There doesn’t seem to be one single definition of the term ‘chick lit’ that encompasses the range of expectations and values placed upon the genre by authors, publishers, marketing professionals and readers.
Most often, chick lit titles are understood to be light, easy reads (books you read on holiday or at the beach) featuring topics of interest primarily to female readers, such as relationships, love and romance. The key difference between chick lit and literary fiction is the purpose of each. Although both chick lit and literary fiction can deal with romance, for example, the purpose of chick lit is escapism and entertainment, while literary fiction is ‘designed to explore thorny issues, prompt readers to rethink assumptions about the world and even themselves, [and] expand readers’ minds… their rewards to the reader should far surpass mere momentary pleasure’ (Fallon 2013).
The confusion surrounding the term occurs when ‘chick lit’ is misused as a banner-term for all fiction written by women, fiction that features female protagonists and fiction whose topics are assumed to be primarily and exclusively of interest to female readers. This does not take into account the purpose of the title, that is, whether it is light and entertaining or more literary.
Why does the term continue to be misused?
Well-known chick lit author, Jennifer Weiner, argues the difference between chick lit and literature is illusory and more a reflection of marketing than the book itself (in Fallon 2013). The decision to market a book as chick lit is a decision made by many major mainstream publishers in a top-down system (Courtney in Flood 2013).The difference between chick lit and literature is a reflection of marketing strategies. Click To Tweet
British author, Polly Courtney, recently dropped HarperCollins because they continuously marketed her books with ‘condescending and fluffy covers’, despite the gender-neutral content of her work (in Flood 2013). Courtney argued their marketing strategy was based on the assumption that ‘just because the writer is female, the readers must be female’ (in Flood 2013).
Meadows agrees, arguing that it is ‘as though the dread combination of a female author and a female protagonist automatically necessitates the presence of domestic imagery against a pastel colour scheme’ (2013). The crux of the confusion is that ‘the perception of chick lit as frivolous, pointless and unliterary is irrevocably tied to its status as a heavily gendered genre’ (2013).
Why is the misuse of the term ‘chick lit’ a problem?
The misuse of the term ‘chick lit’ is a problem for several reasons. In terms of numbers alone, books marketed towards one gender halve their potential audience and sales. Lumping all books written by, or about, women in one category is sexist and, due to the negative connotations associated with chick lit, not only are chick lit books missing the male audience but many female readers as well.Due to the negative connotations associated with chick lit, books are missing the male audience as well as many female readers. Click To Tweet
The lack of clarity regarding what is chick lit and what is not could be seen as a reason why more serious literary female writers are not gaining the acknowledgement they deserve for their work.
I understand how targeting an assumed target audience of a book or author is a necessary tactic in this uncertain publishing climate, but it is time we stop making such generalist, sexist assumptions about authors and readers.
Bahadur, N 2013, ‘Body image affected by chick lit, study finds’, 31 January, The Huffington Post, viewed 18 April 2014, <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/23/body-image-chick-lit-study_n_2534838.html>.
Fallon, C 2013, ‘Do we know ‘chick lit’ when we see it’, 8 August, The Huffington Post, viewed 18 April 2014, <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/claire-fallon/do-we-know-chick-lit-when-we-see-it_b_3728017.html>.
Flood, A 2013, ‘Coverflip: author Maureen Johnson turns tables on gendered book covers: novelist challenges readers to flip genders of famous book covers and expose publishers’ sexist attitudes to women’s fiction’, 10 May, The guardian, viewed 19 April 2014, <http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/may/09/coverflip-maureen-johnson-gender-book>.
Gabillet, A 2012, ‘Jennifer Weiner on chick lit and The next best thing’, 28 June, Popsugar, viewed 19 April 2014, <http://www.tressugar.com/Jennifer-Weiner-New-Book-Next-Best-Thing-23749386>.
Johnson, M 2013, ‘The gender coverup’, 5 July, The Huffington Post, viewed 19 April 2014, <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/maureen-johnson/gender-coverup_b_3231484.html>.
Meadows, F 2013, ‘Jarring Belles’, 2 February, The Huffington Post, viewed 18 April 2014, <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/foz-meadows/jarring-belles_b_2605420.html>.
Meier, D 2010, ‘Chick lit? Women’s literature? Why not just… literature?’ The Huffington Post, 8 November, viewed 20 April 2014, <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/diane-meier/chick-lit-womens-literatu_b_678893.html>.
Palmer, R 2013, ‘Coverflip: some meandering thoughts about gender and marketing’, May 10, We got so far to go: social justice rants and raves, viewed 19 April 2014, <http://taikonenfea.wordpress.com/2013/05/10/coverflip-some-meandering-thoughts-about-gender-and-marketing/>.
Russell Williams, I 2010, ‘Pink book covers make me see red: why can’t publishers serve fiction for girls without a simpering array of pearly grins and pony-tails? Enough candy-coating’, 28 July, The guardian, viewed 20 April 2014, <http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2010/jul/28/queen-of-teen-award-pink-book-covers>.
Walker, A B 2012, ‘Why smart women read romance novels’, 7 December, The Huffington Post, viewed 19 April 2014, <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anne-browning-walker/romance-novels-smart-women_b_1660308.html>.
Wolitzer, M 2012, ‘The second shelf: on the rules of literary fiction for men and women’, 30 March, Sunday book review, The New York Times, viewed 19 April 2014, <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/01/books/review/on-the-rules-of-literary-fiction-for-men-and-women.html>.