Suspend Your Disbelief

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The Problem with "Chick Lit"

Over at the Huffington Post, novelist Diane Meier takes issue with the label “chick lit”:

Let me suggest that Chick Lit is what we used to call the “Beach Book.” And that it is its own genre, like mysteries or sci-fi; interesting to a specific audience primarily because of the nature and form of the genre itself. Some good stuff, some bad, no doubt, as in all genre writing, you come across an Ed McBain every now and then. But crossover is not the point, if the targeted reader simply wants a light little fantasy with some kissing scenes and a few pairs of Jimmy Choos.

Still, if Tom Wolfe had written “The Recessionistas,” he would have noted the brands of shoes, the Birkin bags and the personal trainers. And he would have been praised for his attention to detail. That Lebenthal’s book or my book were not intended to be seen as Chick Lit, just makes the gulf between books by men and women more personal. At least to me.

Meier situates her argument in the broader context of literature itself:

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.

To me, this seems like an argument that applies not just to “chick lit” but to “[insert adjective here] lit”: “gay lit,” “black lit,” “Latino lit,” even the confusingly named “international lit.” Most of these labels—intentionally or not—do just what Meier describes: they “denigrate a wide swath of novels about contemporary life that happen to be written by” members of the given sub-group. True, those labels aren’t necessarily belittling, but being placed in that particular box—with all its attendant expectations—certainly influences the work its reception, and its legacy.

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