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:


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:

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