As I've said in my previous posts on chick lit, this is a genre that has nearly always gotten a bad rap, even when it was popular. Indeed, perhaps because it used to be popular. In 2005, Jennifer Weiner said,
"The more I think about the increasingly angry divide between ladies who write literature and chicks who write chick lit, the more it seems like a grown-up version of the smart-versus-pretty games of years ago; like so much jockeying for position in the cafeteria and mocking the girls who are nerdier/sluttier/stupider than you to make yourself feel more secure about your own place in the pecking order." (Source article here.)If chick lit was the "pretty girl" in 2005... well, now chick lit is the former high school cheerleader who didn't make it in Hollywood like she said she would, got heavy, got dumped, and had to move back home. Schadenfreude, anyone?
Even authors of chick lit are discussing the death of chick lit in light of the recession: "Like many American businesses, chick-lit must reinvent itself—fast—if it’s going to survive."
But some chick lit was always smart and pretty. Some chick lit put its money in the bank instead of buying Manolos.
Two years ago, Jessica Faust said that she thought "people tired quickly of the snappy, acerbic 'lits' and want the quieter, more dramatic read." (Source article here.) But I think there's a middle ground. I don't think wit and drama are mutually exclusive. Neither does our feminist friend Jennifer Weiner:
Though they also contain dating, shopping and brunching, Weiner’s books aim to address “the big questions: How do you make a happy life? The choices women make—what you get and what you give up.” (Source article here.)Eric at Pimp My Novel has been doing a series of posts on genre-specific book sales, and yesterday he covered Sales for Women's Fiction. He considers chick lit to be an "I know it when I see it" subset of women's fiction, and apparently women's fiction is doing reasonably well. I think the key to the chick lit comeback is going to be marketing.
As I said in the Pimp My Novel comments, and as I've probably said before here (sorry for the repetition, but I never know if someone's a brand-new visitor to the blog), I have a 20-something unmarried urban female as my protagonist, with a first-person P.O.V., and a confidential and somewhat humorous "voice." This defines chick lit. All I can do is call it "smart" chick lit to try to show that it's NOT ABOUT SHOPPING, and hope that when it gets published, it doesn't have a pink cover.
Let's go back to Jennifer Weiner one more time. Her second book was one of her most popular ("best-sellingest"), and it came out in 2002. The cover? High heels, baby, and pinks and pastels. And of course the title is In Her Shoes. The book before that was called Good in Bed. Look, I adore Ms. Weiner, this is not a critique. But the fact is that titles that hinted at sex and shopping were very appropriate and timely for books that debuted in 2001 and 2002, when Sex and the City was still running new seasons on HBO. This packaging wouldn't go over nearly as well today.
Let's now compare and contrast with her newest release, Best Friends Forever. No sex (they're best friends, after all, not lovers), no shoes (the two women on the cover are barefoot, and you can't even see if they are holding any shoes in their hands), and the hint of pink in one cover model's dress does not overwhelm the blue and white tones of the sky and beach. Very, very good marketing.
And what of the content of these books? Has that changed with the times? I doubt it. Not the core of the novels, anyway. Here's the summary of In Her Shoes from Ms. Weiner's website: "It's the story of two sisters, Maggie and Rose, with nothing in common but the same size feet, and how they make peace with their family, their history, and with each other, in a totally non-improbable, un-sappy way that involves neither Hollywood or movie stars."
If this book hit the shelves today, they'd call it Sisterly Love or something like that. No high heels on the cover. Same story, new packaging. And the new book is about "a popular girl who hits trouble long after high school and only the geeky pal she once shunned can help"... if marketed in 2002, it might have been called Walk a Mile in Her Shoes.
Take heart, writers of smart chick lit. Readers will always want books about love, and family, and growing up, and relationships. They just might want their heroines to be wearing Payless instead of Prada. If your book can handle that change, then you're not writing something obsolete... you just need to find the agent who sees the soul underneath the chick lit label.