"Chick Lit": A tentative obituary

Image credit: natalie's new york

The time has come for “chick lit,” a cousin of the “chick flick,” to be firmly put to rest. I don’t mean the novels themselves, typically defined as fiction centring on the everyday life and relationship exploits of a central heroine. I mean we need to kill off the term itself. It feels tired and unnecessary – and it highlights of some of the more damaging attitudes that surround women and literature.

While we can all think of some of the specific titles the word “chick lit” generally refers to, I fail to see how a term that essentially just means “women’s books” can describe such a specific subset of the publishing market. Some genres or individual books are marketed more specifically at men, but there has never been a parallel need to create a whole subgenre on this basis.  It seems even more ludicrous when we note that women make up the majority of the reading public.  It is a similar type of lazy pigeonholing that writers of colour often receive from the publishing industry, and this label has an extra derogatory, dismissive element. Books “for women” are associated with a feathery vacuousness. They are entertainment. They are not art.

This contempt for writing by and about women has a long history, in spite of the fact that women were integral to the development and popularisation of the novel as a form. Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko has a good claim to be the first ever novel, yet most people have never heard of her. The form of the novel itself was initially looked down on precisely because it was seen as such a female medium in the 18th century. But, of course, when more men began to take it up, its cultural significance suddenly rocketed. The majority of 18th-century novelists and novel-readers were women, so why is it that the 18th-century canon is now frequently represented by Fielding, Sterne and Swift, as if no female writers of importance had existed at all? Prolific novelists of the same era like Frances Burney and Eliza Haywood have been erased out of our collective memory. Austen is the first female novelist most people know about, but her talent was forged out of a long tradition of women writing for a female audience.

This is all part of the ingenious double-pronged fork of patriarchy. First it confines women to certain set spheres of life, and second it systematically undervalues the work they do in the very arenas it confined them to in the first place. After all, Jane Austen’s genius is well-documented, but so often we encounter a certain sniggering ignorance suggesting that her work is only about petticoats and balls. An exploration of the process of marriage, which defined a woman’s social position in the Regency era to such an extent, is seen as intrinsically less substantial than exploring the things that governed men’s lives to a similar degree.

This denigration of women’s writing and women’s life experiences over the centuries is how such an absurd label as “chick lit” came to be. Light fiction about men’s lives has no equivalent label. We should respect the multiplicity of women writers and readers, and we should remember that women’s writing is not a subgenre, but the bedrock of the cultural history of the novel. We can do this now, by laying to rest this reductive and unhelpful label.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Related Stories

In this section

Across the site

Best of the Rest