“Chick Lit,” Genre or Insult?

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According to the Wikipedia entry for novelist Cris Mazza, the term “chick lit” was coined by Mazza and Jeffrey DeShell in an anthology of “postfeminist fiction” published in 1995:

While originally meant to be ironic, the term was co-opted to define a very different sort of work.

Bridget Jones’s Diary is seen as the definitive “chick lit” novel. British writer Helen Fielding created the character of a fictitious journalist called Bridget Jones. She wrote Jones’s “diary” as a humor column in The Independent in 1995: The column chronicled

the life of Bridget Jones as a thirtysomething single woman in London as she tries to make sense of life and love with the help of a surrogate “urban family” of friends in the 1990s. The column lampooned the obsession of women with women’s magazines such as Cosmopolitan and wider social trends in Britain at the time. –Wikipedia, “Bridget Jones.”

“Chick lit,” with its cute sound and connotations of vapid female consumerism (some call it “shoe lit”) quickly caught on with reviewers, who began applying it to anything written by women for women, frothy or not.

The word from the experts (agents and publishers) is that as a genre, chick lit is dead. Writers are warned not to label their work “chick lit, even if the protagonist is a “single thirtysomething woman trying to make it in the corporate world.”

The head fiction buyer for Barnes and Noble has officially declared chick lit to be “dead.” –Jenny Bent, agent.

Yes, chick lit is dead. I would advise anyone who has a desire to write in the category formerly known as chick lit to wipe that terminology from your dictionary. –Jessica at Bookends Literary Agency blog

Jessica goes on to point out, however, that the-genre-formerly-known-as-chick-lit is still around, but more acceptable terms for it are “funny women’s fiction,” or “light women’s fiction.”

Both Jessica and Jenny Bent associate a specific authorial voice with chick lit:

Bent: I got tired a long time ago of the whiny heroine. And now publishers are asking authors to rewrite books that were in the first person to change them to the third person, because the first person is “too chick lit” and chick lit doesn’t sell.

Jessica: Chick lit tends to be a little snarky and sarcastic, while women’s fiction doesn’t. If you are writing chick lit, be careful of that voice as much as you can. Even a book not labeled as chick lit can quickly get rejected if editors feel the voice is too chick lit.

Readers and reviewers have not been willing to part with the term and you’ll find plenty of articles with the headline, “Chick lit is NOT dead.” You’ll also find chick lit book clubs and lists of “the best in chick lit.” Authors who write chick lit are also understandably reluctant to give up the term, although they probably know better than to put the label on their submissions.

Reviewers need to be especially cautious when it comes to labeling a novel “chick lit.” As with so many words and expressions used to categorize women and women’s interests, the term chick lit is fraught with negative associations. For starters, “chick” as a term for “woman” belongs to the same category as “broad” and “dame.” The term chick lit has spawned the term hen lit to refer to fiction whose main female characters are women over fifty. The word hen as applied to women does not carry pleasant connotations.

As a definable sub-genre of women’s fiction, chick lit does exist, even if unofficially. And it has its fans. Just don’t make the mistake of some reviewers who tend to dismiss all women’s fiction as inconsequential “chick lit.”

Here are some “chick lit” titles.

Sex and the City (1997), Candace Bushnell
The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing (2000), Melissa Bank
See Jane Write (2001), Melissa Senate
Watermelon (2002), Marian Keyes
Good in Bed (2002), Jennifer Weiner
The Devil Wears Prada (2003), Lauren Weisberger
Real Life & Liars (2009), Kristina Riggle

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10 thoughts on ““Chick Lit,” Genre or Insult?”

  1. It’s crazy. What I think happened was the terms “chick lit” and “hen lit” were fad phrases and as we all know, fads get outdated, now people are saying the genres are dead. It’s not the genres that are dead, it’s the fad words that are outdated (in publishing, that means dead). Just like hoola hoops and 8 track tapes, the fad might be dead but the genres are still living on.

  2. I am the author of “The Wax Club” which was being touted as the first mediterranean chicklit in Europe. My publisher decided to use this title, (and to publish it under this genre), because it was so unique. And yes, journalists were curious (even though some of them reviewed it as ‘a chicklit with a message’ or women’s fiction) and it was clear for booksellers which shelf they had to put it on.
    And yes, I have to say that I sometimes hesitate how to call my novel, because I want it to be taken as serious as I have written it.
    But in the end, it’s all about selling the book I think. If you have written it for a clear audience, with a clear message, your readers will know how to find you. The Wax Club ended in the Top 10 of the Ultimate Chicklit in The Netherlands.
    Now I am working on my second novel which is defined as ‘literary novel’. I don’t care. For me, the writing is as pleasant as I wrote my ‘chicklit’ The Wax Club.

  3. I hate to admit it but I have no desire to read any of the titles you listed. That’s not because of what they’ve been titled but it’s just not my thing.

    I would never recognize it as a genre because I think it’s insulting to both authors and readers. Does it matter if the hero is male or female? If the storyline is good, who cares?!?

    It’s a dead genre? Never knew it was alive. :p

  4. @Evelyn: Of course it’s a real genre; reference those very popular books in the list, at least two of which were made into successful films. It’s as real or rather “alive” as romance, which (to me) is just as vapid — that doesn’t make it dead. I prefer macho Conan the Barbarian books, which I’m sure has a large group of detractors to disparage them. Again, that doesn’t make it a dead genre. The two concepts are unrelated.

    @Maeve: I am enjoying your discussion of literary genres. Very thought provoking!


  5. Although the term “Chick Lit” makes me think of silly teenage girls, I like books written in first person. I’ve thought about writing that way because of how much I like reading it. I think the “experts” have gone over the wall and into the ravine.

  6. Now which category does “Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl” fall under?

    I’m not a fan of Chick Lit but that embellished non-fictional work by Belle De Jour was rather “interesting”, I might add… heehee.

  7. I just have to say… were you aware that the summary for this article was a couplet? Look:

    Although agents and publishers insist that it’s dead
    “Chick lit” continues to be written and read.

    That is hilarious. And I really have no business commenting, seeing as I hardly touch chick lit.

  8. @Amazing Blair: “Vapid.” I like that word! Such a wonderful way to say boring. 🙂 I have not seen either movie and probably will not do so intentionally. Maybe I’ll see them if they become an HBO rerun or something.

    Everybody has their own taste. I just find the name insulting. I don’t like using “Chick Flick” to describe movies either. I find it to be a derogatory term.

    I think visual and/or literary works should include romance, action, sex, murder, etc. I have no problem with Conan, by the way. Gotta love a real man! 😉

  9. I enjoy “chicklit” mainly because the theme is comedy aimed at women, but when I mention that my own book (A Proper Charlie) is chicklit I notice scornful expressions as if my book is second rate. I did pull someone up on this once, and she replied “it’s because they are all so badly written.”
    I asked if she’d read one. She replied “no.”
    A misconception?
    But in future I shall refer to my books as comedy romance, and hopefully raise up in status in the snobby eyes of the chicklit haters!

  10. How could people ever call a chick-lit writing ‘dead’? I enjoy chick-lit. It’s awesome. it’s my “type”. I feel the chick-lit writiing shows the most creative part of writting a story. It’s more realistic. I think, only teens and young adults can understand this writtings. As they are going through a problem which is similar to the story. Why are grannies and grandpa reading this, even after that they don’t chick-lit? They write the nonscence of old fashioned things. “Lord of the Flies”, seriously it became a hit?? For me it’s boring. But I’m not saying “OMG, it’s horrible.’, “That’s the worst type of writing”, “lame”, ” Wat a junk”– I’m just saying. Then why are those grannies and old people commenting such nasty comments? And influencing others to not read it? I didn’t stop my friends from reading ‘Lord of the FLies” i want her opinion about it. I was inspired by Meg Cabot and Sophie Kinsella. In my world, they rock.

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