In Defense of Chick Lit

Chick Lit: You know that section in the bookshop all the men seem to give a wide berth, full of covers sporting bright colors, flowers, high heels, and handbags?

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Yeah, that one. The label “Chick Lit” comes with an air of illegitimacy, of low quality, a kindergarten-level eww-girls-have-cooties kind of disgust. If classic literature is a well-balanced meal, chick lit is a slice of chocolate cake: maybe fun while it’s going down, but lacking any substance or real nourishment. Literature is for everyone. Chick lit is only for silly women with bad taste.

But is this a fair assessment or just snobbery? And what exactly does it take to get a book labeled “chick lit?”

A quick browsing of the popular books listed in the category on GoodReads reveals books such as The Devil Wears Prada, My Sister’s Keeper, The Help, and Fifty Shades of Grey, and that’s without leaving the first page. These books are worlds apart in tone as well as subject matter, seemingly connected only by the fact that they all contain female characters doing things and having feelings. For shame!

What warrants that label on these particular books?

Let’s take The Help, for example. The fact that anyone has tagged it as chick lit is, at best, confusing to me. The Help takes place in 1962 and revolves around Skeeter and her journalistic project: getting the stories of black women working as maids to wealthy white families in the rural south. Skeeter wants to help give these largely ignored women a voice. This book has faced plenty of criticism for its treatment of race, and I’m not dismissing that, nor am I really going to address it here. Roxane Gay explores this issue far better than I could in Bad Feminist. But the point here is not whether or not it’s a good book or whether Katheryn Stockett handled racial issues with appropriate sensitivity. The point is that there’s something that feels insidious about a person reading a book about racial relations in the south in 1962 and, because the main characters were female, walking away with the message that this is a book for women.

Let’s move on to My Sister’s Keeper. Again, this book touches on some really heavy issues, including a dying child and how a family grapples with the issue of bodily autonomy of the healthy sister who has continually been pushed into transfusions to help keep her alive. This is a book that demands that we ask difficult ethical questions. Again, why is this designated as only for women?

Chick lit is a category so nebulous as to be almost meaningless, but it seems that often what is meant by the label is something along the lines of: “a book which is lighthearted and perhaps a bit trivial while also committing the mortal sin of being girly; probably contains romance.” This just seems a bit odd to me. Men write fluffy, self-indulgent books with little to no substance all the time (I’m looking at you, Ernest Cline) and we don’t relegate them to their own separate sub-genre for it. And for the record, there’s nothing inherently wrong with fluffy, self-indulgent books. We all read them sometimes, and they’re fun. We can’t spend all of our time reading stuffy literature that grapples with heavy philosophical issues.

But when one actually takes the time to browse which books are being labeled as chick lit, it seems that anything marketed to women is fair game, and there is no truly analogous category when it comes to media that men consume.

What it comes down to is that it’s taken for granted that women will be willing to consume media about men, while the reverse is not true. Men write about their emotional journey and they’ve written about “the human condition.” Women write about their emotional journey and it’s “chick lit.” Men’s work is universal because men are the default. Women’s work is a sub-genre unless those women bend over backwards to be marketable to men.

There are some lovely books that a lot of readers will never touch because the publishers saw a female author writing about a female character, slapped a flowery cover on it, labeled it “chick lit” and called it a day. It’s time to drop our assumptions about a sub-genre when it’s become so broad as to have room for both The Help and Fifty Shades. It’s okay to give chick lit a chance. I promise, the books don’t have cooties.