Plenty of assumptions are made about chick lit and romance novels. Let’s dig into the stigma, where it comes from, and why none of it should stop you from loving the books you love.
We all have books sitting on our shelves that we’d prefer no one to see – the books we’re a tad bit ashamed to admit we not only read but also loved. The romance novels relegated to the guilty pleasure pile, hidden away, while your half-read copy of Anna Karenina stands on proud display. But if you really love a book, why should you feel any guilt in enjoying it?
Why the Guilt?
Of course there shouldn’t be any guilt. Does your penchant for chick lit and romance novels really hurt anyone? But yet, that niggling sense of shame lingers.
There is a long history of romance novels (or anything in the chick lit or women’s fiction genre) being pushed aside as “guilty pleasures” and this ultimately undermines their value. Even beyond books, that which is by women and for women has often been seen as inferior. Frivolity is assumed, silliness even. If a book has a pink cover and a happy ending it’s usually not taken seriously and, in turn, the woman reading it isn’t taken seriously either.
The idea that an overtly feminine work is less worthy of respect is a fundamentally misogynistic one. That same approach is what makes a love for make-up or fashion superficial and a dedication to football somehow more respectable. But this is 2020 and we should be long past that patriarchal nonsense.
Dealing With Misconceptions
In an interview with Vogue, author Jennifer Weiner noted how frustrating it was when her books were labeled as chick lit, a description she feels “came to mean disposable, beach-blanket fluff, with no depth or insight or meaning.” Authors and readers alike struggle with assumptions about the shallowness associated with the genre and the dismissiveness that comes with it. These misconceptions often come from people who have never even read anything from the genre and yet the ideas seep through to those who have. So when someone asks what your favorite book is, you rattle off some obscure classic rather than the Sophie Kinsella novel you’ve read so often that the whole book has started to disintegrate (true story).
The world of contemporary romance and chick-lit novels is a varied one. More and more, it’s become a space to push for better representation and more diverse narratives. Stacy Abrams, well known for her run for the governor’s seat in Georgia in 2018, has a background as a romance and suspense novelist under the pseudonym Selena Montgomery. During an interview with the Washington Post, she discussed using her books to “show herself and other black women that they could be ‘as adventurous and attractive as any white woman.'”
Best selling romance novelist, Alisha Rai, has made a point of using romance as a space to encourage consent culture and sex-positivity, while Sarah Maclean, a prolific author of historical romance, has been vocal about the underlying feminist messaging in her novels. Perhaps most importantly, queer narratives are also appearing more and more thanks to authors like Camille Perri and Alyssa Cole.
Chick lit and romance books have evolved and even if they hadn’t, the misconceptions of the genres have always been tinged with a hint of sexism and a decent amount of ignorance. There is more than meets the eye when it comes to these books and to the women who read them. Assumptions to the contrary are more than outdated. They are unfounded. It’s time we treat them as such instead of allowing them to cast our pleasures in a guilty shadow.
Own Your Pleasure!
…The premise of “book as guilty pleasure” is that one should not enjoy some books that one does, and it is an idea rooted in the cult of literary snobbery. For me, books are divided into books that interest me and books that don’t. I own all my pleasures.Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, New York Times (April, 2020)
Incidentally, many of the books that women are shamed for reading are the ones that put their pleasure first. I’m not just talking about the sexy books (although those are great!), I mean the novels that put women and their happiness right at the core of the story. Reading a novel about an interesting, clever woman who not only goes after what she wants but gets it can be a deeply cathartic experience. It allows the reader to live vicariously. to become the kind of woman who lives at the center of her own story. The pleasure embedded in that is immense and something to celebrate rather than be ashamed of.
In romance and chick lit novels, we get to see women being powerful. We see them grow, love, and change their world as they see fit. That we often get to watch someone falling in love with them because of these qualities is the icing on the cake. There is nothing implicitly wrong with taking pleasure in this. Shame only comes from outside and often ignorant eyes.
Just because the very male-dominated world of literary snobbery doesn’t take the books you love seriously, it doesn’t mean you need to do the same. For women, pleasure is political, radical even. You just have to own it.
What some of your fave chick lit and romance books?. Let us know in the comments section below. This is a guilt-free space!