The Chick Lit Challenge

Do trendy novels for young women smother female expression -- or just put a little fun in feminism?

| March / April 2004

If Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway arrived on the literary scene today, she would probably own a cute bag from Prada, a totally to-die-for SoHo loft, and a string-bean cellphone on which she negotiated her topsy-turvy love life.

Well, maybe not. But a lot of people are still worried about the influence of the popular genre of fiction known as 'chick lit.' You know, those ubiquitous novels with pastel-colored dust jackets bearing whimsically retro images of cocktail glasses, trendy purses, and spiky heels. With titles like Running in Heels: A Novel, Shopaholic Ties the Knot, and Thirty Nothing, chick lit relays breezy tales of spunky professional urban women worrying about their bosses, their weight, their boyfriends, and their Jimmy Choo shoes. The genre is wildly successful -- and that, oddly enough, is the problem.

Originating in the mid-1990s with the publication of well-received books like Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary and Melissa Bank's The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, chick lit was dismissed by many critics as a flash in the pan. But today the genre stands as a lucrative niche in an otherwise struggling fiction industry. 'The mega authors -- John Grisham, Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy -- all have had a fall-off in sales,' Sessalee Hensley, fiction buyer for Barnes & Noble, told's Heather Cabot (Aug. 30, 2003). 'But the chick lit is growing, and growing exponentially.'

Several publishing houses like Pocket Books, Kensington, and Harlequin have jumped onto the gravy train, launching imprints that churn out only chick lit.

Score one for the ladies, right? Not exactly. It seems that many observers are up in arms about what they perceive to be antifeminist pabulum. 'Many of these titles really are trash: trash that imitates other, better books that could have ushered in a new wave of smart, postfeminist writing, and trash that threatens to flood the market in women's reading,' writes Anna Weinberg in recently defunct Book magazine (July/Aug. 2003). Weinberg, who contends that early chick lit, like Bridget Jones's Diary, 'navigated the perilous terrain of the modern woman's psyche with sassy aplomb,' is not fond of the lesser books that chick lit's popularity has bred. More significantly, she worries that anything 'written by, read by, and marketed to young women' will be dismissed as mere chick lit.

'So what would happen if a young woman did write a sharp, brilliant new novel -- a portrait of the artist as a young woman in the city?' Weinberg asks. 'Its publishers would wrap it in pink, slap a martini glass on the cover, and get Anna Maxted to blurb it.' Jenny Colgan, author of Amanda's Wedding, agrees. 'Everyone, no matter what they're writing about -- be it dysfunctional families, anorexia, death, or other serious issues -- is being thrown into one big hole marked 'chick lit' and written off,' she told The Guardian (Aug. 21, 2003). 'Chick lit is a deliberately condescending term they use to rubbish us all. If they called it slut lit it couldn't be more insulting.'