Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The whole chick lit debate

Okay, this topic is way too big (not to mention political) for me to delve into deeply here, but a fabulously funny cartoon done by Patricia Storms, (check it out), and a “roundtable discussion” by some of the contributors to the mean-spirited anthology THIS IS NOT CHICK LIT inspired me to say a few words.

First, I love many kinds of fiction. I know lots of people who only like reading in one genre. I'm not one of those people. I like the sort of books Oprah picks. I don’t mind if books are depressing. I don't mind if they're joyous. I don’t mind the main character’s not someone I’d like to know. I’m okay with happy or sad endings. I love endings that surprise me, but I also like ones I see coming from the first page, but are satisfying nonetheless. I like to read for lots and lots of reasons and sometimes just to be entertained.

The assertion that humourous, fast-paced books aren’t well written or aren’t to be taken seriously, or are less worthy simply because they don’t choose to tackle tricky topics, has always been a major irritant of mine. Some entertaining fast-paced books do tackle tricky subjects and I would claim that authors who can tackle meaty subjects and still make their books entertaining are far more talented than ones who create weighty tomes difficult to slog through. But that sounds too judgmental and that was not my intent.

Related to this irritant is the lack of attention given to women’s books by the publishing industry, reviewers, etc. Yes, there are some very well respected female authors in the literary world, yes we’ve come a long way baby, but still a HUGE percentage of all books reviewed by the major papers and trade publications are written by men.

This makes no sense. More books are written by women. More books are read by women. But most books written by women for women get no respect. What gives?

This is obviously not something I’m going to solve here today, nor am I going to try to. Others have already written eloquent essays on the topic—Lauren Baratz-Logsted, Jennifer Weiner and Shanna Swendson to name a few—but one thing said by one of the THIS IS NOT authors really ticked me off. (Lots of things did, but this one is small and easy to tackle.) She said that to call Jane Austen’s books chick lit was ridiculous because the term hadn’t even been invented yet then.

HUH??? She couldn’t have missed the point any further if she’d closed her eyes and spun before shooting off her mouth.

The point being made by suggesting Jane Austen was a chick lit author, is to assert that if she’d written those same books today, tackling the same socio-political and moral subjects, with the same plots, they would’ve been given hot pink covers and marketed as chick lit. (Or possibly romance. I’m not going to quibble on that one, but the heroine-centric nature of her books make them more chick lit than romance, to me.) The point is, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE would NOT be marketed as literary fiction today (if it even was then, I doubt it). It’s straightforward (very good) storytelling style is too simplistic. It’s too light, too funny—not heavy enough. No one gets raped. No one’s in rehab. No one was molested as a child. IT HAS A HAPPY ENDING! (Horrors)

I’ve never been a fan of the term chick-lit, but it’s not the authors’ fault that the industry coined this term and started to paint most non-romance fiction written by women for women with a bright-pink, chick-lit brush. Chick lit authors are just trying to write books women enjoy reading, that they enjoy reading, that they enjoy writing. The THIS IS NOT anthology contributors aimed their vitriol in the wrong direction, in my opinion. They should have criticized the industry for coining the phrase and further ghettoizing women’s fiction, rather than trying to claim they were superior to the authors whose books happen to be labeled as chick lit.
If you want to try one of the anthologies, try this one instead.


Molly O'Keefe said...

We had a long talk about this sort of thing this weekend at the Ottawa Romance Conference - not Chick-lit per se but how books for women by women get so marginalized and what's worse is how quick we women are to jump on the band wagon once we get a little "credibility." I know it's too much to expect one big happy sisterhood of writers but wow - "THIS IS NOT CHICK LIT" goes a bit too far.

Anonymous said...

I love the rant... love it. we should encourage more ranting.

you have a great point, Maureen, we should not have to apologize for writing books for women.

Jetsetter James said...

You know, Bette Davis said the same thing for years about "women's pictures".

Of course, back then all the studios really were run by men. All men, as a matter of fact. No wonder she was pounding her head against the wall.

No wonder she had all those fights. (Rock on Bette!)

However, there has been a subtle shift in Hollyland lately. Ever check out those "who's the most powerful" lists in various magazines?

It seems that a number of women are in positions of power and have been subtly shifting the focus of some studios to topics. (read: interesting!)

Given our culture, it seems that Hollywood does seem to lead the way. (Good or bad, you decide.)

Since inroads are being made in filmland, hopefull that will spill over into bookland too.

Here's hoping!

Anonymous said...

I don't pretend to write anything more than what I hope to be an entertaining beach read. However, I do tackle tough subjects. Getting that combo published is a bit tricky - I'm still working on it. Chick lit is an offshoot of "chick flicks." Why are women being singled out?

Lauren Baratz-Logsted said...

"She couldn’t have missed the point any further if she’d closed her eyes and spun before shooting off her mouth." - This cracked me up. You should be a writer.

Another thing that cracked me up? The online literary magazine, January, reviewing my debut novel The Thin Pink Line, wrote, "It's what Jane Austen might have written if she were working today." But it's Chick-Lit! How is such a thing possible??? :)

Anonymous said...

One of the better commentaries on the subject I've seen.

Maureen McGowan said...

Thanks anonymous!

Ondo Lady said...

I think when you mention the term 'chick lit' you are hit with negative connotations of books that are cheap. trashy and not well written. I have interviewed quite a few authors and they have told me that they dislike the term chick lit and find it insulting. Personally I like the term, I think it is very cute. The fact is chick lit or modern fiction for women as same call is at best very well written and refreshing to read. For every bad chick lit novel that is an amazing one and I am not ashamed to say that I love this genre.

Maureen McGowan said...

I agree, Ondo Lady. It's the term that's the problem, in my opinion. I actually think it's meant to be insulting. That's why it bugs me. (Others have said, embrace it. Make it our own and it dilutes the insult... I get that. But I'm not sure we as writers have that power.)

I'd lay top dollar down that the term chick lit was coined by someone insanely jealous over the success of this genre and/or a man who just doesn't get the "woman struggling to find her way in a modern world" story.

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