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Updated: June 29, 2013 16:28 IST

A little light reading

Swati Daftuar
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Women writers lose out on readership by being picked up only by women and unthinkingly dismissed by most men.
The Hindu
Women writers lose out on readership by being picked up only by women and unthinkingly dismissed by most men.

There are more shades to chick lit than just pink and pastel.

Let me start with the most obvious thing. The quintessential Wikipedia search result. Chick lit is described as typically featuring “a female protagonist whose womanhood is heavily thematised in the plot… The issues dealt with are often more serious than consumerism… Protagonists vary widely in ethnicity, age, social status, marital status, career, and religion…It is generally not considered a direct subcategory of the romance novel genre, because the heroine’s relationship with her family or friends is often just as important as her romantic relationships.”

Of course I have no bones to pick with this description. It’s factually correct, pretty straightforward and hardly discriminatory. Let’s leave it where it is for a little while, and step inside a bookstore instead.

Who are you? A man? A well-read, book-loving man? Go on then, look around this fairly large, very well-stocked bookstore. Where do you begin? Do you make a beeline for the thrillers or is that lovely shelf of historical fiction more your cup of tea? You have your pick of the treasures this place has to offer. You can browse through graphic novels, Indian fiction, mysteries, true crimes. It’s a veritable feast, really. Already, you are approaching the storekeeper, asking about those large, overflowing shelves in the corner. They look interesting. But he shakes his head. Those aren’t for you, unless perhaps, are you shopping for your wife? Your daughter? A sister? Then by all means, go ahead, give the chick lit a once-over.

If you haven’t been looking for a gift for your female relations, chances are that you have given this particular corner a miss. You’ve only managed to see the colours, the dominant hues of soft pinks, blues and pastels. In a little while, you will walk out of the bookstore with a bag full of the day’s loot and no idea that you may have missed something.

While many female authors today dislike the chick lit tag, the fact is it’s here to stay, sticking like glue to most literature that is at once for, by and about women. And honestly, while the label is inherently offensive, there is indeed a need for books giving the female perspective on issues like body image, relationships, careers and so on. When dealt with intelligently, these books are both enjoyable and instructive. Of course, some chick lit, like some books, can be sexist and portray characters that are both stereotypical and unrealistic. But this has absolutely nothing to do with the shelf the book sits on. Books aren’t apples, one bad one can’t spoil the lot. Not every fantasy is Harry Potter; not every chick lit is Fifty Shades of Grey.

For the gentleman who stepped out of the bookstore without looking inside the pages of one of these pastel wonders, let’s pick out a typical example of a good chick lit from the shelf. This book — written by may be a Marian Keyes or a Mercedes Lackey — has a female protagonist, complete with good skin and a smart head on her shoulders. Then comes the setting; a group of important, interesting supporting characters, a romantic angle and/or a particular issue: a career setback, incidence of domestic violence, rape or drug addiction. Our heroine goes about picking her way through the mess that is laid out in the book and, nine times out of 10, emerges in one piece.

Some chick lit is terrible, some good, and some fantastic. You could almost say, if you weren’t really thinking, that the genre is almost like…general fiction. If you really stretched your imagination, it would even make sense to remove that tag completely and redistribute these books in other sections, a thriller here, a romance there, a drama over in that shelf.

Instead, there is a segregation that leaves out an entire section of the population. While one half of all readers have access to every corner of the bookstore, another loses out almost entirely. If that isn’t discrimination, what is?

By creating an entire section of books with female protagonists dealing with relationships and families and careers, and then sticking a chick lit sign on it, this is what we are saying: “If you are a man, you shouldn’t be reading these. These are meant solely for women.” These books talk about problems that could very well be your problems too, but you still shouldn’t read them, because… Remember how many times you complained about how difficult it is to understand women? These books could teach you a few things, but don’t pick them up. Look, is that the crime section over there?

The truth is, women readers don’t lose out because there is a chick lit section in the book shop. They are free to stroll over to any book and pick it up. It’s the female writers and male readers who are affected by the slotting. The idea that chick lit is not really literature — that it is fluff meant for women who want soppy endings and teary romances — is turning men off female writers, even those that are good. It is denying male readership a chance to read a good book, just because they are made to believe that they won’t relate to either the protagonist or the plot. Women writers lose out on readership by being picked up only by women and unthinkingly dismissed by most men.

Say the storekeeper waited till it was time to close up and dismantled the chick lit shelves, re-slotted the books, placing them in different genre-appropriate shelves all over the store. Would it help? Would the gentleman coming back to the store realise that the book he was paying for and taking back home to read was, till yesterday, only measly chick lit?

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