I recently had a new novel accepted by a publisher. When people ask about the book, they usually want to know three things: the title, the plot, and the genre. My response to the first two questions comes fast and easy, but I stumble on the third. Part of the issue is that I hate labels of any kind. I think they’re simplistic and limiting, but that’s not the overriding reason for my hesitation. I feel like I can’t give a simple answer to the question. I have to explain, equivocate and, sometimes, evade outright.
Here’s the problem. My book has been categorized by the publisher as “women’s fiction” – also known as chick-lit. I’m a guy. I’m not a big brawny guy by anyone’s standards, but I am a genuine American male who loves football, drinks whiskey, and confesses to occasionally peeing in the shower. So the admission that I’ve written a chick-lit novel is more than a little disconcerting – to me and the recipient of that information.
Rather than surrender to the chick-lit label, my fallback approach is to analogize. “Remember Erich Segal’s Love Story? It’s kind of like that.” Or “It’s about male-female relationships.” Or “It’s like a James Bond movie without the villains, chase scenes and explosions.” Each of these tends to elicit blank stares so I ultimately have to use the women’s fiction label and refer to contemporary authors like Nicholas Sparks. The blank stares often turn to smirks or sheepish eye rolls. I usually smile and shrug and, for that, I should be ashamed.
I’ve long espoused the tenet that writers should write about what they know and write the kind of books they like to read. So here’s what I know. Love is the most transcendent of human emotions – and the least understood. It’s driven by chemical, physical, intellectual and spiritual attractions (though not necessarily in that order). Love is usually front and center during our moments of deepest despair and rapturous joy. Like most people, I’ve experienced both extremes. I’ve laughed and cried. I’ve shouted and whispered. I’ve begged for and offered forgiveness for transgressions real or imagined. I’ve pondered whether it was better to love or be loved. I’ve wondered whether my experience of love was different from or the same as everyone else’s. And at the most fundamental level, I’ve long wanted to better recognize and appreciate every nuance of what Freddie Mercury called that “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”
What I know also drives what I read. I’ve loved books and libraries since I first learned to decipher the alphabet. I read for pleasure, but I also read to learn; and it’s a hallelujah moment when I can combine the two. Many of my hallelujah reading moments have been delivered by books that fall into the chick-lit genre. Books like Eat, Pray, Love; The Rosie Project; The Bridges of Madison County; and The Best of Me. The cynical might question what one could possibly learn from an Elizabeth Gilbert book. The more open-minded will understand that our lives revolve around people and relationships – especially those relationships defined by romantic love and heartfelt bonds. I find that chick-lit books offer a petri dish of love’s complications, encumbrances, and possibilities. In the process they can provide rare insight into the mysteries of love, the arc of heartbreak and renewal, and the secret of successful lifelong commitments.
It’s often stated that people read history to better understand the present. People read chick-lit books about relationships to better understand their own. I’m in that camp. Proudly.