Women Debate The "Chick Lit" Label

There's a debate raging in The Guardian. Yesterday, DJ Connell threw down the gauntlet by suggesting that "the 'chick-lit' label does nothing for humorous female writers already suffering exclusion from an old boys' club." Today, a chick-lit author responds:

Connell, who deliberately avoided using her given name, Danielle, as an author of humorous fiction, made her argument against the label thusly:

Why do I find the chick-lit label so offensive? Because it not only condemns a work of humour to the ghetto of the light and frivolous but it is also ridiculously outdated. Who in Playboy Mansion Hell still refers to a woman as a chick? When you call a woman a chick you diminish her as a human being and dismiss her as something less than intelligent...."Chick" offends me but it is the tacking on of "lit" like an accessory that really causes my testosterone levels to spike. Whatever lit is, it is certainly not literature. It is much lower on the food chain, something light and unimportant. While I admit there are plenty of light novels written by women, there are just as many, if not more, "easy reads" churned out by men, and I am not just talking about the so-called lad-lit genre. Just visit the thriller and horror shelves of your local airport and look for titles such as The Sniper's Nest and Hell's Teeth. These books are no better written than romantic comedies but they are still taken more seriously.

Michele Gorman, author of the proudly pastel-hued Single in the City, responded today, taking exception, among other things, to Connell's "criticism of the chick-lit label in the name of feminism, while she passes herself off as a man because she doesn't want to give her book "the kiss of death of a female name"." But she also had more substantive arguments in favor of owning the label:

I take issue with those who dismiss all chick-lit as poorly-written fodder for the dim-witted reader. There are some appallingly bad books (as I discovered), but that's true of every single genre. And there are some dim-witted readers, and that's also true across the genres. But saying that chick-lit can't be well-written is a little like saying that pretty girls can't be smart. It's ludicrous. And it's wrong. There are some very good writers of very funny chick-lit and, as a writer, to purposely distance yourself from these talents isn't only short-sighted, it's insulting. Far from making a stand for women writers, doing so perpetuates the prejudices we face by not even attempting to disprove the critics. Marian Keyes, Madeleine Wickham (aka Sophie Kinsella) and Helen Fielding broke ground for the rest of us to create a genre that is the exclusive preserve of women.

As someone who enjoys the occasional frothy read and knows they can deal very well with very serious issues - and who's also wanted hours of her life back after wasting a flight on absolute crap - I think both women raise important points. Connell knows of what she speaks: it's hard to write, as a woman, and not be ghetto-ized, be it on the literary or frothy end. (It's no coincidence that "J.D. Robb" is the crime writer in the pseudonym family.) Does the popularity of frivolous fiction further ghettoize women writers? Perhaps - but I think Gorman makes a very salient point when she says that commercial fiction by male writers isn't held up to the same scrutiny as is its distaff counterpart. Whereas we tut-tut and judge at peoples' lamentable reading habits, or admit only to "guilty pleasures," or roll our eyes at the shoes-and-huge-apartment-lifestyles of heroines, there's little analysis of what the latest Grisham or James Patterson will do to the minds or hearts of its largely male readership. As Gorman says, "light doesn't have to mean stupid." Too often it does - but surely it's as much a generalization to judge a whole genre by a few voices as it is to judge all writers by one genre.

As to the issue of the "chick lit" label? Well, that's more complex: "chick" is, historically speaking, probably pejorative. A glance at the slang dictionary tells us that the first recorded use dates to 1899, probably deriving from the British "bird", and in 1927 and Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry, it's employed thusly: "He had determined that marriage now would cramp his advancement in the church and that, anyway, he didn't want to marry this brainless little fluffy chick, who would be of no help in impressing rich parishioners."

Put that way, it's hard to argue for reclamation - even if one has faith in the genre. Sadly, Gal-leys just doesn't roll off the tongue.


The Chick-Lit Debate: Who In Playboy Mansion Hell Calls Women Chicks?
[Guardian]

The Chick-Lit Debate: Light Doesn't Have To Mean Stupid [Guardian]