Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Is chick lit itself bad – or just the term?

A couple of weeks ago, the Guardian launched a debate on its blog pages about ‘chick lit’, with author DJ Connell blasting the derogatory way in which that tag is often employed.

The day after, Michele Gorman responded with a defence of women’s light fiction.

And then, a few days ago, Still Learning asked for my opinion of US author Jonathan Franzen. Now I didn’t know anything Franzen, so I did a quick bit of research – and a related question came up.

It appears that Franzen’s 2001 novel, The Corrections, was selected for Oprah Winfrey’s book club, but after initially being favourable to his book’s inclusion, the writer later asked for it to be removed.

He explained: “So much of reading is sustained in this country, I think, by the fact that women read while men are off golfing or watching football on TV or playing with their flight simulator or whatever. I worry – I’m sorry that it’s, uh – I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience and I’ve heard more than one reader in signing lines now at bookstores say: ‘If I hadn’t heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women. I would never touch it.’ Those are male readers speaking. I see this as my book, my creation.”

Now, setting aside the fact that Connell doesn’t apparently understand the history of feminism – she claims that it only began during or after the 1960s: “the pre-feminist, satin sheet and jacuzzi 60s” – and setting aside the ridiculous boast that she doesn’t have a handbag (have we really not yet got over the idea that you can’t like handbags/wear lipstick and be a feminist?), she raises a serious and interesting question.

Why is so much female endeavour derided?

It’s not just books. In comedy, for instance, female comics are often dismissed on the grounds that their routines are about pregnancy and periods. Well yes – those are big parts of the female experience of life that their main audience will recognise.

But the point is that women are judged differently: men’s comedy is not similarly treated because most male comics deal with male experience.

Non-literary books that are aimed at a male audience are not derided in a similar way – whether that’s within genre fiction that is considered to largely appeal to a male audience (war fiction and sci-fi, for instance, together with the sort of non-fiction books by ex-SAS soldiers, recounting their adventures).

Or perhaps the point is that such gender-based judgments are applied when popular forms of entertainment are being considered. Generally, it’s not the sort of criticism that you’d expect to see applied to women’s literary efforts.

But beyond the rarified realms of literature, popular culture has been dominated by men, leaving a template of male tastes and attitudes; and a suggestion that the male approach to life is the only legitimate one.

Of course the thing with popular culture is that it attracts far bigger audiences than high-brow culture. So when such an attitude reveals itself in the popular realm, it suggests that the attitude that women's light entertainment is not as good as that for and by men is widespread.

What is perhaps oddest of all is the idea that all people, irrespective of any difference, should all like the same things. And it seems equally peculiar that anyone would expect that men and women to enjoy the same light fiction or comedy or TV programmes etc.

Let’s start from a point of saying that there’s nothing wrong with light fiction.

But unless we seriously think that there are no differences between men and women, then why would we imagine that, by and large, those two audiences wouldn’t like entertainments that reflect their own experiences or interests or fantasies/dreams?

I have no problem, for instance, with men enjoying male comics. What I find irritating is the apparent assumption that female comics can be discounted by men because they don’t ‘speak to’ a male audience. Well why should they – any more than male comics should ‘speak to’ a female audience?

It works the other way too, of course. Some months ago, a female colleague suggested that I should read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – simply because “it has a really strong female character”. I don’t pick the books that I read on such a spurious basis.

It seems that, for all that we have made vast strides forward on equality, there are still people who want, for a variety of reasons, to pigeonhole women: men who scoff at what entertains many women; women who do the same, because it deals with romance and shoes and handbags etc – the things that they do not believe any proper, grow-up woman should invest a moment’s thought on.

I have sympathy with Franzen’s view, and it illustrates again how groups pigeonhole themselves: ‘I’m not reading that, it’s a women’s book: it must be a women’s book because it’s been on Oprah’.

Why scoff at light entertainment in general? Don’t make pretentions for it either, but it has a place. It’s be a bloody drab world if we were only allowed to read ‘proper’ novels or watch ‘proper’ films or listen to ‘proper’ music – our entertainment always selected for its level of high-browness.

Personally, I’d only take issue if popular entertainment threatens to wipe out anything else (and here we’re back with that pet little gripe of mine about the death of independent bookshops and the prevalence of the chains that concentrate on the mainstream and the light to the exclusion of pretty much anything else.

As a very slight aside, I have a test for a bookshop. I go and check out its history section, and if those shelves are weighed down by Hitler porn and pretty much nothing else, then it’s probable that the shop in general isn’t going to prove much fun for me.

But back to the issue at hand: if some women want to read light fiction, then let them. It doesn’t need to be derided any more than the light fiction that men read should be derided as such – and that applies as much to male as to female ‘commentators’.


  1. This was another particularly interesting blog post for me to read, Syb. As you know, I was around for both the fifties and the sixties, and I have read both "The Corrections" and "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo". As with the fifties and the sixties, I enjoyed one of them more than the other.

    I intend to read both of Larsson's subsequent novels, but I probably won't read either of them twice, which I did with Franzen's "Corrections". Franzen has a new book out and I'm certainly looking forward to reading this much more than I am to reading the Stieg Larsson books. I do not read what I suspect is referred to by others as 'chick lit'. It doesn't tempt me in the least and I don't agree with reviewers who claim that Franzen fits into that category.

    I found a link to Jonathan Franzen's new book, which I post over in Hell.