Sheffield Hallam University
The subject of this issue of Working Papers on the Web is the form of contemporary popular fiction known as chick lit, and we examine chick lit’s properties, its concerns and its impact upon other forms of fiction. In the wake of the publication and commercial success of Helen Fielding’s (1996) novel Bridget Jones’s Diary, by the end of the 1990s the category and term chick lit had become established to describe novels written by women, (largely) for women, depicting the life, loves, trials and tribulations of their predominantly young, single, urban, female protagonists. As Joanne Knowles (2004: 2) writes, whilst plotlines are variable, chick lit can be internally defined by the structure of a female central character “seeking personal fulfilment in a romance-consumer-comedic vein”. Furthermore, as Rosalind Gill and Elena Herdieckerhoff (2006: 488) point out, by the end of the last decade of the twentieth century, the genre of chick lit was also identifiable by the establishment of “clearly marked jacket designs”. Indeed, chick lit’s bold, pink or pastel-coloured covers with cursive fonts and line drawings of handbags or shoes seem ubiquitous, at least in the U.K., gracing the shelves of bookstores, supermarkets, railway station and airport shops.
As the seemingly ubiquitous covers suggest, chick lit novels are hugely popular; in 2002, for instance, seven chick lit novels remained on the Publishers Weekly bestseller list for some ninety weeks and in the same year several publishers, including Harlequin and Simon and Schuster, created imprints solely devoted to chick lit (Ferriss and Young, 2006). Furthermore, in 2002 chick lit sales in the U.S. grossed 71 million dollars and by 2005, the Wall Street Journal quoted figures predicting that sales of chick lit in America that year would total around $137 million (Ferriss and Young, 2006; Trachtenberg, 2005). Brett Osmond, Random House marketing and publicity manager, anticipates increased demand for chick lit throughout 2009 (cited in Todd, 2008). Sales figures for individual chick lit authors equally attest to the popularity of chick lit; for example, whilst the ‘average’ novel sells approximately 5000 copies (Chambers, 2004), in 2005 Marian Keyes was placed in the top five of UK The Bookseller’s Top 100, with her novel The Other Side of the Story (2004) having sold 488,508 copies during 2005, and in The Bookseller’s Top 100 for 2007, Marian Keyes reached third place, with her novel Anybody Out There? (2006) having sold 585,026 copies (Stone, 2008; see also Pérez-Serrano, this issue). Such is the success of chick lit that two ‘how to write chick lit’ books are currently in print: Cathy Yardley’s (2006) Will Write for Shoes: How To Write A Chick Lit Novel and Sarah Mlynowski and Farin Jacobs’s (2006) See Jane Write: a girl’s guide to writing Chick Lit.
Despite chick lit’s evident popularity and its establishment as a publishing phenomenon, these novels have provoked intense and oppositional responses. For the fans, it is claimed that chick lit reflects the experiences of contemporary young women (Ferriss and Young, 2006: 1). For chick lit’s detractors, however, these novels are formulaic, vapid, and, moreover, anti-feminist, firmly (re)locating women within the private sphere of hearth and heart. For example, Lola Young, chair of the 1999 Orange prize for fiction, criticised chick lit for, she claims, being “incredibly insular”, with a limited and domestic horizon and a hackneyed focus on anxieties surrounding partying, boyfriends, career and motherhood (Reynolds, 1999). Author Beryl Bainbridge declared chick lit “froth” in an interview for BBC Radio 4, and author Doris Lessing lamented the emergence of novels which depict “hopeless girls, drunken, worrying about their weight” in The Guardian (Ezard, 2001). Writing for The Independent, Scarlett Thomas (2002) characterised chick lit in terms of “[i]dentikit covers” and “join-the-dot plots”, an assessment echoed by Lizzie Skurnick’s (2003) article for the Baltimore City Paper, in which she provides a sarcastic quiz with a series of multiple-choice questions as to the book’s author, cover, main character and themes in order to highlight chick lit as formulaic (Ferriss and Young, 2006: 1).
On the one hand, it is perhaps unsurprising that chick lit has garnered a fair degree of criticism. Along with external clearly gendered cover art and the internal preoccupation with the search for a man, the very term chick lit, as Imelda Whelehan (2005: 171) points out, is simultaneously “interesting and provocative”, as the term brings into play both negative and positive connotations, and raises issues of gender and genre (Gormley, forthcoming). As Jane Mills (1989: 47) notes, the term chick, when applied to humans, first entered the English language circa 1400 to mean a child or young girl. In the 1500s, chick became, “a term of endearment applied to a female sweetheart”; yet by the early 1900s the term had “degenerated” to denote, “a young promiscuous woman” (ibid.). In the 1930s, however, chick had, “ameliorated and acquired connotations of a liberated or independent female” as, “a Black male or jazz slang term for a hip young woman” (J. Mills, 1989: 47). Still in use during the 1980s, chick was applied to women, usually young and sexually attractive women (ibid.). The term chick, when applied to women, not only originally meant a child, but is also drawn from the chicken metaphor: the term denotes the fluffy “offspring of a species not known for its great intelligence” (J. Mills, 1989: 47). Therefore, employed to refer to the writer and reader of chick lit, the term chick implies women who are not intellectual, who are child-like, and concerned with trivialities; women who are defined according to youth, sexual status and attractiveness.
However, as Sara Mills (1998) points out, the assumption that meaning resides solely within language items is problematic, since irony, for example, can transform language items into light-hearted critiques of the item’s original meaning; thus, the range of meanings associated with particular language items is inflected for certain groups, currently exemplified by the usage of the word chick by some women to describe themselves1. Diane Goodman (1996) notes that the term chick lit has more positive connotations, predicated upon the positive reclamation of the word chick, since, she argues, if in pronouncing the term both chick and lit are equally stressed, “it’s a very hip term—confident and cool: this is ‘lit’ by chicks. Read it”2 (Goodman, 1996). However, notwithstanding the demeaning implications of the word chick, Chick lit is a jokey, near-rhyming term, and as such, has a dismissive or judgmental tone which rejects suggestions of a serious engagement with the novel form. Further, in shortening the word literature to ‘lit’, the term reinforces an evaluative attitude towards the novels, suggesting that chick lit is, indeed, inferior to the ‘literary’ novel, as it is not quite literature. As the inclusion of the word chick signifies fiction by, for and about women, the term maintains the gendered association of women’s fiction with assumptions of artlessness and the ideology of gendered spheres (Gormley, forthcoming).
Whilst, then, the term chick lit is problematic and thus somewhat unsurprisingly raises concerns, yet the criticisms of chick lit that have been made largely in the media are equally problematic. I would argue that in particular, the association of chick lit with a perceived, deliberate, ‘dumbing down’ within the publishing industry, most notably expressed in Scarlett Thomas’s (2002) article referred to earlier, entitled ‘The Great Chick Lit Conspiracy’, points up the necessity for a close interrogation of the significance and place of chick lit within the contemporary publishing industry and within the fiction market, an area which has to date received little scholarly attention (Gormley, forthcoming). The emergence of chick lit as a category and the consequent proliferation of chick lit novels from the mid to late 1990s onwards places chick lit firmly within a period of flux within publishing; a period within which, as Claire Squires (2007) argues, a perceived shift has taken place from editorial-led to sales and marketing-led publishing. The structural changes which have taken place in the publishing industry: patterns of mergers and acquisitions which have resulted in the domination of the industry by a small number of large, international multi-media conglomerates, coupled with increasing competition and increasingly concentrated channels of distribution (Brown, 2006), have created a shift from a classed, raced and gendered ideology of publishing which found its expression in the figure of the ‘gentleman publisher’ associated with cultural guardianship yet disassociated from commerce, to marketing-led corporate publishing (Gormley, forthcoming). Paul Delany (2002) argues that the culture of marketing within publishing has, through the course of the twentieth century, undergone a transition from “product differentiation” to “market segmentation” and has thus lead away from a vertical formulation of the market predicated upon buyers’ class or income categories to a horizontal formulation of the market, as buyers are “classified by their interests, gender or lifestyles” (Delany, 2002: 97–8). I contend that this shift has, for some within publishing, provoked micro-level conflict, expressed through the construction of a culture/commerce dichotomy, which has fuelled criticisms of a ‘dumbing down’ of the industry: a forgoing of diversity and quality in the pursuit of profit that has necessitated niche publishing.3
Analyses of a ‘dumbing down’, however, run the risk of becoming mired in the construction of literary value and the resultant ‘elite’/‘mass’ cultural divide. Indeed, as one of the most notable expressions of the positioning of chick lit as indicative of contemporary publishing’s concentration upon inferior, homogenous, texts in its excessive concern with the accumulation of profit, Thomas’s argument rests primarily upon the premise that chick lit is ‘bad’: ‘badly’ written, ‘bad’ for readers who are unable to find “more interesting” women’s fiction due to chick lit having flooded the marketplace, and ‘bad’ for authors, who, according to Thomas, are “little more than assembly line workers” (Thomas, 2002). However, largely the evidence for this view is based upon Thomas’s own particular tastes, underpinned by perceptions of hierarchical generic categorisation and assumptions regarding audience. In maintaining that chick lit belongs to the generic category of Mills and Boon romance fiction rather than the more amorphous category ‘women’s fiction’, Thomas’s objections to chick lit would seem to be in part premised upon maintaining a distinction not only between fiction of high and low (or no) value, but also, implicitly, between audiences of women (Gormley, forthcoming). Joanne Knowles’s (2004) comments on class as a key factor in the hostility to and positioning of chick lit are, I would argue, worth quoting at length:
Chicklit represents a revival of the middlebrow, and
the perceived danger of chicklit lies in it being fiction read by those who should be reading something else; the guilty pleasure of the middle-class, partly-educated female reader who is too hip for Mills and Boon and too dumb for Virginia Woolf. This throwback to nineteenth-century arguments about the dangers of novel-reading operates in reverse: now, instead of distracting women from their proper sphere of childbearing and housekeeping, the contemporary fictional opiate that is chicklit distracts women from forming feminist analyses of Thelma and Louise while running an international bank all day without smudging her mascara
which, in the twenty-first century, is not only their right but quite possibly their feminist duty. Anxieties about the role of women, their burdens and choices, are thus an inherent part of chicklit criticism as well as the fictions themselves
According to Squires, following Delany’s study of the shift in the culture of marketing within publishing, “the terminology of the middlebrow—or indeed the high and lowbrow—becomes anachronistic [t]he mixed portfolios of contemporary, conglomerate publishers would indeed demonstrate that cultural output is not divided in this way by its producers” (Squires, 2007: 42). Although Squires’s dismissal of the critical efficacy of the concept of the ‘brows’ may be provocative for some scholars, as Imelda Whelehan (this issue) writes:
the extent to which chick lit is a brand imposed upon certain fiction by publishers and proclaimed loudly by the sugary covers is a question open for debate. This question could equally be levelled at other identifiable genres in the literary marketplace, and some writers become brands in their own right
particularly, as Whelehan points out, “[i]f we accept that all contemporary fiction is produced in a market more often looking for brand (if not author) loyalty”. Indeed, there can be no doubt that chick lit is carefully targeted and marketed.
I would suggest that with the reception and commercial success of Bridget Jones’s Diary, which by 2001 had sold more than 8 million copies worldwide (Whelehan, 2002: 66), publishers saw an opportunity for commercial success based upon the imagination of and targeting of both a demographic and a psychographic segmentation of the market: demographic segmentation relating to gender and psychographic segmentation referring to categorisation according to interests. Such targeting is most obvious in the development of the distinctive chick lit cover art: the explicitly gendered colours of chick lit covers, long associated with femininity, act as design shorthand: a simple signifier for potential buyers in the targeted market segment—these novels are clearly for women—whilst the retro, kitschy designs suggest artifice and exaggeration, hailing their targeted audience as sophisticated consumers.4 The mid to late 1990s also saw the emergence of lad lit (see Gill, this issue); like chick lit, novels from authors such as Mike Gayle and Nick Hornby are explicitly targeted through the use of design shorthand, with similarly bright but more ‘masculine’ colours functioning as a simple signifier that these are men’s books, emphasised by back cover copy which highlights the novels’ rendering of insights into the ‘troubled’ male psyche post supposed gender quake (see Gill, this issue). In this colour coding, the publishing industry has evolved an explicit sexually differentiated form of address. This kind of “his ‘n’ hers” publishing, to use Gill’s (2003: 51) phrase, assists in the marketing of books to booksellers in today’s retail channels: ‘his ‘n’ hers’ colour coding makes selection off the crowded shelves in bookstores easier, and similarly, the cover design is particularly advantageous for marketing these books to supermarket buyers; Gaynor Allen, buying manager for books at UK supermarket Tesco, points to the importance of book covers for supermarkets because of the quick purchase decision that shoppers make as they pass down the aisles (cited in Neill, 2008).5
Moving from the covers of chick lit to its subject matter, and thus to the material with which the chick lit audience is imagined by publishers and categorised according to gender, lifestyle and interests, I return to Knowles’s point that anxiety about women’s roles, burdens and choices pervades not only chick lit criticism but also the novels themselves. Indeed, Knowles’s comments demonstrate the complex and nuanced engagement with chick lit undertaken in chick lit scholarship, as critics have moved beyond the binary polarities of celebration/dismissal to undertake, as Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young (2006: 2), put it, “a more considered response” to a form of fiction which has accrued the status of an authentic, albeit fictional, expression of contemporary women’s lives. Scholars have sought to interrogate chick lit’s thematic and generic relationship to nineteenth and twentieth-century women’s fiction, its preoccupation with consumer culture, self-help literature, motherhood, the body and romantic fulfilment, and its troubled relationship with feminism (Chambers, 2004; Ferriss and Young (eds.) 2006; Gill and Herdieckerhoff, 2006; Gill, 2007; Knowles (ed.), 2004; Smith, 2005a, 2005b, 2008; Whelehan, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2005). The aim of this special issue of Working Papers on the Web is to contribute to this growing body of scholarly research on chick lit.
Although the consensus of opinion within chick lit scholarship is that Fielding’s (1996) novel Bridget Jones’s Diary sparked the chick lit phenomenon (Chambers, 2004; Craddock, 2004; Dorney, 2004; Ferriss and Young, 2006; Gorton, 2004; Harzewski, 2006; Smyczyńska, 2004; Whelehan, 2000, 2002, 2005; see also Pérez-Serrano, this issue, for a problematisation of this opinion), Stephanie Harzewski (2006) and Juliette Wells (2006) have sought to examine the influences on chick lit and its position in literary history. Harzewski (2006) situates chick lit within the tradition of the novel of manners. According to Harzewski, it is accepted by scholars that Fielding models Bridget Jones’s Diary on Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, and thus chick lit’s foundational text is specifically located in the traditional of the novel of manners. What makes chick lit the new novel of manners, Harzewski argues, is its synthesis of literary and popular forms, and its adaptation and subversion of the conventions of both the literary novel of manners and popular romance fiction. For Harzeswki, the depiction of serial dating in chick lit subverts the primary ‘one woman—one man’ tenet of popular romance identified by Radway (1989); the affording of equal or more attention in chick lit to the quest for self-definition rather than a sole focus on the romance plot shifts emphasis from the centrality of the love story in popular romance; unlike both the novel of manners and the popular romance, chick lit virtually replaces the centrality of the heterosexual hero with the prominence of a gay male best friend; and that narrative closure in the form of an engagement or marriage is not a prerequisite in chick lit reformulates the marriage plot of the novel of manners and the ‘happy ending’ of popular romance fiction. Similarly, Juliette Wells (2006) examines the connections between chick lit and earlier women’s literary writing. Wells points out that the chick lit heroine’s search for a partner and her growth in self-knowledge have identifiable roots in the novels of women literary writers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Like Harzewski, Wells also notes the differences between chick lit and women’s literary fiction of the past in terms of a heroine who works, and is sexually desiring.
Whereas Harzewski positions chick lit’s roots within the tradition of women’s literary fiction, Imelda Whelehan (2004, 2005) examines the relationship between chick lit and its popular fiction predecessors, specifically the feminist consciousness raising (CR) novels of the 1970s and the ‘bonkbuster’, or sex and shopping novels, of the 1980s. Underpinning Whelehan’s analysis is her assessment of the impact of feminism on popular women’s fiction. Whelehan highlights the similarities between CR novels, such as Lisa Alther’s (1977) Kinflicks and Erica Jong’s (1974) Fear of Flying, and chick lit: the confessional tone, the use of self-deprecating humour, and the focus upon the quotidian; however, Whelehan argues that whereas the CR novels of the 1970s portrayed the minutiae of women’s domestic lives in order to catalogue the oppressive and unfulfilling association of women with domesticity and motherhood, chick lit protagonists are firmly located in the domestic sphere. Whilst the heroine of the CR novel is spurred to action upon analysing her oppression, the chick lit heroine, according to Whelehan, often lacks personal direction. This inertia, according to Whelehan, can be viewed as a reaction to the ‘have it all’ ‘superwoman’ portrayed in the 1980s bonkbuster novel such as Shirley Conran’s (1982) Lace: a glamorous, driven, capable and ambitious woman. Despite lacking personal direction, however, Whelehan argues that chick lit celebrates its heroines’ achievement of ‘true love’, but whereas the CR novel fuses romance with sexual desire in order to highlight romance as a destroyer of women’s sexual pleasure, chick lit heroines have no problem with finding sexual satisfaction.
Scholars are, however, divided over the portrayal of sex and sexuality in chick lit. In contrast to Whelehan, Katarzyna Smyczyńska (2004) argues that chick lit heroines often explicitly, and humorously, express their contempt for men who fail to meet their expectations by, for example, the dismissal of male characters due to their lack of virility. In her analysis of Harlequin’s chick lit imprint Red Dress Ink (RDI), Louise Craddock (2004) similarly points out that, in contrast to the romance fiction Harlequin is particularly identified with publishing wherein the (inexperienced) heroine is sexually awakened by the (experienced) hero and is never critical of his sexual performance, sex in RDI chick lit is not always satisfying for the heroine. Rochelle Mabry (2006) also contends that a number of chick lit novels portray the heroine engaging in a number of sexual relationships of varying degrees of pleasure and fulfilment; moreover, in chick lit, Mabry argues, sex becomes a way in which the protagonist can explore her own identity. Yet, in her analysis of Bushnell’s Sex and the City (1996), another novel along with Bridget Jones’s Diary considered to be foundational for the chick lit genre (Ferriss & Young, 2006), Anna Kiernan (2006) considers the portrayal of the central characters’ ‘businesslike’ treatment of sex as sexual objectification which merely inverts the traditional gendering of sexual roles rather than offering an alternative image of female sexuality. In a similar vein, Rosalind Gill and Elena Herdieckerhoff (2006: 494) examine whether the depiction of chick lit protagonists as sexually agentive and experienced radically departs from the ways in which the sexual identities of the heroines of Harlequin/Mills and Boon romance fiction are portrayed. They argue that whilst the sexually experienced chick lit heroine appears to depart radically from the innocent romance heroine, chick lit heroines are frequently “re-virginised”, by which they mean that in their encounter with the hero, heroines often return to an “emotionally virginal state” which, for example, enables them to enjoy sex fully for the first time and therefore to expunge less satisfactory experiences.
The depiction of anxiety in chick lit is examined by a number of scholars (Gill & Herieckerhoff, 2006; Umminger, 2006; Slooten, 2006; Smith, 2004, 2005). Gill and Herdieckerhoff (2006) point to the anxiety which abounds in chick lit novels in the protagonists’ preoccupation with the shape, size and look of the body which is depicted as requiring constant surveillance and work. Alison Umminger (2006) argues that whilst the search for the ‘right man’ is a central feature of chick lit, yet in a number of chick lit novels this quest is secondary to the heroine’s struggle with herself. Umminger points to chick lit novels which feature ‘plus sized’ women, and for whom weight loss secures not only the ‘right man’, but also promotion or a better job. Jessica Van Slooten (2006) examines the portrayal of anxiety in chick lit through the fashioning and refashioning of identity in Kinsella’s (2001, 2002, 2003) Shopoholic trilogy. According to Slooten, Kinsella’s protagonist Becky assuages her insecurities around personal and professional fulfilment by excessive shopping: through continually purchasing expensive, branded attire Becky conspicuously demonstrates that she can and does ‘have it all’. For Slooten, whilst these novels allow readers a ‘safe space’ to vicariously experience self-fashioning through conspicuous consumption, yet they also reassure the reader that such fantasies are attainable. By contrast, Caroline Smith (2004, 2005, 2008) assigns chick lit a more subversive role. Smith examines chick lit’s relationship to the “consume and achieve” promise of what she terms women’s advice manuals, such as women’s magazines and self-help books; but, unlike Slooten, Smith argues that chick lit exaggerates its heroines’ consumption habits in order to deconstruct the limiting practices endorsed by advice manuals.
Whilst chick lit often focuses upon a particular ‘kind’ of protagonist—young, white single and middle-class—it has begun to expand its focus to include second-generation Chinese American, Latina, Indian American and African American protagonists, and further sub-divisions shift the focus to women over forty and adolescents, with the middle ground between these two age-ranges forming a focus on motherhood; as Ferriss and Young (2006: 5–6) point out, sub-generic terms have been coined for these developments: respectively, ‘ethnic lit’, ‘hen lit’, ‘chick lit jnr’ (Johnson, 2006) and ‘mummy lit’. Scholars have begun the task of critically exploring these works (Boyd, 2006; Guererro, 2006; Hewitt, 2006; Johnson, 2006; Sellei, 2006) and anxiety would also appear to pervade these newer forms. Heather Hewett (2006), for example, argues that the central conflict in Allison Pearson’s (2002) mumlit novel I Don’t Know How She Does It emerges from the protagonist’s inner conflict and guilt as she ‘juggles’ career and motherhood in the attempt to ‘have it all’. This fictional representation of anxiety, she argues, mirrors the anxieties surrounding motherhood many (middle class, American) woman experience: a set of unattainable criteria for ‘good motherhood’ traced across a range of cultural forms which, Hewett notes, represent a backlash against many of the changes brought about by feminism.
Across the literature on chick lit to date, scholars have engaged with the relationship between chick lit and feminism, and, whether implicitly or explicitly, with the concept of postfeminism and chick lit’s relationship to it. Although postfeminism is a contentious and slippery term within the academy, theorised, defined and applied in uneven ways (Gamble, 2001; Gill, 2007a, 2007b; Gormley, forthcoming; Tasker and Negra, 2007), in its, arguably, broadest application postfeminism refers to both historical moment and cultural phenomenon occurring after the height of Second Wave Feminism in the 1970s: a period dating from the 1980s onwards and inclusive of the contemporary climate in which liberal feminist ideals of individual autonomy, independence and freedom of choice are considered ‘common-sense’ and that relatedly, feminist campaigns for reproductive rights, equal pay and equal employment opportunities are believed to have been met rendering feminism no longer relevant (Mills, 1998). Vicki Coppock, Deena Haydon and Ingrid Richter (1995: 3), for example, write that in the U.K.:
[f]eature writers, arts broadcasters, television presenters, their subjects ranging from work to play, from fashion to music, grabbed the concept [of postfeminism] as one of common-sense [c]omment in the media, in politics and in industry became scattered with reference to the 1990s as an ‘enlightened’ and ‘postfeminist’ period.
For Susan Faludi (1992: 15), however, postfeminism is equated with the cultural-ideological apparatus she terms “backlash” as feminism is not only seen as irrelevant but also the cause of women’s unhappiness, since freedom of choice is portrayed as a burden. However, Angela McRobbie (2007: 28) argues for a “complexification of the backlash thesis”; she argues that “postfeminism positively draws on and invokes feminism as that which can be taken into account, to suggest that equality is achieved, in order to install a whole repertoire of new meanings, which emphasize that it is no longer needed, that it is a spent force”. Furthermore, McRobbie contends, this “double entanglement comprises the co-existence of neoconservative values in relation to gender, sexuality and family life with processes of liberalization in regard to choice and diversity in domestic, sexual and kinship relations” (ibid.). Chick lit scholarship has engaged with the relationship between chick lit and postfeminism as both concept and cultural phenomenon. As Harzewski (2006), Mabry (2006) and Wells (2006) note, in their degree of autonomy the construction of chick lit protagonists occurs in response to the social changes brought about by feminism, and in this sense, chick lit could not have been written without the impact of second wave feminism; yet, as Harzewski argues, whilst chick lit heroines “stand as direct beneficiaries of the women’s liberation movement now the problem is too many choices” (2006: 37). As I have noted above, scholars have highlighted the centrality of anxieties surrounding women’s roles, expectations and choices in chick lit and in this sense, chick lit protagonists are ‘postfeminist’ women; indeed the relationship between chick lit protagonists and feminism is an ambivalent one; as Gill (2007b: 228) writes of Bridget Jones, for example:
Bridget takes for granted her right to work, her access to contraception and her entitlement to various kinds of equality. She also has access to many feminist ideas and discourses [o]f marriage, for example, she is mistrustful and occasionally critical [h]owever, these insights do nothing to disrupt her quest to find the perfect man and marry him.
For Whelehan (2005), chick lit appears to be underpinned by an acceptance of the ‘failure’ of feminism to renegotiate femininity and to reconcile personal autonomy and the desire for a heterosexual relationship; Whelehan writes:
in each case ‘empowered’ women must find true self-determination through the right kind of men and some form of truce with their own family. It is as if because feminism seemed to support single life as one ideal in its celebration of autonomous identity, that chick lit is committed to showing the obverse—that the only happy ending to aimless singledom is coupledom of the quite traditional kind
Gill and Herdieckerhoff (2006: 499–500) argue that chick lit articulates a distinctly postfeminist “sensibility” ; they contend:
chick lit novels construct an articulation or suture between feminism and femininity, and this is effected entirely through a grammar of individualism contradictory post-feminist discourses coexist [in chick lit] [i]n relation to sexual relationships a discourse of freedom, liberation, and pleasure-seeking sits alongside the equally powerful suggestion that married heterosexual monogamy more truly captures women’s real desires. In relation to beauty the claim that women are being beautiful only for themselves coexists with an acknowledgement of the hollowness of this and a recognition (of sorts) that a time-consuming labour of “beauty work” is necessary (within the terms of reference of these novels) to attract a male partner [t]hese contradictory discourses sit side by side in chick lit novels.
All of the essays in this collection engage, albeit in varying degrees, with the concept of postfeminism and its relationship to fictional depictions of gender roles, expectations and relations.
The essays collected in this issue and their organisation constitute a broad approach to chick lit which not only considers chick lit novels but also takes a wider view by exploring the impact of and responses to chick lit in the world of fiction. Rosalind Gill’s essay, ‘Lad lit as mediated intimacy: A postfeminist tale of female power, male vulnerability and toast’ focuses upon fiction which has, she points out, been variously characterised as an offshoot of and rejoinder to chick lit; Gill’s interrogation of lad lit, predicated upon the analysis of a corpora of some 20 lad lit novels, constitutes the first sustained scholarly analysis of this sub-genre.6 Gill situates lad lit within the emergence and growth of a range of other cultural products within which the figure of the ‘new lad’ appears: a distinct expression of masculinity “constructed around knowingly misogynist attitudes to women”. Drawing upon her own notion of ‘sensibility’, which aims to capture both the fluidity of a bricolage masculinity and the “affective, emotional or tonal qualities of lad productions”, and Imogen Tyler’s (Tyler quoted in Gill, this issue) concept of ‘figuration’ as “the ways in which at different historical and cultural moments, specific bodies become overdetermined and publicly imagined and represented (figured) in excessive, distorted and/or caricatured ways that are expressive of an underlying crisis or anxiety”, Gill examines the constructions of masculinity and gender relations in lad lit. In so doing, Gill brings to attention the construction of men and women in lad lit which presents men as disadvantaged in a new gender order that benefits women. Gill’s essay not only begins the task of an indepth interrogation of a genre hitherto lacking sustained examination, but also offers a nuanced and careful examination of the ways in which this riposte to chick lit authorises sexism whilst heading off potential critique.
Sarah Gamble’s essay, ‘When Romantic Heroines Turn Bad: The Rise of the Anti-Chicklit Novel’, examines the impact of chick lit upon the work of two writers who are not usually identified with the chick lit genre: Michéle Roberts and Carole Clewlow. Gamble argues that Roberts’s (2005) novel Reader I Married Him and Clewlow’s (2005) novel Not Married, Not Bothered exemplify what she terms the rise of the Anti-Chicklit novel. The anti-chicklit novel, Gamble contends, is typified by a “dialectic of participation and opposition” which is constituted by a straddling of two contradictory responses to chick lit: an acknowledgment of the lively and seductive nature of chick lit’s tales of independent women, and yet a deliberate opposition to and subversion of the romantic closure of many chick lit novels. Gamble’s essay brings to light the hitherto unexplored ways in which elements of these novels mark “both a point of contact with and a differentiation from mainstream chick lit” by examining the constructions of their heroines, the novels’ engagement with feminism and the romance plot, and the literary self-consciousness evident in both texts.
Imelda Whelehan’s essay, ‘Teening Chick Lit’, examines the impact of chick lit on girls’ teen fiction. Whelehan not only interrogates the similarities between chick lit and in particular the bestselling teen novel Meg Cabot’s (2000) The Princess Diaries, a ‘crossover’ author who also writes adult chick lit, but also compares Cabot’s novel with an earlier teen bestseller, Judy Bloom’s (1975) Forever. The similarities between chick lit and Cabot’s book, Whelehan argues, are manifest in narrative strategies and themes, including an urban setting, a concern with the quotidian, first person narration and a confessional tone. However, in comparing Cabot’s and Blume’s novels, and highlighting the shared tendencies of teen romance published a generation apart, Whelehan questions the critical efficacy of terms such as ‘teen chick lit’, or the term coined by Johnson (2006) ‘chick lit jnr’; their use, Whelehan contends, allows us to examine crossovers and tendencies and thus to interrogate chick lit which goes far beyond its original definition, but at the risk of neglecting the influence of other genres.
The following two essays return to what has been the principal focus of chick lit scholarship: the novels themselves. Elena Pérez-Serrano’s essay, ‘Chick Lit and Marian Keyes: The ideological background of the genre’, revisits one of the central concerns of chick lit scholarship: the relationship between chick lit and feminism. Pérez-Serrano’s essay moves away from the focus within the majority of prior chick lit scholarship on analysing narrative strategies and themes across several novels by concentrating on eight of Keyes’s novels as core representatives of the genre, in order to examine, as she puts it, the “ideological commitment” of chick lit. Georgina Isbister’s ‘Chick Lit: A Postfeminist Fairy Tale’ is the final essay in this issue. Isbister argues that chick lit redeploys fairytale tropes in what she terms a “popular postfeminist context”: in the quest for ‘true love’ chick lit employs several conventions of the romantic fairytale, but there is, she contends, a “‘postfeminist’ twist filtering the central fairy tale narrative through a lens dramatically shaped by the influence of feminism on late twentieth-century popular culture”. For Isbister, chick lit manifests a sub-genre of fairy tales which she terms the “postfeminist fairytale”, and which can be seen in an analysis of the very foundational novel of the genre: Bridget Jones’s Diary.
The articles in this issue constitute and demonstrate a broad approach to chick lit which reveals new avenues for analysis and revisits the themes and concerns that have preoccupied prior chick lit scholars. In so doing, this issue demonstrates the continued critical expediency of scholarly analyses of chick lit, despite claims for chick lit’s demise and/or its ephemerality (Knowles, 2004). Indeed, the essays contribute to an impetus to extend and develop analyses of chick lit, as, for example, scholars have begun to undertake analyses of the language of the novels (Montoro, 2007; Page, 2007; Gormley, forthcoming) and to embark upon studies of the ways in which actual readers engage with these novels (Knowles, 2008; Gormley, forthcoming). As scholarly analyses of chick lit are expanding in number and focus, the themes of chick lit novels are widening yet further with the emergence of paranormal or fantasy chick lit, exemplified by MaryJanice Davidson’s (2006) Undead and Unwed, Wendy Roberts’s (2005) Dating can be Deadly and Shanna Swedson’s (2005) Enchanted, Inc.—with the phrase Hex and the City on the front cover making the novel’s connection to the chick lit genre clear. Whether or not one agrees with Whelehan’s (this issue) suggestion that chick lit “has expanded to the extent that one could be forgiven for wondering if the epithet has any enduring significance or meaning any more, so wide is its application”, it would seem that it is not only academics who are considering the usefulness of the term. In 2008 the second Melissa Nathan Awards for Romantic Comedy were held; as reporters Emma Jones (2008) and Guy Dammann (2008), writing for the BBC and UK newspaper The Guardian respectively, were quick to point out the label ‘romantic comedy’ refers to chick lit and may, in part, demonstrate an attempt at rebranding which emphasises chick lit’s comic aspects rather than the romance plot. Potential rebranding or not, as the essays collected in this issue show, there is yet much to occupy chick lit scholars.
1 A relatively recent exemplar of the use of the word chick by women to describe themselves is the successful UK release in July 2005 of Charlotte Church’s single entitled Crazy Chick. Furthermore, I have observed groups of women of varying ages in the workplace, university classroom, and beauty salon address each other as “chick”.
2Diane Goodman is concerned with Chris Mazza’s (1995) anthology Chick-Lit: Postfeminist Fiction published in the US, in which Mazza hyphenates the term. Goodman considers the pronunciation of chick-lit in terms of syllables, pronounced, for example, as a spondee with the two syllables equally stressed. I have modified Goodman’s argument to take into account the un-hyphenated form of the term, as Goodman’s comments work equally well for either form.
3As Squires (2007) points out, both quantitative data and qualitative analyses would need to be employed to interrogate claims for a ‘dumbing down’ of the publishing industry in general.
4As I argue elsewhere (Gormley, forthcoming), there is a telling difference between the cover art and cover copy for Fielding’s novel and the design of later chick lit cover art; briefly, the former plays with a subtle life-art tension and positions the novel between the assumed provinces of literary and popular fiction, whilst the latter positions the novels as non-serious entertainment, a light read, further emphasised by the back cover copy which predominantly emphasises the romance element.
5As Gill points out, this establishment of “the clear blue water of gender difference” is also supported by the upsurge of discount book clubs which are increasingly, according to Gill, using gender differentiation as their central marketing tool (Gill, 2003: 51).
6Kate Dorney (2004) has previously discussed lad lit, but her focus was not solely upon the genre.
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