The first time I was shamed for reading romances, I wasn’t even. I was just holding my friend’s library books while she went to the loo. Our English teacher happened by, stopped, and gasped, “Rebecca Farley, you’re not reading those, are you?!”
I wasn’t, but Mrs Lamb’s meaning was clear: I was clever. I could and should read something cleverer than Renee’s Harlequins, or the Judith Krantzes and Jilly Coopers that my sister snuck into the house.
Similarly, in my 30s, when I confessed to a friend that while I liked the Brontës, Austen always put me to sleep, she sniffed, “That’s just immaturity.” Ouch. In between, there was a lot of clever book talk I couldn’t join in. Apart from The Remains Of The Day, I’ve probably never read anything you might expect me to. Seriously. Still haven’t finished an Austen.
The thing was, I did try. Sort of. In between all the theory I was reading, and the film and television I had to watch for teaching. I just never really liked clever fiction. I like women’s books about ordinary women doing ordinary things. And even though I knew that snobbery about women’s fiction is usually misogyny or intellectual elitism – or both – in disguise, I still felt bad about liking those writers. I’m a multiply-certified Clever Arse, for heaven’s sake! I SHOULD read clever books! All my friends do!
That changed when I finally left academia. I’d given my all to Clever; I was done. Heartsick, exhausted, my bucket impossibly dry, I went to the little stone library down the hill and borrowed all the literary sugar I could find.
I discovered that while I like certain authors (Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series has been my comfort reading for years), the romance genre’s defining focus on a single relationship is a bit too narrow for my eight-track mind.
But right next door to romance is commercial women’s fiction, or what us oldies call “chick-lit”, and THAT is AWESOME. Turns out, pastel-covered books with embossed script titles and drawings of frocks and teapots on them are all about women making a place for themselves in this inequitable world. Sure, finding a nice chap when you’re widowed/dumped/cuckolded/lost is part of it. But it’s mostly about all sorts of women – alongside medium-sized, white, under-40, and abled, there’s also Indigenous, disabled, fat, Muslim, and over-60 – doing everything from engineering to baking, parenting to publicity, dog-walking to duchessing. It’s about our struggles with the structures (such as family, religion, or race) that impact our life choices, and how our roles and values shift as we evolve. Starting over is a dominant theme. And much of it is laugh-out-loud funny.
It’s almost as though women writers, and the women they write for, are … smart. Smart enough to know, life ain’t fair. Yes, we’re being put upon, but who else will do all the things? Besides, who wants to be sad or angry all the time? Ya gotta laugh.
In fact I’d argue that women’s commercial fiction sits perfectly poised between romance – where we aim to avoid life’s crap – and literary fiction, which seeks to rub our noses in it. Albeit cleverly.
I’ve always preferred ‘light’ reads, in part as a respite from the sheer bloody effort – the expectation – of being Clever.
But now, as someone who spends fourteen hours a day caring for other people, trying to get them the help they need, battling institutions designed to prevent that, and picking up groceries on the way home with yet another racist killing on the news, I have no time for clever. I just want cheering up. I want help – and hope – navigating the gaps between where I thought I’d be and where I am, what I’m capable of and how society values my skills. And I want to be able to enjoy it while I’m scarfing spaghetti with the kids’ ceaseless commentary on Lego Masters in the background, okay?
And because that’s what I like to read, that’s what I’m writing. Not too clever, not too mushy.
Something to make you smile.