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Bethanne Patrick Headshot

Against Chick Lit

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HuffPo Books emailed to ask me if I'd be willing to write a piece "against chick lit."

My first though was "How do I write against something that not only already exists, but has existed for quite a while?" The ship emblazoned CHICK LIT has sailed, its figurehead modeled on Bridget Jones, its sails billowing as millions of eager readers turn pages, its hold stacked with pallets of pink-jacketed novels.

All right, I'll bring the seafaring metaphors to a close, but I used them deliberately. How, pray tell, is the average 19th-century seafaring novel, piled to its riggings (there I go again...) with detailed descriptions of rope-hammock quarters and officers' banquets less or more serious than a Joanna Trollope chapter about a "hen party?"

I'll put it anecdotally, too: I recently interviewed a male author who confessed that he has a weakness for thrillers. "After all, that's all there is at the airport when you're between books--thrillers and chick lit," he said. I responded that he must mean "lad lit." "Oh, well, no, thrillers are thrillers," he said, without an ounce of irony.

This, then, is why I am "against" chick lit. It shouldn't exist in the first place! When a book appeals largely to an audience of the male gender, it's a "thriller," a "mystery," a "procedural," and so on. When a book appeals largely to an audience of the female gender, it's a "cozy," a "romance," a "novel of suspense," or "chick lit"--anything to make it seem less exciting, less danger-filled, less...important.

As a reader with catholic tastes and a solid background in literature, I have some ideas about the cultural suppositions behind chick lit's "three paces behind and slightly to the right" place. Societies around the world (not just the Western ones who currently have the leisure to debate things like chick lit) consider women second-class citizens, and women's pursuits less important than men's.

Although many a male-plotted spy novel has a silly rationale behind it (they're not all about saving the world and/or freedom), somehow when the gents decide to pull off a heist simply to save a friend's honor, it's considered Really Serious Business. Let the ladies attempt same,
and it's Chick Lit. If a man pens a light look at domestic doings, it's a "comic novel." Let Joanna Trollope write one, and it's an "Aga saga" (so-called after the iconic enameled cookstoves in upperclass farmhouse kitchens--the heart of the home and its female inhabitants, supposedly).

Female authors and critics have long bemoaned the fact that any woman who deals with matters domestic risks being shunted straight into the "women's literature" bin, but at least that unhelpful phrase is not downright snide.

Yes, I wrote "snide." Please don't try and convince me that the word "chick" is anything other than derogatory to women. What is the male equivalent? Girls = Boys, Guys = Gals, Ladies = Gentlemen...what is the opposite of "chicks?" There isn't one, and I'll tell you why:
"Chicks" isn't simply a gender designation--it's an infantilization. A "chick" is an immature chicken--neither hen nor rooster nor good plain offspring. This is borne out by that arbiter of etymology the OED itself, which cites the first use of "chick" for "woman" in 1927's "Elmer Gantry" by Sinclair Lewis: "He didn't want to marry this brainless little fluffy chick."

"Brainless," "little," and "fluffy"--just a few of the adjectival reasons that women object to the term "chick" as signifier. What are the equivalent terms for men? "Dude?" "Bro?" While many men would laughingly claim they wouldn't mind being called either, there's no "Dude Lit" section in your local bookstore, no doubt because those men laughing would be embarrassed to be seen shopping in that section.

Yes, there's a certain kind of book that tends to appeal mostly to women, just as there's a certain kind of book (W.E.B. Griffin, anyone?) that tends to appeal mostly to men. So why deem it "chick lit?" We don't have a special term for the books that appeal primarily to men, so why do we need one for books that appeal primarily to women? Can't we just know them when we see them?

Maybe it's for a simple reason. Those who would cling to "chick lit" as an appellation might be rightfully afraid that putting those books on shelves based solely on merit might result in those shelves being quickly picked clean and restocked, while some others might not sell as well. After all, women hold up "half the sky" as an African proverb states--and account for well over half of the modern book-buying public.

Let's get rid of "chick lit." It's good for women--and it could be good for publishing, too