So I’m sitting at home with my wife on a spring evening. Jo’s finally embracing the latest developments in smartphone technology now that she’s discovered she can check the online sale at her latest favourite clothes brand.
I’m reading a book.
It’s a chunky sparkly covered book by Marian Keyes.
There’s a lot of tutting and sighing coming from the direction of my chair.
An eyebrow raises over the iPhone, ‘Not enjoying it?’ Jo asks.
‘I really can’t believe this,’ I say.
‘Ah well,’ says Jo, ‘maybe it’s not for you.’
‘Are you kidding?’ I splutter, ‘It’s brilliant! But this guy is such a...such a swine! What he’s doing to this poor woman! And what is she thinking..?’
I went straight back to my book and two minutes later, in the midst of adversity, I was laughing at a terrific one‑liner. Then the drama kicked up a notch and I was huffing and puffing again. Then laughing again at the smart dialogue. Then staying up late for one more chapter. Then another... In the course of an evening I’d become addicted to chick-lit.
I was surprised as anyone by this development. It came about as I’d written a novel, what I thought of as a ‘70s Woody Allen movie in book form. I sent it off to agents, who told me I’d written commercial women’s fiction. Then a particularly wise agent rightly accused me of never having read the genre, and sent me away to read some before I did some re-writes. What started as research became a bit of an obsession. I loaded up at the library with literally heavyweight blockbusters, and scoured charity bookshops for genre classics.
Until then I hadn’t been actively against the genre, it just felt like it wasn’t meant for me. I’d no more consider picking up a chick-lit title than I would heading in to Top Shop to get a new T-shirt. It wouldn’t suit me, and I’d get funny looks in public. What I found was great stories, and complicated relationships, and -- heck, I’m not ashamed to say it – a nice bit of happy-ever-after romance. The kind of stuff a guy can get away with enjoying on a TV sitcom or in movies, but not in books.
And chick-lit holds the advantage over a lot of movies in that the women are more real in it. They’re characters recognisable as actual human beings, instead of plot devices, reacting to the world in a way that made me look back at every confusing encounter I’d ever had with women and go ‘oh...THAT was what that was that about’. If I’d spent my 20s reading chick-lit instead of serial killer thrillers, maybe my dating days would have been a little less painful. Although to be honest, sometimes I still do think it’s easier to understand the criminally insane mind...
‘Is it always like this?’ I asked Jo, a little intimidated.
‘Pretty much,’ says Jo.
‘And this... this is what women are after?’
Another raised eyebrow from the sofa, and a bit of a gulp from me.
Of course, I haven’t liked everything I’ve read, and don’t think it’s all perfect. Some of aspects of the genre are still beyond me, like the deluge of books named after old pop songs. Surely it’s going to reach the point soon where a novel about a city gal and a dishy farmer called ‘I’ve Got a Brand New Combine Harvester’ is racing up the charts.
And the size of the men! Chick-lit is the Land of the giants... Male characters that are 6’1’’ must have body issues after a lifetime of being derided as shortarses. The supposed male focus on women’s chests is nothing compared to a chick-lit writer’s lusting after those extra inches. So I’d like to say, on behalf of the vast majority of men who have to start their height with a 5’ -- our eyes are down here.
Despite this I’ve tried to convince male friends that they should give chick-lit a try. I’ve received the kind of response usually reserved for when you’re backing away from the 9/11 conspiracy theorist talking to you on the bus. But could there be a way to get more men reading chick-lit? I hear erotica is doing well these days thanks to the anonymity of ebooks -- maybe that could be a turning point. You don’t have to pretend to the bookseller that it’s something you’re picking up for your wife. It doesn’t have a cover that would get you laughed at in the pub.
Next time you see a fellow with a Kindle laughing, or looking a bit emotional, or giving filthy looks to other representatives of the male sex for the crimes of his gender, take a peek at what he’s reading. Maybe he too has come over to the chick-lit side.
Neal is a former editor of spoof news website newsbiscuit.com, and has written the very occasional joke for BBC Radio 4. He’s currently working on his second novel, Occupied, which was selected for the Final 20 of the Novelicious Undiscovered competition. He can sometimes be found on Twitter as @nealdoran, usually when he really should be doing something else.