Chick Lit and Sexism in Publishing

 
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Chick lit is “genre fiction which addresses issues of modern womanhood, often humorously and lightheartedly.” For many, however, the classification of these novels should just be “women’s fiction,” or perhaps just “fiction.” The separation of chick lit from general literature and the use of the term chick is considered demeaning by some readers and writers. Yet the genre—and the name—have a place in the current publishing field. While there are significant issues with the distinction and with the name of the genre, it is an oversimplification to label the term “bad” and to try to eliminate its use.

Chick lit as a term and as a genre rose to prominence in the 1990s with novels such as Confession of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella and Bridget Jones’ Diary by Helen Fielding. These stories of big city women making their way and finding love captured readers—and continue to do so. The third movie in the Bridget Jones’ Diary series, Bridget Jones’ Baby, was released in 2016 and grossed over $211 million worldwide. Publishers have ridden the wave of those successes, and the genre has grown.

Chick lit as a genre is a space that is almost exclusively female. The characters, readers, and writers—with the rare exception of writers like Nicholas Sparks—identify as female. Publishing has historically been a male-dominated field, but since its rise in popularity, chick lit has been written by women and for women. Additionally, the characters in chick lit face many of the trials that contemporary women face, such as dating, family expectations, relationships with friends, body image, or career problems. Since women aren’t seeing these stories reflected in general fiction, they can come to chick lit to find characters and plots that reflect their lives.

Yet chick lit as both a genre and a term is often criticized by readers, writers, and publishers. As a genre, it exists separately from general fiction or even from general women’s fiction. This separation, critics say, dismisses those titles. It indicates that those titles are somehow lesser than perhaps the books shelved in the general fiction section.

There is no comparable fiction genre for men that approaches the contemporary lives of male characters in a lighthearted or humorous way. These titles certainly exist—they’re just called fiction. For example, Jonathan Tropper’s The Book of Joe follows middle-aged, white Joe as he deals with a career slump and family issues and returns to his hometown. The novel is shelved as fiction, humor, and contemporary on Goodreads. Change Joe to Joan, and this would be a chick lit novel.

The separation stems from problems that publishing had and has with gender. For most of history, publishers and writers were all male. The first woman-founded press in America—C. M. Clark Publishing Company—began in 1900 but closed its doors in just twelve years later. Women have historically had to resort to using male pseudonyms to get published. Three Brontë sisters famously adopted male pen names to get published in the 1800s, and, more recently, J. K. Rowling published using her initials to be more marketable.

Women are more likely to read than men and they are more likely to work in publishing than men. Yet the recently released 2016 VIDA Count revealed that publishing still values male writers more than their female counterparts. For example, at The Atlantic, just 36 percent of writers represented were women. At the London Review of Books, only 22 percent of bylines were by women, 18 percent of reviewers were women, and 26 percent of the books reviewed were by women. The separation of chick lit from general fiction is emblematic of the larger problem that publishing has with work by and about women. It’s considered a subset, and therefore not worthy of being presented to all readers.

The other major criticism of chick lit is that it features a particular kind of character in a particular kind of situation. The protagonist is almost always cishet, white, urban, middle class or higher, and late twenties to mid-thirties. If publishing is biased against women in general, it is nearly inaccessible to women of color and queer women. This is especially obvious in chick lit. While there are writers of fluffy, lighthearted queer romances, those books don’t ever make it to the chick lit shelves on Goodreads or Amazon. And while some of the books on those digital shelves may feature women of color, an image of the protagonist usually doesn’t appear on the covers in fear that white women will avoid those books. The genre caters to a very specific type of reader, and the space isn’t open to those who don’t fit those parameters.

Then there is the term “chick lit” itself. The word chick is viewed as derogatory by many women. According to one source, the term dates back to 1927 and comes from the word for a baby chicken. Chicks are cute, silly, young, brainless. Accordingly, women who read chick lit are seen as vapid and frivolous, which is untrue and sexist.

Yet while the term “chick lit” may have an imperfect past and present, there are dangers to completely dropping it. Genre classifications help readers find books, and therefore help sell books. As the number of bookstores across the country continue to dwindle, discoverability has become an issue for many writers and publishers. Specific genre classifications help to deal with that.

If the term “chick lit” were to completely disappear from bookstores or book-related websites, what would it be called instead? Perhaps something like “beach reads” could make sense. It’s non-gendered, and it refers to the time of year that many readers might pick up a chick lit novel. But what about the women who read these books year-round? Readers of chick lit often tear through the novels—chick lit is their staple, go-to genre. Will they take offense that the novels they love so much have been relegated to something only worthy of a summer vacation read? The risk of alienating the dedicated readers should be one of the biggest concerns when thinking about the genre.

Not all readers may love the term chick lit—and many outright detest it—but that’s not reason enough to get rid of it entirely. The solution may not lie in the term itself, but in thinking more critically about what books get classified as chick lit. Publishers have taken advantage of the term, slotting anything by a woman that deals with modern experiences of women into the genre. This is where the sexism truly appears: the ease with which the gatekeepers of fiction denigrate something because of its author or subject material. It shouldn’t be controversial that a book written by a woman that tells the story of a woman dating, moving to big city, becoming more confident, or establishing her career is not inherently chick lit.

As more women work in publishing and become executives at major imprints and publishers and as more “shitty media men” are called out on on their sexism and exclusivity, it is hoped that the underlying sexism in genre classification will change. And this hope is not unfounded. All of the 2017 National Book Awards’ 5 Under 35 honorees were women. One of the honorees, Weike Wang, is the author of Chemistry, which, follows a contemporary twenty-something who is renegotiating her career and her relationships with her family and her boyfriend as she realizes the path she was set on might not be the one she wants. The novel is short and quite humorous. It opens with a question: “Will you marry me?”—perhaps not that long ago, Chemistry might have been placed on the shelves of chick lit. Instead, it has been written about in the major trade publications, reviewed in publications such as Kirkus, and won several awards.

The negative aspects of chick lit are symptoms of many larger cultural and publishing problems. Chick lit is not the problem itself. Getting rid of it won’t treat these issues, but it may hurt the market and hurt publishing, which is an industry that can only take so many blows right now. It’s unrealistic to expect chick lit to go anywhere or to expect chick lit readers to follow a name change. Instead, the problems of chick lit need to be addressed by publishers by making the space more inclusive and thinking seriously about which novels should actually be shelved there.