Tuesday, 6 March 2012

What is "chick lit" anyway?

Jane Green, Kerry Greenwood, Maggie Alderson, Jackie Collins, Sophie Kinsella, Jessica Rudd, Marian Keyes, Georgette Heyer, Cathy Kelly...

That's just a selection of authors mentioned by commenters to Natalia Jastrzab's Chick Lit post on MamaMia.com.au yesterday.  I don't know that I'd put Greenwood, Collins or Heyer in the "chick lit" category, anyway, although I'm sure they have certain claims to the genre title.  (Personally, I'd put Greenwood in crime, Collins in romance and Heyer in either romance or crime depending on which she was writing.)

My own post from Saturday, "A quick post on genre titles" has garnered some conversation.  It was actually a post written rapidly on my telephone while we were out shopping, and as I thought about what it is we call the sort of books Anita Heiss writes.  You see, I've always said that Anita Heiss writes the only "chick lit" I've ever really enjoyed, and certainly the authors that were named in the Mamamia post are not authors I tend to read (although Jess Rudd's two books are TOTALLY on my to-read list.  On the other hand, I overdosed on Marian Keyes back when I was avoiding my honors thesis and now refuse to touch her work with a very large bargepole).

So, how do I define 'chick lit'?

The thing is, I'm not sure I define it at all.  When I look at my Goodreads shelves, I have the following 'sub' shelves relating directly to fiction:
  • Australian
  • Children's
  • Crime
  • Fantasy
  • Girlsown
  • Historical
  • Middle Grades
  • Religious
  • Sci-fi
  • Sexualities
  • Short stories
  • Steampunk
  • Young Adult
The only other purely fiction-related shelf I have is 'trashy trashy romance'.  ('Graphic novel' is mostly fiction, but some non-fiction.)  So "chick lit" hasn't been a category that I've personally wanted to use in classifying my reading.  (For the record, and all of the above are non-exclusive categories, YA "wins" with 86 titles, while Historical is at 81.  Australian and Children's also beat 'Trashy Trashy Romance'.  Total on the 'Fiction' shelf is 229, and mostly books don't get any of these labels until I've read them.)

I took a tour of the library shelves today in an attempt to sort out how I define chick lit. Elizabeth Berg - no. Alexandra Potter - probably. Sandra Brown - no. Jodi Picoult - no. Judy Nunn, Di Morrissey, Fiona McGregor - no, no and no. As for the yesses... Linda Francis Lee, Christine Jones, the usual suspects of Alderson, Green, Kinsella and Keyes, of course... Fiona Walker, I suppose.  When I think about it, for me it's all about the cover. There's a post on Dianne Blacklock's blog that shows the progression of cover designs for one of her books. It transitions nicely from pure chick lit to something that for me, isn't chick lit. Chick lit is brash colours, big print, and slightly cartoon-like pictures of women rather than photographs. Not-chick-lit is photographs, soft colours, and the sort of covers I now expect to see on a Jodi Picoult novel.  Now obviously this doesn't entirely work: if it did, I'd put Janet Evanovich in Chick Lit rather than Crime.  I don't particularly like the description of "women's fiction", (no one ever talks about "men's fiction"), but I tend to view chick lit as a subset of what might be termed 'women's fiction', along with romance, Mills and Boon (which is another whole subset of its own in my mind) and family saga.

And then I got to thinking about the point that there's no such thing as 'men's fiction' - and there isn't.  There's Thriller and Mystery and Western and Sci-Fi - and it made me wonder whether the problem of 'chick lit' and romance is more along the lines of the difference between Governor and Governess; between the image you get in your head of a male secretary (Sir Humphrey Appleby, permenant secretary) and a female secretary (Peggy Olson of Mad Men).  No matter what you call it, somehow the feminine version of the word will never sound as right or as powerful as the masculine version. We really are very well conditioned by society.

So maybe something like Juliet Madison's suggestion of "life lit" is what we need (except that the characters in these books never seem to lead lives that I recognise - they all have way more money than me for a start!).  Does "life lit" cover Rebecca Shaw as well as Jessica Rudd and Anita Heiss? 

I think I've only just begun my thinking processes about this genre labels thing.  When I have the time at work (which won't be until AFTER this week's International Women's Day/Stella Prize panel extravaganza that is now only - eek! - two days away), I think I'll go through some shelves and mentally assign genres to *everything*, and see how that pans out.

I think I just created a blog series.  Ooops?

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