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The term ‘chick lit’ used to describe women’s writing devalues women’s work, and books that fall under this category can be powerful expressions of feminism.
The term chick lit was coined in the 1990’s, with the rise of books like Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella and Bridget Jones’ Diary by Helen Fielding. Recently, a vibrant discussion about chick lit occurred on the popular book group Senior Reading Raccoons.
This piece quotes some of participants of that discussion. Such as reader Sucharita Hazra, who points out that the term has a “derogatory intonation.” Sujata Govindankutty says that she “used to cringe” when referring to the books she was reading as chick lit, and eventually started calling them “women’s fiction.”
Sarath Hariharan notes however, that not all books by or for women can be slotted into this category, and asserts that such bracketing is a result of going “deeper to language, plot, issue dealt with, and descriptions of love scenes.” Which is why it is surprising to see books like Anita Nair’s Ladies Coupé or Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy under ‘desi chick lit’ on a (possibly reader created) Goodreads list.
A 2013 study published in the journal Body Image, seems to confirm that chick lit may actually be harmful for women, making them feel bad about their bodies and lowering their self-esteem.
However, the same article goes on to discuss how feminist scholars are increasingly using chick lit to educate and empower women. As this insightful piece by Sneha Vakharia points out, Indian ‘chick lit’ is doing “something phenomenal for all Indian women,” by “making the flawed woman with cellulite mainstream. And therefore telling us it’s okay for us to be shabby, grouchy, hairy and desperate.”
The real issue, however, is that this negative perception about chick lit translates into practical concerns like book sales. Soraya Chemaly, in her book Rage Becomes Her, references several studies and instances which show how writing as a woman instantly puts one on the back foot. Firstly, just getting publishers to take a look at one’s work is a struggle as this experiment by novelist Catherine Nichols shows. Secondly, even when a woman manages to get published, her books are priced lower (almost 45% less!) than that of men, as this study of more than two million books published on North America over a decade shows.
Books by women writers are also significantly less likely to be reviewed, or chosen for prizes, particularly if they write about women. Two-thirds of reviewers are men, and their biases affect their writing about women’s books, especially if the women wrote on topics that were not “feminine”.
Apart from such concerns, the dismissal of chick lit as fluff also seriously devalues the creativity and hard work of women. To understand how a writer experiences this, I spoke to Anupama Jain, the author of When Padma Bani Paula, a book that has received many accolades, and which is inspired partly by her own life experiences. She points out that people assume that since her book is a fun, breezy read, it could not have taken much effort to write. However, she says, the effort that goes into infusing humour into serious issues is immense and requires an ability to laugh at oneself. Developing When Padma Bani Paula from a 300 word short story into a 70,000 word novel, certainly was no mean feat.
Her book, a greatly successful one within the genre, has been restocked multiple times on store shelves. It certainly helped that it received great reviews from credible people, with readers asserting that they assumed the book would be cheesy, but were pleasantly surprised to find that it was so much more.
The gendering of books is a marketing ploy stuck in a vicious cycle. Men don’t read “women’s books”, publishers in turn market these books only to women, for example through how the book covers are designed, and men are pulled further away from such books. This is even more damaging, because the same doesn’t apply to books written for men by men. As this article points out, such books for men exist, but they are simply called fiction. To quote Rohini Chowdhury, “I think it’s way beyond language, plot etc., this tendency of men not to read books by women writers, and to brand most such books as chick-lit.”
Nayana Bhattacharya concurs. “As little as ten years ago, Oxbridge refused to teach Jane Austen simply because she is not considered to be at par with any male writer. V S Naipaul considered all female writers to be beneath him.” She goes on to add, “I wish I had the stats and literature to hand but basically I used to work as a bookseller once, and this was like a ‘not even a secret’ open secret. If J.K. Rowling’s full name had been written on the first Harry Potter and the central protagonist had been a girl (with the same adventures) it wouldn’t have sold to the male demographic.”
When I asked Anupama Jain if she had any male readers, she with her trademark humour replied that even the men in her house hadn’t read it. She went on to tell me an anecdote about a male physics engineer who purchased her book, read it from cover to cover, and told her that “it was nice chick lit”. She has had some male readers though, she says, and the ones who did read her book had good things to say about it.
The crux of the matter then, is a publishing industry ruled by men, which caters to male readers; and a culture of toxic masculinity which presumes that men should not bother themselves with such “fluff”, even when it is written by men!
Initiatives like #readwomen2014 have encouraged people to pick up books by women and to some extent they have had an effect. People are increasingly becoming aware that women’s fiction in general and chick lit in particular, has a bad rap, and are waking up to its possibilities. Publishing itself is no longer a male bastion, and as Urvashi Butalia argues in this article (interestingly, a rebuttal to comments about how male editors are better than female editors) “more and more women, especially younger women, are bringing fresh ideas and insights to the world of publishing.” Digital publishing too, is shaking up the industry, taking power away from the gatekeepers, and putting it in the hands of the women themselves.
As authors make the genre more inclusive and broaden the themes that come under its wing, chick lit has the potential to create positive change, and become more appealing to a wider range of readers. We readers can help by reading these books more often, and by reviewing them on websites like goodreads and Amazon. And as much as I hate to say this, men are viewed as more credible than women and so, male readers especially, can demonstrate ally ship, help combat the effects of toxic masculinity and create a market for these books amongst their male friends, by actively reading and recommending these reads.
The aim should be to embrace what the genre has to offer and to enhance it. As Sangita Krishnamurti puts it, “The word chick being used affectionately for a young girl goes back to Shakespeare (Tempest, Ariel said it). I vote for owning the word and going on.”
More important are efforts towards combating this unnecessary gendering of books, especially at a young age. As Sucharita Hazra says, “Things like this compel one to raise gender discrimination discussions at very basest of the levels.”
The way I see it, chick lit is the literary version of movies like Badhaai Ho! which tackle weighted issues with a dose of humour. If we can give such movies the chance, then why not the books?
Image source: By Claude Monet – pAEsabNHoa1naA at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, Link
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