Through its engaging narratives, relatable characters, and a dash of humour, chick lit captures the essence of contemporary women’s lives, offering readers an escape, a laugh, and a newfound perspective on the intricacies of womanhood in today’s world
By Joy Chukwujindu
The romance genre – women’s fiction in general – within the purview of the literary community, has long been regarded with scepticism. The genre is largely perceived as fluffy, filled with blazing chemistry that leads to unrealistic happily-ever-afters, and among many things, considered shallow literature, crammed with the vivid fantasies of women, and a tool for wasteful escapism. As a male-dominated industry, the criticism from the literary community stems from the genre being considered works for women and mainly authored by women. The African literary community also share similar sentiments, with the romance genre being equally treated as lowbrow compared to other literary genres.
Women’s fiction has morphed into what is now known as chick literature “chick lit”, a genre championed by contemporary female writers. Despite the constant glowering and literary snobbery, romance and chick-lit genre continues to gain wide appeal amongst readers around the world. And contrary to popular sentiments about the niche, the genre attempts to mirror the social realities of modern women.
The origin of the chick lit genre is traced to its publications and popularity in Western literature. The English novelist, Jane Austen, is regarded as the pioneer of the chick lit genre, and her 19th-century novel, Pride and Prejudice, bore the first semblance of the genre, upon which other writers have built their stories. Today, Austen’s followership celebrates the Regency romance era with the annual costume festival, Jane Austen’s Festival. The 1990s saw an emergence of contemporary chick lit novels such as Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City and Sophie Kinsella’s Confessions of a Shopaholic. The 2000s opened up the floodgate for fashion-infused chick lit novels such as Devil Wears Prada and Princess Diaries.
Chick lit gained immense popularity among female readers due to its exploration of themes such as love, female sexuality, marriage, friendships, fashion, and self-actualisation. Most chick lit novels have been adapted into award-winning films including the Netflix series, Bridgerton, inspired by Julia Quinn’s eight-part titular novels. Within African literature, female writers amassed readership and recognition for their novels that feature heroine-centred narratives. Ghanaian feminist writer, Ama Ata Aidoo received the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Africa) for her 1992 novel, Changes: A Love Story, which tells the love story of an ambitious woman who divorces her husband after feeling entrapped in her marriage, and a traumatic rape incident. Also recognised in the Nigeria Writer’s Award for Most Influential Nigerian Writers under 40, romance author, Amaka Azie, penned the love story of an independent woman who flees from an abusive father and later finds success as a restaurant owner in her novel, Thorns and Roses.
While some observers have decried the seeming death of Nigerian Literature, the romance and chick lit genre has a thriving community. Recently, TikTok awarded Bolu Babalola’s Honey & Spice as “Book of the Year”, at its inaugural BookTok Awards, and in 2022, Roving Heights, a leading bookstore in Nigeria, crowned Damilola Kuku’s Nearly All Men in Lagos are Mad as one of its bestsellers. But as we now know, popularity does not necessarily mean acceptance. This poses the question of whether observers feign ignorance of the successes of the genre.
(Read also: Is Nigerian Literature Truly Dying?)
Chick lit has often been labelled as ”easy-to-read” and ”light” fiction, portraying books within the genre simplistically as humorous and unchallenging. These views attempt to undermine the genre’s substance and dismiss it as lacking in literary merit, as opposed to other literary genres that are considered “serious” literature. There is the belief that “serious” literature is intended to stimulate deep reflection on life, demanding intellectual efforts from their readers while the chick lit genre is popular fiction meant to be frothy and not thought-provoking. But, in reality, the chick-lit literary genre is exactly what it appears to be – entertaining. It does not strive to be “serious”; other genres have that covered. Instead, it addresses relatable issues using quick-witted and vibrant language that is endearing. Chick-lit authors embrace light-hearted writing to convey their message and expand on their themes. One of the undeniable charms of chick-lit novels is the sheer pleasure of reading them, drawing readers into the pages and offering readers a form of escapism; a distraction from the grim realities of the world – like any good literature should.
With women at the helm of the narratives, these stories are centred around love and relationships where the female protagonists are depicted as real people facing contemporary challenges peculiar to women. This authenticity immerses readers into the intricate tapestry of the protagonists’ lives, allowing readers to connect intimately with their experiences, complexities, emotions, and the highs and lows that mark their journeys.
Ezioma Kalu, a writer and book blogger for Bookish Pixie, emphasises the underappreciation of chick lit in literary circles. She remarks, “I think this chick-lit literary genre is overlooked by the gatekeepers of literature. There are also people who criticise Korean dramas as being unrealistic, but who cares for reality when you can simply escape the harshness of it through romance books and dramas? Life is already too hard, some of us cope with comedy and humour.”
Also, Tomilola Adeyemo, author of the contemporary romance novel, Sugar Daddy’s Chronicles: Lewa, and the romance series, Efun’s Jazz challenges the misconception about the romance and chick lit genre. She remarks, “Some people have an erroneous belief that it is a genre that does not tackle serious issues or themes, while others think it is ‘stuff for women.’ And in a society that is largely patriarchal, in this context, ‘stuff for women’ is a phrase for unserious issues, superficial stories, and something that is ‘nice/shiny’ but not necessarily long-lasting and memorable. It is important to add that none of these things reflect the romance genre or define what it really is”.
Chick lit is not a fleeting literary genre; it is a genre with an enduring appeal that continues to evolve with cultural values and societal behaviours. The genre’s plots and storytelling capture a wide demographic of women, regardless of racial and religious backgrounds; from young adults wading through the whirlpool of life, to stay-at-home moms, and career women navigating societal norms. The 2016 novel, The Smart Money Woman, for instance, trails its narrative around familiar chick lit themes; love, friendship, fashion, and self-discovery, but it also addresses a plaguing issue among African millennial women; achieving financial freedom. Also, the novel 29, Single and Nigerian, weaves its storyline around Edikan, chronically the challenges through her early years to the intricate pressures she faces with marriage and adulthood. Additionally, Moky Makura, a Nigerian-born South African-based publisher, and the executive director of a donor collaborative focused on reshaping African narratives, Africa No Filter, started publishing digital-backed chick-lit genres in the form of “bookazines” to allure her South African readership.
Critics accuse the chick-lit genre of painting an unrealistic picture of love and other real-life experiences. By contrast, chick-lit is in tune with society and with popular culture, boldly tackling issues people, particularly women, encounter every day that are largely brushed off – infidelity, self-discovery, insecurities, work-life balance, equity and diversity, and queer relationships. Within the African literary backdrop, chick lit authors are ditching the old-fashioned script of heterosexual relationships and depicting queer relationships. The 2022 romance novel, You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty, by the New York Times bestselling author Akwaeke Emezi, explores such queer narratives with friendships, queer romance, and love triangles.
These books reflect the complexities of contemporary relationships and modern dating culture, where protagonists can, for example, engage in casual relationships, detach from the pressures of love, and make choices aligned with their desires. As in Babalola’s Honey and Spice, Kiki ends a casual relationship with ‘My Guy’ because of her genuine dislike of his personality and a sense of embarrassment associated with being seen with him. These stories give agency to women, unveiling the realities of women whose achievements are overshadowed by the expectation of marriage. For instance, there is a scene in Yinka, Where Is Your Huzband where Yinka confronts societal pressures to “settle down” during her younger sister’s baby shower. In the novel, she finds solace in her support system – her younger sister, best friend, and other female companions.
While love and romance remain a central theme in most of these novels, with the lead female character finding love in the end, it is important to note that the writers do not just develop the protagonists solely around their love interests, but also explore their relationships with others. Sisterhood and friendship emerge as dominant themes within the genre. Protagonists are equipped with a support network that carries them through challenges and societal expectations, usually consisting of a troop of girlfriends. Cynthia Ijele’s Happiness is a Four-Letter Word beautifully depicts the essence of friendships through the close-knit circle of Nandi, Zaza, Tumi, and Princess.
Some argue that the chick-lit literary genre imposes feminist ideologies on its dominantly young female readers, potentially disrupting the traditional balance between masculinity and femininity within African societies. This is to be expected from societies dominated by patriarchal norms that aim to stifle the voices of women. These novels encourage women to embrace their voices and celebrate their femininity, but at the same time hold onto their individuality. These narratives echo the modern post-feminism movement, presenting female characters as no damsel-in-distress, but as strong and ambitious, with multifaceted personalities and desires.
In the early years of literature, female authors were often dismissed as lacking intellectual prowess, with their male counterparts considered superior. This gender bias was a product of the era where female characters were commonly portrayed as tools to develop male characters rather than as unique individuals. However, female writers began to reposition the erroneous representation of women and retell stories from women’s perspectives. African authors such as Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emetcheta, Mariama Bâ, and Chimamanda Adichie have used their writing to disrupt the barricade of male-centred characterisations and spotlight women in different roles in African literature. The transition within African literature paved the way for the emergence of the chick-lit genre, which caters to the vivid fantasies and realities of women.
Far from being just lighthearted stories about women, chick lit novels delve into the heart of issues women grapple with today. And like all exceptional literature, they give insight into the world as it is, and as we want it to be. Anyone should be able to pick a chick lit novel without the shame of being dismissed as unserious. It is perfectly acceptable to read literature for the sole purpose of entertainment and to take a break from the monotony of our daily lives. Through its engaging narratives, relatable characters, and a dash of humour, chick lit captures the essence of contemporary women’s lives, offering readers an escape, a laugh, and a newfound perspective on the intricacies of womanhood in today’s world.
Joy Chukwujindu is an art and entertainment lawyer. She is also an environmentalist with a keen interest in history, art and sustainable development. When she’s not lawyering, she’s writing, designing spaces and planning events.