I realise why people have issues with chick lit, I really do. Quite apart from the fact that there is so much of it that's very badly written, even superior chick lit feels like a very guilty pleasure indeed.
The typical chick-lit set-up does little for women's lib. The heroine is usually a ditzy twentysomething, accident-prone but warm and spontaneous. Her spontaneity gets her into all sorts of scrapes, which in the course of the book she will have to find her way out of. These heroines aren't thick, exactly, but the intelligence they have is of the "emotional intelligence" kind. They have an instinct about what people will feel and how they will react, which sometimes gives them the edge vis-à-vis their love interests. The love interests in question are mostly the dependable breadwinner type - in fact, noticeably often they are successful business men who, once they're caught, will be able to provide their girl with a comfortable shopping-filled life style. (Not that the girls ever think along those lines - no, it's true love that guides them.) If only Austen knew what she started with Mr Darcy. The downside of the successful businessman love interest is, as with Darcy, that he tends to be emotionally reticent, stiff even. When the businessman boyfriend gets angry, there's seldom a shouting match: instead he bottles up his anger and gets fiercely icy. It's a good thing, then, that the sparkly heroine can teach him to let his hair down and get in touch with his feelings. It's reminiscent of the song "Something's Gotta Give", except neither the hero nor his impeccable heart are "old". However, the hero tends to be ages more mature than the heroine, who is perfectly capable of behaving like a seven-year old.
Haven't we come further than this - must women still be the warm, emotional yang to the men's cold, reasonable yin (or is it the other way around)? Granted, chick-lit heroines are partly excused by their youth, but even so. Also, other stereotypes abound in this genre - think, for instance, of the heroine's GBF (Gay Best Friend - not to be confused with Big Friendly Giant) who is unfailingly queeny. I dare say there must be gay men who are slightly scruffy car mechanics with a bit of a beer belly, who would rather listen to Bruce Springsteen than opera and rather do anything than go on a fashion shopping spree, but you won't find them in chick lit. To be fair, the queeny GBF is dramatically useful, which I think is partly why this stereotype is so tenacious. Fun, waspish comments, which would sound iffy coming from the warm-hearted heroine, can be given to him, as can a running commentary of the available male talent.
So why bother with chick lit? Because when it's done well, it can be enjoyable, witty escapism. And there are some situations where you need escapism more than others. I swear by a Sophie Kinsella (chick-lit gold class) for getting you through a day of travel, especially by plane. Any airport visit is full of stress factors, not least because of all the self service which is mandatory nowadays, and where you have to do amateurishly and swearingly what trained staff used to do smoothly and professionally - check in, scan your passport, attach luggage tags, drop off the luggage, sometimes even scan the luggage tags you have somehow or other managed to attach (mind you, I'm not saying that the cut in price may not be worth it - just). Then there are the security checks, some of them provokingly pointless (when will they finally lift the liquid ban which everyone agrees is nonsense?), and this in an environment where you must not at any price be provoked into stupid jokes or outbursts. Throughout, there are the stop-go queues (bag drop, security, passport control, boarding) and, last but not least, the other passengers who offer a fairly large range of distractions. What is needed is something that will calm your nerves and put you in a friendly semi-trance while not taxing your brains or your emotions too much - chick lit, in short. I tried a Jenny Colgan on a return journey recently, but she proved too homespun - there has to be metropolitan glitz (London or New York, preferably) in travel-reading chick lit novels, not idyllic countryside with wise yokels. On the airport, I purchased Kinsella's I've Got Your Number instead - just the ticket.
Don't be tempted to go for something just that little bit more ambitious - like "hen lit" with more mature heroines and more serious problems. You'll need something light and airy as a soufflé. Even Kinsella writing a bit more seriously under her own name Madeleine Wickham proved a little less than satisfactory for me on the out journey. Reading matter full of glamour, shopping, jokes and mating games in pleasing surroundings will make you a more agreeable travelling companion, so grab a glittery chick lit novel for your hand luggage - you will be hard pressed to find a better excuse for reading one, and a good excuse is needed.