Polly Courtney vs. Chick Lit

We all know by know that high-heeled shoes, shopping addictions, and the search for Mr. Right is what most people think about when pondering the much denigrated women’s literature genre, Chick Lit. And this is exactly what British author Polly Courtney does not want her potential readers to think about when they see the cover of her book. That is why, at the launch of her latest novel last month, It’s a Man’s World, Courtney chose to publicly dump her publisher, HarperCollins, for misrepresentation. Courtney claims that the cover art did not accuratly reflect the content of her novel.

“I’m not averse to the term chick lit, but I don’t think that’s what my book is,” Courtney stated in a Guardian.co.uk interview adding that “a lot of chick lit patronizes women.” However, some disagree with her and suggest that Courtney may be suffereing under an illusion about her writing. One such opponenet, Leah of chicklitreivews.com, wrote, “No matter what Polly says, she writes Chick Lit. That’s the long and short of it…What Polly doesn’t realize is that her comments are patronizing. Women aren’t fooled by beautiful pink covers.”

Yet, in a segment with Channel 4 News titled, “Does the ‘Chick Lit’ Label Dumb
Down Women’s Fiction?” Courtney expressed that she wished to avoid the “wrong people” reading her novel. She hoped that by regaining control of her branding through self publishing that she will be able to attract the “right reader” to her novels.

All of this has lead me to question what a “typical” chick lit novel looks like and who the “right” or “wrong” readers are for an author. Courtney writes that she “does not labour under any illusion,” adding that her “novels are not literary masterpieces – but nor are they chick-lit.” If she is writing commercial fiction about young women struggling to define themselves in their career and personal lives but also acheives this with irony and humour, is this not chick lit?

For me, the short answer is Yes.

But what is this “typical” chick lit novel? At one point in her peice, Courtney recounts an email from a reader who had given up looking for novels in the women’s section because all of them were about sex and shopping. I hate to break the news but I think statements like these are coming from people who have never read a chick lit novel. This is exactly something I would have said before my own chick lit conversion. Let’s assume that “typical” means the most popular titles/authors, Bridget Jones, Devil Wear’s PradaSex and the City; Jennifer Weiner, Emily Giffin, Sophie Kinsella. Having read these books or work from these authors I find it difficult to believe that the only topic of interest was shopping. As a matter of fact, I don’t think these books would be best sellers if that is what they were about.

Every chick lit novel I have read has been about women making their way in the world. This is what makes them relatable and interesting. I have to agree with Leah that women aren’t fooled into reading books because of shoes or shopping or the colour pink. The reason chick lit novels sell are because they are talking about lived experiences. Now, are we all 20-somethings trying to make it at a magazine in New York or L.A.? Of course not, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something in these candy coated novels that appeal to women’s experience of self, career, relationships, or social issues.

I think the “typical” chick lit novel about shoes and shopping is a myth used to derail conversation about women’s literature. The “typical” chick lit novel is either held up as an example of how useless women’s literature is or is used as a way to clamour for elevated status as an author or reader. Sadly, this means stepping on the backs of other women and giving them a kick in the face while grasping for the top.

I belive in the reclaimation of words and standing in solidarity. Chick lit may not be someone’s prefered reading or writing style but I don’t think this means it should be used as a punching bag.



6 thoughts on “Polly Courtney vs. Chick Lit

  1. Very nicely put, Christine! Chick Lit is just so much more than what its detractors claim it to be. anyone who believes it is all shopping & sex clearly hasn’t read much of the genre and are missing the point altogether. For one thing, writing about sex from a realistic, female point of view allows women to own their sexuality and not be afraid of it or embarrassed by it. For this alone, I think Candace Bushnel should have won a Pulitzer. Now, women can openly discuss their sex lives without feeling like sluts. And shopping might seem frivolous, but I think this, too, is empowering. 50 years ago, it was a rare woman that could shop for herself without interference from either her father or husband about the choices she made. So, even if Chick Lit were nothing more than sex & shopping, which all Chick Lit lovers know it isn’t, it would still be so much more than Polly & the rest of the genre’s critics say it is.

    On a side note, have you read J. Courtney Sullivan’s debut novel, Commencement? Brilliant feminist Chick Lit that deals with these struggles directly and beautifully while still maintaining the tone of a Chick Lit novel. I have her latest, Maine, and I can’t wait to read it!

    1. I have not read Commencement but will add it to my list! I’m always excited to discover new feminist chick lit. Thanks!

      Also, I completely agree with you about the empowerment that comes along with writing and reading about sex. I never thought about shopping being part of that. Shopping is always pushed to the side as selfish, which clearly feeds into the concept of women being self-centered and such. Although there are many issues equality and women’s pay, (at least in Western society) we hold financial clout we never used to.

  2. Exactly, Christine. Shopping being characterized as selfish is just one of the sexist ways society continues to oppress women. For instance, men love their toys, from cars to electronics, yet when are men called selfish for spending their own money on these things? A man might buy a new $500 iPhone just because he wants the latest &greatest smartphone, but who is going to challenge him on that purchase? Whereas, if a woman were to spend it on a dress or shoes or make up (as I have certainly done), it’s viewed as vain & frivolous. Even by other women. This is why Chick Lit’s critics are missing the point entirely. Being a feminist isn’t about abandoning femininity and all that goes with it. It’s about embracing your own individuality, whether you’re a girlie girl or a tomboy, and owning it.

  3. Thanks Christine, v good article. As a proud chick lit writer I do get tired of hearing the entire genre unfairly stuffed into the confines of a shopping mall when there is such a wide range of themes within it.

    I suppose one positive thing that comes from these attacks on the genre is that it makes chick lit readers feisty, and we come out swinging to defend the genre. Solidarity is nice to see whether we’re brandishing our books or burning our bras.

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