It's Only Pink on the Outside*
My new novel just hit the shelves. Wrapped in Bubble-Yum pink, bearing a title one reviewer calls “ultra-light,” Thou Shalt Not Dump the Skater Dude will vie for the attention of young readers across the country.
I’m thrilled by my book’s cover. Against that quite-pink backdrop is a stylized photo of a lithe-bodied skater dude in mid-flight. When I imagine potential readers perusing the shelves of their libraries, or scanning the packed rows of teen titles at the mall, I’m glad my book is dressed in hot pink with a hot guy on top. The designer, Nancy Brennan of Viking, did a fabulous job. Her work will catch eyes and entice would-be readers to take a look inside. The rest will be up to me. I’m pretty confident that the words I’ve committed to the page, the characters I’ve created and the situations I’ve put them in will keep readers reading.
But I must admit I’m not thrilled with the associations that come with a pink cover. I cringe a bit before showing my new book to my colleagues at the college where I teach, and have to stop myself from assuring them that “It’s only pink on the outside.” Nothing says “chick lit!” louder than a loud pink cover. And nothing says “Not serious!” louder than the term “chick lit.”
Books about teen girls have been graced with pink (and other bright, cheerfully-colored) covers for years now. But it’s only recently that I’ve begun to hear the term “chick lit,” so widely and unquestioningly tossed around in the YA world. Editors blithely use it to describe books they publish. Librarians cheerfully assemble chick lit reading lists. Some YA authors happily embrace the label for their books.
Well, not me.
Maybe I’m too much of an old-school feminist. Maybe I’m just too old. Maybe I was scarred for life when my graduate school professor approvingly echoed Nathaniel Hawthorne’s complaint about the “damned mob of scribbling women” depriving him of his due and threatening the very existence of American Literature. I can’t help it, my knee just jerks every time I hear those two little words.
Judging by what I see and hear around me, it may already be too late, but I’d like to suggest we pause and ponder a bit before we accept this ill-fitting hand-me-down label for our books—and our readers.
After all, in adult publishing, a lively debate has gone on about what “chick lit” means and whose work it should or shouldn’t apply to. Things got down and dirty this summer when debut novelist Curtis Sittenfeld (Prep) opened her New York Times review of Melissa Bank’s novel The Wonder Spot this way: “To suggest that another woman's ostensibly literary novel is chick lit feels catty, not unlike calling another woman a slut—doesn’t the term basically bring down all of us?” After suggesting the term “brings down all” women writers, Sittenfeld went on to count the ways in which she found Bank’s novel “lightweight” (i.e. slutty chick lit.—Jennifer Weiner took down Sittenfeld’s take-down here.)
Bank, whose Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing is often cited as one of the books that started it all, said in a recent interview that she doesn’t “feel good” about the chick lit label because it implies a book is “more chick and less lit.” Like “African-American or gay literature . . . It puts [books] in a category that says, Oh, you’ll want to read this if you’re one of ‘them’—that it’s not really for everybody. It’s a code word for limited audience or limited appeal.”
Another round in the chick (lit) fight started when Random House announced plans for a new anthology titled, This is Not Chick Lit: A Collection of Original Stories by America's Best Women Writers (Curtis Sittenfeld among them). In true fighting form, champions of chick lit have published their own anthology, Flirting with Pride and Prejudice: Fresh Perspectives on the Original Chick-Lit Masterpiece, claiming one of the WORLD’s best women writers for their team. (“Jane Austen, she’s our chick . . .” )
The day I started this essay, participants in a YA-oriented listserv were asked for titles by someone wanting to start a chick lit club at a high school. Suggestions ranged from Pride and Prejudice to the lightest of the light contemporary series books. But nobody in this exchange questioned the use of the term, no one asked whether was a good idea to label all books about women and girls with this catch-all phrase. If “chick lit” includes works by Jane Austen and Cecily Von Ziegesar (author of the Gossip Girl series), then what can that label possibly mean except “for girls”?
There's some question about the origin of the term "Chick Lit." A bookseller I know claims she and her colleagues have been using it for years, since way back before Bridget Jones. The first time I ever heard the phrase was when it was used in the title of a 1995 anthology of experimental, “postfeminist” fiction published by a small literary press in Normal, Illinois. The anthology, according to editor Cris Mazza, featured stories about women who were “independent and confident,” women who could “love until they hurt someone, turn their own hurt into love, refuse to love, or even ignore the notion of love completely as they confront the other 90% of life.”
If this were 1995, I might not quibble about semantics. My own pink-wrapped, lightly-titled book is about a girl who, while as interested in love as the next girl, chooses to spend time thinking about “the other 90% of life.” Why, for example, she lives a life of material comfort while some kids her age live on the streets. Or how it is that teenagers label not only each other but themselves, and how those self-imposed labels can be as limiting as those foisted on them by their peers.
But it’s 2005, and “chick-lit” has, as Mazza recently lamented in an essay for Poets & Writers, been completely co-opted. (She calls it a “perversion.”) As writers of books about teenagers, we should know a thing or two about the damage a label can do, about how hard it can be to escape a label once it’s been slapped on you.
Why slap one on ourselves? How about we call our books . . . books?
* Full disclosure: I've recently purchased an ad on the website teenchicklit.com. I discovered Rian Montgomery's site, and her very able, thoughtful defense of "chick lit" only after finishing this little rant. Does this make me a hypocrite? Maybe. Maybe it makes me a realist. I welcome your thoughts.