Thursday, July 23, 2009

Chick Lit: Kickin' it Old School

(Credit goes to Print Magazine for the chart of chick lit book covers.)

First, thank you to all the recent commenters. I'm feeling the love! Nathan Bransford just posted about "beach reads", and I am more convinced than ever that nobody should be ashamed of the books they choose to entertain themselves. As Dana said in the comments:
Anyone who dismisses an entire genre because of label stigma should be stuck reading nothing but WAR AND PEACE over and over and over and over again.
And yet, so many people -- women! -- felt the need to deride chick lit as nothing but garbage. (WTF, Maureen Dowd?) I'm with Marian Keyes on the broad-strokes criticism of the genre:
It bothers me because it is just another way of making women feel shit about themselves - by making fun of the books they write and read and the issues in them. If there were a group of men writing thrillers who had had the same impact around the world, they'd be celebrated.
Exactly! John Grisham isn't high art, so why should even the most fluffy of chick-lit-brain-candy books be considered anything worse than that... if there's a story that you enjoy reading, READ IT. WRITE IT. And if you manage to add a unique spin or extra layer of gravity to the zippy read, so much the better.

And speaking of men who write books that have impact around the world,
Stephen King, mostly talking about something else, treats chick lit as nothing to be embarrassed about:
Women have chick lit; guys have what my son Joe (as in Joe Hill) calls ''manfiction.'' And publishers sell it by the ton. Here's a concept so simple it's easy to miss: What men want from an Elmore Leonard novel is exactly what women want from a Nora Roberts novel — escape and entertainment.
Escape and entertainment. Beach reads. Chick lit. These should not be pejoratives. Jennifer Weiner agrees:
The genre is all about voice, and if you have a really fresh, really arresting voice, you can still tell a story about a single girl in the city. It's such an interesting time in a woman's life. There will always be interest in that moment when every decision is still right in front of you.

(And here's some more she says in praise of chick lit.)
Many discussions of the genre eventually refer to "traditional" chick lit, meaning the supposed originators/popularizers (is that a word?) of the genre. Specifically, Bridget Jones's Diary (1996), Sex and the City (1997), and The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing (1999).

But the term was first in 1995 used as an ironic title for an anthology, Chick Lit: Postfeminist Fiction. The genre was defined as a type of second-wave feminism that went beyond female-as-victim to include fiction that covered the breadth of female experiences, including love, courtship, and gender. Here's an excerpt from Diane Goodman's introduction to the book:
Chick-Lit is hip, stylish, confident, and sharp - it's also honest and very brave. It battles and conquers the term Chick... it proves itself structurally, lyrically, and formally as lit-erature.

The anthology calls up all of the subtle differences in the prefix post and introduces multi-leveled ideas of feminism - it's historical, political, social, economic; it's funny, sad, dramatic, mean, indulgent, moving, scary. It's about mothers, daughters, wives, lovers, partners, victims, heroes, whiners, friends, Dorothy in Oz...

Chick-Lit has guts. And so do [the editors of this anthology]. They should be applauded for not giving in to the urge to be authorities. The work in this book cannot be confined to a label with an easy definition and that, I think, is what the titles and the introductions were trying to say.
In short, chick lit is a feminist issue. I'm now determined that we should, indeed, take back the genre name, rather than replace it with a new one. I'm currently pitching my novel as "smart chick lit" but if I think I have more than three words to explain myself in, I'm going to start talking about how we're writing Chick Lit, Old School-Style.


  1. So glad I found you, Carrie. Awesome blog and really nice post about chick lit. I feel the pain, as I write it too. I really dislike being relegated to the zone of Jimmy Choos and martinis--neither of those terms are found in my fiction. I also think that women want more than that--it was popular for a while, but it's changing.

    I dislike some of the more frothy novels, but I do read and enjoy the genre. I think what appeals is a story about strong women who find affectionate love--who doesn't want THAT?

  2. My husband criticizes all the books I like to read, whether it is chick lit, romance, fantasy, Neil Gaiman or Robert Ludlum or all the other "crap" I read. It is all pulp to him. He only likes the weighty classics that take forever to get through.

    The difference is I read a lot and fast. He might read three pages a day. I can't imagin reading a story at that slow pace and staying interested. Neither can he actually.

    Although thanks to him I did read Dostoevsky last year, and I did enjoy it. I just take his book snobbery, and anyone else's because of him, for a grain of salt. I'm with you on reclaiming Chick-Lit.

    I wouldn't change your characters, or imagine them being another way either. I love them. Oh, and I found your manuscript! I misplaced it when the Mr. moved in. Turns out it was on my desk. Haha!

  3. I love this post, too. You make me want to go out on the front porch and holler "I am upstairs writing chick lit!"... but I won't, because it would wake the kids.
    Have you published anything I can buy, or are there any samples of your writing on the web?

  4. Genre is such a frustrating bunch of hooey. The idea that you can judge every single book based on what is essentially a marketing category is just absurd. The markers of a genre don't make it a bad read--bad writing makes a book a bad read, and nothing else.

    After all, one could argue that Jane Austen is Regency Chick Lit, it just missed the marketing push.

  5. Thank you, thank you for this post. Caught your comment on Nathan Bransford's uberblog. Gotta say: Chick lit defines "beach read." And Jane Austen invented it. Dissing chick lit is dissing smart women. What do they offer us instead? Vampires? Zombies? Steam Punk? Please. Doesn't anybody notice who REALLY buys books?