I started writing in 1995, after I had graduated from Berkeley and moved to Los Angeles to find work and to stay with my college boyfriend. I planned on writing romance novels, because they had helped me keep my sanity while I pursued a double major. After a few years in Los Angeles, and after I’d sold my first romance novel, I realized that I had a story idea that didn’t fit in the relatively rigid parameters of romance. It was a story about three women trying to figure out how they were supposed to live life, with Los Angeles as a background. I had no idea who would buy it or where it would fit in, so I tucked it away on the shelf. Then, in 2000, rumors began to emerge about a new kind of women’s fiction—one they were tentatively calling “city girl books.” In fact, that was the original name of the Chick Lit line that Harlequin produced. Bridget Jones burst onto the scene; articles were being written up. I had found the perfect niche for my quirky, humorous, coming-of-age stories.
When I tell people outside of the writing community that I write Chick Lit, they usually wear a polite, humoring smile. Those that are avid readers usually give me a patronizing smirk—oh, you write those books. The thing is, if I asked any one of them to define Chick Lit, they would not have a clear answer. They’d probably say, “Those are those dating books, right? The ones with the bright pink covers?” Or they would shrug and say that, although they don’t know how to define it, they know it when they see it. Like art. Or, you know, pornography.
I’m here to tell you Chick Lit isn’t what they think it is. It probably isn’t even what you think it is. And the parameters and definitions for Chick Lit are evolving daily.
Although by no means the be-all, end-all definition, this is my own description of the Chick Lit genre: Chick Lit is a subgenre of the larger classification of women’s fiction, generally a coming-of-age or “coming-of-consciousness” story where a woman’s life is transformed by the events of the story. Again, I’m sure you’ll be able to see exceptions to the rule (that darned Shopaholic girl is barely transformed if credit woes continue to be her conflict in book after book) but for the most part, you see a woman or women change for the better in a Chick Lit novel. They’re usually fairly upbeat, too. You’re not going to see “uplifting” stories in the Oprah-book-club definition of the term (which is generally a way of saying, “You’ll be weeping like the first time you saw Titanic”). Chick Lit generally has a sense of humor. It has a funny tone and voice, but, more important, the characters don’t take themselves too seriously, no matter how dire the circumstances. My favorite examples of this are Marian Keyes’s books. Infidelity, pregnancy, Hodgkin’s disease, drug addiction . . . she tackles all these topics, but still manages to be funny about them, in startlingly effective ways. As a general rule, Chick Lit deals with topics that affect a woman’s life. So: friendship dynamics. Glass ceilings. Over-nurturing. Kids and biological clocks. And, of course, love.
Is this to say that women have absolutely no interest in things like, say, global warming, gas prices, genetic engineering, or even the shotgun formation? Of course not. Is Chick Lit meant to “write down” to women by appealing to these subjects? Absolutely not. Still, these topics are truly important to women, and rubbing it in their faces that “wanting a husband when there’s a hole in the ozone layer is frivolous” is not only intellectual snobbery, it’s pointless. And if you don’t believe that, then you could very well be an excellent writer, but you’re not going to be writing Chick Lit. Good luck with another aisle in the bookstore.
For those writers who take offense at reviewers and critics who call Chick Lit “fluffy,” “frothy,” or “dumb” and who want to counter by making Chick Lit novels literary heavyweights, I have only one piece of advice: switch to decaf. Seriously. As Chick Lit authors, we’ll have messages, themes, and insights, of course. But our primary job is to entertain. We’re not finding the cure to cancer here.
At the same time, the best compliment I ever got was from a reader at a book signing in Los Angeles. Her mother had died, she told me. During that apparently lengthy process, when she was frantic with stress and melancholy, she reread my first Chick Lit book, L.A. Woman, over and over. It comforted her and gave her a mental escape.
If you can do that, entertain and comfort, and maybe even give some insight, then you’ve done your job.
Copyright © 2006 by Cathy Yardley. All rights reserved.