Wednesday, February 20, 2013

An Introduction to Chick-Lit 101.


Women buy a lot of books. This is something of a generalisation, of course, but given that the majority of literary pop-culture pantheons of the past few years have been written by and for women, it’s safe to assume that there’s some truth behind that statement. The old way of thinking, one that’s still sadly in practice in the world of entertainment, particularly movies, is that women create stories for other women whilst men create them for everyone. Not only this, but in order to be successful, your story must have gender cross-over appeal, be it through a title change (Disney going from “Rapunzel”, “The Snow Queen” & “A Princess of Mars” to “Tangled”, “Frozen” and “John Carter”) or some plot and character rejigging. That changed somewhat in the YA world thanks to the first “Twilight” movie, which showed that not only will large and dedicated groups of women come out in droves for something they enjoy, but they’ll pay handsomely to do so. Fast forward a few years and the most successful series in recent publishing history is a female written erotica for other women (let’s not discuss quality right now) with pretty much no crossover appeal (another sloppy gender stereotype on my part, but the figures speak for themselves). Indeed, romance and women centred entertainment has been a nice cash cow for a while now, not to mention a forward thinking industry. The romance publishers were the ones who jumped onto the e-book and self-publishing wagon long before the rest of the industry caught wind of the changes ahead, and these books are the ones that sell in the midst of a global recession.

Yet it’s all still “chick-lit” to some.

I have mixed feelings about the term “chick-lit”. While I wholeheartedly support reclaiming the term from the clutches of those who prefer to sneer at it, that’s easier said than done. It’s primarily used in the media to denigrate the books discussed, as if they’re all meaningless piles of fluff that should be sniggered at instead of enjoyed. It’s also a term that’s flung around very carelessly and without much thought. Often the term is slapped on an author’s work solely because they’re female, which certainly doesn’t help women writers in an industry that places far more praise and worthiness on the literary works of men. After all, you never see Jonathan Franzen and John Updike categorised as dick-lit, although I feel it would be more suited to their work than chick-lit to Jodi Picoult.

The work itself can be as diverse as anything else the publishing industry releases and yet it’s all categorised under one general heading of chick-lit. Everyone from Stephenie Meyer to Jennifer Weiner to E.L. James to Jackie Collins has been categorised as chick-lit. Some authors are more accepting of the term than others but what does it actually mean?

According to that bastion of information, Wikipedia, the term appeared as early as 1988 as a slang term for the “female literary tradition”, while the page itself defines the term as “genre fiction whichaddresses issues of modern womanhood, often humorously and light-heartedly”. Even the definition seems unsure of itself – by that rule, is “Pride & Prejudice” chick-lit? The Guardian’s chick-lit tag includes discussions of works by Jilly Cooper, Shirley Conran, Jodi Picoult, and even talks about the Playboy Mansion. If journalists and authors can’t come to an agreement on what chick-lit actually is, how can we, and more importantly, how can I?

So this will be a series of posts on the joys, ridiculousness, pros, cons, covers, sexy-times, issues and future of chick-lit in all its many forms and genre spanning variety. I will try to make this as interactive as possible, and I’ll try to cover as much ground as I can, but there’s a lot of books out there and I don’t have the time or resources to get to them all. If there is a book out there that you feel I simply must read in order to create as detailed a context of the genre as possible then feel free to leave me a message here or on Twitter (@ceilidhann) and I’ll see what I can do. Since this is also a YA site, I’ll be talking about books that fit the typical YA chick-lit mould, and the discussions taking place on Buzzfeed and similar sitesabout YA being the new chick-lit

I would like to note here that the authors I have put here do not all come under what I would personally categorise as chick-lit, but have all been described as such by other outlets, and the intention here is to explore exactly what chick-lit is,  if that which we call chick-lit actually is so, and to generally stick two fingers up to snobby men like Jonathan Franzen and jerks like Nicholas Sparks (who will be torn into multiple times throughout this series!)

Topics:

The Grand Dames – The Big Names (Olivia Goldsmith, Helen Fielding, Sophie Kinsella, Marian Keyes, Jennifer Weiner).

Fame, Fortune and Fabulous Sex – The Bonkbuster (Jackie Collins, Louise & Tilly Bagshawe, Jilly Cooper, Shirley Conran, etc).

“What would you do?” – The “women’s issues” books (Jodi Picoult, Curtis Sittenfeld, Oprah’s Book Club).  

What the Kids are Reading – YA Chick-Lit (Sarah Dessen, Meg Cabot, Louise Rennison, Stephanie 
Perkins, Megan McCafferty).

When is Chick-Lit Not Chick-Lit – The fine lines of the romance genre.  

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Shameless plug time but I was on BBC World Radio's "World Have Your Say" for a very brief time last night discussing the recent molehill-mountain that was made from Hilary Mantel's speech on royal bodies, which mentioned Kate Middleton, and you can listen to it here (about 10 minutes from the end). I'm the "blogger from Scotland", obviously.