I’m planning to participate in NaNoWriMo for the first time this year. I’m going to write another post on this blog about that sometime soon, outlining my process and hopefully, updating as I get my words in. Today I was scrolling through the forums on the NaNoWriMo site and I came across a thread about the difference between Women’s Fiction and Chick-Lit. I was disheartened to read the comments say things like ‘I make no value judgment between the two genres, but women’s fiction has more substance and is less frivolous than chick-lit. I want to write about a woman’s growth in life, not about her shoes.’
(Not a direct quote, but this is pretty much sums up what the women were saying.) And since I have all the feelings about disparaging a genre written for and by women, I wrote an essay in response. I’ve pasted that essay, and added more to it below.
I am going have to disagree with the idea that women’s fiction and Chick-lit are different genres. As a writer of chick-lit, I have a vested interest in this topic! Chick-lit is looked down upon these days, but I believe it is because of the way society has devalued women’s activities/interests, and not because of the value of the writing itself. Like the rest of Women’s Fiction, it’s a genre written for and by women, but chick-lit has a particular feel, a tone, that is not for everyone. But that does not mean the genre is without substance, or that it is of less value than the rest of women’s fiction.
Women’s Fiction is a large umbrella of books for and written by women, which are about how women’s romance/career/family/friendships contribute to her personal experiences and character development. Women’s fiction novels tend to have an older heroine (over thirty), and may or may not have a romance plot, with or without a happily ever after.
Subgenres in Women’s Fiction are Historical, Upmarket, Commercial, Romantic, and of course the dreaded Chick-Lit. I say dreaded, because chick-lit has gone out of style in recent years, and doesn’t have the momentum it did in the nineties. These days, women’s psychological thrillers are more popular. Chick-lit is technically defined as humourous women’s fiction. It’s the romantic comedy, instead of the drama. But chick-lit can, and often does, have serious themes behind the comedy. When we think of movies, we can always find examples of funny movies with serious themes. While you were Sleeping comes to mind, or even Moonstruck. But funny books are often relegated as fluff, and of less value than their upmarket counterparts.
In my opinion, the chick-lit market was over saturated it it’s height of popularity, and the quality being produced took a hit as a result. But when you look back to the origins of chick-lit, while the books were lighthearted in tone, the subject matters often were decidedly less frivolous. Marian Keyes is arguably the queen of chick-lit, and her novels may seem light and fluffy, with pictures of shoes or sushi on the covers. They are full of girlfriends drinking wine, and first dates with sexy men. But her books are about very serious topics: the death of a spouse, drug addition, mental illness, and domestic violence. To be able to weave these heavy topics together with humour and sensitivity is a skill that few can master, and should not be thought of as being less valid than those who write upmarket Women’s fiction.
That is not to say there isn’t a place for less weighty topics in chick-lit either. The popularity of the Shopaholics books is proof of that. Escapist reading has a ton of value for many people, especially during uncertain times. To write these well is no easy feat. Comedy as a whole is much trickier than I thought it would be.
I believe the perception that books with shoes on the covers, or ones that take place in high-end shops are less substance is rooted in sexism. Perceiving a lower value (less substance) to typical women’s activities (buying shoes, gossiping, working in fashion) is a subtle way of devaluing women. No one would ever say a book was frivolous because there was a hunting, or a poker playing scene, which are activities which are perceived as masculine.
I’ve had many hobbies in my days, and have always been drawn to those activities which are considered to be for women. I knit, crochet, and do needlepoint. I cook and bake. I design clothes and sew, and once made a dress a week for a challenge. I make jewelry, and build dollhouses, and now, I write Chick-Lit. Even my work history has been in female dominated areas: human resources, high fashion, education, and psychological counselling. I am also an unabashed, outspoken feminist, and over the years I have heard every crack imaginable about my choice of hobbies and my wasting time with superficial, less serious pursuits. It has improved, over the years, and I get less eye rolls about knitting while calling myself a feminist than I used to twelve years ago, but many of the misconceptions are still there.
Activities that have been traditionally (for whatever reason) embraced and carried out by women are seen by society as being of less value. And I believe that is part of the reason for the negativity around chick-lit. These books are about women, being women: shopping, eating cupcakes, and drinking wine. There is nothing less substantial about their experiences. Navigating adulthood as a woman is not less compelling a story if the heroine loves shoes, or make-up.
I’m feeling a little defensive about this topic, (as I feel defensive about people who disparage the romance genre, as well). The book I will be writing for NaNo will be chick-lit. It will be funny, and at times light-hearted, but it will deal with single-motherhood, career struggles, sexism, and the challenge of living up to early expectations. It will have substance, and may even have some killer shoes.
(Probably not the shoes. I’m not really a shoe person.)