The Chick Lit Challenge

If Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway arrived on the literary scene today, she would probably own a cute bag from Prada, a totally to-die-for SoHo loft, and a string-bean cell phone on which she negotiated her topsy-turvy love life.

Well, maybe not. But many people are still worried about the influence of the popular genre of fiction known as "chick lit." You know, those ubiquitous novels with pastel-colored dust jackets bearing whimsically retro images of cocktail glasses, trendy purses, and spiky heels. With titles like Running in Heels: A Novel, Shopaholic Ties the Knot, and Thirty Nothing, chick lit relays breezy tales of spunky professional urban women worrying about their bosses, their weight, their boyfriends, and their Jimmy Choo shoes. The genre is wildly successful -- and that, oddly enough, is the problem.

Originating in the mid-1990s with the publication of well-received books like Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary and Melissa Bank's The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, chick lit was dismissed by many critics as a flash in the pan. But today the genre stands as a lucrative niche in an otherwise struggling fiction industry. "The mega authors -- John Grisham, Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy -- all have had a fall-off in sales," Sessalee Hensley, fiction buyer for Barnes & Noble, told ABCNEWS.com's Heather Cabot. "But the chick lit is growing, and growing exponentially."

Several publishing houses like Pocket Books, Kensington and Harlequin have jumped onto the gravy train, launching imprints that churn out only chick lit.

Score one for the ladies, right? Not exactly. It seems that many observers are up in arms about what they perceive to be antifeminist pabulum. "Many of these titles really are trash: trash that imitates other, better books that could have ushered in a new wave of smart, postfeminist writing, and trash that threatens to flood the market in women's reading," writes Anna Weinberg in recently defunct Book magazine. Weinberg, who contends that early chick lit, like Bridget Jones's Diary, "navigated the perilous terrain of the modern woman's psyche with sassy aplomb," is not fond of the lesser books that chick lit's popularity has bred. More significantly, she worries that anything "written by, read by, and marketed to young women" will be dismissed as mere chick lit.

"So what would happen if a young woman did write a sharp, brilliant new novel -- a portrait of the artist as a young woman in the city?" Weinberg asks. "Its publishers would wrap it in pink, slap a martini glass on the cover, and get Anna Maxted to blurb it." Jenny Colgan, author of Amanda's Wedding, agrees. "Everyone, no matter what they're writing about -- be it dysfunctional families, anorexia, death, or other serious issues -- is being thrown into one big hole marked 'chick lit' and written off," she told The Guardian. "Chick lit is a deliberately condescending term they use to rubbish us all. If they called it slut lit it couldn't be more insulting."

But, as author Hanne Blank pointed out in the Baltimore-based weekly City Paper, we're not talking about the Great American Novel here. "Our entertainment reading choices, by and large, are not precisely gems of deathless prose, world-changing philosophical tours de force, or breathtakingly unpredictable in their characterizations or narratives," Blank writes. "The chick lit juggernaut of consumerist husband-hunting femme stereotypes is no less a pastiche (and in many ways no less a parody) of culture's directives to women than, say, Tom Clancy or Dean Koontz novels are . . . of the cultural directives aimed at men."

So, is the critical uproar over chick lit over the top? Could be. After all, who says that trashy beach reads can't coexist with smart postfeminist books? (One of the points of third-wave, "lipstick" feminism, is exactly that -- that women don't have to be one kind of human being, with one kind of pleasure, all the time.) Even within so-called chick lit, there is variety in quality and subject matter (witness new branches like "mommy lit" and "Latina lit"), and it is hard to make generalizations -- another lesson of modern feminism.

Most chick lit isn't out to change the world anyway, only to reflect a part of it. And, as Helen Fielding, the grande dame of chick lit, pointed out in 1998: "If we can't laugh at ourselves without having a panic attack over what it says about women, we haven't got very far with our equality."

So until the novels of Jhumpa Lahiri or Margaret Atwood or Annie Proulx start being marketed with pumps, purses and martinis on their Easter-egg-colored dust jackets, why worry about it? There's no rule that says we can't have our Woolf and our Fielding too. (Mrs. Dalloway and Bridget Jones would have got along swimmingly.)

And maybe we can do even better than that. Hanne Blank thinks that chick lit can and should be improved. "The solution to bad chick lit isn't to get rid of chick lit, it's making the effort to produce a chick lit that's more nutritious, more interesting." After all, there's more than a little of the chick lit spirit in the novel-of-manners tradition that produced Jane Austen -- and who's to say that this thriving genre won't produce a modern-day Austen who can turn Prada, martinis, and the quest for Mr. Right into literary gold?

Reprinted with permission from Utne magazine (March/April 2004). To subscribe, visit www.utne.com.

Anjula Razdan is a senior editor at Utne.

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