Books, Pop Culture

Why are we biased against “chick lit” and romance novels?

Hint: it's not because they're badly-written.

In my third year at university, I took a seminar on chick lit. We had to study Mills & Boon books, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and South African romance novels. It was easily the most interesting and stimulating course I’ve ever taken, so I naturally told a bunch of people about it. Often, their reaction was a combination of condescension and sympathy – as in, “Oh, I’m so sorry you have to read that trash.”

Because I was majoring in English Literature, I’ve read a lot of crap in my time. If there was ever an appropriate time to offer me sympathy for having to read ‘trash’, it’s when I studied Lord Byron.

However, it’s chick lit and romance novels that are seen as the epitome of ‘trashy’. When I browse through romance novels, I always get a few patronizing looks from the book store staff. From MFA students and lecturers to authors, a great number of people seem to look down on the genre.

From MFA students and lecturers to authors, a great number of people seem to look down on chick lit and romance. Click To Tweet

Why do people hate chick lit? To be fair, there are some huge problems with romance as a genre. As a queer person with disabilities, I’m underrepresented in mainstream chick lit. People of color and trans people are also underrepresented in the genre. I also dislike the way consent is handled in some romance novels: when you pick up a Mills & Boon book, you never know if it contains a glamorized rape scene or characters who respect one another’s boundaries. But these issues aren’t exclusive to the romance genre. If we look at books that are considered part of the English literary canon, many of them mishandle rape and include poor representation – and they’re not hated in the same way romance is hated. Take A Clockwork Orange, for instance. 

You might point to the widely-held belief that romance novels are badly written. This is a generalization that I strongly contest. Book bloggers point to their 15-page foray into Fifty Shades to prove this point, but one novel doesn’t represent the whole genre. Many chick lit writers produce beautiful, thoughtful literature – for example, Marian Keyes. Not to mention, if the majority of people dislike romance novels because of ‘bad writing’, why is it near-blasphemous to say you disliked Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone? Even die-hard Potter fans often agree that the first book isn’t well-written.

Representation and writing skill are clearly not the reasons why romance is hated, since those problems are so prevalent in other genres. There’s another reason for the widespread hate of chick lit, and that’s misogyny. Romance novels and chick lit – whether it’s Mills & Boon, Marian Keyes, or Helen Fielding – are mostly consumed and written by women. The stereotypes we often associate with romance are often stereotypes associated with women – that it’s glib, thoughtless, superficial, unintelligent. Maybe this is why book bloggers who meet romance with disdain always seem to make an exception for John Green: their misogyny is showing.

Representation and writing skill are clearly not the reasons why romance is hated, since those problems are so prevalent in other genres. Click To Tweet

There is another reason, too. I was once someone who considered the genre ‘unintelligent’. Like many others, I thought romance books were silly because they seldom have deep metaphors or elaborate word play. This common idea isn’t only sexist, it’s also ableist. Many people, including those with learning disabilities or those who are reading books in an unfamiliar language, can benefit hugely from reading simple, easy-to-read books. Since I now have PTSD, which affects my cognitive abilities, I’ve learnt to appreciate concise writing more. I don’t want to jump through intellectual hoops every time I pick up some text. Romance novels can be complex, but books don’t have to be difficult to be valuable.

As much as I love bookish and literary communities, people in those communities engage in gatekeeping. This gatekeeping comes in the form of dismissing certain genres, including romance. It also comes in the form of making people feel inferior for disliking certain novels or not reading books that are considered classics. This gatekeeping doesn’t encourage people to read ‘smarter’ books. It discourages people from reading at all.

As much as I love bookish and literary communities, people in those communities engage in gatekeeping. Click To Tweet

I don’t love all romance and chick lit novels – far from it. There are valid critiques to be made about the genre, and about many of the books within the genre (cough cough, Fifty Shades). Nobody should feel forced to like any genre, be it romance or historical fiction. But if you find yourself prejudiced towards an entire genre, think carefully about why that is. Does it mean you have some deeply internalized issues to work through? Does it tell you anything about your own biases and oppressive beliefs?

Younger members of the literary community seem to be more open to novels that are usually considered ‘trash’: young adult, chick lit, and romance novels are all met with more open-mindedness nowadays. While it’s great to see this change, there’s still a great deal of bias against these genres. As readers and writers, we need to check these biases in order to create literature that is both socially responsible and beautiful.