Chick lit is getting too literal

For a long time I’ve wondered who decides how to categorize new books by a female authors. Who is the genius in marketing that can distinguish the difference in serious fiction and the far fluffier “Chick Lit”?

Last time I perused the Chick Lit shelves at Barnes & Noble, they seemed to be getting mighty full. Let me start by saying: I get it. I understand the words “Chick Lit” are a useful marketing tool. I know single women in their 20s and 30s make up the largest demographic of book buyers. Flagging books that might appeal to them makes sense (and dollars).

Think of the money made by Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary and Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada, two enormously popular Chick Lit novels. Many of these books get picked up by Hollywood (none more famously than Candace Bushnell’s Sex In the City) making everyone involved with them a boatload of dough.

But it’s no secret that the Chick Lit label denotes something about the content of the book. It’s a nudge to the reading public that says, “Pssst, hey! This book is lightweight. It’s a woman’s story about, you know, love.”

True, Chick Lit books are always about love (the heterosexual variety); Chick Lit books always seem to tell the stories of young professional women facing hurdles in the big city (most of the time, the young professional is white.)

Guess what else? Chick Lit books are rarely taken seriously by the literary elite. I doubt a Chick Lit book will ever win the Pulitzer Prize for literature.

The problem is that nowadays, just about every book written by a woman under 50 is marketed as Chick Lit. You can tell because all their books have a pastel covers depicting pictures of babies or some kind of food. Often the cover just shows a woman’s face. Like, that’s all you need to know: woman. Woman’s book.

This is why I was ecstatic when I read a recent interview with Janelle Brown, author of the debut novel All We Ever Wanted Was Everything in which she questions the Chick Lit marketing of her book.

How can a novel that takes its title from a goth Bauhaus song, details the despair of living in suburbia, and chronicles both meth addiction and an accidental pregnancy be labeled Chick Lit? Just look at what they did to the book’s cover!

When Rick Moody writes novels like this, they are called (with reverence) Suburban Novels. They do not feature hot fudge sundaes on the cover. Moody’s books are placed in the regular fiction section and Moody promptly wins an armful of important awards and fellowships.

Brown, former editor of 1990s feminist ‘zine Maxi, made her thoughts clear to Jezebel about the Chick Lit label:

It is reductive! It’s also dismissive. “Chick lit” is a catch all for everything that’s not “hard” literature written by a woman. It implies that the male experience is universal, while the female experience is something only other women would be interested in.

Oh boy, do I agree. Guys like Nick Hornby and Ben Elton write books all the time about young men struggling with work and love and those books are considered great literature. Their books don’t get baby blue covers and they don’t go into a special boy section. (Granted, in the U.K., books by these boys and a few others are informally referred to as “Lad Lit,” but they aren’t stuck in a special lightweight section).

This is hardly new. Think of the classics: Why is J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye considered a classic novel everyone can find meaning in while The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is considered a minor work by a crazy woman only crazy girls read? Why have I never met a man who has read The Bell Jar? Even though both books deal with a universal theme: the mental breakdown of a disillusioned teenager.

Tell me again, why are books like The Awakening and The Women Warrior taught only in Women’s Lit courses, but Moby Dick and The Old Man and The Sea (books about fishing!) are for everyone?

Even macho Hemingway wrote love stories. Isn’t The Sun Always Rises pretty much a Chick Lit book? I wonder, if a woman, and not Truman Capote, had written Breakfast At Tiffany’s, the breezy tale of small town girl-trapped-in-the-big-city, would any men have bothered to read it?

What do you think about the Chick Lit label? Should books by women by taken out of the main shelves and grouped together somewhere else? Does this bug you?