Friday, August 13, 2010

Chick Lit - the name that makes me gnash my teeth

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I've always hated the expression "chick lit", even though I'll admit I have used it myself in the past to describe books written in a lighthearted way about modern woman and non-serious issues. Light reading is a better description, and in the past those are the words we used to describe these books; and other books like them that weren't about women. Not particularly deep novels, but fun. Light reading, and who doesn't need that sometimes! (Tell me you only read novels of significance and depth, and I'll tell you to lighten up once in a while.)

The expression "chick lit", though, has singled out one type of light read and given it a derogatory twist. It's by chicks for chicks. Not by or for women. Chicks. Fluffy little things without stature that look at you with a vacant stare. And the expression is used now by some readers with a sneer, with the implication that these books are worthless reads, beneath the notice of all men, and also beneath the notice of women of substance.

Here is a marvellous Huffington Post article from Diane Meier, American author of a book about an intelligent middle-aged woman, "The Season of Second Chances".

As she herself puts it: "Most critics felt the need to talk about how "surprisingly" intelligent the book was. Their tell-tale phrase: how many "notches above Chick Lit" they deemed the book. Or they registered amazement that a book so domestic in tone might have been intended for -- can you imagine -- educated, intelligent readers."

Later on in the article (and do read the whole thing) she writes:

"But my concern is larger, for the issue is insidious: the way Chick Lit has been used to denigrate a wide swath of novels about contemporary life that happen to be written by women.

"If you think it's not affecting our work, not affecting what the publishers are handed, not affecting the legacy we leave for future generations, you're wrong. In The New York Times, the judges of the UK Orange Prize (for women novelists) bemoaned the grim and brutal content offered this year in the submitted manuscripts. Their conclusion: No serious woman writer wanted to be painted with the Women's Lit label, and issues contemporary and domestic, if not presented with violence, are apparently (to academics, to critics and to the general culture -- male and female, alike) seen to have less value."

She goes on to question the idea of having a prize just for woman novelists, and I'm not sure that I agree with her on that issue, but mostly she is spot on.

I especially agree with her at this moment...Why this week? Well, because it hit home. (Yeah, I admit it. I wait till things get personal, before I get vocal. Mea culpa.)

Stormlord Rising is a fantasy novel, but it does deal with issues of war and its effects, especially on the woman and children who are caught up in the battle. Ok, so it's a story, not a treatise, but it touches on things like: how much should a woman do to keep her unborn baby safe? Should a woman use her sexual allure and her body to stay alive? How much should you compromise your principles for those you love?

Universal themes, one would assume. One Amazon reviewer didn't much like the latter two-thirds of the book - his privilege, of course, and I don't mind that - but he says it's chick lit and therefore automatically disappointing, not worth the read. Pregnancy in war time, love and life and death of loved ones, are chick issues apparently, not universal after all. Chick lit. Light-hearted comedy.

Let's stop using the expression "chick lit" even if we enjoy the books now so designated. Let's be careful how we use the expression "women's issues" when such issues are usually universal to humanity. If a reader doesn't like a book about what women feel or what happens to them, or the way in which women live and love, let him say so outright, and not hide behind a derogatory dismissal: "It's chick lit".
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9 comments:

Damyanti said...

I mostly find all categorizations of genre books pretty misleading. But a publisher has to do it because a decision has to be made on where to display a book in a shop, and a majority of readers expect it.

People have looked down upon me for reading so-called "chick-lit", even fantasy, mystery, in fact anything that is considered "genre."

For me, I read across "genres", because if the premise of a book is interesting and its writing is able to hold my attention, it is ok for me to read and even love it. And "literary" is another genre, as far as I'm concerned.

I agree: if someone does not like a book, he/she should be able to say so and why, not merely dismiss it as "chick-lit", "thriller" or "fantasy" and therefore not worth his/her time.

A book is a book, and though it belongs to a certain category, it can be judged on its own merit, and not on the appellation it carries.

Jo said...

I do agree with you Damyanti, in fact I am the same and read a wide range of different types of novels which either hold my interest and I read to the end, or don't so I don't. Defining books by genre might be necessary for publishers and book sellers, and I suppose it makes it easier to find the authors you already enjoy or some who write in a similar vein, but to dismiss things under the label of Chick Lit (or Chick Movies come to that) shows such people to be condescending and to feel consciously superior (erroneously) to the rest of us mere mortals.

Glenda Larke said...

I think genre classification will stay with us for convenience. Although I read a lot of mainstream fiction, I love to browse the bookshop shelves in the SF/F section and would be quite put out if everything were shelved by, for example, author regardless of genre.

However, it's the tone of the term "chick lit" that gets me. I'd prefer the term "light reading", which could then cover male authors as well.

And I'd actually prefer the term spec-fic for general SF and fantasy. It's wide and without obvious bias.

Urban paranormals or Urban Fantasy has become a genre, (sometimes called "dark fantasy" which is a bit of a misnomer). The term Urban Fantasy can include everyone from deLint to Jim Butcher as well as women writers, and can therefore avoid the stigma that "chicklit" carries in more real-world-based urban stories.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Glenda, to be female and able to fall pregnant makes that person vulnerable.

No 'real' man likes to real about being vulnerable, therefore any book that deals with these kind of issues makes this kind of man uncomfortable. He can' identify with the protagonist. He can't see himself in that position. He doesn't want to read about it.

My 2 cents worth. 2 cents doesn't buy much now days.

Diane Meier said...

So many good points in reaction to my article on Huffington Post. Thank you for this attention. But I am struck especially by the one that suggested that men didn't want to read about pregnant women (war or not) and the Amazon reviewer who dismissed these powerful issues of life and values as Chick-Lit; illustrations are v much at the heart of the matter.

What in heaven's name has happened to a culture that can denigrate some of the most important issues inherent in being alive -- and have it explained away in marketing terms.

And what kind of men are 'made uncomfortable' by reading about birth and life and the protection of love?

Who ARE these men? How did they happen? Is it in the water? Have we post-feminists given men a kind of pass, as though their being sub-human is what we're willing to pay for the chance to go to better colleges or hold positions in industry or government? Because if this is really the bottom line here, we're cheating ourselves -- and even more, our sons and the culture we're leaving in our wake.

Patrick said...

Diane. I am a man who, through illness and circumstance, is now the stay home part of our family while my wife works. I admit to once having little sympathy to stay at home mothers or even the process of being pregnant and having a child. What can I say, young and naïve/stupid? After holding my wife’s hand, hair, spew bucket and watching as my two children were born, I will never again be able to hear of someone being pregnant without that flash of knowledge and concern of all that could go wrong. As for the life of the stay at home slave and all that entails, I have had men walk away without a word and not talk to me again, once they find out what I ‘do’ for a living. Strangely enough most women seem to go out of their way to talk to me :- ) Sorry, off track. To answer your question, what kind of men are made ‘uncomfortable’ by reading about birth and life and the protection of love? They are men who, I believe, are skimming the surface of life, too afraid to allow any emotion other than anger in, for fear of being considered less than a man. I think I was that type of man. I once thought I was far less as a man because of what I do and what other men think of me. It has only been recently I have realised how lucky I am to have the above type men weed themselves out of my life because of what I do. I have been left with the most wonderful true friends, not afraid to show emotions. Where am I going with all this? I guess, just letting you know that not all men think like that. We are usually just drowned out by the ones who think very little before they open their mouths. I am now stepping down from my soapbox ;- )

Anonymous said...

Interesting comments. I hadn't thought about 'chick lit' as a term. I mean I knew it was derogatory and was just thinking to myself. What is it? Romance bodice rippers or what? The terms you have been describing Glenda implies the term is much wider and covers contemporary fiction as well as crossing genre. Something that is light and easy to read. That is interesting.

I like to disengage sometimes, books, like movies are all about mood, mood to be stimulated, to reflect, to laugh. It all makes up variety of life.

I guess not everyone is the same. I did have a collegue once, a young girl, who only read biographies. She had no time for any fiction. Mind you I was working for a big four accounting firm then. Nobody I met there seemed to read fiction at all.

Donna Hanson

Glenda Larke said...

Here is the Wikipedia definition of chick lit: "Chick lit is genre fiction within women's fiction which addresses issues of modern women often humorously and lightheartedly...Although sometimes it includes romantic elements ... generally not considered a direct subcategory of the romance novel genre, because in chick lit the heroine's relationship with her family or friends may be just as important as her romantic relationships."

I guess - because of the word "chick" - it was inevitable that it should quickly take on a derogatory veneer.

Diane - thanks for dropping by, and thank you for the original article. It needed to be said. I do think to a certain degree we do have ourselves to blame, for not nipping the expression 'chick lit' in the bud at the beginning, and secondly, as you point out, many of us are mothers bringing up sons, (or sisters educating our brothers) and some of us have fallen down on the job.

I remember being profoundly depressed by something Scott Westerfield had one of his characters say in a book: that it is very hard to change a person whose ideas are already formed; you have to work on the young and wait for the old to die off. People didn't go from thinking the sun revolved around the world to accepting the opposite: it was the next generation who was prepared to accept the new idea.

The ideas will change, but I'll be dead first...!??

So Patrick, good on you!

'Chick lit' as a term first appeared in 1988 according to Wikipedia. I remember it first from my 20-something daughter using it in reference to Bridget Jones's Diary in the mid 1990s.

Anonymous said...

You forgot Andrew Jackson’s Big Block of Cheese with nary a macaroni in sight.