Wednesday, July 22, 2009

There Are No Rules.

(Click here to read
the first post in my series on the genre of chick lit.)

So, if chick lit is not, in fact, merely stupid slutty shopping porn, then what is it? What distinguishes it from the apparently more venerable genre of women's fiction… a genre which is clearly superior even in name, being for "women" instead of "chicks", and garnering the full label of "fiction" rather than the half-word "lit" which implies that the contents of the book itself are perhaps also only halfway there in terms of quality... it’s not real literature, it’s "lit." Girl stuff. Literature lite. Chick lit. (Whoops, I said I was going to go on my linguistic rant later in the week, Sorry, let’s get back on track.)

Here is the comprehensive definition of what constitutes chick lit:

A novel, written primarily for women, usually by a woman, most likely narrated with a first-person P.O.V. by a female protagonist, with a "confidential" and/or humorous tone.

That's it.

Yes, the protagonist is also most likely to be in her 20s or 30s and living in an urban setting, but it's not required, and neither are sex, drinking, high heels, or the pursuit of Mr. Right. The subgenre of "lady lit" is for older protagonists; "Christian chick lit" is definitely going to exclude any gleefully wanton sex & drug use; "mommy lit" may well be in suburbia as the protagonist tries to figure out what became of her pre-baby self... even classic chick lit novels (e.g. The Nanny Diaries) often focus more on getting respect at work than on getting hitched. Yet these are indeed all part of the chick lit category.

To quote author Cathy Yardley:

...if you've got a story that's a coming-of-age or coming-of-consciousness story, that has even a modicum of humor, like it or not, odds are good that a publisher would call it Chick Lit... whether you want it to be or not.
I agree: the genre is all about the funny. (I read somewhere that there's a new category called "humorous women's fiction" but I honestly haven't heard enough about it to give it fair treatment here.) Marian Keyes wrote about drug abuse and mental illness, but did it with some comedic flair... it's chick lit. Jodi Picoult is laugh-free... women's fiction. I think much of Amy Tan's work would be classified as chick lit if written by a debut author today, but by now she's AMY TAN so of course her work must be "better" than mere chick lit.

But what on earth is wrong with humor? I'm with Steve Almond on this one: funny is the new deep, and many weighty topics can handle... nay, they deserve the additional values that humor has to offer.

And that is why I'm not going to remarket my book as women's fiction (as one of yesterday's commenters said she was able to do). If it's the lighthearted, conversational/confidential, doesn't-take-herself-too-seriously voice of the work that makes a novel chick lit from an industry perspective, then dammit, that's what I've written. That's who the characters are, and I can't imagine them dealing with their trials and tribulations in any other way. I hope the reader can't, either.

And I refuse to believe that the coming-of-age element is a problem, either. The tales of disaffected young men finding themselves are among the great literary works of our time, but stories about young women must be mindless fluff? Bite me.

I would love to avoid being labeled chick lit... although I don't think the label should have been stigmatized in the first place. Everyone agrees that Nick Hornby is an amazing writer, despite the fact that he writes "lad lit." The really good chick lit writers are out there, and it's infuriating that they're not getting equal respect. Why can't chick lit get the same fair treatment as, say, SciFi and Fantasy, a category which has total crap but also Neil Gaiman? It is incredibly sad that an entire genre has been tainted. (More on that tomorrow.)

Ideas, anyone? Do we "take back" the label chick lit with exceptional writing and new marketing? Or do we try to invent a new genre label?

Author: Carrie Kei Heim Binas
Title of work: In Name Only
Genre: "Chick Hornby"

I was going end the post there, but then I did a Google search with the intention of adding a link for the above-quoted Cathy Yardley, author of Will Write For Shoes, How to Write a Chick Lit Novel (a book I purchased after writing my novel, because it has excellent advice on how to write a synopsis for literary agents)... and her website says "author of women's fiction" all over it, right up top as part of her name/signature. When you click the Bookshelf tab, her novels are divided into "sexy reads" and "romantic comedy/chick lit", and yet she's not identifying herself as a chick lit author. I guess the stigma got to be too much for her as well.

Edited to add:

More support for my theories: Chick Lit Books' What is Chick Lit?


  1. Like any genre, chicklit has its share of good and bad. I get so tired of people bashing genres wholesale rather than recognizing this! 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...

    Good post and I liked your term on Nathan's blog - 'Smart' chicklit.

  2. I completely agree with your frustration! I'm writing my second novel, still compulsively editing the first... all the while scouring every website, blog and online bookstore for the best 'category' to label my writing when I finally get around to calling it fully polished.
    I write from the 1st person POV, 30-something female, about feelings/changes/stuff that happens - sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's not... there are no shoes, well, not a lot of shoes. I guess it's chick-lit, but I just can't wrap my head around why that's such a bad thing?? If it's light and enjoyable, it must be less important - or so 'they' say.

  3. Right. On.

    I definitely think we need to take back the term "chick lit" - like the word "bitch." I'm going to start today!

  4. As a woman in my late twenties, I like chick-lit, I figure I'm the intended audience after all. But maybe I'm not reading the right books, when I call things chick-lit. I consider Jane Austin the original chick-lit writer. Everything she wrote is centered around women coming of age and finding there way through love and life, but they are great books that have stayed popular for centuries. More recent authors such as Barbra Kingsolver, Fannie Flagg and Rebecca Wells also write chick-lit in my opinion. But there books are really good and have all sold a lot of copies. But when there really good books are made into really popular movies their called "chick-flix" so aren't their books "chick-lit". I don't think its a bad thing, I just thinks is an easy way to define a target audience. YA doesn't have a stigma just because it's written for teenagers. Why does chick-lit have to be a bad thing just because it's written for young women?

  5. I happen to love chick lit. I had no idea it had such a stigma attached to it. I'm in the 20-30 something age category, but I read a wide variety of books. I don't happen to write 'chick lit', but that was not a conscious choice. A memoir is just not chick lit no matter how funny some parts may be!

    So, press on, and I hope one day I get to read your work.

  6. I think the problem with chick lit is, when it first became HUGE, it was so narrowly defined. What made Bridget Jones Diary and Sex and the City so good was that they were unique and fun and made their own rules. What followed was just the industry's attempt to capitalize on that by copying it over and over. (Same thing they're doing now with Twilight and all the vampire/paranormal books.) People burn out quickly with the same thing over and over...although there were some awesome chick lit books.

    I remember they said chick lit was going to kill romance. Romance is still around and chick lit (mostly) isn't...but many of the single title romances I read have a chick lit feel to them. They just don't have the shopaholic single city girl dating idiots until she finds Mr. Right element.