Chick Lit and Cosy Crime: The Problem of Genre in Eighteenth-Century and Contemporary Fiction

This blog post is from Jannat Ahmed (@PemberleyParade), a Masters student in English Literature at Cardiff University. Her research interests include the authorship and readership of the eighteenth-century novel, the popular novel of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, fanfiction culture, and postcolonial and feminist theory. She hopes to pursue a doctorate investigating the relationship between the girl reader, the woman writer and the male critic in British literature.

The journalist Caitlin Moran believes that culture precedes politics in motivating change in society, and I agree. Yet it seems to me that the importance of ‘low’ culture, particularly in terms of genre fiction, is often overlooked. Despite its prevalence, critics and reviewers sometimes engage in an unfortunately token relationship with genres such as romance and crime fiction. Rightfully so, perhaps, one might say, when much of these fictions are reproduced, predictable texts that follow a traditional plot-line. However, much as critics may tire of them, cultural phenomena such as film and television franchises, sequels, prequels, reboots and remakes all operate on a mass level of reproduction. Why is this? What lies behind this money-making machine? What does it mean for the audience? And when and how did the traditional plot-line come into being? I think it is worth interrogating the construction of literary genre against these cyclical, recognisable narratives.

Since I am focusing on the novel tradition, let us first consider the beginnings of the novel. The novel in Britain, as we know it today, has traditionally been thought to originate with Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1719, which, with its focus on resourcefulness and investigation, we might see as a predecessor of the crime fiction novel. Equally, the amatory fiction (novels or novellas, as we might see them today) written before and contemporary with Robinson Crusoe, by authors like Eliza Haywood, also set the stage for future fictional prose writing. Haywood’s amatory fiction can be seen here as a predecessor to modern romantic fiction. Both these narratives have set a precedent for genres to come. These narrative types came to fruition later in the long eighteenth century with novels like Frances Burney’s Evelina, Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and William Godwin’s Caleb Williams. These novels are now read as romantic and crime narratives whose characteristics would later become well-worn tropes. Their authors produced, created and emboldened the grand narratives that both crime and romantic fiction embody today.

‘Literary’ fiction – the type found on university reading lists today –  is often focused on the unusual, the new, and the original; sometimes it explores the act of finding the terror in the mundane (see Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy), or the mundane in the terror (see Don DeLillo’s Falling Man). Not all contemporary literature does or should fit under this description, but postmodernist and modernist influences persist in our approach to appreciating literature at the cost of genre fiction. We savour “difficult” realist texts, taboo topics and the extreme. And yet, these same themes do appear in cosy crime and chick lit. While lauded modernist texts of the twentieth and postmodernist texts into the twenty-first century explore taboo and its extremes, crime fiction and romantic fiction do the same – with little critical recognition. The only difference is that a taboo is no longer taboo because it fits the context. The murderous instincts and perverted crimes of a serial killer are to be expected in crime genre fiction.

But what exactly does genre expectation mean? In one respect, fiction can be measured on a scale of familiarity. We might read fiction to discover something new, different and unfamiliar (as with many modernist texts), or to satisfy a pre-existing familiar interest (such as rereading crime and romantic fiction). Postmodern literature is sensitive to its use of cliché as well as aware of its own literary forerunners, which it works to undermine and rework. Crime fiction and romantic narratives are aware of tropes in a different manner; their authors often work towards expectation rather than against it. The anomalies of genre fiction, such as The End of the Affair as a crossover between romantic and crime fictions, are those which may find their way onto literature courses. The idea of a natural evolution of novel content in terms of crossover and reworking must be taken into consideration, but it is still the case that crime and romantic fiction have persisted as distinct genres to this day, with resounding success.

While genre is often difficult to pin down in literary fiction because of an unfamiliar amalgamation of tropes, types and themes, in genre fiction the unfamiliar lies within the text,  rather than outside it. In other words, the characters within genre fictions are unaware of the plotline they will inevitably follow, but the reader is not. I make this differentiation because it places centre stage the reader’s desire for affirmation. A dramatic irony is often at play when we read these types of novels, or consume these types of narratives. Why do we place our expectations in these fictions in this way? Perhaps now, more than ever, it relates to a nostalgic desire to believe in a grand narrative, even if this is confined to the expectation of executing justice (in crime fiction) or finding a life-partner (in romance). We might read the culture of reboots, remakes and sequels in this vein. We replace our own grand narratives with fictional ones, which brings us to a whole other topic. Is the grand narrative in chick lit and cosy crime a residue of T.E. Hulme’s reading of Romanticism as ‘spilt religion’? Why is it these specific genres that persist?

It is no coincidence that these  “trashy” chick lit or cosy crime novels are often referred to, in their adherence to expectations, as “guilty pleasures”. (This reasoning also applies to popular music and chick flicks.) These texts are guilty pleasures because they reveal a naïve, unrealistic, idealised version of life. And idealism provides the perfect relief from the “difficult” texts of contemporary fiction. These fictions are difficult precisely because they seem closer to reality, in that they often do away with a grand narrative. But this doesn’t mean that genre fiction therefore has no literary importance. The ‘ideal’ and the ‘real’, as narrative constructs, both have value. Indeed, this is where the novel tradition began, with Robinson Crusoe’s desire to execute justice in a faraway land, and Haywood’s (sometimes surreal) explorations of love and partnership. Love and justice, it seems, are our inherited and enduring grand narratives, and literature finds multiple ways to explore and interrogate them.

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