My very first published book, I must confess, had a green stiletto on a pink cover. My second had a lipstick and a heart. The third had a girl in a bikini. I was, to my consternation and confusion, turning into that terrifyingly “puerile” creature – a “chick lit” author.
This rather tarnished position of the chick lit author really hit home when, at an august gathering, I was asked what I write, in much the same tone as one might ask a sufferer whether they were the carriers of a life-threatening infectious disease. A helpful soul in the immediate vicinity contributed, rather loudly at that, “chick lit.”
There was a perceptible freeze in the atmosphere. Folks edged away from me like they might from someone who had just removed the machete she carried around in her oversized handbag for moments like these. A brown tan hobo, if you must know, with wonderful grainy leather. The hand bag. We chick lit authors remember these details.
“Yes, I write chick lit,” I said. I also write non-fiction, humour, parenting, horror and more, I could have said, but didn’t. I own my chick lit, both what I read and what I write, never mind the supercilious sneers this genre often evokes. I have, once upon a distant past, been that young woman I wrote about, done that, worn that T-shirt.
Chick lit, a much denigrated subgenre of fiction, specifically targeted at young women, came skittering into the limelight, stilettos screeching, with the fabulous Bridget Jones’ Diary by Helen Fielding. Other books like The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Banks, The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger and Sophie Kinsella’s Diary of a Shopaholic followed, making this a wave of smart, witty, often satirical writing of women, by women, for women. Early chick lit, to quote Anna Weinberg from a piece in the long-defunct Book magazine, “navigated the perilous terrain of the modern woman’s psyche with sassy aplomb.”
Then there is the packaging. A lot of chick lit books gets slotted by their covers. I should know. I had a perfectly funny book about an overweight middle-aged woman trying to find her life’s purpose, The Reluctant Detective, shoehorned into the chick lit genre by a green stiletto on its cover. It had, I am abashed to add, no whiff of a Mr Perfect on the remote horizon and not a single swoon-worthy kiss. But it was now chick lit. Or mom lit to be accurate, but we’ll come to that later.
Jane Austen perhaps set the chick lit template – a rebellious spunky heroine, an unattainable lustworthy ideal man, conflict, domestic crisis and resolution, all within the framework of the quotidian. Her books, perhaps the chick lit of her time, can be read as a telling social commentary on the socio-cultural norms that women in her time navigated and sometimes circumvented.
In India, we have had our own wave of fabulously-written chick lit. Among the pioneering Indian books, we’ve had Almost Single by Advaita Kala, the witty and wry Girl Alone by Rupa Gulab, Piece of Cake by Swati Kaushal, and Anuja Chauhan’s endearing The Zoya Factor. Many of us, urban young (and not so young) Indian women, loved them immediately. These were protagonists we saw all around us – everyday women battling issues we all battled with, women we could identify with immediately. They weren’t matriarchs of dynasties or building business empires from scratch nor did they have overarching beauty that made grown men swoon.
Chicks ’R’ Us
The battlegrounds of these chick lit books were familiar terrain – job dissatisfaction, non-existent love lives, the pressure of the biological clock and body issues. The protagonists were far from perfect. They were real, flawed, cellulite-ridden, with hair that never behaved and in all their imperfection they gave us permission to accept ourselves in all our magnificence.
Of course, there is a formula for chick lit, in much the same way as there is a formula for romance and for thrillers. These are books meant to be quick reads, written by women, dealing with troubles faced by women in their mid-twenties to early thirties – seemingly unattainable life goals and tackling the “Having It All” syndrome. They are liberally sprinkled with fashion, brand names and shopping escapades as well as the thrill of escaping bosses that make the Wicked Witch of the East look like Santa’s Little Helper. And the good ones are, one must admit, sharply-written. Clever insights are skilfully masked under humour in a manner that court jesters deployed, calling attention to serious issues without actually making the king yell “Off with his head.”
Most of these books conclude with a “Happy Ending”, though it might not be the “Happily Ever After” trope that romance is fond of. Chick lit is more realistic. Chick lit grabs the happiness that comes its way now, knowing that “ever after” is a myth we’ve been fed for too many centuries now.
The grown up avatar of chick lit, “mom lit”, is a recent entrant into the genre shelves, tackling the real things in the lives of mothers with a mix of razor-sharp wit and empathy. Dirty diapers, vomit, poop, stretch marks and sleepless nights of feeding on a loop – these books look at it all, and with a wry, kindly eye of being there done that, worn the much burped upon T-shirt.
Some mom lit books do not even make it till sperm meets egg and creates a blastocyst. The focus of the story in these books might be the very real dilemma of deciding whether or not to have a child or the struggle to conceive. The light tone of the writing takes on the real social factors involved in the choices a woman faces in playing her reproductive role and the social pressures to have a child.
And let us not forget the voice of chick lit – often sassy, sometimes confused and mostly in the first person. The writer, and by extension the reader, takes complete ownership of the person within the pages. The “I” used often in chick lit is its redeemer. No lofty third person narrative here, for this is the intimate, unforgiving and personal gaze.
On the flip side, research from Virginia Tech states that reading chick lit could lead to body and self-esteem issues. But then, that’s par for the course for every airbrushed advertisement we see selling us hope in a jar and allure in a perfume.
Do chick lit readers care? Not really. With chick lit, you know what you’re getting – unapologetically female works with female protagonists and feminine tropes. Chick lit needs to be reclaimed, with no apologies, and without taking offence at it. It puts forth the point of view of young urban women and their lives (never mind if I’m not quite a young woman anymore, psst, don’t tell anyone) and is meant to entertain. And in that lies its power – that these books choose to be nothing more or nothing less than just that.
Kiran Manral is the author of eight published books, amongst them some chick lit. She is a TEDx speaker and a columnist.