Chick-Lit: what is it, exactly?

The chick-lit versus ‘real books’ debate continues in the world, including over at Irish feminist blog The Anti-Room. I think Anna Carey’s response says pretty much everything I thought when reading that post, but I’ve also been thinking about ‘why chick-lit’ and come up with a definition that sums up what I like about the genre: “young woman finding and developing her identity”. It doesn’t mention men or shoes, which are presumed to be great staples of the genre, and when I hear that I kind of feel like maybe I don’t ever read any chick-lit, really. I must be reading the stuff that gets labelled as chick-lit but isn’t… surely?

Is Judy Blume’s Summer Sisters chick-lit? It’s packaged as such… but the main focus is the intoxicating and infuriating relationship between Vix and Caitlin. And Vix’s identity is tied to Caitlin’s – the rich girl whose family welcomes Vix in and changes her life forever. There are boys, sure; there’s also family members, roommates, friends.

How about Abby McDonald’s The Popularity Rules, which certainly has fashion, but also has, again, a complicated friendship between two women? Does it count if a heroine is behaving in a certain way with a specific agenda in mind – in a way that deconstructs a lot of female behaviour and society’s attitudes towards women? Or Amy Silver’s Confessions of a Reluctant Recessionista, where the heroine very obviously sets pretty shoes aside in favour of a rewarding job and a life she likes?

And Megan Crane’s books – novels where identity and place in the world and what-kind-of-person-are-you-really is at the heart of the matter. Clothing is, I think, occasionally mentioned; what stays with me are the flawed-yet-compelling female characters, the nuances of friendships, the ‘growing-up-even-though-you-kind-of-thought-you’d-be-finished-that-by-now’ that happens in your twenties.

It continues to amuse me that J Courtney Sullivan’s Commencement is referred to as chick-lit, but I’ll gladly count it as such, and point to it alongside the collected works of Marian Keyes as why I am really okay with ‘admitting’ to reading chick-lit. Look at what it includes! Of course there are poor specimens of the genre out there – but there are triumphs, too, and triumphs of books are always worth reading, whatever section of the bookshop they wind up in.

About clairehennessy

Writer (mostly YA fiction), creative writing teacher, tea drinker, book junkie. View all posts by clairehennessy

8 responses to “Chick-Lit: what is it, exactly?

  • Laura Cassidy

    interesting debate over there!
    How come nobody let me in on the commercial fiction formula…?! You’re holding out on me Claire!

  • Eimear

    I definitely agree with your last sentence!

    Another pertinent question is “what exactly is literary fiction?” Why do some women writers who write about women, like Curtis Sittenfeld, not get the sparkly cover treatment?

    One thing that bothers me about the anti-room debate – and this debate in general – is the notion that literary fiction is inherently pretentious and/or difficult. It can be both, but the best literary fiction is often very accessible. I was horrified recently to hear a well-established female agent say she doesn’t consider literary fiction because she never went to college – as though you need a degree to be able to appreciate it!

    • clairehennessy

      And even with Sittenfeld’s first two books, the covers are, if not sparkly, certainly very clearly coded as feminine.

      Literary fiction is a tricky one. A lot of the more readable stuff can seem to fall into that elusive ‘general fiction’ category rather than being thought of as specifically ‘literary’ – the tag seems to be attached to things that are often inaccessible. I don’t particularly feel qualified to talk about it – there’s this part of me that feels like if I don’t ‘get’ it, it’s a fault of mine rather than the book’s. But that’s a sensation that I do think is encouraged by many people who write about, or write, literary fiction, and are incredibly dismissive of ‘genre’ fiction. If you’re not picking up on the literary allusions, or appreciating the significance of tiny details, or whatever else it might be, if you’re finding something overwritten or so understated it hurts, you’re failing as a reader and you should just go read brainless fluff. I’m sure part of it is to do my own neuroses, but when I know something is supposed to be ‘literary’, it does put a certain pressure on.

      • Eimear

        I think of ‘general fiction’ as an umbrella term rather than a genre unto itself – though I guess Nick Hornby has to fit in somewhere. 😉 Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a big reader of avant garde fiction or even classics, as I find them tough going. But many of my favourite authors I would consider both literary and accessible – Atwood, Trevor, McCann, Enright, Eugenides, Ali Smith, Zoe Heller, Sebastian Barry etc.

        Another interesting thing about this debate is everyone has different classifications when it comes to genre. Some chicklit authors say it’s a genre and should be treated as such. Others say it’s “just fiction” and resent being labelled. Literary fiction and chicklit have so much in common that they’re frequently shelved together. The lines are indeed blurry!

        • clairehennessy

          Oh, yes, absolutely – and it’s such a tricky one because then you get people who won’t read ‘genre’ fiction and it’s a case of what gets classified as ‘general’…. something like ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ which is so sci-fi-ish but gets to be general, and then there are bookshops that have ‘romance’ categories which often means that books that would usually be shelved as general get put away somewhere else….

  • Margaret

    This is why the dividing line between literary fiction and commercial fiction often feels rather arbitrary to me. After all, Maeve Binchey is on the Leaving Cert. course now (and so, I think is Jodi Picoult), when they would have been considered commercial fiction. We’d an English lecturer at college who was telling us that he first read Lolita back in the ’60s and that back then, all the books advertised at the back with the “if you like this, you might also like” were soft-porn, whereas now, it’s considered a literary classic, with editions having academic forwards and all.

    And it seems to me that if Jane Austen were writing today, her work would probably be classed as chick-lit or romance. Not that I’ve read much Jane Austen (only Emma), but it does seem to follow the pattern of well-to-do young woman, who ends up happily married.

    I really like your definition of “young woman finding and developing her identity”. I think that is what I like about it too, though I never really thought about it that way. The way chick-lit is sometimes defined sounds like everything I don’t like: treating men and shoes as the most important things in every woman’s life, but there are a lot of books that are classed as chick-lit that don’t fit that description.

    *goes to google Commencement

    • clairehennessy

      And there are people who are horrified at the thought of Binchy or Picoult being on any kind of academic syllabus and being presented as ‘good writing’! Oh the poor children…. 😉 That’s very interesting about Lolita though… it’s *such* a classic now. I’d love to see what makes it into the Penguin Classics or Oxford World Classics editions in, say, 50 years time…

      Jane Austen is so very much Regency-era chick-lit. There’s political commentary and astute observations on society, and also lots of romance, and the latter is usually what’s focused on.

      I am all for chick-lit, despite not being particularly man- or shoe-crazy. Fond of ’em, sure, but neither of them come anywhere *close* to my book-craziness!

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