Chick Lit: An Academic Approach

As part of this series on Chick Lit I did a bit of investigation and stumbled upon Mary Ryan (Post-Doc, University of Limerick whose research includes Women’s Studies, Feminism, Popular Culture and Chick Lit). Here are some highlights of a paper she wrote on:

TRIVIAL OR COMMENDABLE? : WOMEN’S WRITING, POPULAR CULTURE, AND CHICK LIT

File:Jane Austen coloured version.jpg               Helen Fielding, Alisa Connan

Aside from the much-discussed connection between Bridget Jones’s Diary and Pride and Prejudice, «from which Fielding admittedly borrowed much of her plot and many of her characters» (Ferriss, 2006: 4), we can see numerous similarities between modern chick lit novels and fiction by the likes of Austen and the Brontës, whose work included «all the romance, negotiations of society and character growth that we see in many of the popular “chick lit” novels today» (Dawson, n.d.: par. 3).

 Female writers have long experienced severe difficulty in terms of gaining recognition and respect for what they write.

Naturally, women will tend to write about different interests, experiences, and values than men will, and yet «it is the masculine values that prevail» (Woolf, 2000: 74).

George Charles Beresford - Virginia Woolf in 1902.jpg

Because of this, any piece of writing that prioritises the experiences of women has tended to be ridiculed and heavily criticized. As Virginia Woolf explained: 

This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop. (Woolf, 2000: 74) 

Chick lit is the latest genre of women’s writing to be ridiculed and criticized.

Even though we are now in the twenty-first century, it seems not much has changed in terms of the reception of women’s novels, as many of the same criticisms are used today regarding chick lit as they were in the nineteenth century in relation to the female writers of that time. For many, the phrase «chick lit» is seen as a derogatory term used to dismiss «any possible literary worth in a text which deals with the intimate life of a young urban professional single woman» (Whelehan, 2005: 213). 

One reason for chick lit’s unfair criticism may be simply because chick lit represents the connection between women’s writing and popular culture, both of which have traditionally been ridiculed, thus resulting in chick lit inevitably receiving the same treatment:

Studies are now emerging with the aim of demonstrating how such genres may have more worth and potential than is typically suggested.

In fact, chick lit writers «are beginning to take themselves more seriously, and “darker” themes are beginning to pervade the genre» (Whelehan, 2005: 208), resulting in it becoming more difficult, in terms of certain writers at least, to dismiss chick lit any longer as merely «literary junk food for (semi-) professional turn-of-the-millennium women» (Benstock, 2006: 255). 

Austen uses novels such as Northanger Abbey to plead for women writers not to turn against one another, but instead to unite against their critics. 

For more on Mary Ryan click on these links:

http://www.raco.cat/index.php/452F/article/viewFile/208081/277259

http://limerick.academia.edu/MaryRyan

http://inquire.streetmag.org/articles/13

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42 thoughts on “Chick Lit: An Academic Approach

  1. Thank you so much for this, Carol. I don’t here the term “chick lit” all that often and am more used to the term “chick flick”, which has similar derogatory overtones.
    I also find blogging doesn’t get taken all that seriously outside blogging circles, which is such a pity because it’s really helped my writing progress enormously and I’ve become an active part of a vibrant, encouraging and supportive community.

    • It’s so interesting what you say about blogging, I think that blogging has becoming synonymous with having fun. Which it is why maybe it’s not taken so seriously. Just a guess!
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I greatly appreciate it. 🙂

      • There’s different kinds of blogging. There are a lot of serious writers who are blogging but there’s also that “light” element. Most of the blogs I read are more serious. You’ve got the seekers who are wrestling with issues and are doing the equivalent to Jean-Paul Sartre in his Parisian cafes sharing ideas, debating but online. I feel like my general knowledge has expanded exponentially. It’s been fabulous. I also appreciate how you get that instant feedback in blogging whereas when I’m writing, it was just me and my computer screen and much more lonely and no feedback,

      • The instant feedback is very gratifying and also I find that in writing my blog I have a particular audience in mind and that moves me to do my best.
        We all want our writing to be read and blogging opens up that door so often closed to writers.
        Have a happy weekend, 🙂

      • Thanks Carol. It’s certainly opened up many doors to me, especially being an extroverted writer and needing the social contact but wanting to write as much as possible.
        Almost always, I find the banter back and forth intellectually stimulating and stretches me. I have all sorts reading my blog who I’d never meet in read life and I find this contact more genuine.
        I also use my blog as a reach out to people who are struggling with chronic health issues and all sorts of struggles as well as a reach in. I think people feel safe with me due to my experiences and it soon becomes apparent that I operate from the heart. This means so much to me because once you have known despair, you want to reach out to people who are in that incredibly dark place and offer to hold their hand and even lend them your torch. I think it is alot easy to do this through the bog than in real life where we all get caught up in busyness and it can be hard, even for me, to step out beyond my shell and tell even my nearest and dearest that I’m not okay. Having two worlds can be a helpful thing.

  2. Very interesting! A couple of points I noticed: first the fact that women’s writing has always been subversive and when the writer has the ‘nerve’ to share her good words, even today, a lot of artists end up crying in the corner of a closet, because of literary criticism, non-supportive family, and worst of all, other women’s negative judgements towards the writer, trying to bully her into being ladylike enough to disappear or to be seen and not heard. The other thing is that it is rather interesting and disturbing that in order for a chick lit writer to be taken serious, they have to write a dark theme, when in fact, it is the other way around. Good chick lit is like the chewing gum the name comes from, when one starts reading one, a girl wants the story to colorfully, cleverly, and cheesily, pop us out of the reality of a survivalist world, into one of colorful, limitless, self-expression. This gives the female professionals the right to be a woman and to scream out at the end of a hard day at the office, run by mean men and women who want to be men. They want to know that when they get in their hard-won, new car after work, they can turn up the radio and sing at the top of their lungs, which can be quite a great release. So, it will be great when a serious female author who keeps everything light, gets the respect she deserves, just for showing up and contributing a pleasant take on the not so pleasant daily grind of those women who work in professional work-spaces, like I did for years! Great insights in your article!

  3. This is absolutely fascinating, Carol! I’ll admit that I’m not well-schooled in women’s fiction. But even so, there is a real tradition in that genre that a lot of people may not think of when they hear ‘chic lit.’ Thanks for showing so clearly that there is a solid base for modern women’s fiction.

    • You know, Margot, crime fiction – especially the noir written by women was also not taken seriously in the 40’s and 50’s and it wasn’t until the 2000’s that there was a revival of their works, many which had been made into Hollywood movies.
      Thanks to Paretsky all that changed.
      Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  4. Great exploration of the topic. It will be interesting to see if the preconceptions about the genre change if the themes get darker (and as is alluded to in your post, many of them already are). I think about the book “The Girl on the Train.” That’s a story told through female eyes and feelings. Could that be considered ‘Chick Lit’? It’s much darker than the typical book in the genre and as such is labeled a psychological thriller. I wouldn’t mind ditching the term ‘chick lit’ entirely, but I understand it helps define a book by genre, and readers know what they’re getting. (Or do they?…)

    • I’m partially with you on ditching the term chick-lit. Who wants to be associated with a genre that has a bad reputation? But on the other hand, what would we replace it with? It’s really a sub-genre of women’s fiction and the label is handy if you’re wanting to take to the beach with you a Jodi Picault novel or a Hilary Mantel novel?

  5. I don’t really read that sub-genre, and unfortunately I think the name is part of what has put me off. I was never comfortable with being called a “chick,” so why would I want to read something called chick-lit? The trouble is that “women’s literature” is almost as bad in the sense that it implies that men wouldn’t want to read it. “Men’s literature” would be just as limiting, if the term were used. What’s telling, of course, is that it isn’t used. Men are the norm and women are “other.” Does using terms like chick-lit and women’s lit only serve to perpetuate that?

    The truth is that women’s influence potentially cuts across all genres – what women care about, their perspective, what they value – and I think it adds to the richness and the realism wherever I see it. I was surprised to find that my son the cinema major did not consider “chick flick” a derogatory term. To him it meant a film that emphasized characters and relationships (not just romantic ones) over physical action and event-driven plot lines. Of course, my son will watch just about anything once. Also, he had me for a mom.

    • Interesting perspective, Louise. I especially liked when you said this:
      Men are the norm and women are “other.” Does using terms like chick-lit and women’s lit only serve to perpetuate that?
      Only time will tell but the mood now seems to be that the term chick lit is getting more attention as a significant contribution to literature.
      Thanks for your comment and for stopping by. 🙂

  6. Carol – My compliments – this is such powerful, great post which brings valuable thoughts and history to learn and explore…Bravo!

  7. I like this, but still women are victims always because of the myths we’ve been socialized to believe about women and men. I believe that women are better than men but the myths supersede.

  8. Fantastic article, thanks for sharing it Carol. Yes, I have to chuckle when I think back to a decade or so ago when chick-lit was automatically assumed, a mindless beach read, or wasn’t given the appropriate credit due to the writer for its association with inferior or time-wasting reading. I do believe chick-lit is becoming a popular genre once again, and getting the respect it deserves.

  9. Another great post Carol that has me thinking…I wonder how romance novels (i.e.-Harlequin and such) fit in this discussion. Romance novels are all about women, feelings, and some are heavy on plot–the same characteristics of chick lit, but it seems to me that romance novels have been set aside from “chick lit.” I wonder why the delineation and if the lines are beginning to blur.

    • You bring up an interesting point, Ann. To me, chick lit has humour in it as well as self development while the Harlequin romance novels as far as I know are usually more based on the sre usually more serious. But maybe this is changing and as you said, the lines are beginning to blur.

    • You raise an interesting point, Ann. To me In a romance novel, the focus is on the development of the love relationship whereas chick lit focuses more on the protagonist’s journey, which may include love but not necessarily the main focus and is characterized by being light and humourous. At least that’s how i see the differences.

  10. So fascinating!! Carol, I do find that people wrongly discount ‘chick lit’ as a writing genre. I’m glad you’re explaining its merits here. Women’s experiences are not ‘less’ than men’s in any way and I think so many different types of books can have value. Great post

  11. It’s interesting how paradigms operate. I personally have always enjoyed writing by women and hadn’t realized that the portrayal of this type of literature as less than other kinds of work is a result of patriarchal ideals. Interesting how perceptions are sometimes made up labels by whatever or whoever happens to be at the top of the hierarchy.

    • I also share your enjoyment of writing by women and become annoyed when I read or hear that women’s writing is less important. It’s such a condescending statement and one that only shows how ignorant the person who says it is.
      Thanks for being here, Diahann.

  12. I just went to see the new movie, “Far from the Madding Crowd.” This is very well acted and my youngest daughter at age 29 enjoyed it so much. I loved it when Julie Christie was in the first one and I liked the book by Thomas Hardy, way back when I was young and in high school. This was a man who believed a woman could have THREE choices of suitors! Amen to that! So, yes, men can write these books and the academic types make it more exciting with much more diverse plots and dimensions to go with the stories. I do feel Jane Austen, Harper Lee, and Isak Dinesen all are proven women writers who excelled in showing texture, environment and independence in their writing. So, I am one of those equal opportunity readers, Carol!

  13. Ho Carol, Terrific, thoughtful article. Following up on roweeee’s comments, it occurs to me that much of the derogatory overtones surrounding chic-lit and blogging also apply to genre fiction in general, and to the mystery genre in particular. I may be overly sensitive since I’m a practitioner of mystery fiction. And it isn’t a particularly new phenomenon: the much lionized (these days) Raymond Chandler struggled all his life with something of an identity crisis as to whether he was a ‘real writer’ or just a mystery writer. Plus ça change …

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