This weekend I was asked what I was reading and I sort of tried to hide the book and said "Oh, it's just chick lit". And then the person who had asked me didn't know what chick lit was, so I got into a somewhat awkward description of chick lit and it's similarities to romance fiction.
This turned out to be an ironic exchange, because I was reading Crossing Washington Square by Joanne Rendell, which is essentially a defense of popular fiction for women.
Although there are romantic relationships in this book, the relationship that is central to the book is between a "serious and dignified" woman professor, Diana, who teaches Plath and a "young and impulsive" professor, Rachel, who sprinkles her teaching with popular books like Bridget Jones's Diary.
Of course Diana doesn't approve of Rachel, and of course Rachel is afraid of Diana and can't understand her stern and unbending stance. Through love triangles and work entanglements, the two women are forced to spend more time together and ultimately work cooperatively, and in that process they come to understand each other more.
And Diana gets convinced to read romance novels.
Over and over again throughout the book, Rendell has her characters debating chick lit - does it just rot women's brains or is it empowering to see women characters get what they want? Do the books teach women to want the wrong things or are they harmless wish fulfilling fantasy? Is there value in studying what is popular because it gives a window into society and the psyche?
I used to love romance novels, and I do still enjoy an occasional chick lit. If I felt the need to defend myself for that, this book would help me craft my arguments.