Still, the kind of women’s fiction that was lumped under the catch-all “chick lit” in the late ’90s/early ’00s was not what I expected. Because of the disdainful way the term has generally been uttered in recent memory, I assumed it was meant to connote a pretty particular thing: Lite stories about women looking for true love in the big city, usually with pink covers involving some kind of high heel (which is not to say that some of those books aren’t great, just that they’re the kind of books that critics look down on). But in fact, writers whom I’ve always considered highbrow, or at least middlebrow—Lucinda Rosenfeld (whose fiction has appeared in the New Yorker, for chrissakes), Kate Christensen, Amy Sohn, Tama Janowitz—all of these women were called chick-lit authors during that time period.
The more I learned and thought about the term chick lit, the less it bothered me. The shorthand seemed to mean “any book written by a woman” rather than “total junk not worth the paper it’s printed on.” What’s more, publishers tend to market a book as women’s fiction so that they can really sell it: Some stats show that fiction readers are somewhere between 75 and 80 percent female, and certainly the recent dominance of romance novel juggernaut Fifty Shades of Grey confirms that women are generally the ones buying novels in droves.
A potentially big audience and a marketing niche—so why did I blanch? Maybe because I knew that publishing a novel deemed “chick lit” would automatically put it into a box for book critics—whose praise (or at least attention) is admittedly something an author wants. . Book reviews in newspapers and magazines are on the decline, so books of all genres are fighting for an increasingly small amount of critical space. Particularly since this is my first novel, any mainstream media reviews would help tremendously.
To be clear, I don’t expect my book to garner anywhere near Franzen-level attention—we’re not in the same stratosphere. But, to compare apples to apples, why, for instance, was a series like Twilight so much more critically derided than Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy? Both sets are huge best-sellers, and both are horribly written (unless you like elaborate, repetitive descriptions of sandwiches). But Larsson’s were never painted as embarrassing, pathetic props for bored housewives (or their husbands). Larsson’s weren’t sneered at by the critical class the way that popular books in women specific genres tend to be.*
I guess the point is that I’m not ashamed to have written chick-lit. I’m nervous about what that means for the book’s reception. But if genres where women tend to cluster are looked down upon, the best thing I can do as a new female novelist is to be proud of the company I’m in.
Back to Eugenides’ interview with Salon, in which he seems to be making the argument that writers like Picoult and Weiner are asking for too much by requesting that women’s genre fiction be treated as remotely worthy by critics. One thing he doesn’t appear to consider: If chick lit is speaking to the experiences of over three quarters of the market, maybe the balance isn’t quite right yet.
Correction, Oct. 11, 2012: This article originally misspelled Stieg Larsson’s first name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)