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Should we be less snobbish about Chick Lit?

Confession: I love Jilly Cooper, Marian Keyes, Louise Bagshawe and Tilly Bagshawe. Anything with a bit of sparkly pink glitter on the cover and a picture of a palm tree. In short, I’d often rather be reading a bonkbuster in the bath than Leo Tolstoy (here’s hoping that my English tutors aren’t reading this article). And yet, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit as much. No one wants to be a literary bore who reads nothing but Russian tomes (do they?), but to confess to enjoying Riders is a bit like intellectual suicide.

Am I trashy because I like easy-reading when on a beach (or at home)? Tawdry because I enjoy a hyperbolic romance? Dirty because I like to be swept up in a world of questionable writing and invariably predictable plots?

Fifty Shades of Grey probably could be classified as a bit dirty, yes, but all the many millions of its readers most certainly are not. As the usual differentiating hallmarks between segments of society become thankfully less clear, culture is increasingly used as a means of Austen-style distinction. The value of ‘good’ literature is in its ability to provoke discussion, but that can be a discussion that can often be limited – or be perceived to be limited – to a highbrow, intelligentsia, dinner party-driven reader. And the issues don’t stop there. Reading a wide variety of literary genres/ qualities is important not only in order to avoid intellectual snobbery. To cast value judgments is also surely to assume a standard that is detrimental to the creativity of literary productivity, to hinder reading for the sake of enjoyment (a totally foreign concept for many an Oxford student) and to prevent a full interaction with ‘good literature’.

After all, how the hell do we really appreciate the brilliant descriptions of sexual pleasure in the novels of D.H. Lawrence if we haven’t read the many ‘clichés’ that come after them? Surely to read anything is good, regardless of whether they are thought to be ‘good’, because in doing so we ask ourselves what we appreciate in literature. To read widely and openly is something that should therefore be encouraged as much as possible. Of course, there are issues to be had with ‘chick lit’. Its very name denotes a literature that finds its basis in a generalised and derogatory perception of women and that the plots of almost all chick lit novels are the same re-enforces the idea that women are generally the same.

The fact that we live in a world that is increasingly consumer-driven should raise issues with any literature produced for the purpose of selling copies, particularly when one considers artistic integrity. The fact that world is also largely rooted in a disposable culture should provoke concerns about the popularity of unchallenging and therefore more disposable writing, if only in order to protect writing that refuses to conform to such standards. But just as you wouldn’t walk into a tutorial on Wordsworth without having read any of his work, no one should criticise E. L. James without having read a word she has written.

I recently had a discussion with my 78 year old grandmother on what she thought about the Fifty Shades phenomenon, which she had just finished and placed proudly on a shelf in the kitchen. Yes, my grandmother. Though the family around the table varied in response from comic amusement to horror, the subsequent discussion was one of the most interesting and entertaining we’ve ever had as extended family. It proved to me that to read as widely as you can, at whatever age you can, has to be important for genuine social interaction as much as for personal fulfillment, and as important for fulfillment as it is for pleasure.

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