By Guest Blogger Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of The Deep End of the Ocean and Still Summer
There are these phrases that spring from the pens of pundits and spread outward through the culture.
"Yuppie" (the derivation of which scarcely anyone considers anymore, but which was supposed coined by erstwhile essayist Bob Greene to mean Young Upwardly Mobile Person) is a good example. There are scads of other such phrases: Both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were called "Teflon presidents," in that it seemed they go do wrong and have the wrong slip off them as easily as a fried egg slides off Teflon..(our current president must be the Saran Wrap president because he never even gets the egg on him in the first place). "Gaydar" was created long ago to describe the ability to sense someone's homosexual orientation.
"Chick lit" once meant a certain kind of writing.
It was, of course, by a woman. And it was originally used to describe a story based on topics that, while important, might not change the world -- from dating to Botox to minor infidelity to dating to the importance of girlfriends in crises involving dating to the married-man-dilemma to dating to body angst to dating. Reading "chick lit" ( some of which is very skillfully written indeed) one was a sort of guilty pleasure, accepted as such and described as such.
Now this parasol has grown larger, to the size of a pop-up tent that is used to cover a much wider slice of writing.
Now, the term chick lit often is used to describe anything written by a chick -- that is, by a woman. It doesn't matter what the story is. It can be a narrative of any description, from historical fiction to domestic drama to psychological suspense. I suppose the exceptions are FBI and police procedurals and medical thrillers. The exception is, it seems, if the writer is not a European American. If she is writing after living under the burka or comes from a war-torn nation or is an African lawyer writing about a topic as harrowing as genital mutilation, no critic will call what she writes "chick lit." Such subjects are so serious they might well have been written by actual men.
I use the example of Tom Perrotta's novel 'Little Children' for several reasons -- among them that it recently was made into a feature film.
Tom Perrotta wrote a very good and wry and funny and poignant book about suburban life, about a stay-home dad and various mothers both over-ambitious and predatory. Critics wrote, "What is Tom Perrotta but an American Chekhov, whose characters even at their most ridiculous seem blessed and ennobled by a luminous human aura?" and ""Suburban comedies don't come any sharper."
But they do; and women write them.
When women write them, readers and analysts don't marvel at the writer's ability to "get inside" the mores and behaviors and (ahem) "feelings" of suburbia any more than they did when John Updike started doing this a long time ago.
Women are supposed to be able to do that.
When women write them, there is an absence of congratulatory acclaim, of the kind Perrotta enjoyed -- although he is a wonderful and versatile writer.
When men write such books, they never are called "chick lit," although usually the main difference is that the word "feel" is never used or even described and the affect in a book written by any man is flatter (there is, therefore, as in the Hemingway fallacy, a greater presumption of genius).
Now, I don't think of myself as a chick who writes chick lit, although I am undeniably a chick. Actually, I probably am not a chick, since I think of this term as reserved for people who might also be called "babes," people who are younger than I and wondering what to wear clubbing or to the winter formal. But I'm a woman and a writer of sorts and so I hear this term often, directed at my work.
I write stories; and many of the stories have women in them. They are (therefore) chick-chick lit...by a chick about chicks. But they are considered chick lit even when some of the main characters are men -- partially, I think, because these men may have feelings, even if they don't express them as a woman would. For example, if they were to lose their wives and children in a great fire, they would not react simply by staring a the horizon or scrubbing at a spot of dust on one of their shoes (which is what I mean about that "flat" thing, the sure sign of genius, as is the refusal to use quotation marks). If always BY a chick and FEATURING at least one chick, my books are not always for chicks (at least not entirely); although chicks (women) purchase more than 80% of all books, presumably while men are staring at the horizon, wondering why they never got to go to sea or war (not my idea, but Dr. Johnson's).
In any case, although I would like to say that this has to stop, it's not going to because it's a convenient way for anything written by a women to be wadded up inside an apron and dismissed -- by observers who are men and also, regrettably, other women. Nathaniel Hawthorne came right out and said that he considered women writers (among them Charlotte Bronte) annoying scribblers who oughtn't to be allowed to persevere. We have come a long way since then.
We aren't as honest.
Jackie's first YA novel, 'Now You See Her' -- the tale of a driven young actress who fakes her own abduction - is now on sale. 'Still Summer,' the suspenseful story of four women stranded at sea, appears in hardcover in August, 2007, as well as the new form paperback of 'Cage of Stars.'