Thursday, April 14, 2011

Chick Lit and Romance Fiction / A Defining Moment

Guest Post by Donna Fasano

A note from BigAl:

A few weeks ago, I reviewed "Taking Love in Stride," a romance novel by Donna Fasano.  In that review I talked about my history of reading chick lit and thinking it was romance.  A few comments indicated I wasn't the only one who got these genres confused.  I even got an email from the proprietor of a book related website who said she was uncertain.  So, I decided to go to an expert for a definition.

Donna Fasano, whose book prompted this discussion, has had more than thirty different novels published and sold more than 3.5 million books thus far in her career.  Writing for Harlequin, most of these are in the Romance genre, however there are two exceptions.  "Where's Stanley," which is currently out-of-print, was published by Harlequin Next, a short-lived chick lit label.  In 2009 she self-published a second chick lit novel, "The Merry-Go-Round."

Donna hasn't survived as a writer this long without being a sharp cookie and proposed a deal.  I'd already reviewed two of her books here, "Taking Love in Stride," which started this conversation, and another romance novel, "Mountain Laurel."  If I'd agree to repost here the review of "The Merry-Go-Round" I'd posted previously on Amazon (something I've done with a few of my older Amazon reviews) then she'd do this guest post.  Can you guess what book will be reviewed tomorrow?  Here is what Donna has to say:

In a recent book review, Al expressed a bit of confusion when it came to romance fiction and chick lit. My first thought was to write a witty, sharp-tongued essay meant to set him straight. However, I quickly realized that my normal inclination toward the flip and funny might come off as disrespectful to the very genres I have spent many (many!) years reading and writing. Then I decided this could be my chance to laud an entire category of literature that is so often trampled to death by people who, by design or mere ignorance, deem these books anything from inconsequential to downright harmful. But after a couple of hours spent reading what the so-called experts have to say, I lifted my gaze from one particular article written by a 'feminist theorist' and decided I cannot influence every naysayer in the world (not in a 500-word blog post, anyway); besides, that's not what was asked of me.

So in the clearest, most succinct language I can muster, here is my take on what sets apart chick lit and romance fiction:

Romance novels are books that feature a relationship arc which results in a positive ending, often described as 'happily ever after' (HEA). This relationship is the main focus of the story—one woman, one man, and their hurdle-ridden journey toward finding true and lasting love. In addition to this relationship arc, a romance will also contain one or more subplots (a.k.a. plot devices, the themes of which are various and sundry) that help to bring about the female protagonist's individual character growth.

Chick lit books focus on a female protagonist and her personal (and usually foible-filled) journey toward self-understanding and self-acceptance. In these books, the plot devices are the story. Whether the protagonist ends up with a man is not as relevant as the learning process she experiences through various situations that culminate in her resolving her issues, be they emotional, professional, etc. Chick lit is as famous for its upbeat, emotionally satisfying ending as romance fiction is for its HEA.

In my opinion, the focus is the defining element. The other components available to fiction writers (plot, conflict, characterization, etc.) can be molded to fit both of these 'sister' genres in similar if not identical ways.

Please note that the above descriptions are, at best, bare-boned. However individual writers choose to take these narrative skeletons and use them to flesh out their stories, fans of both chick lit and romance can (and do!) expect strong characters with whom they can relate and connect, and story lines that are thought-provoking as well as highly entertaining. I also feel urged to add that romance and chick lit are only two genres under the umbrella called women's fiction, a category of mass-market publishing that is diverse to the extreme. Other genres include but are not limited to, hen lit (a.k.a. matron or 'mum' lit), historical romance, paranormal romance, bonkbuster, inspirational romance, romantic comedy, erotica, western romance, and romantic suspense, and there is much 'line crossing' that takes place among these various genres.

Now that I've offered my opinion regarding the difference between romance fiction and chick lit, I'm eager to see a dialogue about how other authors and readers define these genres.


Terry Odell said...

I think your definitions are excellent. Labels are such a pain, aren't they? But readers come to books with expectations, and if they're not met, having them like the book is a hard sell.

I write romantic suspense (an industry-imposed label) but I prefer to think of them as "Mystery with Relationships." To date, there's no shelf for that in the bookstore.

Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

gjaros said...

Donna, great job at describing the nuances that differentiate these two genres...but, please, what in the world is a "bonkbuster"?!

BooksAndPals said...

@Terry - I agree, labels are hard, yet needed to describe to the reader what they're getting. One of the things I like about indie music that also applies (maybe more so) to books as well is that they'll often combine genres or sit on the fence in a way that is very original. That is something a big music label or publisher often wouldn't know how to promote.

Julie @ Read Handed said...

Donna, I totally agree with your definitions. In a romance, it's all about the romance and the relationship between these two people. In chick lit, it's all about the chick and her own personal journey. I have to say that I appreciate chick lit more than romance, though I've been known to dabble. ;)

Donna Fasano said...

@gjaros, Al asked me the same question. I told him I believed it was a genre that settled somewhere between chick lit and erotica. I came across the word bonkbuster while researching my post, and because the sound of it made me smile, I decided to use it. I just plugged the word into Google to get a better definition and this is what I found:

The Oxford English Dictionary has added the word "bonkbuster" to its online version, defining it as "a type of popular novel characterized by frequent sexual encounters between the characters".

mmshaunakelley said...

I really appreciate this post. Other than YA, I consider my novel to be "women's fiction," which is chick lit where the struggles are external (i.e. not a woman reaching self acceptance, a woman railing against the hand dealt her) and there are less foibles. But even when you say "women's fiction" people think romance. I'm down with romance, but I do like making the deliniation.

Julie Reilly said...

I would define a Bonkbuster as the Jackie Collins, Jilly Cooper sort of book - heavy on the intimately described sexual encounters.

I would agree with your description of the difference between romance and chick-lit. Personally I don't like romance - Mills and Boon/Harlequin type romance - I used to read it in my teens but moved on the sci-fi/fantasy.

I do like the ordinary-girl chick-lit that has been in fashion lately, which supplanted the 'Princess Daisy' type of novel of the 80s where the heroine lived a lifestyle far above that of the readers, I got rid of my Jackie Collinses in favour of my Jane Greens a long time ago.

I am in the middle of writing a chick-lit at the moment - I will look forward to submitting it for review when it is finished.

Sibel Hodge said...

Great post Donna. I think Chicklit encompasses so much about women and their journeys, be it sad, happy, kick-ass, fun, comic, scary, , inspiring, heart-warming.

Long live chicklit! :)

Karen Fenech said...

Donna, very nice explanations. I didn't know that you also write Chick Lit. Are you working on anything in either genre at the moment?

Phoebe Conn said...

Thanks for the clear descriptions, Donna. Labels do complicate things unnecessarily at times. We all want to write and read great books regardless of their category.
Phoebe Conn

Beth Orsoff said...

Great post, Donna. I think you nailed the dividing line between romance and chick lit. What's odd is that people who don't read these genres think they're the same thing when in fact a lot of romance readers don't like to read chick lit, and a lot of chick lit readers don't like to read romance.

Donna Fasano said...

Beth, that is so true. Some readers don't like one or the other. Other readers like both. Me? I've never been a finicky reader. If I see a book that seems to promise a great ride, I hop in and hope the author is a good driver. lol

Karen, I have written two books that, I feel, cross over into chick lit. Both were written for the Harlequin NeXt line of women's fiction (hence the strong romantic elements included in the books). However, in both books, the female in ways that would have them forever shunned from the romance genre.

At the moment, I am hard at work getting my backlist published. Once those books are available to readers, I'll see where the muse takes me.

Carmen Webster Buxton said...

Would you go so far as to say that romance as a genre has a stronger implied contract with the reader? It seems to me that while chick lit generally has a positive ending, there is not really a strict guarantee as to what makes it positive. It could be the protagonist gets a new job and gets the guy or it could be she realizes she doesn't want the guy or the job and goes back to grad school or joins the Peace Corps. Whereas in romance, it is indeed understood what constitutes a positive outcome. Or have I just reworded everything you already said?

Karen Fenech said...

Donna, I'll look forward to seeing the rest of your backlist reissued and to your future works.

BooksAndPals said...

@Carmen - I'll be interested in seeing Donna's response and if it agrees with mine, but what you've said sounds like what I perceive.

Yes, you've reworded what Donna said, or given some good examples of how chick lit is different. I think the "stronger implied contract" is something new. In my mind the HEA is one of the two significant conventions that have to be there to fit the romance genre. (The other is the focus on the relationship which typically results in the book being written from the POV of both the hero and heroine, whereas in chick lit you might not get the hero's POV at all or at least very little.)

tonymcfadden said...


Based on these definitions my 'coming of age, fish out of water murder mystery' WIP is actually chick lit since the 'hero' is a young actress. hmmm...

Wouldn't have thought of myself as a chick-lit author.

SD Livingston said...

Well said! I've written both romance and chick lit, and although my chick lit novel had a romantic interest I deliberately kept him from resolving the female protagonist's dilemma (or from being the dilemma himself).

I think another distinction is that chick lit tends more toward humour than traditional romance does.

I know that romantic comedy is an established subgenre, but now I'm wondering: if a chick lit novel doesn't have a funny or lighthearted feel, would it still be considered chick lit? Or would it simply fall under the broader category of women's fiction?

Donna Fasano said...

Carmen, I think we're agreeing about what a reader can expect from the two genres.

However, the 'contract' between the reader and author of any chick lit novel, to my mind, is and must be just as strong as in any romance. In chick lit, if the protagonist-gets-her-life-sorted clause isn't fulfilled by the end, then the contract will have been broken and the reader will not have come away with that satisfied feeling. The 'clauses' need to be strong (and ultimately achieved) in both genres.

Unless I am misunderstanding what you mean by the use of 'stronger implied contract.'

Donna Fasano said...

SD, my memory is failing me. Can you offer an example or two of chick lit that isn't executed with a humorous tone?

The Writing Goddess said...

As it was once explained to me, in genre romance the story is much more structured - we must meet the male & female leads by page X, the first kiss must occur by page Y, the first complication keeping said pair apart must happen by page Z. Chick lit is less tightly structured and may or may not have romance in it at all - it can be about friends, sisters, mothers-and-daughters; and if there is a romance, while the story still needs a HEA, that doesn't necessarily mean the woman ends up with the man. She may decide she's better off without him!

There's such a critter as erotic romance, too - same parameters as more PG-rated romance, only with explicit sex scenes. That the pair (which could be a lesbian pair) end up together is still required. This is different from erotica, in which HEA may or may not occur, or straight out porn, in which there really isn't a story. (As a writer of erotic chick lit and erotica, it's been interesting trying to explain the difference to inquiring friends & my feedback group.)

BooksAndPals said...

It looks like my answer was wrong based on what Donna said about the "implied contract" with the reader. I think in most genres there are certain conventions that, if your book is being billed as within that genre, a reader expects will be fulfilled. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the "implied contract" in Romance is much more specific (there WILL be an HEA ending) than in chick-lit, where a positive ending is implied, but the ending could is much more open as long as when you get there is will be perceived as positive.

I think Donna wanted this post to generate some interesting discussion. It is certainly doing that.

Helen Smith said...

Nice post, Donna.

Jewels Diva® said...

Mine are definitely chick lit although they also come under comedy and drama (dramedy).

tennysoneehemingway said...

These definitions read exactly as they sound in my head when I hear them. Thanks for the 'definitve' article. I've always wanted to try my hand at a romance novel but have never quite dared. I really think they're a lot harder to do and do well, than people give them credit for.

Elizabeth Ann West said...

I think as more and more books are independently or self-published, these genres are going to expand in definitions. Harlequin has had a virtual monopoly as gatekeeper to determine the books that qualify for "romance." I think many modern women are looking for romantic stories that don't have the set, defined HEA. Let's face it, most of our real-life relationships don't end in HEA. Gone are the days when a woman needed a man to find security in life. This is one reason why I think the chick-lit, hen-lit genres developed and took off when no one was watching.

In fact, the novel I am working on right now would easily be a chick-lit story if I told it from one of my two female main characters' POV. Instead, I am telling the story from the hero's POV. It is a story about a robotics engineer who finally realizes he is in love with his best friend and business partner. However, just as they get engaged, a one-night stand he had before they began dating surfaces, pregnant with his child. It made sense to me to tell it from his POV because he is the one torn between two loves, romantic love and the love of his child.

I've been calling it a "train wreck romance," where the spectacle is big, the reader can't help gawking, and at the end just hopes for everyone to be okay, not necessarily together. Or chick-lit turned on its head. I'm sure many more authors out there will do the same thing; really explore the boundaries of these two genres because the days of only approved storylines reaching readers is over. Thankfully.

Maxine said...

No matter how each is defined, I wouldn't touch either genre :) I can't even watch Romance or Chick Flick movies! Give me a horror or a classic any day.

J.M.Cornwell said...

When someone described my novel, Among Women, as chick-lit, I was quite irritated. There are no men and there is no romance, so how could it be chick-lit? Under this wider definition, my novel definitely is chick-lit. I've always seen the genre, or sub-genre, as wise-cracking romantic fiction with multiple characters, multiple partners (often) and a quirky heroine who usually drinks and fumbles her way through the novel, aka Elizabeth Young.

Okay, so I wrote about a woman's physical and emotional journey with a cliff-hanging ending. I guess that makes it chick-lit.

Ilya Kralinsky said...

I'm going to chime in with the clearer, more concise definitions: Romance is silly as hell, and chick lit is boring as hell. You're welcome. Glad I could help.

Donna Fasano said...

Ilya, tens of millions of readers would disagree. Here are some hard numbers to prove that (taken from RWA's website):

Popularity of Romance Fiction
(source: Business of Consumer Book Publishing 2010)

* Romance fiction generated $1.36 billion in sales in 2009.
* 9,089 new romance titles were released in 2009.
* In 2009, romance was the second top-performing category on the New York Times, USA Today, and Publishers Weekly best-seller lists, beat only by the movie tie-in category.
* Romance fiction sales are estimated at $1.358 billion for 2010.
* 74.8 million people read at least one romance novel in 2008. (source: RWA Reader Survey)

Market Share of Romance Fiction
(source: Business of Consumer Book Publishing 2010)

* Romance fiction was the largest share of the consumer market in 2009 at 13.2 percent.

Romance Market Share Compared to Other Genres
(source: Simba Information estimates)

* Romance fiction: $1.36 billion in estimated revenue for 2009
Religion/inspirational: $770 million
Mystery: $674 million
Science fiction/fantasy: $554 million
Classic literary fiction: $462 million

Ilya Kralinsky said...

Just a personal opinion. I'll post a thesis in more detail on my website. Thank you for the time and effort put into your counter-argument, I just think there are too many factors coloring the statistical analysis for the statistics to be correct.

Naomi Kramer said...

God knows I'd take personal opinion over statistics any day! Opinions are always right. ;-)

Cookie's Mom said...

There are some really good lessons here. Donna's differentiation between the genres seems to make sense to me. I always knew I preferred chick-lit to romance, but could never articulate why. Now I can!

I also learned vicariously that providing a weak argument is ill advised. Better not to provide an argument at all. Weak arguments, such as 'I just don't think that's right', only serve to strengthen the opposition all the more.

Thanks Al and Donna!

BooksAndPals said...

Just saw in my Twitter feed that Cookie's Mom has an excellent post she just published on her blog that references this post.

patriciaryan said...

Mr. Kralinsky, can we assume your detailed thesis will name the romance and chick lit novels you've read that you found silly or boring?

Anonymous said...

Judester said ...

Great post! But are these catagories only for the modern work in your opinion, Donna?

Love Jane Austin. Where would you catagorize her work?

Emily and Charlotte Bronte, I'm thinking chick lit.

Donna Fasano said...

In my mind, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice are pure romance. (I just think about Mr. Darcy and I start flushing like a school girl. LOL)

Anonymous said...

fans of both chick lit and romance can (and do!) expect strong characters with whom they can relate and connect

Surely all readers of fiction, whatever the genre, expect these? It's hardly a unique expectation in this case.

Donna Fasano said...

Dear Mr. or Ms. Anonymous,

You're correct, expecting strong characters is not unique in this case as all readers want compelling characters who will propel any story forward. However, I made the statement in answer to a comment Al made in his review of my book, Talking Love in Stride, where he claimed, "Lately I’ve read a few of the romance genre and those I’ve read have not been what I had pictured. I thought I’d find cardboard characters, completely implausible or simplistic plots..." And as I pointed out early on, Al's review of Taking Love in Stride was the impetus of this blog post.

Beth Orsoff said...

Donna, I have to disagree with you on Jane Austen being romance. I think of her books as the original chick lit. I read Pride and Prejudice after Bridget Jones's Diary and was really struck by the similarities (and not just because both male leads are named Darcy). Bridget Jones is really just a modern update of Pride and Prejudice.

Donna Fasano said...

Beth, you would be in very good company! Jennifer Crusie and a slew of other romance authors actually wrote a book about it, Flirting with Pride and Prejudice: Fresh Perspectives on the Original Chick-Lit Masterpiece.

However, if we had the chance to ask Jane, I think she'd say she was writing the contemporary romance novels of her time. The female characters in her books had no opportunity to pursue a formal education or a profession, and their main focus after 'coming of age' was in making a proper marriage. Many of Jane's plots revolved around finding a love match (that offered personal fulfillment) as opposed to a moneyed match (that offered security). Besides that, those smoldering looks Mr. Darcy gave Elizabeth...oh, my! Again, I say, pure romance. But I think it's safe for us to agree to disagree.

tonymcfadden said...

It's getting fuzzier at the edges.

Gail Dayton said...

I know I'm late, but I can't keep up with my feeds.

@Donna, you talk about romance being between one man and one woman--but there are a lot of gay/lesbian romances out there...and they are romances. So even there, romance is a wider umbrella than you've mentioned. Some would argue that a romance doesn't even have to limit itself to only two people. (Not sure how that would work outside fantasy, myself, but there are those...)

@Anonymous-1, The Brontes did not write chick-lit, because chick lit is light and humorous, and Char and Em's books are anything but. I think Jane Eyre is a romance. Wuthering Heights is not.

@The Writing Goddess: "As it was once explained to me, in genre romance the story is much more structured - we must meet the male & female leads by page X, the first kiss must occur by page Y, the first complication keeping said pair apart must happen by page Z."

Whoever explained that to you must not have been a romance writer--whether of series/category romance (the Harlequin/Mills & Boon lines), or any other romance. I've written for Hqn. There are guidelines for the various lines, but there is nothing whatsoever this definite. And the other romance publishers are even less definite. It's pretty much what Donna said. A romance is all about the relationship, with the HEA ending.

@Elizabeth Ann: "Harlequin has had a virtual monopoly as gatekeeper to determine the books that qualify for "romance."" Um... No, here too. Harlequin is now the only *Series* romance publisher, the books that are descendants of the old-fashioned dime novels, published on a monthly basis, like magazines. But they are far from the only publisher of romance--except perhaps in the UK, but I'm not sure about that either. Every one of the "big Six" publishers has at least one romance imprint. Some of them may have more than one. They each have their own "expertise," but they all respond to the large and lucrative readership.

@Ilya Yes, those statistics are real. They are valid. Just because YOU don't like these books doesn't mean they're not good books. I can't stand horror or scary thrillers. But I'm not going to say the people who do like them are sick puppies who don't recognize quality if it hits them in the head. Really, I'm not. ;)

Me? I like romance, chick lit, hen lit--pretty much all women's fiction, as long as it's not too slow-paced. I also like most science fiction, fantasy and a lot of urban fantasy. I used to like romantic suspense, but I am a wimp, and I can't read that scary stuff any more. (It's what comes of having worked for a prosecuting attorney, and seeing too many real life serial killers--and believe me, one is too many.) I do like a good cozy mystery though. WANNA GET LUCKY? by Deborah Coonts is a good one. It's kind of a chick lit mystery. ;)

Which is probably what your book is, @tonymcfadden. Or a humorous cozy mystery. They kind of blend--but they're making a subgenre all their own, these days.