I love to read; I’m an obsessive bibliophile. I began working part-time at a bookstore 5 years ago for the obligatory discount to feed my addiction of nearly 400 books jammed into my tiny apartment. Now, I readily admit that I’m a bit of a book snob. No “chick lit” for me, many with shopping bags, shoes, wedding rings or baby rattles plastered on their pastel covers. But god how that term makes me cringe. Who was the asshat who created that melodious moniker? Oh, that would be feminist novelist Cris Mazza. Seriously, I think I threw up a little in my mouth.
An interesting gender feud, labeled “Franzenfreude,” has been brewing between chick lit labeled novelists Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner and author Jonathan Franzen. Picoult and Weiner shared their frustrations on Twitter that Franzen, whose book Freedom was just released this past Tuesday, graced the cover of Time and received two book reviews by The New York Times in one week, while many women and non-white authors don’t receive even one review. Picoult and Weiner lament that female authors do not receive the same level of recognition as men do, even when they write about similar topics. And they’re both right, they don’t. Picoult sparked the debate when she tweeted,
“NYT raved about Franzen’s new book. Is anyone shocked? Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren’t white male literary darlings.”
Picoult and Weiner are right; The New York Times is biased towards male writers. Slate studied their book reviews and “compared men to women and then highlighted the authors whose books had been singled out for the one-two punch of a weekday review and a review in the Sunday Times Book Review.” Their results:
Of the 545 books reviewed between June 29, 2008 and Aug. 27, 2010:
—338 were written by men (62 percent of the total)
—207 were written by women (38 percent of the total)
Of the 101 books that received two reviews in that period:
—72 were written by men (71 percent)
—29 were written by women (29 percent)
Part of the problem is that many critics deem women’s fiction frivolous chick lit. The term is offensive; it debases women. But what exactly is it? Chick lit encompasses “female writers of fiction, which all deal with the issues of modern women humorously and lightheartedly.” When men write about a stereotypically chick lit topic such as relationships or broken families, it’s viewed as hilarious or perceptive. When a woman writes the same, it’s dismissed as fluff. Weiner told The Huffington Post,
“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…I don’t write literary fiction – I write books that are entertaining, but are also, I hope, well-constructed and thoughtful and funny and have things to say about men and women and families and children and life in America today. Do I think I should be getting all of the attention that Jonathan “Genius” Franzen gets? Nope. Would I like to be taken at least as seriously as a Jonathan Tropper or a Nick Hornby? Absolutely.”
Elanie Showalter, feminist critic and author of A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx, echoes that sentiment in The Guardian:
“ ‘Writers can write about anything they want, any sex they want, any place they want,’ Annie Proulx has declared. But being free to write doesn’t mean that American women are equal in a literary marketplace still dominated by male precedents, male literary juries and male standards of greatness.”
Female writers like Margaret Atwood, Jhumpa Lahiri, Sarah Hall, Toni Morrison and Kate Atkinson are not considered chick lit. So it’s not just that all women writers are tossed under the umbrella of the demeaning label. The female novelists who write about women shopping and husband hunting certainly fit that category. But then the boundaries begin to blur. People call the books The Devil Wears Prada and The Nanny Diaries (which I really enjoyed) escapist chick lit, despite their perceptive commentaries on women’s roles at work, gender and career ambitions. Beyond gender, there’s also bias between commercial and literary fiction.
One component of chick lit is humor. But Atwood and Atkinson both write scathingly funny novels (Atkinson is one of the few authors that has actually made me belly laugh out loud). Reviewers often call best-selling author Picoult’s work chick lit. While she may write in a melodramatic manner, she doesn’t write lighthearted books; her themes often revolving around crime, courtroom cases, children’s disabilities, spousal abuse and strained familial bonds. When you start to define what precisely chick lit is, an exorbitant number of books seem to NOT fit the confining label. Some have even considered Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters as the original chick lit writers. Self-proclaimed feminist Weiner wears the chick lit novelist crown and defends it. Back in 2005, Weiner wrote on her blog:
“…The more I think about the increasingly angry divide between ladies who write literature and chicks who write chick lit, the more it seems like a grown-up version of the smart versus pretty games of years ago; like so much jockeying for position in the cafeteria and mocking the girls who are nerdier/sluttier/stupider than you to make yourself feel more secure about your own place in the pecking order. And while we’re performing the online equivalent of pulling each other’s hair and writing mean things about each other’s work on the virtual bathroom walls, men are still getting the majority of reviews in major papers and men are still penning the majority of the pieces in The New Yorker and influential magazines.”
Tina Jordan at Entertainment Weekly denounces the chick lit label, writing,
“It’s never failed to irritate me that the smart, funny, achingly real Good in Bed should be dismissed as “chick lit,” with all its dismissive, derogatory implications. This isn’t a novel about sex and shopping. Would we demean brash, action-packed adventure novels by calling them “dick lit”? No, we would not. (Although if the “chick lit” tag persists, maybe we should.)”
Hilarious…oh how people would be up in arms if we called it “dick lit!!”
In the writing world (as in many spheres), women do not receive the same amount of attention or respect as men. As a writer (and reader), I’m so glad that both Picoult and Weiner expressed their frustrations. Yet I can’t help but wish that two other female novelists had spoken out about this. Perhaps Margaret Atwood or Jhumpa Lahiri. Although it makes sense that Picoult and Weiner, who have both graced the New York Times bestsellers list and possess throngs of devoted fans, would speak out as they are the authors absent from many literary book reviews. Does it make me a bad feminist that I’m reticent to read books labeled chick lit women’s commercial fiction? Should I be embracing all women in art? Yes and no. I support Weiner and Picoult for increasing the dialogue around sexism in the writing industry. But that doesn’t mean I must enjoy or laud every book or film simply because it was created by a female artist.
As I frequently write, women’s issues shouldn’t be confined to a merely female audience. Nor should women’s voices be scoffed at and viewed as less salient than men’s stories. I hope someday we will look past gender, reading and critiquing books based solely on merit, rather than dismissing books due to preconceived notions. Maybe I should ignore the book snob in me and pick up a copy of Weiner’s Good in Bed or Sophie Kinsella’s Confessions of a Shopaholic. Perhaps we should all listen to our mothers and indeed stop judging books by their proverbial covers.
Want to discuss sexism in the book industry in more depth, then check out my post “What Women Want: Marketing Books to Women & Revisiting the Women Writers Gender Feud.”