shipley has a post in today's Guardian Blog titled, "In Defence of Chick Lit," but there's nothing new in the article or the dozens of reader comments following it. It's the same tired old playground argument we've been hearing for the past several years. You know, the one about how chick lit is or isn't all about shoes and how it is or isn't Serious Literature....

I was tempted to post a comment, but then I thought, why do that when I can post my response here and fulfil my blogging obligation for the day?

I've read more than a dozen chick lit novels, three of them by the amazingly talented Marian Keyes, and I still don't care for the genre. I realize it's not all about shoes and shopping, but those things do seem to figure prominently in the majority of chick lit novels I've seen. I've never been a terribly enthusiastic shopper, so any mention of Prada handbags makes me yawn. But even without the giddy consumerism that seems to permeate the genre, I'd find chick lit off-putting. What irritates me most is the way the books' first-person narration emphasizes the protagonists' total self-absorption.

Of course these things are simple matters of taste. When friends ask, I give my honest opinion of chick lit. I've even blogged about it a couple of times. But what's it to Diane Shipley if people like me disparage her favorite genre? As Ms. Shipley points out,

Chick lit authors are making millions, having their books made into Oscar-nominated films and receiving fan letters by the sackload. The genre's thrived for 12 years and counting and dominates bookshops all over the world.

I suspect her enthusiasm has driven her to overstate the case just a tad, but I ignored that because I was still laughing at a bit of fuzzy logic she presented earlier in the article. Attempting to refute a charge that every chick lit novel is about "the protagonist's relentless pursuit of money, a makeover and Mr Right," Ms. Shipley wrote:

It's true, those once were the main preoccupations of chick lit novels (and what's wrong with that if readers enjoy it?) but the genre has evolved: my favourite chick lit book is Rachel's Holiday by Marian Keyes, about a young woman's recovery from drug addiction. Keyes, who arguably invented chick lit with her debut novel Watermelon in 1995....

Wait a minute. Rachel's Holiday (which I have read; it's the chick lit novel I came closest to genuinely liking) was published in 1998, when the genre was (arguably) just three years old. So it's ludicrous to use that book to demonstrate the genre's "evolution." Besides, Ms. Shipley's suggestion that the genre is no longer centered on "the protagonist's relentless pursuit of money, a makeover and Mr Right" is demonstrably untrue: walk into any bookstore and you'll find a plethora of brand-new books whose back-cover blurbs describe exactly that type of story.

It's a shame Ms. Shipley is so eager to show that the genre has "matured" to the point that it's no longer all about shoes and handbags. I'm no chick lit fan, but that doesn't mean I assume books containing those elements must be of poor literary quality. I'll agree that there's quality and variety in the genre--just as there is in every other genre.

Here's another eye-roller:

I always find that the people who criticise chick lit, both in the press and to my face (when they discover I edit a chick lit website) are those who know the least about it.

Now she's sounding like my romance-writing sisters who shrilly insist that people who don't like romance novels have never tried romance novels.

That's a stupid assertion. That's like saying if you feed enough lima beans to a recalcitrant toddler, he'll learn to love them. Trust me, he won't. (I tried it with two different kids.)

I know what it's like to have my genre trashed and my own writing unfairly categorized by people who haven't even read it; I write romance novels, after all. Not only that, I write Christian romance novels, which are widely ridiculed even in the romance community. But my intended audience is happy, so when some self-important ignoramus attempts to demonstrate her superior intellect and impeccable taste by wiping her feet on my genre, my response is a slight lift of the eyebrows and a calm, "Excuse me, but I'm not writing to please you."

It takes the wind out of their sails every time.


Shauna said...

Okay, I LOVE chick-lit. I find the first person look into the character's every thought, funny! Because, let's face it, we all think a lot of things we would never dare to say!

That being said, I've found some chick-lit whose writing was weak. For me, if the author is able to make me feel the emotions of the characters, it pretty much doesn't matter what genre it is. The exception being anything to, uh, risky.

The magic in great writing is to draw your reader in, make them fall in love with the characters, feel the emotions, make them laugh and cry along with the story.

I guess my favorite genre would be anything with romance. But more than favoring one genre over another, I find that I have favorite authors simply because I like their style of writing.

I'm tired and I'm rambling. But before I go, let me just say, Brenda, that you are one of my favorite authors!

Katrina Stonoff said...

Are you my mother?!?

I was forcefed lima beans. I threw up.

Katie Hart said...

Lima beans taste like soggy paper wrapped in cellophane.

As far as the obsession with shoes in chick-lit . . . I've read lots of chick-lit and it seems to be simply a marketing ploy. Mention shoes on the cover and they'll know it's chick-lit (same as having a couple embracing or a guy w/o a shirt on a romance novel). One chick-lit book I just finished had the phrase "and Dee didn't bring the right shoes!" on the cover. The plot had nothing to do with shoes. The book mentioned how Dee found high fashion clothes at discounts, and one pair of shoes was given as a gift and later worn, but that's it. Imagine the back of A Family Forever saying something about a main character getting clothing caught in the gears of a bike and you'll get the picture of how unrelated stuff like that is to the books.

Brenda Coulter said...

Shauna, thanks for the kind words.

Katrina, I now regret having come so close to comparing chick lit to lima beans. Chick lit isn't that bad!

Katie, as far as I've seen, shopping is one of the main interests of every chick-lit heroine. I'm not an enthusiastic shopper, so perhaps I notice all that designer name-dropping more than the average reader.

cantnever said...

I l-o-v-e lima beans. Especially BABY lima beans! :oD

Tracy Montoya said...

Brenda, I'm not arguing with you--just trying to understand your point, because you've written similar posts before. I guess I'm confused as to why wishing people would try a romance(or a chick lit) before they mouth off about them is "stupid." Or is it the blanket assertion you're objecting to, when Shipley and others like her insist that "if you don't like [genre/sub-genre], you MUST not have tried it?"

I think many people do dismiss all sorts of types of "women's fiction" sight unseen, and that phenomenon is worth commenting on. Why are books written mainly by women for women seen by some as something lesser than books written by men? Why are romances subjected to more ugly stereotypes than the traditionally male-dominated genres? Would our genre (or chick lit) get such a bad rap if MORE people read a well-loved, contemporary example before sounding off?

In my experience, there seem to be plenty of readers who might like romance if they could get over the stereotypes. I know SO many women who "hate" romances sight unseen because, and I quote, "They're anti-feminist. They glorify rape. The heroes are offensively macho. The heroines are about as assertive as wet dishrags. They're all about sex with no plot." And my favorite, "They are all by sad, lonely women who need a date." In fact, I was one of the people clinging to this ridiculous image, until someone put a smart, funny category romance into my hands and dared me to READ it.

The same people I've known who stay away from romance novels for the reasons stated above, btw, often lurrrvve Nicholas Sparks and Robert James Waller, or old Meg Ryan and new Reese Witherspoon romantic comedies. I find that interesting--and telling in that it's the packaging or the image that seems to bother them, not the overall plot conventions.

Of course, I've also known people who have read romances and prefer to read other genres instead--and that's totally fine. Shipley should have left some room for the people who don't like chick lit because they HAVE tried it and don't care for it. But there do seem to be a lot of people willing to knock romance (and chick lit) due to a rigid and erroneous mental picture of it, and I don't see anything wrong with talking about this phenomenon or suggesting that this type of detractor read one or two before sounding off.

P.S. I'm not shrill about it.

Brenda Coulter said...

In my experience, there seem to be plenty of readers who might like romance if they could get over the stereotypes.

Tracy, that's been my experience, too. But while I make every effort to entice readers to sample my genre, I don't believe it's incumbent on even the most vocal romance critic to give us a "fair hearing" before speaking out. Personal taste is exactly that. So for me to suggest that a reader's expressed dislike of romance novels must stem from her ignorance of the genre would be arrogant; and for me to hint that she has no right to speak her mind even when she's dead wrong ;-) would be intolerant.

I despise candy-coated worms. Whether or not I have ever tried candy-coated worms is nobody's business but mine. It's my right not only to hate candy-coated worms, but to talk about hating them. Of course, the candy-coated worm industry is always free to try to change my mind. But they'd better be careful how they go about it, because they'll never win my loyalty by telling me I'm an idiot for not liking something I've never tried.

All I'm saying is that it's not our place to judge what others choose to read or what they say about the books they have or have not read. When we romance lovers make statements like, "People who don't like romance have never read romance" and "People who haven't read romance have no business criticizing it," we're displaying intolerance while demanding tolerance from others.

P.S. Tracy, I've never heard you be shrill about anything.

diane s said...

Hi Brenda,

(I've actually commented here before when you were the victim of someone stealing your posts for another site - you probably don't remember though!)

I'm sorry you found my logic fuzzy and my argument's evolution not satisfactory - you can't please all of the people etc… I said my favourite chick lit book not to show the genre’s evolution in 3 years though – just to state a fact. I could give other examples of its evolution but my point wasn’t to draw a timeline of subject matter. That would be boring and defensive in the EXTREME!

But you criticise chick lit and my defence of it before saying that "I know what it's like to have my genre trashed and my own writing unfairly categorized by people who haven't even read it" so it surprises me you'd want to write such a negative post.

My blog's main point was that chick lit is unfairly maligned by literary snobs, (and it's always genres primarily aimed at women that seem to receive such treatment, which strikes me as sad). Why can't we all just get along, and not sneer at each other's taste?

I've never read a romance novel and don't particularly want to but I don't have anything bad to say about the genre, its readers, or any other genre I'm not interested in, like sci-fi or westerns. Yes, I have the right to say those things. I have the right to do pour scorn over everyone and every thing I come across under the veil of free speech - doesn't mean I will or should.

And as the editor of a chick lit website (which, as I recall, you were happy to befriend on Myspace…) you must appreciate that I have more knowledge and experience of the genre than you, and that when I talk about the people who criticise it, I'm talking from a LOT of experience.

My biggest bugbear is when people try to frame a personal preference as a moral choice (often thinking ‘I don’t want to read about sex and shopping, so I’m superior to those who do’) or an intellectual one (‘I love the Iliad and you don’t so you’re not as clever as me’).

Can’t we all just read what we want and be happy? The fact a romance writer (romance writers having strong links to chick lit in many cases) wants to pick holes in my argument is a bit of a bitter sting.

PS: that first para you quoted? NOT exaggerating.

diane s said...

One more thing, I wasn't saying 'if you don't like chick lit, you haven't tried it'. I was saying that a lot of its critics haven't read any, that's a fact - they tell me so regularly! I resent the implication that I'm simply arrogant.

If you try it and hate it, fine. But respect my right to enjoy it instead of denigrating me and an entire genre - that's my point.