Fancy a chick lit?

Popular genre

Fancy a chick lit?

Indian book shelves now have chick lit novels aplenty; a few good, a few not so good. But, how has this contributed to the reading habit here, asks Asha Chowdary

A pair of red Prada shoes? A sassy heroine? A love life as tumultuous as a stormy sea? If these are the themes that interest you, join the thousands of people who pick up books by the dozens to read on beaches, at airports or during a long commute home. Often called chick lits, easy reads, beach reads or contemporary women’s fiction, these books are loved for the sheer escapism they offer. For a few hours as you read these books, your mundane life slips away, and you could be a part of a Manhattan club scene, a chic cocktail soiree or an evening in Paris, and be embroiled in a love story that has more twists and turns than a mammoth wave pool.

The chick lit, lad lit, mommy lit trend that caught the fancy of readers in the West some time ago has reached the Indian shores and is  now hot and happening among Indian authors too. Indian chick lits have a desi avatar, complete with Indian heroines, brooding Indian heroes and all kinds of familiar settings that any reader in the country can identify with. Walk into any bookstore today and it is this genre of books that finds pride of place on the bestseller racks.

Quality vs quantity

But like all trends, is this trend already crashing because of the many poorly written books in the market? Some of the books are so poorly written that educators and parents are asking — ‘Is it better that our children read nothing at all than spend precious time reading badly written books?’ 

Says Ahmed Faiyaz, founder of Grey Oak Publishers and author, “I believe the readers in the metros, particularly young readers, are reading less as they have many other options for entertainment today. On the other hand, youngsters in small towns are beginning to read more, and this is because of online bookstores that offer a wide category of books and offer home deliveries to distant corners of the country. Another enabler is the discounts of 20-30 per cent offered on online stores and the price points of Rs 99, Rs 149 and Rs 199, which are being set by publishers, that widens the net and helps books reach a larger audience by making them affordable.”

Young readers in the cities, however, say that they love picking up these books because they are colourful and look ‘fun’. Says Samyuktha Manandi, a young business person, “I pick up books only after reading the reviews online. But many of my friends pick up anything in the stores. It is a good trend because we are reading a lot, drawn by the attractive new books on the shelves.”

Contemporary and much-loved authors are dismayed by the shoddy books that are now available. Says author Milan Vohra, “The early books in this genre had some lovely writing, especially books like Almost Single, Girl Alone and The Zoya Factor. But then, maybe buoyed by the market’s response to these, it seemed to me that all kinds of sad stuff started coming out. Many of these books are badly and hurriedly written and published, while some have contrived storylines and characters that feel as if they are publisher- dictated.” 

According to Milan, the popularity of these books is on the rise in India mainly because of the three key words: Indian, fun and relatable. “But my personal view is that readers of these feel-good books are not new readers per se. They are readers of the genre who are looking to find something equally fun and angst-ridden, closer to home.”

But, with the decline in quality of writing in these books, the genre itself is losing its lustre among many readers. Chick lit, which, by definition, is ‘smart, fun, fiction’ or as another definition puts it, ‘genre fiction that addresses issues of modern womanhood often humorously and light heartedly’, has in itself undergone a sea change with writers exploring many themes in the genre, like detective chick lit, super mommy lit, fantasy, history, erotica and lad lits.

“There has been a vast change in the demographics of our readers, and unlike earlier English fiction that was confined to a more mature and largely English- speaking readership base, today, more  young people are taking to Indian writers,” says another young author, Sreemoyee Piu Kundu, adding, “There is an upswing of the aspirational reader who attaches a greater degree of importance to plots that he or she can relate to, and subjects that are closer to his or her life, rather than convoluted period dramas that are often slotted as literary fiction. Also, inversely, the profile of writers in this genre has undergone a major transformation with most Indian writers being young professionals from myriad fields such as banking, IT, hospitality, journalism etc, and their stories are easily relatable.”

The good news, according to her, is the fact that the quantity of readers, especially the younger lot of readers, has definitely gone up, thanks to these novels. “Unfortunately, I am not very optimistic about the quality of readers we are cultivating with the kind of fiction we label as commercial,” she says, and adds, “In my view, much of chick lit in India is a sad replica of cult books such as Bridget Jones Diary that defined this genre. There is a saturation of books in this genre now. Quality commercial fiction that does not compromise on good writing is slowly disappearing. Good chick lit that relies on smart writing, an honest understanding of life, and with intelligent humour, is a treat and must be discovered and brought forward for the readers to revel in. And that onus lies with our publishers.”

Reading habit

Faiyaz echoes the same thought when he observes, “I would say that with a very few notable exceptions, most of what is peddled in this genre is mediocre in terms of the plot and the quality of writing. A large proportion of it is self-published and poorly edited, and perhaps they aim to reach readers in small towns who are just developing a reading habit.”

Therefore, the idea that ‘as long as you are reading, it is perfectly alright to read anything’ is no longer the way to go, as many readers have discovered. The important thing to remember is to connect with the book, says Vohra. “As a reader, do you connect with the writers and their style? These are the things that matter. The fact that the writing uses humour to tell a story should not mean that people can paint the entire category with one sweeping stroke of being frivolous.” 

But it is not the genre that is important; a book needs to have a writing style that is par excellence and a storyline you love. Smart readers have figured out that fine balance.

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