The Chick Lit Challenge

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 ABCNEWS.com’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.’

But, as author Hanne Blank pointed out in the Baltimore-based
weekly City Paper (Sept. 10, 2003), we’re not talking
about the Great American Novel here. ‘Our entertainment reading
choices, by and large, are not precisely gems of deathless prose,
world-changing philosophical tours de force, or breathtakingly
unpredictable in their characterizations or narratives,’ Blank
writes. ‘The chick lit juggernaut of consumerist husband-hunting
femme stereotypes is no less a pastiche (and in many ways no less a
parody) of culture’s directives to women than, say, Tom Clancy or
Dean Koontz novels are . . . of the cultural directives aimed at
men.’

So is the critical uproar over chick lit over the top? Could be.
After all, who says that trashy beach reads can’t coexist with
smart postfeminist books? (One of the points of third-wave,
‘lipstick’ feminism, is exactly that — that women don’t have to be
one kind of human being, with one kind of pleasure, all the time.)
Even within so-called chick lit, there is variety in quality and
subject matter (witness new branches like ‘mommy lit’ and ‘Latina
lit’), and it is hard to make generalizations — another lesson of
modern feminism.

Most chick lit isn’t out to change the world anyway, only to
reflect a part of it. And, as Helen Fielding, the grande dame of
chick lit, pointed out in 1998: ‘If we can’t laugh at ourselves
without having a panic attack over what it says about women, we
haven’t got very far with our equality.’

So until the novels of Jhumpa Lahiri or Margaret Atwood or Annie
Proulx start being marketed with pumps, purses, and martinis on
their Easter-egg-colored dust jackets, why worry about it? There’s
no rule that says we can’t have our Woolf and our Fielding too.
(Mrs. Dalloway and Bridget Jones would have got along
swimmingly.)

And maybe we can do even better than that. Hanne Blank thinks
that chick lit can and should be improved. ‘The solution to bad
chick lit isn’t to get rid of chick lit, it’s making the effort to
produce a chick lit that’s more nutritious, more interesting.’
After all, there’s more than a little of the chick lit spirit in
the novel-of-manners tradition that produced Jane Austen — and
who’s to say that this thriving genre won’t produce a modern-day
Austen who can turn Prada, martinis, and the quest for Mr. Right
into literary gold?

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