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Chick Lit: A question unto itself?

November 2, 2011

You know you’re emerging from an unproductive period when you find yourself arguing internally about whether or not to blog a link that has been sitting on your desktop for a month. Er, right. Never mind. This isn’t about me.

Rather, let us start with Roxanne Gay, who tries to scrabble together an overview of a question that recently rippled through the publishing world:

Polly Courtney's "It's a Man's World"When you write a book with the title It’s A Man’s World, with the tagline “but it takes a woman to run it,” you have to have some sense that your book is going to be marketed in a certain way. I haven’t read the book in question, but the title certainly gives an impression. Maybe it’s just me but when I see that title, I think “chick lit.” I also enjoy “chick lit,” so that label is not a bad thing. That book’s author, Polly Courtney, recently had a very public reaction to how her book was being marketed as “chick-lit,” announcing she was leaving her publisher, Harper Collins, so her writing wouldn’t be pigeonholed. As writers, we often have to worry about whether or not our work will be pigeonholed based on some aspect of our identity. No one wants their creativity limited or misrepresented; pushing back against rigid, often unfair categories is a natural response for a creative person.

In her explanation for why she was leaving her publisher, Courtney distinguishes between women’s fiction, which she writes, and “chick lit,” which she very much does not. I gather that women’s fiction is serious while “chick lit” is not. She writes, “Don’t get me wrong; chick-lit is a worthy sub-genre and there is absolutely a place for it on the shelves. Some publishers, mine included, are very successful at marketing this genre to women. The problem comes when non-chick lit content is shoe-horned into a frilly “chick-lit” package. Everyone is then disappointed: the author, for seeing his or her work portrayed as such; the readers, for finding there is too much substance in the plot; and the passers-by, who might actually have enjoyed the contents but dismissed the book on the grounds of its frivolous cover.”

Depending on the content of the book in question, Courtney is correct in noting that disappointment is possible for everyone involved in the consumption of a book. At the same time, isn’t a cover is just a cover? Eventually, the writing speaks for itself and either readers will like the work or they won’t. Readers are fairly sophisticated these days, aren’t they? I would like to believe readers will, more often than not, have a good sense of what a book is or isn’t about no matter what is emblazoned across the cover. Unfortunately, such does not seem to be the case and certain books are burdened by covers that alienate certain audiences.

For her own part, Polly Courtney explained the decision to leave HarperCollins in The Guardian:

The term “women’s fiction” has been adopted by publishers and retailers alike as a shorthand for fiction that involves shopping sprees, bodily insecurities and the hunt for Mr Right. No – hang on. That’s “chick lit”, isn’t it?

This is the problem. The line that used to define “chick lit” as a sub-genre of women’s fiction has blurred, giving publishers the authority to brand huge swathes of fiction in pink and green swirly covers, on the assumption that this is what women want. As Margaret Carroll, a fellow ex-HarperCollins author, put it: “Very ironic to find this is an industry run by women.”

I do not labour under any illusion; my novels are not literary masterpieces – but nor are they chick-lit. So, you may ask, why did I sign with an imprint that specialises in high-volume commercial fiction? The answer to this lies in the way that we are trained, as authors, to believe that even so much as a glance from a traditional publishing house is an honour and a privilege. They are the experts. They know more about books than the authors do themselves. We should be grateful that a prestigious publishing house will give us the time of day. It is like a gift from God when a book deal lands in our lap.

I don’t know, so I’ll leave it to everyone else to figure out. In truth, I don’t delve deeply into “women’s fiction” or “chick lit”. But I can at least offer two points about the question. “Chick lit” sounds derogatory to my ear, in part because it is virtually homophonic to a brand of tiny, square lozenges of chewing gum. Never mind. It probably has more to do with the dismissive tone with which men describe films as “chick flicks”. (I mean, really, have you actually seen the cinematic disaster known as Chantilly Lace? I mean, you’d think, with that cast … er … right. Never mind.)

But maybe the chick flick aspect is part of the problem. And, of course, maybe I have a distorted view of chick flicks in general, since I’m not the target market. But it seems to me that there is a fundamental difference between valences. Women’s fiction, as such, tends to fall under that vague notion of “mainstream” literature, while chick lit seems more a superficial sales genre. Women’s fiction might capture a moment in time, while chick lit depends on that moment. Sarah Orne Jewett’s classic Country of the Pointed Firs might well be considered “women’s fiction”, but it is also treated as literature alongside William Dean Howells, Charles Chesnutt, and Willa Cather. When one says women’s fiction, I might think of Joyce Carol Oates or Alice Walker. When one says chick lit, yeah, I think of my mother cracking up over a Janet Evanovich novel involving old women farting in hot pants.

Here’s a question, then, for the ages: Is Anita Shreve’s debut novel, Eden Close, a mystery, women’s fiction, or chick lit?

Or Alice Walker actually serves as a great example here. Is Alice Walker …

  • … a great black author?
  • … a great female author?
  • … a great black female author?
  • … a great author?

The problem with certain labels is that they can shape the definition of an artwork. Perhaps Meridian is a good example of “black literature”, but it’s also a damn good story, damn well written, and deserving of classification as literature without any especial adjectives.

I do see a difference between women’s fiction and chick lit, but it’s a hard one to explain. It even brings to mind a feminist term of extremely limited usage, “herstory”, which attempts to describe history through women’s eyes. But one cannot hold that the difference is whether a women’s fiction story rises to the level of literature, with all that implies; it is too high a standard. There is plenty of mainstream (tacitly, I suppose, for our purposes), “men’s” fiction that neither fits any particular genre nor rises to the level of fine literature. But men’s fiction brings to mind Mack Bolan novels, or the gratuitous, even useless sex scenes in Dean Koontz stories.

Perhaps the great lesson here, of course, is that I’m rambling, and really should take up the habit of review and revision instead of simply posting one-drafters, but, as noted, this isn’t about me.

Women’s fiction. Chick lit. Literature in the context of the literary masterpiece. I can’t tell you specifically what chick lit is, but I know that the phrase ought not apply to Alice Walker, Joyce Carol Oates, or even Jane Yolen. At the same time, it’s hard for me to not sound like I’m disparaging chick lit. So, right. Never mind. I’ll leave it to everyone else to hash out.

—bd

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