To your left, you see a sign I spotted in a bookstore the first night I was in Minneapolis. It caught my eye, and I have since been thinking about chick lit.
From what I can tell, chick lit covers any book by a woman or about a woman. And it is-surprise!-a derogatory term for these works. They aren't real literature. They're literature lite. Literature for girls. Diet literature. Chick lit.
On one of the message boards I read, someone posted a link to an L.A. Times article about men's vs. women's favorite fiction. The men's top five were:
1. "The Outsider," Albert Camus
2. "Catcher in the Rye," J.D. Salinger
3. "Slaughterhouse Five," Kurt Vonnegut
"One Hundred Years of Solitude," Gabriel Garcia Marquez
"The Hobbit," J.R.R. Tolkien
5. "Catch-22"," Joseph Heller
The women's top five were:
1. "Jane Eyre," Charlotte Bronte
2. "Wuthering Heights," Emily Bronte
3. "The Handmaid's Tale," Margaret Atwood
4. "Middlemarch," George Eliot
"Pride and Prejudice," Jane Austen
"Beloved," Toni Morrison
You will notice, of course that all 6 of the women's list are by female authors, while all 6 of the men's are by male authors. The article goes on to say that only one book by a woman ("To Kill a Mockingbird") appeared on the men's Top 20 list, while six male authors appeared on the women's Top 20.
What's more interesting to me than the gender of the authors, however, is what the books on these lists are about. In the men's list, you have one book about a self-involved alientated guy accused of murder, one coming of age book about another self-involved college guy, two books centered on soldiers or veterans, one patriarchal family history, and one fantasy book about a bunch of short guys on an adventure. The women's list, however, features a much more broad-reaching woman's coming of age story, one dystopian feminist novel, one novel about a slave woman, and three books that are basically about getting married. Yup, I'm not a literary purist. At the end of the day, to my eye, "Wuthering Heights," "Middlemarch," and "Pride and Prejudice" are all basically about getting married.
And maybe that's the problem.
The books that are written by women that get the most press, the biggest readership, the most Oprah-time, whatever, are, speaking very generally, about things like catching a man. While there may be some biting social commentary underneath, the top level of the story is about man-catching. And it's hard to take that as seriously as war, or coming of age, or even destroying the ring.
The thing is that's it's not that women don't write books about other things, or even that we don't read books about other things, it's that when women are asked on surveys like this one what their five favorite novels are, they don't list books about other things. And classes that focus on "women's literature" (academicese for chick lit) always start in the same place: Bronte, Eliot, Austen. Marriage, marriage, marriage.
Which isn't to say that there is anything wrong with books about relationships, even romantic ones. But why in the world should books that focus on this one topic define women's literature? We can do better than that, and have done better than that. Women write, and write well, about their other relationships, about their place in society, about adaptation and maladapation, about coming of age, about drugs, about sex, about major ethical dilemmas, even about war. It's no accident, to my mind, that Harper Lee is the only female author who showed up on the male Top 20 list--Harper Lee wrote about something.
There are people, I'm sure, who will argue that books about romantic relationships (always heterosexual, always ending in marriage) are just what woman want to read. I don't buy it. I think that's what we're taught to want to read, from Jane Austen through Jennifer Werner. And it's not enough. We're selling ourselves short, both as readers and as writers. Relegating ourselves to chit lit. Which is downstairs, by romance.