In Defence Of ‘Chick Lit’

Reading has always been a joyful experience for me. Since the moment I was old enough to sit still and read a book, I have spent many of my waking hours doing just that. But no matter how much I enjoy reading, I still cringe a little bit when someone asks me for a book recommendation. Usually, the conversation descends into me stammering that I’m not reading anything serious and it wouldn’t be worth recommending.
According to an informal poll of friends and colleagues, this is a common experience for women — especially for those of us who prefer reading contemporary romance novels. Or, as the genre has both lovingly and derisively been referred to over the years, chick lit. 
Society has traditionally regarded reading as a marker of status and intelligence, but only if you’re reading certain types of books. Memoirs, essays, poetry, finance, and philosophical fiction that addresses the state of our world are considered high-brow. Fantasy books and novels with masculine, block-lettered titles are regarded as art, while anything that doesn’t tackle ‘serious’ topics is often seen as inferior.
Even some of my earliest memories about books involve early adopters of Harry Potter looking down on the other eight-year-olds in the playground who hadn’t read the books with a vague air of derision. While we’re taught from a young age that reading equates to being clever, it’s clear that this perception doesn’t apply universally.
So, where does that leave those of us who exclusively read candy-coloured contemporary romance books? In 2023, the answer to that question is changing. 
One stroll around a bookstore (or scroll through my personal Kindle library) will tell you that romance is booming. On TikTok, #chicklit has 10.8 million views and #romancebooks has a whopping 10.2 billion views, perhaps nodding to the outdated and frankly misogynistic undertones of the label ‘chick lit’ in the first place. Thanks to the rise of BookTok, which is overwhelmingly dominated by women, and podcasts like Sentimental Garbage by Caroline O'Donoghue — which "celebrates the culture we love that society can sometimes make us feel ashamed of" — the romcom genre (both in books and film) is finally getting the respect it deserves. For me, this has only made it easier to shake off the embarrassment around my own literary choices and recognise these books for what they are: a worthwhile exploration of love and humanity.
Anyone outside the world of contemporary romance may assume that these page-turners include only light and fluffy hijinks or enemies-to-lovers stories that feel as cliché as they do romantic. And yes, they have that too. But there’s so much more between the pastel-hued covers. 
Through these authors — who are by and large women writing for women — there are intricate love stories and stark depictions of raw human emotions that help readers process the world around them. These books have nuanced conversations about love, about female friendship, careers, and consent, and even show readers the warning signs of a toxic friendship or unfulfilling relationship. 

For me, it's always been a way to safely explore the full spectrum of human emotion and experiences from a decidedly feminine perspective. 

But unlike real life, these complex stories are always characterised by a beginning, a middle, often a third-act drama, and eventually, a happy ending. It’s my belief that the reason so many of us find comfort in these books isn’t that they refuse to tackle life’s many curveballs, but because they do. They show us realistic characters navigating real-world situations and prove that, like them, we are strong enough to face our issues head on. Through these stories, we learn that life can still go on after a life-altering event and, hopefully, someday, we can have our own happy ending. 
This isn’t a unique perspective, according to Ash King, a clinical psychologist. “Comfort and hope are both states that we crave in the midst of existing in a hostile, unpredictable world,” King tells Refinery29 Australia. “Real-life stories with happy endings offer us evidence that positive outcomes are possible for others and, by virtue of that, possible for ourselves.”
The reality of the patriarchal society that we’ve all grown up in is that women’s stories are often pushed to the side, or disparaged for depicting issues that are seen as vapid, silly, or simply cringe (though of course, "women's issues" aren't inherently any of these things). As a result, so many of us have hidden the covers of our books while riding the train or bought a Kindle so we can avoid the awkward dance altogether. We’ve angled our books away from the people sitting next to us on the bus in case they see that we’re reading a particularly steamy sex scene at 8am, or when asked for a book recommendation from a friend, we’ve brushed them off or put down the genre altogether. 
Having grown up without the girlypop book recommendations flooding our FYPs, it’s refreshing to see women on BookTok embrace a genre that, frankly, I’ve never viewed as silly at all. For me, it's always been a way to safely explore the full spectrum of human emotion and experiences from a decidedly feminine perspective. 
“There is safety in exploring aspects of our lives through the characters in novels because we can do so without any real risk to ourselves,” King says. “Books also might offer us a deeper, more complex and thorough glimpse into the internal worlds of others, making us feel less alone in our own internal struggles.”
King explains that we all have an innate need to feel like we belong or exist as part of social groups and communities in which we feel valued and accepted. In reading books that mirror our own experiences and struggles, it’s possible that we “might feel a greater sense of access to those feelings of belonging and acceptance”, which in turn, can make us feel less isolated when we move through the same hardships in our own lives. This is a notion I relate to heavily, as there have been times in my life when I’ve felt isolated and totally alone, and have immediately sought out the worlds crafted within these books as a source of joy and friendship and comfort.
When we read contemporary romance books, we’re able to experience the world through the eyes of other women and play out scenarios to see how they might turn out. We see characters pack their bags and move across the world after a particularly heinous breakup, or take a leap of faith and fail before eventually finding their way to happiness. We spend time inside the mind of a cheater and are validated by the stories of women who have no fucking idea what they’re doing with their lives, just like us. And perhaps the most lovely thing of all is that we get to escape into a world where we know things will always work out the way they should, even if not in the way the characters originally planned. 
Then we head to platforms like TikTok, where our perceptions of these stories are either validated or challenged by a community of like-minded people, which only deepens our understanding of not only the book itself, but how we view the world. After all,  books afford us a safe space to explore our fantasies and fears, without judgement or risk. And how could that ever be silly?
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