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Women of the Evolution: (Another) Discussion of Chick Lit

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If literary genres were a feast, chick lit would be the coconut soufflé. Dessert, anyone?

Last Chance Saloon

Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 0060086246
Author: Marian Keyes
Price: $13.95
Length: 528
Formats: Paperback
US publication date: 1999

As a lifelong bibliophile and an English degree-holder, I could be expected to have a measure of discernment when it comes to the literature I pickle my brain in. But all those classics and modern classics that were meant to broaden my mind as an adolescent have done the trick and then some: I’ve also been allowed to develop an obstinate affection for pop fiction.

The intellectual snob that lives within calls up assorted excuses to defend this preference: people need to read pop fiction now and them to rest their brain after struggling with Russian epics and the complete plays of George Bernard Shaw. They need it to provide a contrast to more worthy literature, or to provide sociological insight into the psyche of the masses. They need it to read aloud to their arty farty friends and snigger at. They need it to line the bottom of their bird cages.

One of my pop fiction indulgences is chick lit, a term that started off as a convenient umbrella to shelter a mixed genre and soon became a slur. A lot has been said damning chick lit, and a lot of the criticism is valid. Some chick lit is utter trash, most notably Weekend in Paris by Robyn Sisman, which I gave up at chapter two, so unspeakably bad was it. Bridget Jones’s Diary is not much better, although I do acknowledge it as a landmark in the genre, achieving for British chick lit the same as Candace Bushnell’s Sex in the City did for its American equivalent.

It is true that chick lit heroines have a remarkably small career radius -- fashion, publishing, fashion publishing -- and a tendency to accessorise with a gay male handbag. Also true is the point ‘Haitlin Louboutin’ makes in Eight Reasons Why Chick Lit Authors Should be Kicked Until They’re Dead, that “if aliens landed and went into a branch of Borders they would think that human beings were a species of infantile pastel-color-obsessed [sic] shoe fetishists” once they saw the covers that publishers opt to swathe chick lit in -- and insultingly believe appeals to its readers.

Yet you have to wonder about someone who writes something so funny, yet so scathing and doesn’t put their name to it; it renders the writer inflexible, closed to counter-argument and indifferent to further investigation of the ideas s/he thought were so valid that s/he wrote them in the first place. Maybe it’s because Louboutin and I simply read different examples of chick lit, but some of her/his eight reasons don’t entirely wash. For instance, Louboutin says:

“Chick lit promotes a creepily retro agenda that goes something like this: shopping is divine, a career is cool, but the only life goal of any real importance is finding a man to procreate with, a.k.a. the inevitable conclusion of the story.”

In my experience, chick lit has two stock endings, one of which runs like the one Louboutin describes (wherein the heroine combines shopping and career and man). In the other, which is just as prevalent, the heroine leaves or is left by the man in order to end her story as an enlightened being full of verve for a future life of independence. A prime example is Tara in Marian Keyes’ Last Chance Saloon, whose conversations at the end of the book are replete with comments like, “I’m not settling for any old eejit. I’d rather do without.”, “I had no freedom for so long, and I’m not ready to give it up.” and “I thought [being on my own] was the worst thing that could possibly happen, but now that the worst has happened, it’s not so bad. It’s nice, in fact.”

Louboutin continues:

“Some women who write chick lit seem to be labouring under the delusion that their product is equivalent to decent literature and that Sophie Kinsella isn’t excerpted in the New Yorker due to prejudice against non-literary fiction, rather than due to the fact that she writes complete and utter crapola. See, for example...Melissa Bank: 'I feel like having a happy ending disqualifies you from any kind of serious literary prize.' Yes, that’s what kept The Wonder Spot off the Orange Prize short list.”

A similar point I made in an old essay of my own (dug out of the archives), arguing that Bridget Jones’s Diary has easier accessibility than scholarly texts, but its limitations as a source worthy of academic attention could be summed up in two words: “chick lit”, was the only argument that scored a big fat tick from my gender studies professor. In the end, though, I stuck up for Bridget, as I stick up for chick lit now: there is always a social reason behind literary trends, otherwise they wouldn’t be trends at all.

Any of the chick lit can be read as a primary source to understanding ‘Western’ women in a post-feminist age, even if they carry themes seen as ‘anti-feminist’, and the books themselves are seen as anti-literature. There is still good writing and bad writing, of course, and what differentiates the former from the latter is impeccable structure, developed characters, and a net of symbolism and underlying themes. Most chick lit doesn’t have this; most chick lit is written for women to read on trains commuting to work, when they have head colds, it is written to encourage women to read who otherwise wouldn’t be reading, it is for fun. If literary genres were a feast, chick lit would be the coconut soufflé -- but it doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy of inclusion. In fact, it serves a contemporary purpose, and in that way is even more valid that the books that make up the meat-and-potatoes section of the menu.

The seventh of the eight reasons Louboutin lists is:

“Jane Austen is perpetually invoked as some kind of defense: 'Jane Austen was a chick lit author!' Right – she wrote formulaic, socially conservative stories about the importance of becoming a wife. Her excuse, however, is that it was THE EIGHTEEN-HUNDREDS.”

Fair point, recalling the first, second, and third waves of feminism that have rushed over the English-speaking world since then. Yet there have been many writers since "Eighteen-Hundred Austen" who have written novel after novel along the same theme of finding that one man in want of a wife. Rosamond Lehmann, who actively wrote from the 1920s to the '80s, who had, unusual for her time, a tertiary education, who hung out with the Bloomsbury set, whose first novel was critically extolled as something that Keats would have written if he’d gone into novels, and whose work has been re-released by Virago, of all publishing houses -- her books revolve around naïve, romantic women falling in love with and waiting for the attention of handsome, sometimes stupid, manly men. Sound familiar?

Even the works of Margaret Atwood, surely a non-chick lit writer if ever there was one, are concerned with women in love and out of love with men, and the endless complications of modern heterosexual relationships. Like the authors of chick lit, these celebrated female writers fix on themes that are universal to the women they know. They are all more of less versions of the bildingsroman, wherein a character survives a number of setbacks and is changed by the lessons these teach as s/he searches for her or his heart’s desire.

In Pride and Prejudice, this could be read as Elizabeth Bennet finding a husband in Mr. Darcy after evading buffoons and libertines; yet because it is a ‘literary novel’ and is replete with the qualities I mentioned earlier, it is also about Elizabeth’s personal development in overcoming her prejudice. But I can detect, without really having to look hard, a similar pattern to the life of Jane Rosenal in Melissa Banks’ The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, as she lobs herself not only from man-to-man but job-to-job, encounters alcoholism, bereavement and macho male figures that could almost be borrowed from Hemingway (who also spent a lot of his time writing about a literal hunting and fishing). Jane gets her man at the end of the The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, but only just; and it’s by self-revelation that it happens.

P. J. O’Rourke tells us to always read something that will make us look good if we die in the middle of it. It’s entertaining to think of the possibilities for the famous Last Book: anything by J. D. Salinger would be ruled out by historically negative associations, the Bible would be passé, a volume of Byron’s verse would bring to mind an ethereal Lady-of-Shallott-type of expiry, complete with white lilies and long flowing gown. How many of the books in our libraries would we not be ashamed of people discovering after we die? The world is divided by people who would display with pride, or otherwise hide and arrange to be secretly burned with them on the funeral pyre, chick lit. It seems to me that shame is unnecessary. A century from now perhaps even Sophie Kinsella will be regarded as a necessary cog in the evolution of women’s English writing.

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