Between the Lines: In Defense of “Chick Lit”

| May 2, 2012 | 2 Comments

Bright pink covers; gal pals drinking cosmopolitans, buying designer shoes, and searching for Mr. Right; “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and “Sex and the City”—these are the images that San Diego writer Jennifer Coburn evoked recently in addressing the question, “Is chick lit dead?”

Jen Coburn is the author of four successful “chick lit” novels and a staunch defender of the genre. In spite of its enormous popularity, it’s been under attack, treated as a shameful secret, something to hide behind the current issue of Harper’s or the latest—somehow more acceptable—pulp thriller by James Patterson.

Should we apologize for books written by, for and about women? Why should chick lit—let’s take the quotes off—be regarded any differently from Sue Grafton mysteries, Zane Grey westerns, or books about teenage vampires? Most of us enjoy reading for escape and undemanding entertainment, yet chick lit seems to have been singled out for disparagement as mindless fluff, empty calories.

And anti-feminist. The label itself was an indictment, condescending and dismissive, but while I personally bristle at hearing women called “chicks” or even “girls,” I’m with those who refuse to be contrite about what they read and write, who defend the genre proudly, name and all. Like GoodReads.com, reminding us with its Popular Snooty Woman’s Guide to Chick Lit Books that “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights,” all of Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen, “Little Women” and even “Romeo & Juliet” might fall under the rubric.

“The Chick Lit Challenge,” a 2004 Utne Reader article, asked if trendy novels for young women smother female expression or just put a little fun in feminism. It comes down favoring the latter interpretation as I do. In a nutshell, feminism is about choices. Helen Fielding, the author of “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” said: “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.”

The article begins: “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.” I’d add my belief that when Virginia Woolf exhorted women in “A Room of One’s Own” to “write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast,” she was anticipating chick lit. She would have applauded and defended it.

Jennifer Coburn’s books, like Woolf’s, have followed the trajectory of women’s lives. “Reinventing Mona” is about a single woman, “Wife of Reilly” a young married. Then she moved on to “Mom lit” with “Tales from the Crib” and “The Queen Gene.” In these last two she created my favorite character, Anjoli, a grandmother whose outrageous antics add spice and spark. I call it “Gram lit.” Now she’s shopping her newest novel, about a boy who wants to be a Girl Scout.

Sales are down, with fewer publishers in the mix, thus the question about the health of the genre. But book sales and publishing in general are in flux, trying to survive, adapt and compete in a changing world. Chick lit may be struggling, but don’t count it out. Check out the “Chick lit is not dead” blog, its premise that “books with high fashion and happy endings never go out of style.” Whether we read paperbacks in pink covers or discreetly download the latest Sophie Kinsella on a Kindle, there will always be a demand and an audience for these frothy frolics. Jen Coburn sums it up well. Chick lit, she says, “may not change your life or give you spiritual enlightenment, but it’s just as important to have a good laugh and be entertained.”

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