“Chick lit”? “Women’s lit”? Plain old “lit”? Someone! Please tell me the difference.

by Mary W. Walters

A few years ago, I was less confused than I am now about the distinction between “chick lit” and other fiction. Chick lit usually had a brightly coloured cover that featured a stylized young woman, handbag, stilettos, and a martini glass. The title was written in a light-hearted often cursive font. The word “shopping” figured largely in the jacket copy, and the main characters had much in common with the main characters of  Sex in the City in regard to their sizes, shapes, occupations and consuming (!) interests. They generally had (minor) weight issues, men issues and life issues which were written about in a light-hearted, gently self-mocking way. Bridget Jones’s Diary was an early contribution to the genre.

I must admit to not having read much chick lit (aka “chic lit”). I didn’t have too much trouble avoiding it: I was able to distinguish it from other books by the aforementioned covers, plot summaries, and tone. I avoided these novels partly because I am happiest reading really well written  prose and poetry (I am a literary snob, as many readers of my blog and fellow contributors to literary fora have disparagingly pointed out before) but that is not the entire reason: I am sure there is some wonderfully well written chick-lit out there. (In fact, I did read Bridget Jones’s Diary, and found it thoroughly engaging.) But the main reason I haven’t read much in the genre (or sub-genre) is because it concerns subjects I’m not much interested in – such as shopping, hanging out with girlfriends all day long, dating, and seeking true happiness with the right man.  Or woman, for that matter.

I’m just not much of a “girly girl.” Never have been. My female role models are people like Helen Mirren, Jane Fonda, Meryl Streep, A.S. Byatt, k.d. lang, Renee Fleming. Brainy, independent women who happen to be beautiful. “Chicks” in a whole different sense. No bubble-gummers there. (Although Fonda had her moments.)

Women’s lit vs chick lit

“Women’s literature,” on the other hand, I have always read. Women’s fiction is quite different from chick lit, at least in my understanding of it. Women’s literature is generally  more serious than chick lit. It concerns bigger issues that are of concern to women – self-realization, domestic violence, philosophical inquiry, life and death.

I must admit I have often wondered why we feel the need to label women’s fiction. Is it to warn off certain men who might not like it? (Wouldn’t the jacket copy do an adequate job of that?) Or are we trying to get these books noticed by people who choose titles for study in university courses or reading groups?

It is true that men and women often have different interests and foci when they write, but the idea of pointing out that Barbara Kingsolver, Anne Tyler, Jane Austen, Toni Morrison or Alice Munro write women’s fiction makes as much sense to me as saying that John Updike, E.L Doctorow, Salman Rushdie and Joseph O’Neill write “men’s fiction.” We do not label the men that way. Why not? Does Cormac McCarthy write men’s fiction? Yes. Because he is a man.  So what?

Why not just call it all “literature”?

My efforts to figure out the difference between women’s literature and literature in general are further confused when I consider books like the wonderful Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Is that book women’s fiction because it was written by a woman? The main character is a man who is talking to his son about his life and his god. What is “women’s lit” about that? How about Amy Tan? She writes domestic dramas. So does Anne Tyler. What about Joyce Carol Oates? Does she write literature, or women’s lit?

Why it matters

The labels bother me because I think that labeling certain books as “women’s fiction” discourages certain other people from reading them—or gives them an excuse not to read them.  And for no good reason I can think of. (I have a friend whose husband was happily reading a P.D. James novel, and was talking about reading more by the same author. But he thought P.D. James was a man. His wife was going to hold back the truth for as long as she could because if he’d known the author was a woman, he’d have stopped reading immediately. He didn’t like books by women.)

The fact that there is also a “chick lit” category adds another dimension when it comes to discouraging readers. While some men may happily venture into books by “literary” writers who happen to be female—e.g.,  Margaret Atwood, Ann Patchett, Jeanette Winterson and so on—they are not likely to pick up a Candace Bushnell or a Sophie Kinsella. In fact, they are likely to turn their noses up at those books. For that matter, so are some female readers. (How come I get flak from female readers when I turn my nose up at chick lit, but guys just get an indulgent little shake of the head?)

What do I write? I may have no idea.

Do I write chick lit? Well, I didn’t think so. I am not interested in reading it, and have not read much of it, so how can I possibly write it? And yet within the past few months I have been told several times—and not only by readers and fellow writers, but also by two agents—that the reason I am having trouble placing my newest novel is because it is chick lit, and I am not marketing it properly. It is not “literature,” they tell me. It is not even “women’s literature” per se. It is “chick lit.”

An agent who read the first few chapters of my new novel responded to my statement, “This is not chick lit” by saying, firmly, “This IS chick lit.” As a result of this feedback from a person I respect, I have now started marketing my novel as chick lit. I have changed the title from The Whole Clove Diet to Finding Rita. I have revised the pitch to put the focus on Rita’s weight problems and her peculiarly dark lightheartedness about it and her sexual attraction to a mysterious doctor whom she meets by accident.

The book itself has not changed—it is still about a young woman who has buried her misery about some wrong choices she’s made so far in food, gaining 80 lbs in the process, and who must deal with some serious family crises and even the death of her father-in-law on her way to finding her way through it all–which she ultimately does. Her biggest problem is her isolation—she’s cut herself off from her friends. She can’t shop because she’s too fat. She doesn’t drink martinis, or work in publishing or advertising. Although her husband is the books editor of a newspaper.

Does that sound like chick lit to you? It does not to me.

So what has led these readers of the first few chapters of my new novel to insist that it is chick lit? Is it because the main character has a weight issue? If so, does that also make Wally Lamb’s fine novel She’s Come Undone chick lit?

The Questions

I need your help here, people—both male and female people. Not just for the sake of my novel and my writing, but because now I can’t stop thinking about this. I have heard in recent months that “chick lit” is going out of style. Is it gobbling up other kinds of women’s fiction in an effort to stay alive? Or is it going to take women’s fiction down the drain with it?

What does chick lit mean to you? Is every book that deals with women under the age of 40, who are looking for themselves, that includes some  humour, chick lit?

Does Tama Janowitz write chick lit? Fay Weldon? Laura Esquival?  Sue Grafton? Ruth Rendall?

Do these people all write women’s literature–as well? Instead?

Is everything written by a woman “women’s literature” or “women’s fiction”? Even if it’s detective fiction?

Do any women write plain old literature?

Do men ever write “women’s literature”?

And how can you tell?

14 responses

  1. Great questions.

    My chick-lit experience is also limited to Bridget Jones, but it seems to me that the genre must have been created as a marketing ploy: if somebody enjoyed a light read about diets and shopping, the type of cover you describe so well would lead them to another one. Clearly there must have been enough of these books for the industry to create a new genre. Which makes it interesting, in a Kafka-esque way, that your book is being squeezed into chick-lit. The books are no longer feeding the genre; the genre is eating the books.

  2. My last two published novels have another genre title: LADY LIT. They can’t be called chick lit because the main characters are over 40 years old. However, they definitely concern sex & men. THE DEWEY DECIMAL SYSTEM OF LOVE, although not literature, by any stretch of the imagination, was crisp, very funny, and clever. Lady Lit and Chick Lit, it seems to me, are about ROMANCE. They developed from the Romance category and were originally seen as, basically, less formulaic and better written. They are also, traditionally, in the first person. Women’s Fiction is written, more often, in the third person, and both the scale and subject of the story is larger. To me, Women’s Fiction is Literary Fiction written for and by women. It’s stupid and demeaning. What else is new?

  3. I think I’ve been single and in the dating game for too long to answer this reasonably. However, my impression is anytime you have a female protagonist, men will not be interested, ergo, it’s chik-lit. As Jody said, much of what is classified as CL is thinly veiled romance, and although plenty of men write the stuff, the vast majority simply aren’t interested in reading it. Especially if the protagonist is a woman dealing with obesity.

    When I think of ‘chik-lit’ I tend to think of something light and frothy, with a perky, humorous heroine who is just biding her time shopping and having lunch with her girlfriends until Prince Charming arrives atop his trusty steed. Maybe she has a career, but it’s completely tangential to her ultimate happiness.

    She’s Come Undone may have escaped the classification of ‘chik-lit’ because it was written by a man.

  4. I’ll start by saying that I read all thing “women’s fiction” including chick lit. Some might say I have a chick lit writing voice but my novel deals with deeper issues than shopping.

    I think this “women’s lit” category is more about the fact that women comprise the the largest segment of the book-buying market and we tend to like to read books about women that we can relate to–on whatever level. With that said, I like a heavy story dealing with heavy issues (i.e., Alice Walker, anything Jodi Picoult, Toni Morrison, etc.) as much as the next person, but sometimes I like a light beach read, which is where I think chick lit came in. When women are enthralled in their own life dramas, sometimes chick lit served as an escape, still does for many people. Nothing wrong with it, and it has it’s place. Do we need to label it? Not really. Like I said before, I think it’s just another way to categorize “women’s fiction” so that the largest segment of the book-buying market can find what they want quickly. If you want something funny and light–it’s easier to say chick lit. Just like if you want to see a funny and light movie, you go see a chick flick. (As an aside, I’ve always used the movie standard as the definition of these types of books, rather than the publishing industry definition anyway.)

    I think as a category it has its place but, as a reader and writer within the spectrum of the “women’s fiction” genre, I don’t like the fact that chick lit has become so tainted. All works have their place (well, nearly all).

  5. A relevant quote I just came across in a novel I am reading: “Literature and popular romance the same — the border between them is invisible and unpoliced. Is Jane Eyre a novel of serious intent or an exercise in sentimental pornography? At the moment Anna Karenina weeps over the loss of her honour to Vronsky, are we in tragedy or a penny dreadful? We are in both, is the answer. Because desire itself inhabits that same narrow strip of unclaimed territory between sacrament and slush.” — Howard Jacobson, The Act of Love

  6. This is an interesting topic. One that touches on the different way authors and agents view the same book, as well as the fickle nature of the markets.

    To me, chic lit is a style: First person or very close third person, weight obsessed and light in tone.

    Romance slavishly follows the tropes: HEA, hero in first chapter, nothing ‘bad’ happens to anyone, though there may be some close calls.

    IMO – Anything in between is women’s fiction.

    It is all in the eye of the publisher, St. Martins, Harlequin, Avon, etc. so the agent will label according to the market.

    I agree with the Howard Jacobson quote.

    As for the genre “Chic Lit” being out of style – yes as far as I can tell, it has run it’s course. Agents who once mentioned “Chic Lit” as the top of their ‘want’ list no longer list it.

    I admit that I haven’t been surfing agent sites in the last few weeks. (G) I have yet to see any of the small publishers list “chic lit” either. However, I’m still seeing “chic lit” in bookstores. (What is the lag from purchase to book store? Two years?)

    I’m frustrated with the markets myself, enough that my second contemporary novel is on hold, in favor of finishing a paranormal that features a haunted motorcycle.

    While I don’t mind writing genre fiction, I would like to find a market for something depth. Still, I’m sneaking some serious themes into my romance novels, thanks to heroes with combat related issues.

    This may be the true challenge of writing ‘women’s fiction’: putting a serious theme into something that carries a different label.

    I await the verdict on the partial request I got a couple of weeks ago.

    Best of luck to all.

  7. I read the paragraph (and most of the article). It seems like they still marvel that there are women whose interests transcend baking cookies and making babies.

    Harumph. :::making sour face again:::

  8. Reading that article, I am reminded that in my youth, women writers were rare. Women were nurses, teachers and secretaries, anything else was a noteworthy exception (or a freakish exception.)

    Though the world has changed a great deal since the 60’s, the truth of the matter is that we, as women, are still not taken seriously; not as writers or as filmmakers.

  9. I’m confused as well.

    I thought I was writing a single-title romance with suspense elements but since I have drugs in the book it can’t be a romance. It is now a mainstream with romantic suspense elements. I question why a girl can have sex with someone they don’t know in the first two pages of a romance but they can’t see someone doing drugs and not be upset about it halfway through the book. sigh

    I like Chick-Lits, or I did like CL, alas they are no longer on bookstore shelves. I loved Sophie Kinsella, Meg Cabot and the others. Their quick-to-read, fun, escapism books helped me squander away a couple of hours in the pool. I finally tired of the inept, clueless, non-budgeting (though I’m a non-budgeter) girls who happen to fall into the lap of a moneyed man willing to bail them out and place a huge rock on their finger.

    I’m tired of breast cancer stories, child abductions, incest, rape and other stories. I want to read well-written novels with a plot other than woe is me …

    and, sincerely, can we please steer away from the vampires, werewolves and fairies?

    I’m a happy reader. I won’t pick up a book that has a naked person or people in suggestive poses on the cover … I’m looking for a good story that lasts throughout the entire book. I skip over the sex parts, they don’t interest me.

    I’m still heartbroken that Anne George passed away in 2001, I may have to go home and dig out all my old Southern Sister Mysteries or buy them for my Sony Daily Edition Reader (PRS900-BC) that shipped yesterday.

    Okay, I went off track. Chick Lits were the ones about women who can’t budget, who are extremely skinny or will be by the books end, who like to shop and are swept off their feet by a prince charming.

    Your book does not sound like Chick Lit to me. Let me know when it is e-pubbed and I’ll buy it!

  10. ‘Does that sound like chick lit to you?’

    Short answer? Yes. Very much so.

    Once upon a time chick lit was all about shoes and shopping. That no longer holds true.

  11. Well, only the readers seem to know that. Since I started trying to market the novel as chick lit, I’ve been told several times by agents it is not chick lit. Also it failed to get anywhere in a chick lit competition put on by the romance writers of America. I really don’t think the tone is right for chick lit.

  12. Very interesting post. I’ve been tossing around this very problem myself. I don’t normally read the classic Chick Lit myself, but my new novel would probably be classed as such. I understand the need to classify books, how would people easily find the types of book they like otherwise? There’s another side to it, though. You can very easily classify your book right out of a potential audience. My book, A Snake in Paradise, has suspense and humour elements as well as romance. Some men have read it and really enjoyed it. It’s a tough issue to get around. I’ve classed my book as Women’s Fiction, but again that pretty much excludes any men from buying it.

    The best stories have many elements in them. The perfect example is Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. That book has fantasy, romance, adventure, historical, science fiction, horror, and the list goes on. How in the world would you classify it?

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