Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Mythbusters: Chick Lit Edition

I always start the pitch for my novel with the line, "What's in a name?"

So, here's the question for you. What do you think of when you hear the genre name, "chick lit"?

If you said that it's vapid trash, you're probably in the majority. And, you probably have never read any chick lit.

Okay, fine, there is some vapid trash available for sale in the genre, but that's because every genre has its, shall we say, "lesser works". My main argument is that chick lit is not supposed to be vapid trash. It's not what the authors are aiming for, and to pretend otherwise is insulting... and yet, that is exactly the image of chick lit that remains in our post-Bridget Jones, post-Nanny Diaries, post-Sex and the City recession era.

(The derisive diminutives captured in the very name of the genre only add to this image, but I'll be saving my rant on linguistics for a post later in the week.)

Here is a frustrating excerpt from a blog I normally adore:
Is your protagonist relatively young — and have sex with more than one partner/do drugs/have a drinking problem? Does the plot deal with adult-themed issues that probably wouldn’t make it onto network television in the dinner hour? ... [a]re all of the [above criteria] true, but the protagonist is female, under 40, doesn’t pursue significant interests in the book OTHER than having sex with more than one partner/doing drugs/having a drinking problem — and yet is not a memoir by Elizabeth Wurtzel? Does your protagonist’s interest in shoes and handbags border on the pathological? If so, you might want to consider the chick lit category.
Really? Really? Chick lit is nothing more than urban drunken bed-hopping for 20-something shoe fetishists?

Chick lit is apparently a hard sell these days, and, to the extent that even very well-written chick lit used to include a large amount of what my best friend calls "shopping porn," that makes sense. Carrie Bradshaw's Manolos are no longer a vicarious thrill, they're a symbol of the idiotic spending that got our country (I live in the States) into this mess. But the description above certainly isn't doing the genre any favors.

Let's stick with the example of Sex and the City for a minute. (I hate to talk about a t.v. show when we should be talking about books, but since I'm also trying to communicate with people who aren't familiar with the genre, this is my best bet for finding some common ground of knowledge.)

In SATC, there was Prada and Cosmo-drinking and much discussion of marriage as the Holy Grail of Womanhood. But the show also addressed (in no particular order):
  • Infertility
  • Death of a parent
  • Abortion
  • Care of an aging parent
  • Infidelity
  • Motherhood and pregnancy
  • Debt
  • HIV testing
  • Impotence
  • Gender roles and sexual orientation
  • Adoption
  • Career concerns
  • Divorce
  • Marriage and remarriage
  • Cancer
Does this sound unwaveringly vapid and fluffy to you? No, it doesn't, and that is why the show was such a huge damn success. We didn't just watch Samatha buy thongs, we watched Miranda buying a "shitty black bra" for her mother's funeral. Yes, there were many moments of witty banter and NYC skylines and fabulous clothes and the eternal gay best friend. But it wasn't stereotypical. It was honest and real and fun all at once.

One of my first readers insists that my novel isn't chick lit because it deals with weighty themes, and it doesn't have drinking, shopping, or an endless quest for Mr. Right. But I refuse to believe that chick lit is so limited. I believe that the genre can have depth and flexibility... and that's why there was a single episode of SATC where Miranda got married and Samantha found out she had cancer. Weddings and cancer are not indicators of completely different genres.

The INTERN also recently posted about the problem with the current "chick lit image" (original post here):
Today INTERN is editing chick-lit ...or rather, a chick's-guide-to-life-after-college: first apartment, first office job, etc. It is something like 50,000 words long. Since INTERN herself is female and in the midst of her own first job-like endeavour, the eds figured INTERN was obviously qualified.

Word has searched the document and found 1293 occurrences of the word "latte".

Word has searched the document and found 981 occurrences of the word "shoe".

Word has searched the document and found 602 occurrences of the word "cocktail".

INTERN is thinking back to her roommate in freshman year of college, ostensibly the prototypical chick, who indeed drank a lot of lattes, went on dates, and owned many a pair of shoes, but was also an accomplished french-horn player, a savvy businesswoman, and deeply spiritual to boot. Don't get INTERN wrong, the chick-lit thing can be fun and intelligent and authentic, but just plugging in a lot of chick-related keywords doesn't make the book suitable for so-called chicks any more than plugging in the words "hail satan" ad infinitum makes a book suitable for death metal fans. Chick-ness has to arise organically from the material, not be splattered over the ms like an...um...spilt bottle of nail polish.
Word. And, speaking of words, here is the comparable information for my novel, In Name Only, which is 60K or 68K depending on which word-count method you use:

Occurrences of the word "latte" : 1
Occurrences of the word "shoe(s)" : 9
Occurrences of the word "cocktail" : 1

Please note that it is in fact a man who drinks the latte, and the word cocktail is actually used as part of the phrase "cocktail-hour menu."

I've said a little (okay, a lot) about what I think chick lit is not... come back tomorrow so we can discuss what it is. And please do leave a post in the comments about your impressions of the genre.


  1. Since I've never watched SATC I feel only qualified to say that I'm just surprised to learn word has more then one way to do a word count. How do you that?

    As a woman who hates shopping for anything and put off wedding planning as long as possible (but loves my starbucks) it feels good to be validated in hating the perception of "chick lit". I like the better stuff but nobody believes me there is better stuff!

  2. I have no idea how INTERN did her word count, I manually counted mine with the classic "find" function (not hard to do with such low numbers).

    There IS better stuff out there, but I'm starting to think that we're going to need a whole new sub-genre name to differentiate the good from the crap...

  3. I was writing chick lit a couple of years ago...until someone told me the genre was dying. So I took the two books I'd written and remarketed them as women's fiction, as I'm sure everyone did. Mine had no shopping, though, and no sex with multiple partners. It actually was more of a romance. I agree with you. One thing I found jaw-dropping about SATC was the time one of them got crabs and they all spoke laughingly of the time they had STDs. As if it were no big deal. I thought, "REALLY? Is THIS what happens in the big city among career woman?" It didn't feel empowering at all. Just disgusting.

  4. Well, the show definitely had its "lesser" episodes as well, and not every experience they portrayed was a universal one.

    But once again, the genre has a problem with image in that people remember and talk about the drunken-partying-with-STDs part of the show, instead of, say, the dealing-with-infertility part of the show...

  5. Preach it. I wrote a "chick lit" novel (currently editing) but everyone who reads it through for critiquing tells me "that's not chick lit, there's no shopping, sex, lattes, Mr. Right, or shoe obsession!". To which I reply: But the genre is... or should be... so much more than that! I think you're right, I think we might need a sub-genre to separate people's established perceptions from our work. Sigh.

  6. Faith, I have had that exact conversation.