What is Chick-Lit, really?

Monday, July 2, 2012

Okay, this has been bugging me, so I finally thought I'd try to straighten this out. At least for myself. I have been finding, lately, an egregious overuse/inaccurate use of the term "chick-lit". There's a lot of criticism for the criticism of chick-lit, and I, personally, feel annoyed by it mostly because people are mislabeling other books as chick-lit and then assuming that people are referring to that when they're really not. Not that I agree with the criticism... I just say, know what you're criticizing.

The confusion I'm finding is that some people seem to think that chick-lit refers to books about women and women's issues. But chick-lit has much more of a niche than that. I mean, this is like saying that every book written from the point of view of a child is young adult, which is NOT the case (a topic for a whole 'nother day)... not every book with an Asian character is "Asian fiction", etc.

Chick-lit started out with being books about women typically who were single, in their twenties, often living the big city life and dealing with issues related to dating and careers. But what also made them stand out was their light and humorous tones. I think one of the first books that really garnered this label was Bridget Jones's Diary. (And that's on the "1001 books to read before you die" list). Another was Watermelon by Marion Keyes. Now, I haven't read either of these, but back in my college days I really loved this genre and remember adoring the Shopaholic series and Jemima J by Jane Green. In fact, I recommended Jemima J to everyone. It's about an overweight girl who, pretending to be someone else, meets a guy online. But when he wants to meet she goes on a mission to lose the weight so she can be who she pretended to be. It's not totally realistic, but it was such a fun read that found me rooting for the character and totally relating to so much about her. (I've read that book multiple times). Another popular chick-lit author is Lauren Weisberger of The Devil Wears Prada fame. Now, I haven't actually read that one either (loved the movie, lol), but I did really like Everyone Worth Knowing which I've read twice. So for chick-lit, think Candace Bushnell's Sex and the City... that type of thing. Which as we know, the show and movies are daring and risque and fun but really hit on some topics that we, women, want to talk about!

Now, the criticism is that all chick-lit is fluffy, light-hearted, brain candy, and then there is criticism of people who say that. But here's the thing, as with any genre or any category of anything, there is going to be a range. Yes, a lot of  actual chick-lit IS totally fluffy brain candy... but that's part of what is so great about that genre. When I'm in the mood for it, that's what I read. But the other thing is that other books in that genre have some of those similar aspects but deal with more serious issues or are not so fluffy as others. In fact, there are books in the genre that I wouldn't call fluffy at all, but in all honesty, the humor in it probably isn't super high brow either. Because if I wanted high brow humor (which sometimes I do) I'd read a classic from the 1800's, lol... or just some good ol' literary fiction. Everything Worth Knowing, which I referenced earlier, wasn't one I considered fluffy. It had the same chick-lit elements I mentioned but was one of those that was more on the serious end and that I felt I really got something out of. In fact, now I feel like reading it again... another of Weisberger's that I feel the same about was Last Night at Chateau Marmont. And as the genre has grown, the topics have moved from just woes of the single twenty-somethings to issues related to motherhood and marriages.

So, what is chick-lit not? Well, one of the biggest offenders that I've noticed are those who refer to Jodi Picoult in this vein. Jodi Picoult's books are NOT by any means chick-lit. I think the problems some people have with her books are more with the plot elements and the books' commercial qualities. I haven't read a couple of her most recent books, but I've enjoyed the fifteen or so that I have read because of the timely, controversial topics and how she ties the scenarios in with the characters and the plot. But chick-lit, for sure, it is not. Not one of her books has the elements I listed earlier for that niche. I've seen other "women's fiction" authors referred to in the same way that I can't comment on because I haven't read their books. But let's say Maeve Binchy, or Kristin Hannhah, or Barbara Delinsky, as I've read and enjoyed a lot of their books. I would consider theirs to be "women's fiction" (which I know some people find insulting as well, but for the sake of categorization I think that's what it is) and NONE of those should be mistaken either to be chick-lit. But you know what, there are probably a lot of authors and books that toe that line... that could be considered more serious chick-lit or could be be just commercial or contemporary or literary that have some similar elements.

With all this being said, I don't read as much chick-lit anymore. I think that as we, readers, grow in life, we often look to books to fill different needs. Now, in addition to enjoying the elements of story and character, I find myself wanting to learn. I find my focus on themes changing, and I'm no longer interested in the topics of much of the chick-lit that is out there. I sometimes want to challenge myself with the language or the writing. But there are still times when I turn to it. Just as sometimes I read non-fiction, sometimes I'll read a mystery/thriller, other times I'll read a cozy, at times I read a memoir... etc. I always read Sophie Kinsella's books. They are ridiculous in a hilarious way. I still think about how funny I found her recent I've Got Your Number or how I related and laughed along to The Undomestic Goddess. Strangely enough, I never was really taken with the books Kinsella wrote under her real name, Madeleine Wickham, even though I would still consider those chick-lit because, again, there is truly a variety even within the niche of chick-lit itself. As I mentioned, Lauren Weisberger is an author whose books I will continue to read as well.

So that's my argument. Enjoy chick-lit for what it is or don't enjoy it. It's up to you, but just keep in mind what it actually is.


Meg @ A Bookish Affair said...

Chick-lit is definitely a loaded name. I enjoy it though. To me, chick-lit usually deals with some lighter and fluffier topics but all books that are written by women are not chick-lit (that conotation is the one that bothers me the most!!!).

Zibilee said...

I totally agree with you, Jenny. There is a huge difference between chick-lit and women's fiction, and I think readers who are smart and savvy know the difference. I wouldn't call all women's books chick-lit because that would be terribly misleading and ultimately false. Chick-lit is fun and silly, with issues that surround dating and being a young woman, whereas women's fiction speaks about the issues women face at particular times in their lives, both young women, and older women. Both are fine, but I definitely agree that there is a distinction, and it should be made clear to those who seek to throw all of these categories into one big messy clump. Fantastic post today.

Juju at Tales of Whimsy.com said...

I think it's easy to lump allll female contemporary fiction with chick lit and you're right that's definitely not fair.

Jennifer said...

I see so many books mis-labeled chick lit, it drives me nuts! lol There were probably books before this but I kind of saw the advent of "chick lit" with the creation of Harlequin's now defunct Red Dress Ink imprint, which I adored. I think those books got me hooked on the genre although I don't read much of it anymore.

Ti said...

I hate the term Chick Lit but I don't really have another name for it so I use it. Who in their right mind would consider Picoult Chick Lit?? I don't care for her writing, but Chick Lit, it is definitely not.

I sometimes find myself reading a Chick-litty novel only to find out that it's really much heavier than I thought. I then move it to the Women's Fiction category, but sometimes that doesn't even fit. Sometimes the book cover is at fault. Many depict lightness when in fact, the book is much deeper than that.

christina said...

Jenny, Jenny, Jenny!! You so nailed it on the noggin here.

Oh the stigma with chicklit. Here's the thing that I don't get with chicklit criticism... why does EVERY BOOK have to be "deep". Seriously. That's like trying to make films like Porky's Revenge as deep and soul searching as Shawshank Redemption. Can't we just be content in calling fluff just that and enjoy it? I don't go around trying to convince the world that chocolate is as good for you as broccoli (oh but wouldn't that be grande!) even though BOTH are well deserving.

I haven't really read much chick lit in the past year or so but that doesn't mean that I don't adore it in this warm fuzzy way knowing I can always go back to it. It just happens that I've become quite comforted by YA Lit lately. But seriously...Shopaholic series? I will always love you!

Marie said...

great post. i think you really nailed chick lit. Bridget Jones is a great read even if you feel like you've moved beyond chicklit though, and I hope you get to read it at some point. I've read a handful of chicklit books but it's not really my thing. love this post!

Man of la Book said...

I always thought chick-lit are novels written specifically for women audiences and will be enjoyed, primarily, by women.


Booksnyc said...

Great post! I enjoy chicklit at times to lighten up my reading and there really is a range within the genre - some of it is really well done (like Kinsella who I also love!)

Mrs Q Book Addict said...

I completely agree with you! Great post!

Athira said...

The changing chick-lit definition annoys me too. But to each his/her own way of cataloging, I guess. I go by your definition itself. To me, it's mostly books about a central woman character who has a lot of downs at the start and finds a way to get back up. Most of these books are sort of funny, but there are many that are not. Quite a lot of them have good substance and deep issues.

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