I was at a bookstore recently, trying to figure out if my new book was in stock and where it was placed. The staff was kind. They let me sign a few copies. Then, trying to be helpful, the manager’s assistant asked if I would like them to move the book from the overcrowded ‘Indian Writing’ shelf to ‘Romance’, where it would find a focused readership.
I said ‘No’ quickly and my voice was sharper than I intended it to be. I felt I had to squash the faintest notion that my book, although it is about love, was romantic. Partly because it isn’t romantic. But also because I was terrified of being genre-ised, trivialised, un-serioused.
Much as I want to be read by millions, I’m not afraid of being ghettoised if it means being considered a more ‘serious’ writer. Like most women writers I know, I do write stories about relationships. But I’m damned if I’m going to ushered into the corner – admittedly a better-paid corner – currently occupied by writers of romance novels, or ‘chick-lit’.
It could be that I am only imagining this, but it seems to me that few women writers who get stuck with the ‘chick’ tag have been taken seriously as, say, informers of public opinion or social commentators.
I email Anuja Chauhan to feel her out about chick-lit writers not being taken seriously. Quick comes my slap down: “Taken seriously by whom?”
That’s one uncomfortable part of the problem. I could say, ‘most people, perhaps including those who buy and read it and enjoy it’. But it would be more honest to say ‘me included’. Much as I loved the Bronte sisters or Jane Austen, much as I am aware that love lies at the heart of all literature, popular or literary or outlawed, even so. There is something about women writing a certain kind of story that is easily dismissed.
What story is that? Well, it is a story in which a woman – a young woman – wants a man to love. By the end of the story, she finds one. He is attractive. He offers good sex. He is definitely not poor, if he’s not rich. She will have his babies in the near-distant future. Or not. In some books, the woman realizes she wants more than he can give. At any rate, the protagonist is not left alone, wounded so deeply that she cannot pick herself up and learn to trust again.
This is a fantasy for most readers (and writers). And there is nothing small about this fantasy. It is an honest portrait of what most young women want. But the thing is, women writers are not writing books titled ‘What Young India Wants’, or getting away with saying that the youth basically wants men and money. And I wonder if they are being paid lakhs in order to show up and trot out such easy lines.
So, I’m thinking, how does this happen with men?
I understand that many people are reading men who don’t lay claim to great literary aspirations. The books are cheap and besides, people like a story in which no painful demands are made on the soul, no upheavals happen in the intellectual landscape. These books have young protagonists, either students or professionals, hungry for love and material success. These books are firmly lad-lit.
At least, they are lad-lit to the same degree that stories of women protagonists who want love (or just good sex) with a measure of professional ambition tossed around the edges, are chick-lit. What’s the difference?
One key indicator is that Indian chick-lit has its own Wikipedia page. There are references to ‘ladki lit’, though I’ve never heard the term used in conversation. However, we do often talk about lad-lit in the Indian context, specifically, because it vastly outsells chicklit. But run a search for ‘ladlit’ and Google asks: ‘Did you mean lalit?’ Try hyphenating the word. Still no dedicated page, although there are references to foreign lad-lit authors.
And why does this happen? Perhaps, it is because nobody is trying hard to ossify male writers into a genre. They are content to be seen as ‘popular’, because popular is harder to dismiss than merely laddish. The average male desire – girls, money, social acknowledgment, power etc – is echoed through popular novels, and this desire is acknowledged as universal, and therefore undismissable.
In a piece written by Jai Arjun Singh a few years ago, Chetan Bhagat took his genre by its horns. “Chick lit refers to literature that is read primarily by women. But ‘lad-lit’ is read by men and women both, what is so laddish about it?” he was quoted as saying.
And there you have it. The average female desire – men, money, stable relationships etc – as echoed through popular novels, are dismissed as ‘chick-lit’.
As I trawl the internet for interviews with ‘chick-lit’ authors, I find that Rajashree, author of ‘Trust Me’ and a national-award winning filmmaker who has made some obvious political choices in her life, isn’t interviewed in a political way. Anuja Chauhan, one of the youngest vice presidents at a well-known ad agency, is rarely interviewed about the power of language and image, or even called upon to comment on cricket or politics, although her novels ‘The Zoya Factor’ and ‘Battle for Bittora’ tackle both themes directly. And yes, she does have a political stance on the ‘chick’ word, for she (and her readers) are not fluffy birds reared for eating, she says.
If that wasn’t enough, running internet searches for articles about women writers like Chauhan lead to pop-up ads for discounted lotions. As if her readers have been perfumed and pomaded out of their minds and prefer to spend their money on make-up rather than books. It is enough to make you reach for a jar of cocoa butter and sling the contents thereof into the laptop of the nearest digital marketing consultant.
But the question remains – why are men able to shrug off ‘lad-lit’, while writers like Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan and Anuja Chauhan are still railing at the pejorative ‘chick-lit’?
Madhavan, who wrote ‘You are Here’ and ‘Cold Feet’, blogged her angst once, and held packaging partially responsible. Women writers tolerate (if not encourage) book covers in shades of pink, often illustrated with shoes or some feminine accessory. The result is that mostly girls read them. In any case, research has shown that male readers often don’t buy books written by women, even if the cover isn’t pink.
Perhaps, part of the problem is the general assumption about feminine concerns. A few years ago, at the Jaipur Literature Festival, Bhagat was invited to moderate a panel of young women writers. I email Madhavan to ask how she felt. She writes back to say the memory makes her laugh. Instead of discussing her writing, Bhagat had asked if she would change her last name if she got married. But, “Chetan is a smart man… the audience was eating it up.”
And undoubtedly, Bhagat is a smart man. How else would he have fashioned himself into a pop socio-political commentator? Bhagat’s ‘Five Point Someone’ and Tuhin Sinha’s ‘That Thing Called Love’ are as much lad-lit as Rajashree’s ‘Trust Me’ is chick-lit. But now, Bhagat writes for the Times of India and Sinha for IBN. As ‘The Underage Optimist’, Bhagat does not hesitate to write about the Sangh Parivar or the nation’s mineral wealth. Sinha, after writing ‘Of Love and Politics’ and ‘The Edge of Desire’, writes a column called ‘Unapologetically Right’ and feels free to comment on the Gita or the suitability of prime ministerial candidates.
So why are ‘chick-lit’ authors not doing the same? Does the mainstream press not invite them to comment? Women writers could go out and wrench such columns for themselves by building a body of work in non-fiction that makes them difficult to ignore. That would mean hardcore research. That would mean a lot of time and energy taken away from creating fiction. This is not impossible to do. But given that their male counterparts get away with merely having opinions, it is also not fair.