Chick Lit Or Women's Fiction: Is There A Difference?
A Literary Feature

South Africa By: Anne Taylor on 29 September 2010
Category: Books > Features Comments View Comments

Have you ever found yourself wondering what all the fuss is about when it comes to chick-lit novels, more precisely known as women's fiction? At this year's Cape Town Book Fair four South African writers demystifed the topic and why this type of literature is so thoroughly enjoyed.

Tracey Farren, Cynthia Jele, Fiona Snyckers, and Rosamund Kendal at the Cape Town Book FairFor those of you who do not read chick lit, be honest. What are your first impressions when you come across a book classified in this genre? Presumably, you'll be able to recognise one as it is normally clad in a shocking-pink cover and stamped with an image of a recognisable designer handbag. It could also be embossed with a pair of skinny stilettos and legs that go on forever.

I bet your response is pretty much the same as most other book lovers who have not been seduced by the pastel shades of pink watermelon: that chick lit has little literary value or worth. However, chick lit has a lot more to offer than you might think. At this year's Cape Town Book Fair author Tracey Farren hosted a panel discussion with three South African writers, Fiona Snyckers, Rosamund Kendal, and Cynthia Jele, to find out how they feel about having their books labelled as chick lit and how they prefer to define their books.

Tracey Farren is the author of Whiplash, published by Modjaji Books. She laughingly told the audience that although it was not her intention, her book "turned out to be a book for women because men are too scared to read it". Like many other writers who are women, she has found that her work has been relegated to the chick-lit bookshelves. According to Wikipedia, chick lit is a popular genre of fiction that falls within women's fiction and addresses issues of modern women in a humorous, light-hearted fashion.

Fiona Snyckers is the author of Trinity Rising and Trinity On Air, both published by Jonathan Ball Publishers. In response to Farren's question about how she felt about being categorised in the chick-lit genre, Snyckers described the label chick lit as a "double-edged sword". On one hand, she admitted, "It can be a convenient and recognisable way to brand your fiction. There are certain expectations that go with the label chick lit. One of them is that your book will have a bright-pink cover, possibly even a bright-green cover, and it will be all about sex, and shoes, and shopping, and female frivolity, which is fair enough, and my books are about all those things."

The other edge of the sword, she said, is that many people have already made up their minds about what a chick-lit book is about and that they will not like it. "They have decided it's superficial; that it has nothing of any worth to say to them. I am here to tell you that is not true. Some of the most exciting, vibrant women's fiction is coming out under that chick-lit brand at the moment," she said.

She pointed out that "Marian Keyes is known internationally as the queen of chick lit and those of us who read her know that she deals with some extremely serious issues in her fiction," Keyes' literature, Snyckers said, includes domestic abuse, substance abuse, alcoholism, divorce and "all the really nitty-gritty problems" that women face all over the world. "So, the chick-lit veneer in a way is the sugar that makes the medicine go down. There is a serious message, and it's sugar coated to be fun and entertaining, but that doesn't make the journey less serious," said Snyckers.

Farren agreed: "It's a bit like that pink cocktail you might have that sends you skinny dipping and giving you pneumonia." Farren described the authors' work as having "a pretty twist with a powerful punch".

Cynthia Jele's debut novel, Happiness Is A Four-Letter Word, was published by Kwela Books this year but she has already experienced the taste of literary success by winning the 2008 BTA Anglo Platinum short story competition. Jele lamented that she has "unfortunately" fallen into the chick-lit classification as well. Her view on the label "chick lit" is that it is very biased. Although she was not a writer when this new genre morphed into being, she said that she was already reading what she dubs "contemporary fiction for women by women" and truly loving it. She was appalled when she came across a newspaper article written by a man "dissing the genre" and it was enough for her to enter the war of chick lit and start fighting for women.

Jele claimed that the negative perceptions people have developed about chick lit are changing and that even the genre itself is evolving. She pointed out that while the chick-lit genre may have originally focused on romance, it now deals with more relevant issues such as internal strife. She said that the damage caused to the chick-lit genre is slowly being repaired. Whether this is a result of the older generation becoming more vocal in its defense of women's writing or a result of readers making their own judgements she does not know. All she knows is that the discussion should be over. "Just let us write what we want to write. At the end of the day it is just the manner in which we tell the stories," she said.

Rosamund Kendal is the author of The Karma Suture and The Angina Monologues, both published by Jacana Media. She said that at every launch of her book she has been marketed as an author of chick lit with the excuse that it is not really chick lit. "It's very deprecating in a way...that chick lit is somehow not real literature. And I think that's a mistake. I think that anyone who has read my books will know that my books deal with incredibly deep issues and complex issues that don't fall into the traditional chick-lit genre," she said.

Kendal made an observant point that, had her books been written by a man or about men (since male doctors can deal with the same issues as female doctors), her books would have been classified in the medical-drama genre. She said, "It's interesting to me as well that there is no male equivalent. Badly written action-packed books are not called 'dude lit'. They still keep their own genres. It seems crazy to me that somehow books written by women about women get shoved into the chick-lit genre."

Another reason Kendal's books may be so readily labelled as chick lit is that she writes in a way that is easily accessible to many people. She has a message that she wishes to convey and said that she is happy to have her books labelled chick lit if it gets them to read her books. However, she cautioned, "I do think we need to be careful of classifying books as chick lit...especially because it's not often considered proper literature." She said that it is the responsibility of female authors to raise the public's awareness of women's writing "so hopefully one day chick lit will be something people aspire to write about".

If you think that writing chick lit is easy, think twice – these authors said a lot of research goes into the writing of their books. Jele said that although she wrote a lot about situations that had happened to people around her, she still had to create and research her characters. This is where every little detail counts. For example, she had to find out what experiences a typical drug user goes through and, as she has no children of her own, she had to find out when a pregnant woman starts showing.

Kendal is a part-time medical doctor and a part-time writer. She did not have to do much research for her first book, The Karma Suture, as it is based on her own experiences in government hospitals. She said it was an accurate reflection of what was actually happening in South African government hospitals in 2005 and that writing the novel was therapeutic as she had to deal with the same issues as her character, Sue Carey, who is a state-hospital doctor. For her second novel, The Angina Monologues, she had to undertake considerable research as it is set in a rural hospital in KwaZulu-Natal, and she has had no experience working in this scenario. Her husband, who had worked in one, was a good source of information as were her medical friends. She also wrote her novel from the perspectives of not only a white woman, but also an Indian woman and a black African woman. Therefore her research involved exploring various cultural nuances. For this, "Google is a great tool," she said.

For Snyckers, the research was a lot of fun. Trinity Luhabe, the daughter of a struggle-hero-turned-successful-Black-Economic-Empowerment businessman in the new South Africa, is the primary character in her series of novels. In the first of the series, Trinity is a first-year Rhodes University student in Grahamstown, South Africa. Snyckers herself is a previous Rhodes University student so she was able to draw on her own experiences but, as this was some years ago, she had to "update" her knowledge on teenage culture. "I found the Internet [to be] a valuable resource in that regard because students today are so incredibly tech savvy. They have all got chat blogs, chat forums...[and] Facebook pages," she said. "You can just log on and join their world." Through the use of the Internet, she was able to become part of their conversation and familiarise herself with everything from what music they listen to, the new words they use, and the priorities that concern them to what their day-to-day life is like. "The Internet has changed the life of writers. Research is so easy and accessible now," she said.

Snyckers's second book, Trinity On Air, is set a few years later when Trinity gets her first job on a radio talk show. Snyckers spent time at the Talk Radio 702 station, located in Sandton, South Africa, where she chatted to news reporters, editors, and presenters - all in the name of research. What is more, Snyckers based her characters on people she met at the newsroom and said that they should be able to identify themselves, even though they have been given fictional names at the request of her publisher.

Snyckers said, "I spent such a lot of time trying to...isolate 'what is that factor X in writing?', that element that from the moment you open the book you can't put it down and when you have to put it down, you are thinking about it all the time and you can't wait to get back to's like a secret little excitement in the back of your mind." She asked the audience, "So, what is that magical factor X that brings the book to life, that sucks you into the story and won't let you go?" She said she knows it when she sees it. She has even read a number of Mills & Boon novels in an attempt to work out why some of their romances have the magical "factor X" while others don't, even though they work to the same formula. "It's intangible; it's fairy dust, I don't know what it is. I wish I knew. But that is what I'm going for. I want my books to pull you into Trinity's world and not let you go," she said.

Overall, these writers have contributed towards a new dimension of South African literature. Farren even pointed out that women's literature has been referred to as "a third wave of feminism whereby it explores women's identity and sexuality, and potential liberation that comes from sexual freedom". This is important in the South African context, in which so many women have been silenced and need to reclaim their personal power. It's time for publishers to realise that times have changed and women do not necessarily want to read the traditional romance genre in which they tend to play a less powerful role. Farren made an insightful comment that African fiction, and particularly South African fiction, has lacked women's stories for so long. She hit the nail on the head when she said, "I think because we have a very serious and traumatic history...that we are still trying to process and deal with, we have not given ourselves permission as writers to be entertaining before now." She pointed out that there has been an onus on South African writers to write about serious issues, however writers now have the freedom to "embrace fun for the first time in South Africa". Farren ended by saying that South African literature can be "bright, fun, sparkly, spontaneous, and entertaining and it's a very exciting new development".

Chick lit strikes a perfect balance – it can address serious issues, but in a light and entertaining manner. This is perfect for South African readers who have been showing signs of political fatigue syndrome, yet are not quite ready to read something that is entirely fun and without a serious message. While the past will never be forgotten and political literature remains important, the new journey that contemporary South African literature is taking is not only exhilarating, but quite remarkable.

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