Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Is Chick Lit no longer chic?

Benoit Lelievre writes fiction and blogs over at Dead End Follies. Do yourself a favor and follow what he does.

By Benoit Lelievre

Polly Courtney (pictured) made the news this week by leaving her publisher (Harper friggin’ Collins) for condescending behavior. They referred to her novels as “chick lit”. Ms. Courtney claimed that her books were “commercial fiction” sure, but not “chick lit” or “women fiction”. That led to a lot of discussions over blogs and on Twitter, with female book bloggers. I just wonder what the fuck is the problem?

A female blogger told me yesterday “Men don’t have a fiction genre; it’s condescending to trap women into one”. Wait a minute. Nobody’s trapped. The existence of “chick lit” doesn’t force women readership to read only that and I’m sorry, but men do have their own genre and it’s called pulp fiction. Noir, if you want. And this is a genre that’s been frowned upon and treated like dirt. Before continuing, I want to specify that I know some women have been writing pulp fiction novels and some damn good ones. But chicks like Christa Faust, Hilary Davidson and Megan Abbott are women in a man’s world. Much power to them, but they're a clear minority.

Your traditional James Cain/Jim Thompson is really as manly as literature can get. Every woman is a venomous vixen or a helpless girl in dire need to be saved (sometimes both at the same time), everybody’s out to get you and the only way to go is down. There has been a wider array of noir themes, but this is the basics. Like for “chick lit”, the girl just got dumped by a disinterested boyfriend, sulks around and then magically stumbles upon the perfect guy. Once again, it’s a genre. It’s literature with a set of loose guidelines. You will find the male pendant of “chick lit” readers in your local bookstore’s mystery section, browsing Vachss, Guthrie, Thompson, Westlake, Smith, Cain, Piccirilli, Burke, etc.

But it’s not called “man lit”. While I can get behind it called noir, I have difficulty with the term “pulp fiction”. THAT, in my humble opinion, is pretty condescending. Sure, I understand the origins of the term. It goes back to the era where hardboiled/noir was published in cheap magazines and being good business for publishers. The pulp magazines era was a very good one for noir. But as it is for many terms, its meaning started drifting over time and it acquired a negative connotation. Not to us, pulp aficionados, but to everybody else. It’s considered a low form of art, something unsophisticated. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

If you haven’t already, I strongly suggest you watch Nicolas Winding Refn’s adaptation of James Sallis’s novel DRIVE. Making extensive use of every cinematographic tricks in his bag, Refn describes Driver’s bleak reality with subtlety and almost tenderness. He makes Irene warm and inviting and he plunges him in darkness more often than not, whenever he’s at the wheel. He makes Driver’s world slow down whenever he’s doing a reflex-oriented task. Really, Ryan Gosling doesn’t say much throughout the whole movie because like in any good noir, his characters talks little and acts when it’s important (taking questionable decisions, of course). DRIVE is a film noir and a beautiful work of art. There’s nothing cheap or “pulpy” about it.

I’m sorry Polly Courtney, but I can’t take you seriously. Your books are called “chick lit”, so what? They’re books about women, having problems that male readers can’t really identify with. What’s the problem with that, since most of your readership is female anyway? It sounds fair to me. I never heard Sophie Kinsella complain about it? “Chick lit” sells. You’re not the one who should be worried about how your genre is perceived.

26 comments:

Thomas Pluck said...

Chick lit sells to chicks because of the way it is marketed, and because women read more books. Just because pulp fiction is marketed more toward men doesn't mean that she couldn't sell more books if the marketing team didn't turn her tough tale of business struggle into "Bridget Jones and the Boy's Club."

I don't think any writer appreciates being pigeonholed and having their audience limited. Noir is definitely a smaller cubby hole, but I don't think Polly Courtney likes being labeled Chick Lit any more than Christa Faust would.

Ben said...

But it's what she does. It's not bad, it's not reductive or sexist, it's just DIFFERENT. If she made her point about sales and not about some bullshit ethical point, I would've said "maybe she's right".

She turned her decision into this quest for female integrity, when I think it really shouldn't be.

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Probably not a wise career move, but, now I know who she is so...

Based on the cover and the "chic-lit" label, I wouldn't give it a read, but based on the below snippet, it sounds fairly intriguing.

"is set in the world of lads' mags, following the story of Alexa Harris, asked to head up a magazine, Banter, with an all-male editorial team. Subjected to "light-hearted" misogyny in the office, Alexa also finds herself the victim of a hate campaign by women's rights activists."

Ben said...

Well, I don't know about you, but it sounds like chick lit to me. Of course the label can be off putting to some, but it's all about the story, no? If the premise intrigued you, do you really care how it's labeled?

Heath said...

If Polly Courtney bristling at the label "chick lit" is based on her attempt to reach a bigger audience, then more power to her. The description that Sean provided above sounds pretty damn interesting, but if the book was labeled chick lit, we would never have taken the time to look at it.
Not only that, but now Polly Courtney is a NAME. Readers are now aware of her. And she'll be picked up by a better publisher, one who'll respect what she does.

Ben said...

Guys, really? I mean, picture yourself at the bookstore. Would you REALLY go for that? You make sense about the publicity stunt though, Heath.

Dana King said...

I've never read Ms. Courtney, but let's see. Are her books about women and problems unique to women, likely interesting uniquely to women? Do appreciable numbers of men read her at all?

I don't know, but if, as I suspect, the answers to the above questions are Yes and No, then her books sure walk and quack a lot like chick lit, or "women's fiction."

This could be an interesting, and potentially profitable, publicity stunt. It could also be the ill-conceived notion of someone who needs to get over herself a little. Time will tell.

Heath said...

I should be clear: I didn't necessarily mean it was a publicity stunt so much as an attempt to not have her readership be so constrained-- to reach a bigger audience. She wants MEN to read her book as well as women, but that's not gonna happen if it's called "chick lit". It seems perfectly reasonable to me.

Ben said...

I guess...I don't see the label as being an issue though. As much as I shiver at anything stamped YA, I read SPEAK and THE HUNGER GAMES this year because the stories and the buzz around them brought me. Polly Courtney could label her book Rambo-Noir-With-Pro-Wrestlers, I'd still see this as "women fiction".

Ben said...

Good metaphor that just hit me in the face like Peter North.

If you call a cat a "roaring feline". It's still a cat.

I think Polly COurtney refuses to see her work for what it is.

Heath said...

I think a lot of it comes down to the fact that "chick lit" is such a nebulous label. I mean, what does that even mean? If the main character is female, dealing with issues that would only exist for a female, it's automatically "chick lit"? That doesn't seem right to me, and it implies that men are not interested in the least in the female experience, which is totally wrong. Is Megan Abbott "chick lit"? Is Christa Faust or Hilary Davidson "chick lit"? Not a chance.

Thomas Pluck said...

I'm reading synopses of her books on Amazon, and they're not my thing- office politics and adventure in finance- but I wouldn't call it Chick Lit any more than I'd call John Irving noir because he's a dude and his books have crimes in them.
Hell, her book The Day I Died could be noir. I don't want to play White Knight here, but I think she has a valid point, and her reaction is no different than if Chuck Palahniuk were suddenly crammed in the noir section by his publisher and then left.

Ben said...

@Heath: No, they're writing crime fiction and they're awesome at it. THE END OF EVERYTHING would be the boogeyman to chick lit books.

@Thomas: There's no noir section in the bookstores I shop it, but I see your point. Altought, Courtney isn't as popular as Palahniuk or let's say Jodi Picoult. While her book might have been on prime display in chick lit section, the general fiction section might have...well Chuck Palahniuk instead.

Anyway, I think it was beside the point Courtney was trying to make. She didn't seem to mind the financial point of view and more the ethical/sexist one.

Jerry House said...

Many writers have tried to escape a perceived literary ghetto, Kurt Vonnegut and Harlan Ellison come immediately to mind. Publishers often try to market in genres (no matter how difficult the fit. Horror books have been published as "novels of menace" and as "dark suspense" and quite a few solid mystery novels were reprinted as "gothic romances". In the end, though, it's the work itself that matters.

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Ben- I said intriguing and that was due to the "lad's Magazine" angle ;0 But "light-hearted" misogyny in the office". ah, no thanks.

David Barber said...

HOLY SHIT!! "Women don't moan about things, they take stuff on the chin and get on with it." You hear that all the time on TV shows where women are the hosts. (Yes I've been off work and daytime TV sucks ballsacks!) SO, you've just let your side down, Ms. (Surely that's either Miss or Mrs) Courtney!

Chic lit, bloke lit, noir, horror? What is she moaning about? Her books are selling and making her money. Get over it, woman!

Great post, Ben.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Polly. Read just one of the many Nora Roberts solid suspense novels that are labeled romance, and you'll see why Polly has a legitimate complaint.

Ben said...

I just listened to an interview with her, about that whole shabang. Seems like she sees Chick lit as being very reductive and that her work, to her is feminist fiction. I'm sorry, but she thinks very highly of herself and her work and to me, this is too often the case when an author starts sucking

Photographe à Dublin said...

I associate the Chick Lit movement with the cheerful times before the currrent recession.

The drama of a cake not rising or a suitable partner being unavailable is, for some, a real problem.

I wish somebody would tell that to all the terrifying crime and mystery writers who now scare the bejaysus out of me...

Jay Stringer said...

First, thanks for bringing this to the DSD table, Ben. The site is all about trying to create conversations about writing, job well done!

Left this a while because i'm not sure where I sit with it. As with most things like this, I guess it depends on the intent of the writer. I've not seen enough of Ms Courtney's comments yet to know what her angle really is.

Is it that she doesn't feel the label reflects her work, or is it that she looks down on the label? Those are two distinct arguments.

There's also the possibility/probability that it's the same kind of pro wrestling marketing that I usually shrug my shoulders at- it's a tough ol' world out there for a writer, and if you've not got a massive push behind you, then another trick is needed to get your name out there. People who didn't know her name before, now know who she is and where they can get her back catalogue. So if that was the aim, then she hit it out of the park.

Allan Guthrie said on twitter recently that the divide in fiction isn't genre vs literary, it's commercial vs non commercial. And from my time in the book selling trenches, i'd say the 'chic lit' label conjurs up images of the more commercial end of women's fiction. Shopaholics who are looking for that special someone in their lives.

And I'm not going to get all high and mighty about that fiction. The fight to have more equal and balanced female roles in fiction includes the freedom to have that kind of stereotype. And there's clearly a large market for it, and a lot of readers who engage with the portrayal, so alls fair.

At the same time, if Ms Courtney feels that label doesn't represent what she writes, maybe she has a point (I don't know, never read any of her work). A lot of what i write tends to deal with masculinity, and the messed up things that men will do to each other, either directly or indirectly. But I probably wouldn't want my work branded as 'Lad Lit,' because I think that would miss the point and would misrepresent what I write.

I also know crime writers who fight to get the phrase, "A mystery" off their book covers because, as much as they love mystery fiction, they don't want their book sold on a plot device.

I take the point that Noir and Pulp tend to be more male dominated (though there's a separate debate to be had there over whether it's because there's less noir women, or because publishers feel they couldn't sell them). But i'm not sure they really work in this comparison.

The equivalent would really be if we had something that was called 'Lad Lit,' that was all about how we just like sports, sex and porn. That very much exists in magazines, in the UK there is a large and 'healthy' market for Lads mags, but i'm not sure it does in fiction, unless we look to the kind of andy McNab, Chris Ryan fiction. Which, again, isn't to look down on those books, it's just to use them as an example.

Would George Pelecanos be happy to have his work sold as Lads Lit? I'm not sure.

So if her argument is along those lines, then I think I can see where she's coming from, and I may well feel the same if the situation were reversed. Would I want to handle it the way I did, and burn bridges with a publisher in the current climate? Probably not.

Ben said...

The term that was employed by HarperCollins was "women fiction" which I don't think is anything to yell about. You can see on her "press" section on her web site on the first interview on top that she says her fiction has to be differenciated from the Sophie Kinsellas of this world where bubbly girls are looking for the right men.

I think she's looking down on a genre with extreme prejudice. Her audience is primairly women, she has women heroines dealing with stupid men. I'm sorry, but this is women fiction. No matter what you're saying if you're talking to only the girls in the room, you're writing women fiction.

Tell me sir, what man right in his mind would go buy a novel where a miserable but strong willed girl suffers the "light hearted misoginy" of idiot men? None of them would. None.

And you know what?

It's OK. I mean, there are some books that speak to men only too and some that speak to both. There are some great women that wrote for women only. Toni Morrison.

Polly Courtney just angers the living hell out of me because I think she shat away an opportunity that most writers would kill for, because she thinks way too highly of herself.

Photographe à Dublin said...

This is helpful:

guardian.co.uk/books/2011/sep/15/novelist-ditches-publisher-book-launch

The main problem seems to be linked to the cover art which had a "fluffy" look.

This is a very important aspect of the writer's work as friends have told me. Having a cover imposed that one does not like after years of work on a novel can be very distressing, regardless of gender.

In fact a thriller could be written on the subject, emotions can run so high...

Jay Stringer said...

Here's the thing, i'm not really sure where you anger on the issue is coming from, because i'm not seeing the issue the same way at all. Maybe it's just me, i'll take that hit if it's the case.

But i'm not sure i'd be any happier to have my work labelled by gender. She also seems to be going out of her way to stress that she doesn't look down on 'Chick Lit,' but that she has issues with her work being labelled that that, and finds the label 'womens fiction' to be patronising. I think there's some truth in that, and her actions have sparked some interesting debate.

I'm also not really sure that being a man means I cant relate to a story about a woman, or that deals with that woman's issues. If the writing is good, of the author does their job and makes it compelling, that's what counts.

I think the pitch for that book, about a woman in a lads mag world, facing both cultural mysogyny and hatred by women for what they think she represents...that sounds like an interesting concept. It sounds like the kind of plot that could explore many of the issues that this news story have thrown up. I'm not sure it's a story about 'idiot men,' unless there's blurb that i've missed, which could well be the case because i'm lazy.

Now there is another aspect. As you say, she had a good opportunity, she was breathing the rarified air these days of a deal with a major publisher, and she's chosen to walk away from that. I'm not sure i'd make the same decision, but surely the fact that she seems to be talking from a moral point of view about her work, rather than simply finances, is something we should celebrate rather than get angry about?

Ultimately though, we're a bunch of guys standing around talking about what a female author has said about "womens fiction" and how she see's that label. I'd like to hear more women's opinions on the issues on the table.

Eleanorgj said...

Here's the thing, Polly Courtney was objecting to the pink, fluffy, calorie-counting connotation that 'chick lit' has.

Does she write for women? Yes. But does she mean it to be vacuous and innane? Nope. She's prided herself on her polysyllables, her imagery, her--oooh!--symbolism. Is she offended by the Harper Collins insistance to cover her words with pink and green sprinkles? Too bloody right. I would be too. I would be saddened that my words weren't recognised as having more substance and meaty sirloin content. I'd mourn the cartoonish cover. I'd cry into my bottle of chardonnay. I sing Adele at the top of my lungs, because nobody understands. And then I'd nip to the bank and cash my fat pink, chick lit check.

Steve Weddle said...

Why did she keep cashing the checks if she didn't like how she was treated?

Ben said...

That's the thing Eleanor. The covers of her novels weren't pink, glittery and bubbly at all. They advertised what was in the book.

That's where my anger comes from. She had a good thing going, but she couldn't step over her ego and she deliberately trashed. It's not only bubbly stupid chicks that buy women fiction or chick lit or whatever. She put herself over the readers and I don't like that.