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.”
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.)