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Saturday, April 16, 2011

Women's fiction versus other genres of literature

Today I read an interesting article over at Big Al's Books and Pal's on the topic of differentiating romance and chick lit genres. I think that Donna Fasano, the invited expert, explained the differences quite well. At least they made sense to me.

If I understood her correctly, while each genre may and generally does involve a romantic element the focus of each is different. In the romance novel the romance itself is the focus, whereas in the chick lit novel the romantic relationship is at most a factor in the protagonist's growth or journey. Donna says that in chick lit, "Whether the protagonist ends up with a man is not as relevant as the learning process she experiences through various situations that culminate in her resolving her issues..." See the full article for more: BigAl's Books and Pals: Chick Lit and Romance Fiction / A Defining Moment.

A lively discussion follows this article. I was surprised to find a comment attacking the genres for being 'silly' and 'boring'. For one thing, the comment was not on topic. No one asked for a personal opinion of the genres. Secondly, it was rude and arrogant. The attacker tried to impose his distaste for the genre on others. Third, it wasn't smart, since he is now an author with at least one less potential fan. But I digress.

The comment that the genres are silly and boring did start me thinking: Romance and chick lit have been mocked and belittled for ages, yet they are as popular as ever. No amount of eye-rolling or finger-gagging is going to change the fact that women love these books. But despite their popularity, have the genres truly been accepted as legitimate forms of literature? Yes, we read them, but how many of us are proud of it? Are we more likely to boast about reading a well-known piece of historical fiction or the latest chick-lit favourite?

Why can't we enjoy both without feeling guilty? Why do we need to sneak around to get our romance on, reading historical romance and romantic suspense novels, for example - forms of fiction that combine romance with a more accepted genre - in order to feel justified in our choice of book? Why is romance bad? There is a reason that most works of fiction - murder mysteries, science fiction, fantasy - tend to include a romantic element. Romance, love, attraction - these things are part of the human experience. We all want to have some amount of them in our reading. Some of us want to wade a little deeper into the waters than others. To each her own.

The majority of romance and chick-lit fans are probably women, but I'm certain there are men who enjoy these books too, or would if there weren't such a stigma surrounding them. Remember the depiction of a man reading a Playboy magazine hidden between the pages of something more socially acceptable? Now picture a man reading a chick lit novel held inside a Playboy magazine. Now stop ROFLing and come back to me. Seriously, guys, you deserve a good love story as much as we do. These days, authors are writing books for men that follow the same patterns as the chick lit novel. See Elizabeth Ann West's discussion of chick-lit for men.

To the critics of romance and chick-lit, I say this: You are entitled to your opinion, but examine whether it is in fact an opinion of the works within the genres, or a reflection of an internal conflict. All of the books in a genre can't be bad, and it's okay to like a book that falls within a genre that you wouldn't normally gravitate towards. I'm not sure it makes sense to criticize an entire genre for being silly or boring. I do appreciate the attacker's comment though, since it has opened my eyes to my own critic. I too have spent time, if only through my own feelings of embarrassment, shunning the romance and chick-lit genres. Well, no more!

A good book is a good book, no matter where it comes from. I am grateful to authors like Sophie Kinsella and Marian Keyes for accompanying me on what would otherwise have been seriously boring plane rides.


For more on Donna Fasano, please see her guest post on my blog: A Life of Comedic Plights.

Elizabeth Ann West is working on her first novel. Learn more about her by visiting her web site.


Noah Mullette-Gillman said...

I imagine that a similar article could be written by those of us who still enjoy our comic books?

BooksAndPals said...

Excellent post, Cookie's Mom. I freely admit that I also used to feel the same way as the commenter who disliked the Romance and Chick Lit genres. (My admission of that is a large part of what inspired Donna's post.) Disliking something you've never tried hardly makes sense though, does it?

Cookie’s Mom said...

True, Noah. Other genres have come under attack also, such as religious/Christian works and the occult (vampires and werewolves). Yes, a lot of people are jumping on these bandwagons and the result is often sub-standard literature, but this should not reflect poorly on an entire genre.

Cookie’s Mom said...

Agreed, Big Al. I have also been there, so my critique of the critic is also a critique of my past self. I have discovered some really wonderful reads by opening myself up to genres that I previously avoided.

Ryan Fitzgerald said...

I think a lot of this comes down to splitting hairs. I don't dismiss the merits of any genre of fiction. They all have their pros and cons and are enjoyed by a wide variety of readers. I may roll my eyes when someone professes to liking or reading a genre I personally don't care for, but in the end it all boils down to this: It's just not my cup of tea.

There are plenty of folks who don't like fantasy or science fiction (and there are plenty that get upset when people say science fiction is a subgenre of fantasy) and have the same reactions.

I remember at University, there was a woman I was going to ask out. And then she said she thought fantasy and science fiction were a waste of time. Needless to say, I never asked her out since I felt that I would have a bad time courting someone who thought what I enjoy writing most is a waste of time.

There are folks who get up in arms about just about every genre out there. I think romance just gets more press.

As a side note, I'd replace your mention of occult above with "paranormal." Occult is a different genre altogether. :) But that's just me splitting hairs. See?

Cookie’s Mom said...

Good points, Carp. Thanks for that correction too. I haven't spent much time in the paranormal or occult genres, so I haven't quite got the lingo down.

With respect to the woman you almost asked out, what about the thinking that opposites attract? Perhaps you two could have learned from each other. Or is that just the romantic in me talking? ;)

Louise Wise said...

Great post. When I used to be asked what genre I wrote I always used to say with a shrug, Oh just chick lit, as if it were no biggie.
Now I say my genre proudly and DARE them to smirk.
Comedy is HARD to write, and the only reason it's denounced as silly is because women got there first! If men had began the genre, it would be something to be proud of, I'm sure!

Louise Wise said...

BTW I've linked this to my blog.

Cookie’s Mom said...

Hi Louise. I love that you are proud of what you do! Thanks for the link back! Your book, A Proper Charlie, sounds fun... speaking of the notion that 'opposites attract'! I've downloaded a sample.

Donna Fasano said...

Sue, I want to thank you for your support.

I have dealt with this type of dismissive attitude before. I've learned to ignore such ignorance, but I have to admit that it still rankles. The fact that the statistics I presented regarding the romance genre's sales figures and market share were so casually dismissed just boggles my mind. I realize that this wasn't a personal attack, but it's difficult not to feel insulted and demeaned by such labels as 'silly' and 'boring'. I really would like to know if the man making those determinations has ever read a romance novel or a chick lit book.

Donna Fasano said...

Louise, I understand. You go, sister! :-)

Ryan Fitzgerald said...

Well, when you get the chance to read my stuff, you'll become more familiar with the paranormal. :D

While I'm sure there is much we could have learned from each other (even quite possibly that fantasy is not a waste of time), I just couldn't reconcile spending my time with a person when she thought so little of what I intended to make my job.

Maria Romana said...

"I really would like to know if the man making those determinations has ever read a romance novel or a chick lit book."

I often wonder this, too. It's so-o-o easy to criticize that with which one is not very familiar. I'm not crazy about sitcoms or reality TV, but I haven't watched them all. There might be some that I would really enjoy. Unless a person has studied a majority of any body of work, his dismissive statements tell us more about _him_ than the work he is dismissing.


Louise Wise said...

Thank you Cookie's mum. Appreciate that.

Donna, thank to you too! :D

Miss Good on Paper said...

I know a lot of book snobs and though I tend to read (and write) literary fiction, I would never mock someone else's reading choices. As long as people are reading, how can we complain? Thanks for sharing this post!

I recently wrote a post about reading a self-help book and was embarassed to admit it at first. I won't be embarassed again, though. =)

Miss GOP

Donna Fasano said...

Great point, Maria!

Miss GOP, what I regret most of all about the 'silly' and 'boring' labels is that it demeans romance readers. I love those women (and men...yes, I have a few fan letters written by males). Someone really smart coined the phrase: Reading is fundamental. And like you...I agree that as long as people are reading, we shouldn't complain.

Unknown said...

I know many men that read "chick-lit" if only as an excuse to say they are spying on the enemy! LOL. I think eReaders will really help incognito readers of all genres. I know it's made reading erotica easier for me...I don't have to worry about my husband or children finding a print version lying around.

Thanks for the link, Cookie. I really believe both genres are going to stretch and expand as new voices and ideas become popular downloads.
My novel isn't just for male readers, it's primarily for female readers who want to see the inside of a guy's head. It is inspired by so many things, but mostly my shock when I met my husband: he cleaned his house, used Bath and Body Works Mandarin Orange body wash because it woke him up in the morning, and trust me, there is no doubt about his orientation. But I know tons of modern men just like him. They don't live the stereotype slob, just give me some boobs and feed me mentality at all. They are just as complex as women are with their careers and love for their families.

So it's been really fun to think about how emotional experiences influence my male main character and contrast it to the reactions I can more easily relate to in the female characters around him: his fiancee, his stepmother, his sister. Thanks again!! And anyone who still thinks romance and chick-lit is silly, well I say show me how realistic most thrillers and murder mysteries are. Because the crime rates just don't back up that everyone is running around and being a secret serial killer on the weekends.

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