So… is Chick-Lit dead then? by Milly Johnson
Every so often someone rolls out the old chestnut question ‘Is chick-lit dead?’ It must be due soon as we haven’t heard it for a bit, but on a slow news day, it’ll be there – mark my words. The newspapers will round up a few authors to argue the case for the defence and someone else with ‘literary’ leanings will tell everyone how much of a lesser genre it is and then it will all go away again. Until next time. I don’t really think any of us writers of women’s fiction are particularly worried. Some of us are more annoyed than others about the label ‘chick-lit’. It doesn’t offend me, but nor do I think it applies to me. One of the reasons I started writing the sort of books I do is because those true ‘chick-lit’ books about young PR girls sharing flats in London didn’t have any relevance to me. Katie Fforde calls what we write ‘Old boiler-lit’. What does slightly annoy me is that it’s become a derogatory title. It’s used against any book written by a woman and has come to mean ‘light, fluffy, forgettable, no substance, pulp.’ That’s doing my sisters a grand disservice. There is some truly beautiful writing, amazing plots, fabulous characters so beautifully drawn it’s as if I know them personally and gasp-inducing lines in women’s fiction. My heart has soared with hope and emotion at the end of some Mills and Boons. Catherine Cookson books used to make me cry on trains. I wanted to write books like she did that took a reader on an Alton Towers ride of emotion, the full gamut. So I did. Just because my books have a happy ending, it doesn’t make them ‘light’. A sunflower on the cover doth not a frothy book make. People in my bracket write about life and all its facets – the humour, the friendships, the moments that makes your heart sigh and also the dark side of it, the hurt and betrayals, the frustrations. Unless we’ve lived in a shed on top of a mountain with a Waitrose hamper dropped off by helicopter every day, we’ve all had our mix of that light and shade. Some, admittedly, more than others. But life does sometimes chuck up a real happy ending. It could happen to anyone of us. We want our books to give you hope that it could happen to you too.
I chose to have happy endings to my stories, uplifting ones (not all uplifting ending books end happily – but I’m greedy). I wanted my readers to know that by opening one of my books, they’d strapped themselves on to a Big Dipper ride. But does it make it any less thrilling to know they’d get off safely at the end? I’d like to argue that Agatha Christie was the ultimate in predictability. You don’t get Hercule Poirot turning up at the end and announcing to a group of people that he hasn’t a frigging clue whodunit.
I digress. Our genre won’t die. And the reason why my writer friends and I all raise our eyebrows when THE question is asked is because we are sick of saying so. The world is a truly horrible place sometimes. To be able to slip away from it into a story where you are in for a great ride, devoid of politics, famine and nuclear weapons, is what so many people need to stay sane. Sometimes our books work like therapy on women. Men read us to get insights into the female psyche. I get so many letters from women who tell me they are having chemo and my stories have taken them out of the zone, out of the real horrible, frightening world for a spell, given their brains a soothing stress-busting massage. That’s a pretty powerful compliment.
Some genres do fade: the bonkbusters for instance aren’t as big as they were in the 80s, but things are cyclical and I bet they’ll be back. But women’s fiction is here to stay, as long as women want to be entertained or need to dip into a different world to escape the mundane, the painful, the unhappy, the teenagers, the depression. And as the world seems to be going to hell in a handcart, I can tell you for definite, honey – we ain’t going nowhere.