When you read, say, The Day of the Triffids, did you seriously believe that the world was in danger of being taken over by man-eating plants? What about Bram Stoker's Dracula – did it make you think a blood lusty vampire was lurking outside your bedroom window, just waiting for his chance to bite your neck and force you into the ranks of the undead? When you finished On the Road did you yearn to set off on an epic road trip across the States, accompanied by your lawyer and a truck load of drugs?
Well, maybe, but I'm sure you didn't ACTUALLY do it.
So when you kick back with a Jackie Collins novel do you genuinely imagine that you yourself can only be happy if you end up married to a Hollywood mogul or a billionaire Vegas casino boss? It's a nice fantasy sure, but no, I didn't think so. And why not? Because most of us aren't complete and utter morons, most of us are perfectly capable of separating fact from fiction, and it's frankly insulting to our intelligence to suggest otherwise.
A controversial article published in the US last month argues that women who read romance novels may be ruining their chances of finding happiness in real life; that the chick lit genre fuels unrealistic female expectations about love and can prove as addictive and damaging to relationships as some men's over use of pornography. This strikes me as not only ridiculous, wildly sexist and plain wrong but also the most patronising piece of rubbish I've ever read. Kimberley Sayer Giles, author of this drivel and apparently one of the top 20 life coaches in America, wrote that: 'Women are more stimulated by romance than sex, so when they read romantic stories (and they don't have to be explicit to work) they can experience the same addicting chemical release as men do [when they watch porn]. For many women, these romance novels may be more than a necessity; they may be an addiction.' To add grist to her mill of stupidity Sayer Giles quotes Dr Julianna Slattery, Christian psychologist (whatever the hell that is) and author of the terrifyingly titled Finding The Hero In Your Husband: Surrendering The Way God Intended, who says she is seeing more and more women who are clinically addicted to romantic books: 'For many women, these novels really do promote dissatisfaction with their real relationships.'
The explicit assumption being that women, with their tiny minds, can't cope with a bit of harmless escapism – which is, in my opinion, what most popular mass-market reading is about, not just chick lit. Crime, sci-fi, literary fiction, horror, romance – whatever genre floats your boat, and let's not forget that most people dip into all of it at some point – it's the same. Can you imagine psychologists' couches, rehab centres and group meetings filled with sad, soppy-eyed men attempting to explain why Lee Childs' uber male Jack Reacher character has killed their sense of self? Kids all over the world distraught because they can't find a real live flying broomstick on which to play quidditch a la Harry Potter? No? Well then why is it ok to imply that women are doing the same: desperately, weepily seeking out urgent psychological assistance in an attempt to resist the lure of a Jilly Cooper book, a Marian Keyes or a Jane Fallon before it ruins their lives? Whether you choose to read about aliens, murders, tough guy cops, vampires or forensic pathologists, surely this choice provides essentially the same function as reading about handsome heroes, love or relationships: for enjoyment, entertainment, relaxation, escaping the daily routine, light relief, whatever. When there are so many other exciting things like, for example, cocaine, champagne and chocolate to become addicted to, this is such a truly dumb idea I just can't see it.
Sayer Giles and Slattery's viewpoint strikes me as not only stupid but also scary – perpetuated as it is by women who should know better. I'd rather walk barefoot down a long road made up entirely of broken glass than be coached in life matters by a woman who pens this sort of vomit, and as for seeing Slattery in a professional capacity? You'd have to pay me extreme, unaffordable amounts of danger money. Sayer Giles goes on to offer the following advice to those who are finding romance novels such pure torture: 'Recognising that you have a problem and making a firm commitment to quit [reading these books] is the most important step. Then, commit to working on your real relationship, if you are in one. Spend alone time with your partner on a regular basis. Invest in help to make that time more enjoyable. Read self-help books together or contact a relationship professional or coach, who can help you to rekindle the flame in your marriage.'
OMG: what complete and utter tosh.
It makes me wonder if this is a cynical attempt to cook up business for those, like Sayer Giles and Slattery, who stand to make a profit from these apparent hordes of ' dangerously unbalanced' women who find it impossible to make the distinction between reading and real life. Come on: what sort of complete and utter WIMP would claim to be 'addicted' to chick lit? Or, for that matter, any literary genre? Would claim that this perceived addiction to stories, to the fantasy world created by its authors, was ruining their real lives? How pathetic! Who ARE these women that Slattery is treating in her job as a psychologist? I certainly don't know any, and if I did I think I'd find it hard not to give them a good slapping.
The fact remains that chick lit is big business, huge. The BML Books and Consumers Survey tells us that 18.8 million of these books were sold in the UK last year at a value of £102 million. I find it annoying enough when snobbish types knock this incredibly popular, lucrative genre, the chick lit haters who seem to think us ladies are incapable of not confusing modern chick lit with the love-and-marriage of Jane Austen or the explosive passion of Wuthering Heights, but I am truly amazed by this attack. Personally I love to read all sorts, as I'm sure you do. The fact that I'm the chick lit critic at the Daily Mail does not mean I don't rush out to buy the latest Philip Roth or Jonathan Franzen. Likewise, just because I got a distinction in my American Literature MA does not mean I don't love to kick back with a Jackie Collins, whom I adore. There is a hierarchy in chick lit the same as any other genre – some of it's awful, sure, but some of it is wonderful. Good or bad, however, I just don't believe it has the power to destroy any sane woman's grip on reality. I found reading Sayer Giles's article a beyond excruciating experience; this crazy notion that there's a bunch of loser women roaming the streets who should be in 'chick lit rehab', blaming their lack of a love life on too many Mills & Boon – well, that really is enough to make a girl mad.