THE BLOG
08/08/2013 05:00 pm ET Updated Oct 08, 2013

Do We Know 'Chick Lit' When We See It?

What makes a book "chick lit" as opposed to literary fiction? This question is, in reality, not difficult to answer -- at least for any thoughtful reader who enjoys a variety of fiction -- but it continues to surface. And to be answered, ineptly and evasively, most recently by Salon's Daniel D'Addario.

This debate often centers on the problematic treatment of women in the book industry, and D'Addario nods to this by referencing writers, such as Jodi Picoult, who have deplored the chick lit category as a construct that keeps women writers outside of the critical mainstream. D'Addario's piece, however, takes a step back from the question of sexism to simply ask: Why is chick lit different from other books about dating? The assumption implicit in this question being that the girly topic alone (ew, girl stuff!) serves to categorize all these books together; any attempt to differentiate between Adelle Waldman's widely acclaimed debut, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. and Sophie Kinsella's latest confection is immediately questionable because, well, they're both about dating. How different can they really be? Authors, publishers and reviewers are asked to justify such a differentiation, and their explanations are cast aside as inadequate, perhaps because they aren't as simple as identifying the primary topic of a book (for example, dating) and categorizing it thusly:

So what makes these books -- both smart, witty novels, to be sure -- worthy of comparisons to Roth, Austen and Updike, while other books with similar boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl themes and similar settings (chic Manhattan book parties, San Francisco tech soirées) get dismissed as genre fiction or chick lit?

Perhaps because these other books are not smart or witty? Or perhaps because while they share themes (romance) and settings (chic soirées), they do not share a high level of writing quality; a willingness to experiment with style even at the risk of alienating the casual reader; an unflinchingly honest, insightful eye toward the unpleasantness of reality; a deep dedication to creating complex, conflicted, deeply human characters and showing their growth or decay over the course of the novel?

Commercial fiction serves an important function in the literary world. Consumers crave escapist books that will entertain, amuse and read easily and quickly. Even the most snobbish reader will on occasion take a Danielle Steel paperback to the beach. Many commercial fiction writers are talented and deserve success in their field -- success that appropriately comes with hefty book advances and royalties. But their aims differ from those of literary fiction authors, who provide fiction that is stylistically and thematically ambitious, challenging to the reader and often darker and more honest about the human condition. These books are not suited for the purpose of pure escapist entertainment; they are designed to explore thorny issues, prompt readers to rethink assumptions about the world and even themselves, expand readers' minds through the effort of piecing together layered meanings or decoding dense writing. They may be difficult to read, emotionally as well as intellectually, but their rewards to the reader should far surpass mere momentary pleasure.

Of course, a number of these explanations are proffered to D'Addario by industry types he interviews, but he remains unconvinced (he summarizes, dismissively: "So literary fiction is literary because you know it when you see it"). But if you're unwilling to accept that fiction might be separated by whether it aspires to entertain without challenging or whether it aspires to innovate and stimulate, you might not want to venture into the arena of categorizing fiction at all. It's absurdly reductive to insist that complex works like novels should be categorizable by a single criterion, let alone one that is apparent without reading the book. Scanning the blurb and finding that it's about dating, apparently, should be enough.

D'Addario's piece leans heavily on the complaints of Jennifer Weiner, the well-known "chick lit" novelist who periodically makes headlines by decrying the unequal treatment of women in publishing. Weiner argues that the differences between books such as hers and literary books reviewed in the New York Review of Books are illusory, a creation of marketing rather than a reflection of the books' qualities. Surprisingly, it's Weiner who most clearly reveals the true divide between commercial chick lit and serious fiction, even as she's trying to break down the wall between them:

Weiner was surprised -- on behalf of Waldman's publisher -- by the "Nathaniel P." author's remark about not wanting the sort of readers who want likable characters. "I can't imagine someone's publisher jumping for joy," she said. "You should be saying 'You'll laugh! You'll cry! You'll remember being single!'"

Neither Weiner nor D'Addario really addresses why Waldman should be selling her novel this way. The insinuation is that Waldman should be aiming to attract readers who want unadulterated entertainment via a plucky, relatable character who triumphs over some obstacles to find a relatable, satisfying conclusion. Waldman is identifying another market: readers who crave challenging prose and seriously flawed, not always relatable, characters. Weiner, on the other hand, doesn't seem to appreciate that there are various classes of readers who are looking for different qualities in their fiction. Not every book buyer wants to hear "You'll laugh! You'll cry! You'll remember being single!" But every chick lit buyer probably does. Maybe that, more than anything, sums up the real distinction between the two.

As a feminist, I am in agreement that the book world has a largely unacknowledged "woman problem." And I don't wish to cast writers like Weiner or Jodi Picoult as unworthy of the task of calling out industry sexism; they are undoubtedly talented and successful writers, and the issue deserves the spotlight such well-known figures can shine on it. However, in questioning why chick lit criticism is missing from serious literary publications, or why literary fiction authors don't feature high heels in their cover art, they undermine the cause. We can certainly argue that more serious fiction by women should be reviewed, and there is plenty of it ready and waiting for a close-up, but why clamor for more high-brow reviews of chick lit when male-driven commercial genres, such as military thrillers, are also largely absent from these review pages? And why should female literary writers trade in highly gendered marketing and packaging from which male literary writers are free?

The insistence on taking women's commercial fiction more seriously has come to dominate the war against sexism in the industry, a symptom of the constant failure of the literary world to address the real challenges and damning odds that face women writers. Adelle Waldman is actually a heartening example of a female literary novelist whose book about dating is taken as seriously as a literary novel by a man about dating; while commercial chick lit is a real thing, and can even be written by men (ahem, Nicholas Sparks), there is, as Weiner suggests, a temptation in the industry to package a romance-themed literary novel by a woman as softer, more rom-commy, in order to attract readers, when the same book, if written by a man, would have been marketed as purely literary. (See the cover-flipping movement.) Fiction by women is far less likely to be reviewed in major publications, as tracked by VIDA, despite their turning out so much of it. Troublingly, women authors of books that seem equally appealing to both genders, such as JK Rowling, are still frequently encouraged to elide their femaleness in order to pump up their sales (though it certainly hasn't seemed to hold back Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games). Weiner and her allies should continue agitating to see more women reviewed and treated as serious writers.

But playing dumb about the very meaningful differences between commercial fiction and literary fiction only distracts from this debate. The distinction between them charts a continuum rather than two homogenous and firmly separate categories; Jonathan Franzen's Freedom is far closer to commercial fiction than, say, Don Delillo's Americana, while Patricia Highsmith was known for infusing her crime thrillers with a literary ambition you won't find in Patricia Cornwell. But the fluidity of this distinction doesn't mean there is none. And perhaps we should be focusing less on whether chick lit should be reviewed in the New York Review of Books and more on whether truly artful books by women are receiving their share of the accolades and review spots now disproportionately dominated by men. It may mean continuing to leave Weiner's new novels out of the reviews section of the New Yorker, but it might open up a world of critical attention toward more artistically innovative women writers. It would be about time.