Chick lit

| 12 Comments

Chick Lit signTo 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
4. (tie)
"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
5. (tie)
"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.

12 Comments

Well, if it's any consolation, I think the reason "Chick-Lit" is a title at all is because fiction in the US is more of a ladies game - they're considered a real market whereas guys (and by that I mean Dudes) are no longer such a market. In the UK I think they have a whole category of books called like, "Lads Books", which is more or less the equivalent of "Chick Lit". I'm pretty sure I remember there being some male writer who in the US would be considered all "smarty pants" who went to the UK for a book tour and was shocked to find that there was a strong contingent of guys reading his books, and they were wearing striped shirts, pressed jeans and getting shitfaced on beer while screaming soccer slogans. I think that was like, Chuck Palahniuk. What the hell am I rambling about? I started thinking about this in terms of gendered storytelling and ran off into talking about market demographics. Sorry for the incoherence, ya'll. I'd can it, but I think this is an interesting line of talk and want to hear more people's thoughts.

Oh, and since when are Relationships and Marriages not Things?

It's not that they aren't Things, it's just that they aren't the Only Things That Happen to Women, you know? Anyway, I think your demographic argument is actually kind of interesting. I mean, if you think about who is reading novels in America, outside academia, one of the first things that comes to mind (or my mind, anyway) is book clubs. And book clubs are nearly 100% female, from my understanding. I wonder what the gender-based patterns on book sales actually are? The article also mentioned that women are comfortable with used/borrowed books, while men are more comfortable with new books.

I took a class about this! Yay look, my education pays off! THe best distinction is that chicklit is genre fiction, ie NOT literature. If you go into a Borders, you'll notice romance, scifi, mysteries, christian, westerns are all outside of the mainstream fiction section. Except fiction is called "literature." So Toni Morrison is not chick lit, she is literature. So the distinction of chick lit is most definitely NOT just a woman author. A lot of people are "above" genre literature. I think pretty much everyone still has some sort of snobbery about one of the genres I listed above (i.e. "OH fantasy books aren't REAL fiction--they're just junk food/guilty pleasure books.") But the most maligned of all of these is probably romance fiction. Chicklit has a lot of the themes of romance, but is a lot more modern than most chicklit books. Hallmarks of chicklit include --Working single young woman main character with high powered career, or at least working hard toward a good career --some romantic element/interest, though usually not erotic. Maybe she's trying to get married or just got out of some big relationship. --shopping! shoes! booze/partying! --brightly colored covers/graphics. --humor --lots of female relationships (ie her friends) So big examples--Bridget Jones, and the Sophie Kinsella Books, Sex in the City, etc. So some chicklit titles I am sure are penned by men, so author is not the factor. Chicklit is POPULAR fiction meaning you probably aren't familiar with a lot of the women writing literary fiction. Which is why these books get more press, Oprah time, etc. not because of their subject matter. Simon is right about women having more publishing purchase power, and the UK and lads books. So Nick Hornby is the classical example of a lad author. I don't think Chicklit is NECESSARILY a negative term for the genre, but it can be used as such in the same way romance is. Basically lots of people like reading "throwaway" or "lowbrow" lit for fun. Because it's fun. It's not about their actual day to day struggles. I would point out that in these top 5's you mentioned, most of those books are on HS reading lists. My guess is people who don't really read just rattle off something they read in HS. A lot of people who read genre fiction are really ashamed of it. And won't admit to reading it even though it's FUN. They don't define women's lit, because these books are by definition NOT literature. I think chicklit is what some women want to read. You don't do things like hide reading a certain genre of books for fun unless you really want to do it. However, I doubt most people read ONLY one genre. There are books we read when we want to be intellectually challenged and those we read when we want something to take to the beach, relax and not think. Do I disagree with some of the themes in these books? Sure. Do I think American culture is a vast conspiracy poised to make us think our lives our meaningless if we are single? Yep. Do I care if people read what they want for fun? No. Do I think them reading these books indoctinates them? No--you aren't looking for in depth social commentary when you pick up "The Devil Wears Prada." You want to laugh.

Oh and most books and music are about finding love, so I don't think that's just chicklit. I mean the themes of "About a Boy" by Hornby are pretty much exactly the same as chicklit. Even Palahniuk, who is considered "transgressive" writes pretty much all about finding someone to love.

It's nice that my damaged memory has apparently latched onto something a third party can confirm. One thing that I think it interesting is that of all the genres mentioned, only "chick-lit" has any tag-on (admittedly abbreviated) of the word "literature". I suspect this is less of an argument for the literary value of the books and more of a "what sounds best" situation. But that question leads me back to Grace's post in two ways: #1: Is Jane Eyre chick-lit and was Jane Austen a chick-lit writer? #2: Is Grace's concern not so much the whole respectability of "chick-lit" in general, and much more the idea that the Real Literature that women say they like shares so many themes with less respected genre stuff. For #2: Is the stuff in the guy section any less concerned with less respected genre crap? Adventure, murder, etc.? I don't know, as I cannot read and have not read any of the books on the list. I did see "Lord of the Rings", which I understand to be based on "The Hobbit". After seeing it, I spent the next two months experimenting with homosexuality, only to eventually realize that homosexuality is gay, and therefore, not for me. I do think that the two most popular stories in the US (and probably all over) are gender tales, either ones about being a Woman or being a Man. Consensus?

To answer the intelligible part of Simon's post... #1: Is Jane Eyre chick-lit and was Jane Austen a chick-lit writer? I'd say yes. #2: Is Grace's concern not so much the whole respectability of "chick-lit" in general, and much more the idea that the Real Literature that women say they like shares so many themes with less respected genre stuff. Yep, exactly. My gripe is with the idea that "women's books"--from "genre" chick lit all the way to Women's Literature, is basically concerned with the subject of getting heroines In Love and better yet Married Off.

I did my thesis on the intersection between 'chicklit' as a genre (and societal judgement) and political literature. Most women writers address some serious political issues through the lens of social networks. I concentrated on Kingsolver because her writing about love and family and community is seeped in politics and criticism of society's view of communities and women. She gets stuck in chicklit. Because she writes about women's lives without the self-censorship of 'things that make literature'. Christ, just look at 'Ulysses' for an example of literature that isn't about 'things'. Life, for women, has been scially constructed to revolve around relationships (whatever they may be) so it is no surprise to me that women writers use that as their basis for exploration of life.

"At the end of the day, to my eye, "Wuthering Heights," "Middlemarch," and "Pride and Prejudice" are all basically about getting married." Well, I disagree. One of the strongest themes in Middlemarch is how the social pressures towards matrimony can hurt *everyone*, not just women, and how several of the characters (both female and male) find themselves trapped in marriages that, in a more enlightened age, they could have left. (George Eliot's own unconventional relationships may have influenced her feelings about marriage = trap.) Also, Middlemarch is more about the unfairness of the class struggle in Britain, and the intolerable pressures resulting from totally unfair social inequalities. Wuthering Heights also subverts the 19th-century social ideals of matrimony by having a series of disastrous, toxic marriages throughout the book that aren't at all "happily ever after", and leave you feeling as if it would have been healthier if no one had married at all. Catherine Linton/Heathcliff and Hareton Earnshaw do get married at the end, but this is peripheral to the unfolding action of the novel, which centres around the complicated, bizarre character of Heathcliff and deals with issues of race (Heathcliff is probably black), social class (again - lots of that in English literature), madness, obsession, and good old Victorian melodrama (with a touch of necrophilia - nice touch, Emily). The only important "love story" bit is the affair between Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw/Linton, which never really happens, because apart from all other considerations, she dies halfway through the novel. Pride and Prejudice is a lot more concentrated around getting married than Middlemarch and Wuthering Heights, but the idea here isn't the same as chick lit. Chick lit is mostly about young, modern women with careers who are preoccupied with getting married because they're lonely or want sex or whatever, and usually, after a series of calamities and poor choices (not to mention the shopping), the heroine ends up with some sweet dopey guy (hopefully with lots of money and charmingly floppy hair). In P&P, the women want to get married, not because they're lonely, but because if they don't, they'll likely be homeless, because women couldn't inherit property. If you read Jane Austen closely, her bitterness at the wretched unfairness of women's lot in life virtually leaps off the page at you. It's not about "Ohhh, I want to get married to some dreeeeamy guy", it's more about social commentary and women's rage at the ludicrous, appalling, horrible lack of options there were for women in Georgian England. Getting married wasn't fun and games - it was a matter of life or death. It's just not the same as chick lit. *Describing* women scrabbling about desperately trying to find husbands is not the same as *approving* of it. I wouldn't say P&P is about getting married at all. It's about women trying to find the most bearable way to live what is essentially an intolerable way of life, because if you make a mistake, you can't do a damn thing about it and you'll either starve to death or suffer horribly for the rest of your life. In that way, I think Jane Austen's books are practically protest works - there's so much social injustice in there, you could write a PhD thesis on it. Hm. I just looked up a database of PhD theses, and it appears quite a lot of people already have. Anyway, I wouldn't put too much belief in this book survey. I know plenty of men who are as obsessed with Austen, the Brontes and Eliot as I am, and feel powerfully influenced by fiction written by women also. :)

Oh god, I practically wrote a novel myself just then. Sorry! I get excited about 19th-century literature.

I tried to reply the other day but my computer kept crashing. GRRR! Jane Eyre/Bronte/ etc is actually classical LITERATURE. IE not genre fiction. All of the books on your list are ones that most of us had to read in HS. I would guess that's a good reason for them being on that list. A lot of people who read genre lit won't admit to it nor would they say it's their favorite book--it's popcorn. Also Jane Eyre-type lit is actually gothic lit, the predecessor to romance, so it's sort of has to be about marriage/romance. I have no idea what Women's Literature is. I would also point out that a quick look at amazon's literary fiction in general shows that pretty much ALL popular books are about families/romance/marriage. I don't think it's a woman thing, I think it's an everyone thing. I mean look at popular music! Everything is about finding that soulmate. Or them breaking up with you. Pretty much. And all of these lad books are about the same thing, sayign to me that everyone is interested in these subjects. Is that right? I would say no, but I don't think it's a "woman" thing or a marketing to women thing.

Ok, but what we're not asking here is WHO is making decisions about what is and is not publishable? It seems to me that the publishing industry is still, to this day, heavily male-dominated. Therefore, what we see gracing the shelves of a bookstore is not necessarily what is being written, but what publishers think women should be writing about and will sell. Lord knows there are thousands of would-be authors out there who either don't have the publicist that Atwood does, or whose books haven't been snapped up by a publisher. Second, what is the recent proliferation of Chick Lit doing for feminism? Is it reversing the gains made by first and second-wave feminists? Or is it a result of a fourth wave of feminism where it is ok to celebrate one's femininity while at the same time remaining a feminist? Just a few thoughts that have been bugging me about this genre (because I, too, happen to have snuck a few guilty pleasures from time to time with Kinsella's and other such books). Another thought: why has this genre not yet proliferated among Canadian authors?

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