In Defense of Chick Lit

Hello, everyone! If you scan the Goodreads pages of some of Sophie Kinsella’s most popular books, you might find yourself stumbling across the same reviewer phrases. “The author’s books may be shallow and silly,” says one. “Standard chick-lit fare,” says another. “Light, fluffy, fun,” says a third. All of these reviews are from people who enjoyed Kinsella’s books, and almost all of them are reviews written by women. Before they can admit how much they’ve enjoyed one of Kinsella’s novels, they have to preface their reviews with a caveat which states that before you judge them for liking one of Kinsella’s novels, just remember that they are judging themselves first. They’ll have you know that they didn’t want to enjoy such silly escapist feminine fluff, but they couldn’t resist it. And even though they enjoyed every minute of the novel and laughed out loud at Kinsella’s witty dialogue and absurd scenarios, now they feel as guilty as if they had succumbed to the allure of a cupcake at a serious board meeting.

No one can like chick lit, at least not openly. To do so is to expose oneself to the ire of “serious” readers and literature critics who deem anything that falls under the chick lit umbrella to be inferior. Having recently read many of Kinsella’s novels, I’ve had enough. Kinsella is a perfect example of an author who is dismissed as just another chick lit writer when in reality, her books provide funny, introspective glimpses into the lives of modern working women. The characters in her novels deal with issues that almost any woman can relate to: struggles with work-life balance, difficulties with motherhood, overbearing parents, unsupportive significant others, and the desire to be taken seriously in a world that often dismisses and ignores the creative ideas of women. Kinsella has sold 45 million copies of her books and two of her novels have been adapted into movies, and yet pigs will fly before any critics deem a Sophie Kinsella book, or the hundreds of women’s lit novels just like her’s, to be “literature.”

My Not So Perfect Life: A Novel: Kinsella, Sophie: 9780812987713: Books

The history of the term “chick lit” is a lot shorter than I realized. Coined in the 1990s, the term describes popular fiction with a primarily female audience that “addresses issues of modern womanhood—from romantic relationships to female friendships to matters in the workplace—in humorous and lighthearted ways.” Famous chick lit novels include such diverse texts as Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary, Sophie Kinsella’s Confessions of a Shopaholic, and Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada, all novels that have little in common besides being about young women. The idea of giving popular women’s fiction a catchy name like “chick lit” wouldn’t be so much of an issue if it hadn’t also been a way of easily lumping almost all modern women’s fiction into the same genre, and if the name itself didn’t carry a derisive connotation.

You might be saying: “who cares if there’s a genre called chick lit? There’s books written for men, too!” Except, there isn’t. At least, not a genre that’s equivalent to the immense female-targeted monolith called chick lit. While some have proposed that “lad lit,” a genre about the “trials and tribulations of urban twenty and thirty-something men,” is chick lit’s male equivalent, even that subgenre is considered to be infinitely more respectable than chick lit. Literature critic Elaine Showalter described “lad lit” as

comic in the traditional sense that it had a happy ending. It was romantic in the modern sense that it confronted men’s fear and final embrace of marriage and adult responsibilities. It was confessional in the postmodern sense that the male protagonists and unreliable first-person narrators betrayed beneath their bravado the story of their insecurities, panic, cold sweats, performance anxieties and phobias. At the low end of the market, Ladlit was the masculine equivalent of the Bridget Jones Phenomenon; at the high end of the high street, it was a masterly examination of male identity in contemporary Britain.

Elaine Showalter

Substitute the word “female” for “male” in that quote, and you’d be describing chick lit. Except while chick lit has been universally derided, lad lit is considered “literature.” The reason that novels written by male authors haven’t been shoehorned into a genre like chick lit is because books written by men about men are considered to be the default narrative. Male-driven narratives are marketed to all readers because all readers are supposed to find male-driven narratives interesting and relatable. Female-driven narratives, on the other hand, are marketed towards women, because supposedly only women find stories about women interesting and relatable. It also doesn’t help that novels marketed towards women are so feminized that male readers have to make a decision to consciously ignore blatant gendered marketing just to pick up a book with a female protagonist. YA author Maureen Johnson drew attention to this when she tweeted about men who messaged her asking for “non-girly” covers on her books so that it would be socially acceptable for men to read them. Johnson wrote that tweet all the way back in 2013, and asked her fans to design “gender-flipped” covers of famous books to demonstrate how gendered marketing can make one book look silly or serious based on the target audience.

Little has changed in the almost decade since Johnson wrote that tweet. Even though the term “chick lit” has had a slight fall from grace, the stigma still remains. Popular women’s fiction is largely dismissed as frothy and inconsequential, and you’d be hard pressed to find a male critic with a copy of Kinsella’s My Not So Perfect Life on his bedside table. All of this is part and parcel of the grander forces at play here: the tenet that men’s ideas are inherently valuable, and that women’s ideas are not, the belief that men’s stories are for everyone, and women’s stories are for women, and the notion that literature is a matter of objective taste, rather than a set of standards cultivated by historically male tastemakers.

Female authors have certainly gained some ground in the literary scene over the past decade, with women like Sally Rooney and Ottessa Moshfegh dominating the fiction best-sellers lists, but while their “literary” female-centered narratives are finally considered to have merit, the lighter, more humorous works of their contemporaries are still being written off as “chick lit.” There seems to be no real rhyme or reason for this. Why is one woman’s work considered literary fiction, and another’s considered chick lit, when men’s fiction is just…fiction? Google doesn’t even seem to know how to qualify men’s fiction as a separate category from fiction itself. Type in “men’s contemporary fiction” as I did, and you get the Western canon’s latest “greatest hits”, from Norwegian Wood to The Kite Runner to Brave New World. Type in “women’s fiction” and you get literally a never-ending page of pink, purple, and blue books with curlicue letters. Sally Rooney and Ottessa Moshfegh don’t even make an appearance.

The point of all this to express my dismay that even in 2021, when female authors are dominating the best-sellers list, a female reviewer on Goodreads will still pre-empt their positive review of a female-authored novel with a “hold your judgment” caveat. No matter how far women push into the historically male-dominated literary world, there will always be that but, that idea that even if women’s fiction sells, even it’s popular, even if it’s good, it will never be considered to be on par with fiction written by men. What’s worse is that female authors might be dominating the best-sellers list, not because the literary establishment has finally recognized the merit of female-driven stories, but because men have stopped buying fiction, and therefore women’s fiction is the only thing that sells. Publishers are only backing female authors now because they’ve been backed into a corner.

But even though chick lit is a moneymaker for publishing houses, it has yet to get the literary credit that it deserves. That’s because the genre as a whole is seen as vapid, fluffy, and overwhelmingly domestic. As someone who’s actually read and enjoyed books labelled “chick lit,” I think that description is over-simplistic. Take Sophie Kinsella’s My Not So Perfect Life. Set in London and the English countryside, it follows the story of Katie Brenner, a woman who leaves her family farm to pursue her dream career at a posh marketing firm in London. Once there, she realizes the life in London is not what she expected: rent is too high, food is too expensive, and her wealthy co-workers seem oblivious to her daily struggle. When Katie is unexpectedly laid off, she’s forced to move back home and come to terms with the expectations she had for her life and the reality that’s she’s living. My Not So Perfect Life features a few chick lit tropes, like a romance and some comedic scenes, but it’s arguably more about the struggles of modern living than a cheesy rom-com. Like several of Kinsella’s novels, My Not So Perfect Life deals with snobbishness, class condescension, mindless consumerism, and the consequences of living in a superficial society. But because it’s about a young woman who ends up falling in love with a cute boy, it’s labelled as chick lit and given an ultra-feminine cover.

I’ve written reviews of other chick lit books, like Sophie Kinsella’s The Undomestic Goddess and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary, and my main point in both reviews was that these books are not the stupid little beach reads that the marketing makes them out to be. In fact, both novels provide incisive critiques into the role of women in modern society and the pressures women face to embody unachievable feminine perfection. But reviewers, even female ones, seem to completely miss the deeper messages lying beneath these “superficial” texts. In 1998, New York Times reviewer Alex Kuczynski wrote that even though she knew the novel was “satire, a sassy spoof of urban manners[…]Bridget is such a sorry spectacle, wallowing in her man-crazed helplessness, that her foolishness cannot be excused.” And yet, the same satirical neuroticism that Bridget exhibits in the novel is no different than the type of literary male neuroticism that has been lauded for millennia. Elaine Showalter commended so-called “lad lit” for telling stories of men’s “insecurities, panic, cold sweats, performance anxieties and phobias,” even going so far as to say that “At the low end of the market, Lad lit was the masculine equivalent of the Bridget Jones Phenomenon.” Consequently, “lad lit” is a respectable genre, with roots that can be traced back to the genius literary works of Martin Amis and Bret Easton Ellis, while chick lit is a collection of female hysteria suitable only for a sandy beach.

Funnily enough, the “domestic” chick lit novel of today stems from such classics as Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and North and South, all female-authored novels about women that revolutionized the modern novel, pioneered the concept of the middle-class protagonist, and shifted the focus of literature from the exterior world to the interior one. Without these novels, modern fiction wouldn’t exist and yet, these women, and the “domestic” fiction that followed them, get a fraction of the respect they deserve. Chick lit is an outdated term and fiction written by women shouldn’t be subject to its limitations. Women’s fiction is fiction. Period.

2 thoughts on “In Defense of Chick Lit

  1. Have you read Emily Henry’s ‘Beach Read’? That’s one I loved recently which is very meta on the question you discuss here, while also providing a full meal of a book! (If you read YA, Emma Lord is also wonderfully delicious – all self-aware, trope-savvy, yet ardently uncynical!)

    Liked by 1 person

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