One-Minute Book Reviews

July 26, 2007

The Case Against the Phrase “Chick Lit,” Quote of the Day (Gloria Steinem)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:37 pm
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If we call Bridget Jones’s Diary “chick lit,” why don’t we call The Hunt for Red October “dick lit”?

Gloria Steinem has been getting a lot of attention for her recent column on Huffington Post www.huffingtonpost.com/gloria-steinem/ arguing that the term “chick lit” ghetto-izes women’s books that deal with serious issues. The many others who have made a similar point in the past few years include Jennifer Weiner, the author of Good in Bed, who observed that we don’t call men’s books “dick lit.” Here’s a quote from Steinem’s post on that theme, “A Modest Proposal”:

“Think about it: If Anna Karenina had been written by Leah Tolstoy, or The Scarlet Letter by Nancy Hawthorne, or Madame Bovary by Greta Flaubert, or A Doll’s House by Henrietta Ibsen, or The Glass Menagerie by (a female) Tennessee Williams, would they have been hailed as universal? … Indeed, as long men are taken seriously when they write about the female half of the world — and women aren’t taken seriously when writing about themselves much less about men or male affairs — the list of Great Authors will be more about power than about talent.”

Comment by Janice Harayda:
I agree with Steinem and Weiner. Why don’t we call novels by Tom Clancy or Louis L’Amour “dick lit”? The New York Times continually uses the term “chick lit,” both in the daily paper and in the Sunday book review section, though it’s hard to imagine that its editors would publish an analogous phrases about other groups.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

28 Comments »

  1. I just have to say that I love this point. I’ve never felt tempted to call any piece of writing “chick lit”—it always seemed so dismissive and pointless. The comparison to the concept of “dick lit” makes that point perfectly.

    Comment by errantdreams — July 27, 2007 @ 2:21 pm | Reply

  2. Thank you so much for ‘getting’ it (and letting me know). It’s disheartening that a publication that takes pride in its liberalism, like the New York Times, doesn’t seem to get this point at all but lets its freelancers and staff reporters use the term “chick lit” month after month. This may be a case where the readers are ahead of the paper …

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — July 27, 2007 @ 7:28 pm | Reply

  3. I’ve always called it chick lit, but the “dick lit” comparison makes me stop and think. It’s such a powerful term because it cleverly infers that men who use the term “chick lit” are being, well, “dicks.” It’s pure genius.

    It got me to thinking…

    hick lit for the lowbrow
    nick lit for Harry Potter type stuff
    quick lit for short stories
    sick lit for the horror genre
    shtick lit for comedy
    & prick lit for books by extreme right wing demagogues

    Comment by heehler — July 28, 2007 @ 1:56 pm | Reply

  4. Very amusing! You might be able to find a home for it in print. (I won’t feel offended if you pull it down because some somebody wants an exclusive.) “Shtick” lit is particularly inspired. So much comedy, even if it’s really funny, does involve a shtick. Some people say say that about Nora Ephron’s work, though it applies only to some of it.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — July 28, 2007 @ 7:30 pm | Reply

  5. [...] trying to finish my deck this weekend so I can post to Janice Haraydas Dick Lit post and provide a picture.  Did she say DECK Lit?  Or DICK Lit?  I better [...]

    Pingback by Good Morning Jesus / Origins / Rewrites / Chic Lit « Under Open Skies — July 29, 2007 @ 5:36 am | Reply

  6. i’m sorry, but in the feminist struggle, are there no more pressing issues?

    Comment by chughes — July 29, 2007 @ 1:38 pm | Reply

  7. It’s funny how in every provocative conversation, there is always the generic goof who bobs up out of the blue, not to add anything intelligent to the mix, but just to remind everyone how trivial their thoughts are.

    Comment by heehler — July 30, 2007 @ 7:48 pm | Reply

  8. ? Am I the goof? :) So, I’m not sure if you’re serious Janice. You don’t actually propose that the NY Times print ‘Dick lit’ right? Is there a negative connotation by being labeled chic lit? (honest question from a not-so-well-read reader…and man) Can a man write a chic lit novel? Can a woman write a dick lit novel? Strange questions I know, just trying to understand. One last ?…
    Do you, Janice, feel ghetto-ized when / if someone refers your novels as chic lit?

    peace,
    Phil

    Comment by P — July 31, 2007 @ 4:27 am | Reply

  9. Phil: Interesting question about whether a man could write “chick lit.” In theory, yes, but I don’t know of any who have. “Chick lit” has become an easy way for critics to dismiss novels about young, unmarried women that appeal to female readers. Critics don’t have a similar phrase for novels that appeal to men, like Clancy’s. Some of my problems with the phrase are 1) it’s a cliche; and 2) it’s evidence that we still have a double standard.

    I’m not proposing that the Times adopt “dick lit.” But I wish the paper would ban “chick lit” (and also “chick flick”). The paper allows writers to use dismissive phrases about women but not, as far as I can tell, about other groups. Can you imagine the Times allowing writers to use a phrase that many blacks, Latinos or Asians see as pejorative? I can’t.
    Jan
    Jan

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — July 31, 2007 @ 10:21 am | Reply

  10. Jan. Now that I’ve stopped calling it chick lit, there’s just one problem: What do I call books with pastel colored covers by women marketed to women for women?

    Comment by heehler — July 31, 2007 @ 12:04 pm | Reply

  11. One publishing industry term for those books is “women’s fiction.” This term covers all kinds of books by women that are sold mainly to women (from romance novels to, some would say, Anne Tyler). I don’t mind the phrase “women’s fiction” as much as “c***k l*t” because I’ve occasionally heard “men’s fiction,” though usually in relation to the kind of short stories that appear in Playboy, not books. Still wish more people thought books by women or men transcended gender, though …

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — July 31, 2007 @ 1:19 pm | Reply

  12. i was not meaning to be goof. i love women’s literature, Margaret Atwood, Amy Tan, Susan Jane Gilman, Danzy Senna, but with their fame and money, i would think Ms. Steinem and Jennifer Weiner could speak out on issues of a greater importance like women and poverty, domestic violence, etc.

    Comment by chughes — July 31, 2007 @ 11:42 pm | Reply

  13. I don’t know what Gloria Steinem considers “chick lit”; the way I see it, “chick lit” books are all those shallow ones about women who work in prestigious and fabulously chic city companies and spend all their time worrying about how to get $300 Manolo Blahniks for a fraction of the price. I don’t know if I’m naive or what, but I think if Leah Tolstoy had written “Anna Karenina”, it would still have been considered a classic. These “chick lit” books will never arise to classic status, because there is no substance to them, except for a few notable exceptions. They portray cliched, underdeveloped characters. One reads these books quickly, not because they’re page-turners, but because they have nothing to digest.

    I find these books more insulting than the term “chick lit”. They continue to perpetuate the (obviously) erroneous image of women as vain and shallow. Just like “dick lit” keeps portraying men as the macho, devil-may-care characters Tom Clancy creates. The term should definitely be eliminated; but the literature itself needs to undergo some serious reconstruction. There’s more to women than clothes and posh parties; there’s more to men than cowboys and stealth ops; there’s more to the human race than all this. Writers need to start pushing themselves to create three-dimensional characters and story lines that people can actually relate to.

    Comment by Mayra — August 1, 2007 @ 3:51 am | Reply

  14. Mayra: Don’t think you’re naive at all, and I agree that both sexes need to push themselves to create three-dimensional characters (or “rounded” ones, as E.M. Forster put it). And I see a few signs of that things that are beginning to change.

    For example, just in the past year, we’ve seen the arrival of books like Virginia Ironside’s “No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club: Diary of a 60th Year,” the journal of a 60-year-old woman who isn’t vain or shallow. And I’m glad publishers are bringing out books about a wider range of female experience. I’m not sure Ironside’s book would have gotten published — or even written — five years ago. Do you see any signs that encourage you the way that one encourages me? Thanks for your comment.
    Jan

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — August 1, 2007 @ 11:06 am | Reply

  15. “the way I see it, “chick lit” books are all those shallow ones about women who work in prestigious and fabulously chic city companies and spend all their time worrying about how to get $300 Manolo Blahniks for a fraction of the price.”

    What do you think was the setting for Anna Karenina?

    “I don’t know if I’m naive or what, but I think if Leah Tolstoy had written “Anna Karenina”, it would still have been considered a classic.”

    I don’t even know what that means. That women can write too? We already know that. And besides, every painting doesn’t have to be a Rembrandt, and every work of fiction doesn’t have to be a Tolstoy classic. Why don’t you just call what you consider to be bad fiction, well, bad fiction? Why do you have to smear all women? When you do that, ironically enough, you’re being every bit as superficial as the books you find so insulting. It’s like me referring to what I consider to be bad fiction, “Mayra lit.” That wouldn’t be right now would it?

    Comment by heehler — August 1, 2007 @ 12:07 pm | Reply

  16. Heehler, I think you seriously misunderstood me. What I meant was that if Anna Karenina had been written by a woman it would still be a classic, because good fiction has nothing to do with gender. Anna Karenina had a lot more to it that what you say. And I don’t consider all “chick lit” to be bad fiction; just like I don’t consider all bad fiction to be “chick lit”. If you thought I was smearing women, I’m sorry; I didn’t mean that at all. I’m just saying that since we’ve been seen through as “vain, careless creatures: for millenia, we need to do something more for ourselves that write books about shopping.

    And, honestly, if you read the crap I write, you would call bad fiction “Mayra lit”.

    Comment by Mayra — August 1, 2007 @ 3:17 pm | Reply

  17. “Heehler, I think you seriously misunderstood me. What I meant was that if Anna Karenina had been written by a woman it would still be a classic, because good fiction has nothing to do with gender.”

    Of course good fiction has nothing to do with gender. No reasonable person would say such a thing, and nobody here has. That’s why I don’t understand why you would even bring it up.

    “Anna Karenina had a lot more to it than what you say.”

    I said it was a Tolstoy classic, and compared it to a Rembrandt painting.

    “And I don’t consider all “chick lit” to be bad fiction;”

    “the way I see it, “chick lit” books are all those shallow ones about women who work in prestigious and fabulously chic city companies and spend all their time worrying about how to get $300 Manolo Blahniks for a fraction of the price.”

    Mayra. The fact that you are still using the term chick lit, and that you now feel there is such a thing as “good” chick lit, tells me that you just don’t get it. I’m a guy, and I figured it out. Why can’t you?

    Comment by heehler — August 1, 2007 @ 10:20 pm | Reply

  18. I brought up the gender argument because in the post Jan quoted Gloria Steinem: “Think about it: If Anna Karenina had been written by Leah Tolstoy…would they have been hailed as universal?” That’s what I was replying to.

    And the only reason I used the term “chick lit” is for clarification, so you would know what I’m talking about; you obviously don’t. I don’t know if it’s the Internet barrier or what, but we’re obviously misunderstanding each other, because I think we’re making the same points.

    Comment by Mayra — August 2, 2007 @ 2:00 am | Reply

  19. My observation here is slightly off the point of my original post. But if you’ve been following these spirited comments and want to read perhaps the definitive work on the public response to women’s fiction, pick up Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own.”

    It contains the Mother of All Comments on the subject (except perhaps for George Eliot’s famous essay, “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists”), a landmark analysis of the fate that might have befallen a sister of Shakespeare’s, whom Woolf calls “Judith Shakespeare,” had she been a writer. Steinem seems to be nodding towards “A Room of One’s Own” in her comments about “Leah Tolstoy” and “Greta Flaubert.” I don’t know of a book on the subject that’s had more influence … just pure gold.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — August 2, 2007 @ 2:04 am | Reply

  20. I agree totally with this point. However I think it stretches beyond a struggle between the sexes. I know several people who would look down their noses at a woman reading “chick lit”. That phrase evokes a huge amount of literary snobbery which I feel is totally unfounded. We all have our preferences when it comes to books, be it thriller, sci-fi…whatever. Yet those who read books that fall into the new genre of “chick lit” are seen to be somewhat lesser than those who snuggle up in bed with Tolstoy.

    I am aware that some ‘disposable novels’ cannot compare to the great books of our time, but that is not my point. My point is that by using the phrase “chick lit” we are not only fueling sexism to a certain degree, but also making those people who enjoy reading such books, feel ashamed for doing so.

    Comment by readerschoice — August 2, 2007 @ 5:15 am | Reply

  21. Outstanding point. Not only do we all have different tastes, a lot of us want to read different things at different times, the literary equivalent of a balanced diet. So what’s wrong with enjoying both “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and Peter Godwin’s wonderful new memoir of life under the Mugabe dictatorship in Zimbabwe, “When a Crocodile Eats the Sun”? By my lights, nothing. Yet I often hear people say, “I never read c***k l*t,” as though it were a moral virtue.

    I wonder if the literary snobbery doesn’t at times reflect a deeper intellectual insecurity … if some people scorn what they see as “c***k l*t” to show others (and perhaps themselves) that they are “serious readers.” And I wonder why they feel this way. Is something in our culture bringing out this trait right now?

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — August 2, 2007 @ 1:44 pm | Reply

  22. I brought up the gender argument because in the post Jan quoted Gloria Steinem: “Think about it: If Anna Karenina had been written by Leah Tolstoy…would they have been hailed as universal?” That’s what I was replying to.

    Here’s why you’re just not getting it. When Steinem made that comment, she was suggesting that because we have the term “chick lit”, it tends to marginalize fiction that would otherwise be regarded as good.

    You on the other hand, are guilty of making a distinction. You are saying that good fiction written by women is good fiction, but bad fiction written by women is “chick lit.” (you may have backed off the use of the term, but it sure sounded like you said:

    “the way I see it, “chick lit” books are all those shallow ones about women who work in prestigious and fabulously chic city companies and spend all their time worrying about how to get $300 Manolo Blahniks for a fraction of the price.”

    You can’t do that and I’ll tell you why. Many Republicans love to make the same distinction with regard to the N word. They are just fine with African Americans who happen to be well heeled and college educated, but they reserve the slur for poor uneducated African Americans. Why can’t they just call them poor blacks? Why can’t you just call it womens fiction?

    Comment by heehler — August 2, 2007 @ 3:01 pm | Reply

  23. Tom: Possibly without knowing it, you’ve brought us back to Steinem’s quote. Over the years Steinem has drawn many analogies between the situations of women and blacks, very similar to yours. Jan

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — August 2, 2007 @ 5:38 pm | Reply

  24. Like I said before, I was using the term for clarification, because I’m referring to a specific group of books that share similar characteristics like the ones I described. Nevertheless, the term itself is endlessly misleading and stigmatizing. I get it.

    What you failed to miss was the original point of my comment; that even though the term should be erased from our vocabulary, writers should push themselves to write better books, not books that limit themselves to simple, superficial storylines; I’ve read these books, and although the initial idea is good, the execution is terrible– Bottom line: you can write an amazing about shoes and fabulous parties; these should be the norm, not the exception.

    Comment by Mayra — August 2, 2007 @ 7:12 pm | Reply

  25. The term is “stigmatizing”: This could be the best one-word summary of the effects of the phrase that we’ve had in these posts. I speak on a lot of panels and am always looking for ways to sum things up in that too-brief 5-minute talk panelists usually get to give before the questions and answers; that’s a word I’ll probably “borrow.” Thank you! (Jennifer Weiner made her comment about “dick lit” on such a panel, sponsored by the Women’s National Book Association in NYC.) J

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — August 2, 2007 @ 8:19 pm | Reply

  26. What you failed to miss was the original point of my comment; that even though the term should be erased from our vocabulary, writers should push themselves to write better books, not books that limit themselves to simple, superficial storylines; I’ve read these books, and although the initial idea is good, the execution is terrible– Bottom line: you can write an amazing about shoes and fabulous parties; these should be the norm, not the exception.

    Well, at the risk of belaboring this whole thing any more than I already have, to make such a comment — that writers should write better books — within the context of a discussion on use of the term “chick lit” only serves to legitimize the term. The fact that writers should write better books has absolutely nothing to do with this discussion. I know you think you get it, but I’m sorry Mayra; I just don’t think you do.

    Comment by heehler — August 2, 2007 @ 9:50 pm | Reply

  27. Daily Kos blogger Elise had a post last year related to all of this. She quoted a comment that novelist Jennifer Egan made on NPR: “… I question the marketing of this category. The stories they are telling have no need to be announced as trivial, I mean, what was Jane Austen writing about?”

    Elise replied: “Jennifer Egan makes a brilliant point here that I hadn’t considered before, and unfortunately (for us all) she’s right. Chick Lit does announce itself as being trivial. It is ‘just a beach read’ …it’s as if women aren’t capable of reading thought-provoking yet fun novels on the beach…at least according to those doing the marketing who are announcing it as trivial.”

    The key word in all of this is “marketing.” “C***k l*t” seems to be a phrase dreamed up by publishers as a way to position books within a niche, not something that originated with women themselves (though many have gone along with the publishers).

    I can’t link directly to the post on Daily Kos http://www.dailykos.com/ but you can find the article, “Feminisms: Chick Lit” by Googling “Chick Lit” + “Daily Kos.” The post appeared on Oct. 4, 2006.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — August 3, 2007 @ 2:24 am | Reply

  28. [...] The Case Against the Phrase Chick Lit, Quote of the Day (Gloria … [...]

    Pingback by Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (Oprah's Book Club) — August 20, 2008 @ 1:06 pm | Reply


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