Over a month ago there was a flurry of online debate when Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Wiener, both popular commercial/chick-lit authors, took to Twitter about the New York Times rave reviews of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom.
“NYT raved about Franzen’s new book. Is anyone shocked? Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren’t white male literary darlings.”
In support of Picoult sentiments Wiener stated,
“I think it’s a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it’s literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it’s romance, or a beach book – in short, it’s something unworthy of a serious critic’s attention.”
The on-going feud is well documented. After reading many blog posts, online articles, and many, many user comments I knew that what I was about to embark on with this blog is necessary. Many comments I read suggested that Picoult and Wiener are authors suffering from sour grapes, are not worthy of recognition, are terrible writers, and should just get over themselves. I was not surprised by the hostility toward these women and the genre they write under because I recognized the loathing I had recently felt toward such books. When reading Bridget Jones’s Diary the first time I actually wrote in the margin
“I believe these books are harmful to women!”
How did we get here? Women have been writing and publishing literature for some time. Of course through the centuries, many women did not gain literary recognition at the time of publication. Women’s writing has been disparaged and put to one side because the content is about women and many of their related personal and social issues such as family, community, the home, and emotions. It would seem that chick lit is no different.
But where did the term chic lit come from? According to Cris Mazza in her essay “Who’s Laughing Now? A Short History of Chick Lit and the Perversion of a Genre,” Mazza along with Jeffrey DeShell were the first to use the term “Chick Lit” as the title for their 1995 anthology, Chick-Lit: Postfeminist Fiction. Mazza explains that, “our original goal had been to determine how…women’s experiments with form and language might be distinct from men’s. But that line of inquiry was overshadowed by the emergence of something larger, more exciting than a mere study of form” (17). Mazza later adds that “the fiction we had compiled were simultaneously courageous and playful; frank and wry; honest, intelligent, sophisticated, libidinous, unapologetic, and overwhelmingly emancipated” (18). Her essay echoes similar sentiments to those of Picoult and Weiner, “what women writers produce has been ‘women’s fiction,’ and the rest, unconditionally, is ‘fiction’ (or even ‘literature’)…Men write about what’s important; women write about what’s important to women” (28). Finally, Mazza explains that the term chick lit was meant to shine a light on this demotion of women and the writing their produce, not ignore it, which is what it seems the co-opting of the term is perpetuating. One might argue that current “chick lit” revels in the tradition of deeming women’s writing unimportant.
However, women like Picoult and Weiner, women who embrace their commercial success and have had the title of chick lit bestowed upon their work are speaking up for and about the experience of women as writers. This is just one example of how active and aware chick lit writers are about the genre and their position in it. Additionally, consider professor Pamela Cauphie’s summary of postfeminist fiction that she explains “does not conform to a set of beliefs about the way women are or should be. Indeed, the very writing that goes by this name resists the kind of certainty, conclusiveness and clear-cut meaning that definition demands” and that the characters might be “seen as confident, independent, even outrageous women taking responsibility for who they are, or as women who have unconsciously internalized and are acting out the encoded gender norms of our society” (21).
I think that when considered in this way commercial chick lit is not so different from the chick lit Mazza collected fifteen years ago. It is time to stop thinking of chick lit as un-feminist and begin to discover and give recognition to what feminism, womanhood, and femininity means to the woman writers, readers, and characters of chick lit.
Mazza, Cris. “Who’s Laughing Now? A Short History of Chick Lit and the Perversion of a Genre.” Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction. Ed. Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2006. 17-28. Print.