A week ago, Salon.com published an interview with the novelist Jeffrey Eugenides titled, “Jeffrey Eugenides: I don’t know why Jodi Picoult is belly-aching.” Eugenides was asked a question about gender bias in the publishing world (a topic about which Picoult, along with other novelists like Jennifer Weiner, Lionel Shriver, and Meg Wolitzer, have been very vocal) and his response was mostly dismissive:
I didn’t really know why Jodi Picoult is complaining. She’s a huge best-seller and everyone reads her books, and she doesn’t seem starved for attention, in my mind — so I was surprised that she would be the one belly-aching. There’s plenty of extremely worthy novelists who are getting very little attention. I think they have more right to complain. And it usually has nothing to do with their gender, but just the marketplace.
Picoult and Weiner responded to Eugenides with considerable, understandable annoyance. “Belly-aching? Nope. Pointing out disparity between male and female review attn. I'm lucky; many wmn writers are not,” Picoult tweeted. This revived a 2010 discussion about gender bias in publishing termed “Franzenfreude,” which rose up around the massive, adulating attention that Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom received (for a refresher on the original dustup, see Slate’s coverage here).
NPR’s Linda Holmes has the definitive post on Eugenides’ flippant interview. It’s a truly brilliant parsing, and you should read the whole thing, but I’d like to focus on one of the many smart points that Holmes makes, which is that there are actually two separate issues lumped into these gender bias discussions. One is that men and women who write literary fiction are treated differently by critics and in the publishing world. The second is that in the universe of commercial fiction, genres that are written by and primarily appeal to women (chick lit, romance) are taken much less seriously than genres more geared towards men (thrillers, sci-fi).
As someone who has just published a novel that could reasonably be called chick lit, it’s this second beef—genre discrimination—that most intrigues me. When I first sold Sad Desk Salad (a novel about a young female blogger who works at a women’s website and is faced with a disturbing ethical quandary) a friend and colleague (ok, it was Hanna) described it as “chick lit.” And I was mildly irked.
But why? I am proud to have written a book of commercial fiction that is about a young woman and will probably find its audience among other women. It’s that term, chick lit—I’d only really heard it uttered with a barely stifled sneer.
This specific form of codified condescension is somewhat new. If you look back at the brief history of the term “chick lit,” you’ll find that it was barely used before the late ’90s. I checked both Google engrams and Nexis and there were hardly any citations before 1990. In the early ’90s, a Princeton class called “female literary tradition” was referred to as chick lit, there was an experimental literary journal that received NEA funding (and Republican opprobrium) called Chick Lit, and Maureen Dowd’s political columns in the Times were dismissed as the dreaded CL.
It wasn’t until the publication of Helen Fielding’s tremendously fun (and massively successful) Bridget Jones’s Diary in 1996 that the term started being used more widely to describe women’s fiction. The Scotsman defined chick lit as “sassy, sexy writing by young post-feminist babes.”