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?
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?