Stop calling it chick lit!

“Here’s an idea,” Linda Holmes says in an op-ed piece on NPR. “If you’re going to try to report on the fact that a couple of women who write books have tried to start a discussions of whether the mega-response to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is symptomatic of a too-narrow view of interesting fiction, it might be a good idea to stay away from the formless and dismissive term ‘chick lit’ in discussing them.” As she says, all too often womens’ books about family and relationship are dismissed as “chick lit.” But men who write novels about the same kinds of subjects are accorded much more respect.

The “chick lit” debate has been raging for some time now, of course. This time around it was stoked by Jodi Picoult, who — upon reading the New York Times‘ rave review of Freedom – 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.” Jennifer Weiner then joined the fray (tweeting under the hashtag “franzenfreude”); the Times responded snarkily that anyone who thought she was right “should meet in front of Jennifer’s TV during “Oprah.” (Why is that? Because women sit around in the afternoon and eat bonbons and watch Oprah?) Weiner told Huffpo, “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.”

There’s a couple of issues here. I’ve weighed in on most of them before. As far as the Times goes, Weiner and Picoult are  correct: The newspaper absolutely does have a bias towards white male authors (if you doubt this, go do some counting yourself). Look and see how many men in the last year got both daily and Sunday reviews — and then compare how many women were accorded that honor. Check the number of mentions Gary Shteyngart has gotten in the last month, and then do the same for Mona Simpson, a novelist of equal literary acclaim. (Their most recent works came out at roughly the same time this summer.) Simpson did get a profile, it’s true. Of course, it ran in the Style section, not the Arts section.

The chick lit issue is equally bothersome. 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.)

All right, everyone: Weigh in, please. Do you think there’s a bias — in the Times or elsewhere — against women writers? What do you think of the “chick lit” debate?

Comments (49 total) Add your comment
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  • Laura G.

    There is definitely a bias in the Times and pretty much everywhere else. Even in my high school and college literature courses, we pretty much exclusively read white male authors. I had to discover Harper Lee, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, and other great female authors on my own.

    Truthfully I have seen the hype for Jonathan Franzen everywhere and I really don’t understand it. I read The Corrections and thought it was a subpar novel. Why is it “great literature.” I would much rather read one of Jennifer Weiner or Jodi Picoult’s novels any day of the week.

    I also wonder why novels written by women are called “chick lit” or “women’s fiction” while novels written by men are not classified as such. If Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte where publishing Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre today, would it be dismissively considered “Chick Lit” and not reviewed seriously. I think that may be the case . . .

    • Fridge

      I had the same experience in high school, and even college to a certain extent, with many of my lit classes. It seems like only white males are capable of producing lasting literature. It wasn’t until I tool a lit class in college that I studied a female writer in any great depth, Ann Radcliffe’s novel, The Italian. I ended up reading Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice on the side. I also think you’re right with Bronte and Austen releasing books today. I’m sure they’d be dismissed as “chick lit” and nothing more. It’s sad to see such a double standard. So many areas have progressed, why not the literary world?

      • Adam

        I agree that there is some degree of bias in the literary world against women authors, and this is a shame, because obviously there are many talented female writers whose books deserve to be read. However, when I go into a bookstore, there always seem to be a lot of books by female authors on the shelves with these breezy, cartoony pictures on the cover of women strutting around in high heels, holding shopping bags from expensive boutiques. Additionally, you see tons of light mystery novels with covers featuring cats and chocolates, or endless vampire books with some hot “paranormal” heroine alongside a hunky guy. As a result, can you really blame some people for assuming all “chick lit” falls into these cliches? Books by male athors have much more variety in their presentations, and while you can’t judge a book by its cover, the publishers are clearly feeding into negative stereotypes. If publishers can get past these cliches, perceptions may well change!

      • Laura G.

        Good point Adam!!

      • DarkLayers

        Adam, while I agree that publishers fee stereotypes, I’m not sure that the works of male fiction writers are more varied. There are women who do romance and literary (Zadie Smith, Elizabeth Sprout, A.S. Byatt). There are also women fantasy writers, YA writers, thrillers, mysteries, science fiction, etc.

        The advertising cliches of some publishers don’t necessarily capture the variety of works written by wommen.

      • Alf

        Oh my god, did you people go to college and high school in the 30s?? We read George Eliot, Jane Austin, Alice Munro, and Gertrude Stein.

        In my not too recent youth, the young writers I knew wanted to be the next Jhumpa Lahiri, not Jonathan Franzen.

        Look I like McDonald’s French fries and Swedish Fish. But they’re crap, a guilty pleasure! They’re not foie gras or toro sushi. I don’t consider this fact to be an elitist, white male conspiracy.

    • Kristen

      I had the same experience. The only woman author on the list for Honors English (20th Century Novels was the course name) was Sylvia Plath (bad reading for sensitive teenage girls). When I got older and realized that Toni Morrison and Alice Walker had been publishing for most of my life I was furious. I love Hmingway and Hesse as much as anyone but I wold trade either for Toni Morrison. BTW, is she “chick lit” or does having the Nobel prize give you a free pass?

    • Lea

      Jane Eyre was actually first published under a man’s name because of the gender bias.

  • Fridge

    I totally believe there’s a bias towards female writers. It seems like everyone expects them to write Harlequin romance novels that are full of nothing but heaving bossoms and fervrent kisses. It’s not just female writers like Jodi Picoult either. Writers like Iris Johannsen and Nora Roberts (and her writings under JD Robb) get the eye roll too whenever I tell someone I’m reading them. Both writers may put a little of the hot and steamy in their stories, but they also produce well-written stories with very interesting characters and plots. I know they aren’t considered high-brow writers, but I still find their books excellant reads. Too bad such a stigma is attached to reading their books.

    • Laura G.

      And truthfully, haven’t you read “hot and steamy” scenes in “literary” works by men? I certainly have!

      • Fridge

        Very true! But I’m sure it’s called “gritty” or some other equally macho word when a man writes it lol.

    • John

      I don’t think it’s the fact that they are female as much as it’s the fact that they are just considered pop fluff. You’d get the same reactions if you mentioned James Patterson, Dean Koontz, etc…

  • tomm

    “The newspaper absolutely does have a bias towards white male authors…”

    So much for the ‘liberal media bias’ and conspiracy.

    • Stormy

      Just wondering, are Diana Gabaldon’s works considered “chick lit” ?

  • Felicia

    I hate that term. As a movie lover, I also hate the term chick flick. Not that there aren’t plenty of shallow, just for entertainment novels of BOTH genders that trade on stereotypes and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that but there is no male equivalent of a term like chick lit that is automatically dismissive.

    • Fridge

      I really like the term d!ck-lit from the article. I might have to start using that :)

      • Kat

        And Dick Flicks! Love it!

    • Alf

      Yeah there was: Laddie. Remember laddie mags?

  • sparkle the gym bag

    get over it….stop complaining and have another bob bon and don’t forget Oprah’s last season starts soon!

  • sbwm

    NYTimes for decades has held this bias. Very frustrating for literary fans.

    • Alf

      Oh yeah Michiko is some old white guy

  • AH

    It’s not really a rejection of women writers it’s a rejection of the notion women’s experiences are important. I think it’s sympomatic of the same problem your columnist Mark Harris (I think) wrote very recently about women in movies. Yes, there are a lot of women writers but there are not a lot of venerated books about the experience of being a woman. And if it is about a light topic then it must be mocked.

    • Jen

      Absolutely. Completely. Utterly. Women’s interests and experiences are second class, frivolous things in the world of the male canon. Hell, in the world. Men get into rages about sports, and god help you if you try to tell them “it’s only a game.” Yet if I were to get that worked up over fashion or make up I would be (and have been) met with an exasperated look. “Babe, it’s MAKEUP.” I’m not saying that sports are for guys and clothes are for girls, far from it, but I do see them as equally trivial yet sports are given the same attention/level of discussion as matters of state are, when really, what is it? Men playing games with and against other men. It’s the business of men, and therefor it’s serious business. You’ll notice that meanwhile, women’s sports are laughable. The literary world is no different. A man writes about the family and a man’s struggle to support it and he’s Arthur Miller. A woman does the same with a female protagonist and it’s “chick-lit,” or desperate housewives. Where is this book? I’ve never read it. What women do in the world has nothing to do with men and is none of men’s business (unless she’s doing it with a man.) And men’s business is the business of the world. So our problems are belittled, our work laughed out and we go on being the two dimensional wife in their three dimensional world. History is written by the winners, and women are never even a part of the fight. So us and our work is written out of existence.

  • Lucy

    The NPR article is great, and the Jonathan Tropper example is dead on. The guy can write and has a great sense of humor, but all of his novels operate around the same basic premise: schlubby but charming Seth Rogen type of guy angsts about whatever while gorgeous women inexplicably try to have sex with him (and he goes out of his way to describe just how gorgeous they are). It’s total dick lit – exactly what one would expect to find in a typical chick lit novel, but written for dudes, and somehow considered to be art rather than trashy fun.

  • Cindy

    I can’t stand that they use the terms “chick-lit” and “chick-flick” to describe stories of interest to women. Although, Adam made a good point that publishers and distributors play into that kiddie image with the covers for books and movies – I avoid covers that feature cartoon like characters, shopping bags, etc… and I also avoid movies that are clearly the same “rom-com” crap that they have been pushing out for years. Maybe we need to come up with a forum that is just for women where we advertise and distribute the work that is of interest to us, and turn against the established system (women purchase the most books by far, and that could truly send a message). Hmmmm!

    • Tina Jordan

      Yes, but many serious writers—jodi Picoult included—have NEVER published a novel with a shoe emblazoned on the cover. I don’t buy Adam’s point at all because he’s talking specifically about genre fiction—cozies, Harlequins and the like (books that are actually shelved in different parts of the bookstore). If you stroll down the literature aisle, you will not be able to tell apart (in most cases) the sex of the author just by looking at the jacket art.

  • Koubou

    Even Nicholas Spark hates “chick lit”. Did you read the article months ago where he claims he doesn’t write it and has his own genre. Smh

  • Fred

    The work of Johnathan Franzen fits the chick lit description just as well as any female author I’ve read, he just doesn’t want to admit it. If Franzen were a female his work would not be so overrated; and studies have demonstrated that the same text gets higher ratings when the reader is told that a man is the author. The NY Times is pathetic.

    • Alf

      Ooh ooh ooh the New York Times is soooo horrible because it doesn’t agree with me! All they do is the put out the best journalistic content in the world and send reporters to Pakistan and Afghanistan and the Congo! It’s so sexist/racist/elitist that they don’t inflate my sense of self worth by reaffirming my taste in poopy books. Waa waa waa

      • Stormy

        Go back to planet Melmac, Alf.

  • Lauren

    Thank you for this. I absolutely agree.

    • Dara

      Thematically Nick Hornby and Jonathan Franzen are similar to Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner yet they get twice the respect.

      • Alf

        Uhm, how is Jonathan Franzen similar to Jodi Picoult or Jennifer Weiner? In what way?

  • Del

    Um. Would Jennifer Weiner and Jonathan Franzen ever be spoken of in the same sentence, outside of the ones written above? They are both strong writers with massively different gifts and appeal, and people who know enough to care who gets reviewed in which NYT section should already be aware of this. Maybe we need to relax a bit, is all I’m saying. Also: Jhumpa Lahiri, Sloane Crosley, Tana French, and Lorrie Moore, among other women who published in the last calendar year, prove that the lady writer tent is big enough for all comers.

    • Jan

      The gentleman writer tent must be overflowing by now.

  • mac

    as a middle aged female, 25-year p.r. bimbo and denizen of affluent suburbia, I gotta say that comparing Jodi Picoult to Jonathon Franzen is not a fair fight. It’s like comparing a soap opera to prime time. Jennifer Weiner and Nick Hornsby, a little more equal footing. Let’s compare apples to apples people.

    • katy

      TOTALLY disagree. Franzen is a self-indulgent overwriter who gets waaaay too much adulation from the media. Picoult is a successful writer because she can compose a good story inhabited by real characters and palpable situations. She’s the real storyteller among the two.

  • Tracygrrrl

    Absolutely, Tina. Just look at the reaction to the idea of reading a “romance” on your book club post. Those same people probably ADORE Nicholas Sparks, but the best romance writers write circles around him–and don’t kill their characters off with cancer at the end just to avoid being called romance writer. Same with chick lit. Any genre written primarily by women has been put down since the beginning of time, and when a white male writes the same kind of book, it’s genius.

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