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Yes, I Read Chick Lit, Dammit!

February 17, 2012

Jemima JNot to toot my own horn, but I consider myself a pretty intelligent person. I graduated magna cum laude from my undergraduate university. I received a JD from a Top 50 (at the time) law school. I read Dostoyevsky for fun. And you know what? I read Chick Lit.

Chick Lit is a genre of literature that is often dismissed as being mindless, feminine fluff. People think you can’t get a woman to read unless you put a high heel on the cover, and the book itself must be filled with tales of travel, romance and shopping. Those people have obviously never cracked open a Jennifer Weiner novel.

To be sure, there are plenty of Chick Lit novels out there that are more style than substance. I’m guilty of reading anything published by Jane Green, though her novels are formulaic and the writing is sloppy at best. But there is also plenty of smart, sassy writing to be had, if you bother to look for it.

The aforementioned Jennifer Weiner is one example. Her books feature complicated heroines grappling with everyday life issues in smart, thoughtful ways, with nary a Minolo Blahnik to be seen. But Weiner has criticized the Chick Lit label and its trappings, stating, “I think it’s a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it’s literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it’s romance, or a beach book – in short, it’s something unworthy of a serious critic’s attention.”

Chick Lit may be dismissed by critics, but the sales numbers don’t lie. While book sales are down across the board as more and more people switch to e-readers (and just stop reading in general), overall women’s fiction continues to dominate. What is it about these books that appeal to such a wide audience?

Like any good piece of literature, Chick Lit offers protagonists that readers can identify with. Whether they’re trying to break through the glass ceiling, or they’ve done so and find it lonely at the top, I believe there is a huge group of smart, successful women who want to read about other smart, successful women, fictional or not. We want to identify with their struggles, laugh at their foibles, rejoice in their successes. We want to feel as if we’re not the only people in the world struggling with our weight or getting pregnant or whether to date that cute bartender. Chick Lit offers an escape. Want to pack up and move to Europe? Lunch in Paris: A Love Story With Recipes. Cook your way through one of the most famous cookbooks of all time? Julie & Julia. Secretly wish to be a model? A Model Summer. Fall in love with a vampire and have his sparkly babies? Twilight.

Seeking escapism in a book is nothing new. What is Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones or The Da Vinci Code if not escapist fantasy? But those kinds of novels, when written by men, are imbued with a gravitas not given to female authors. Jack Kerouac writes about wanderlust and it becomes an American classic. Elizabeth Gilbert does it and the literary world wants her head on a spike.

I’ve never apologized for my love of Chick Lit, and I don’t plan to start now. And neither should you. Like any category of art, there will be the good, the bad, and everything in between. We shouldn’t apologize for liking fiction written by women for women just because the cover is pink.

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