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Sunday, November 13, 2005

It's Only Pink on the Outside*

(This essay appears in the February 2006 issue of VOYA.)

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 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.


Anonymous E. Lockhart said...

Very interesting, Rosemary!
Did you see the piece Jennifer Weiner wrote for Beatrice on the subject? Then Megan Crane and I carried on the discussion.
Here's the link to the thing with me and Megan, and it then links to the thing Weiner wrote, in which she said something to the effect of If I am a Pink Lady, then those others (the academic female novelists, the camp Sittenfeld wants to be in) are Gray Ladies.
I am still somewhat unsure how I feel about the pink -- and the label.

Anyway, the URl is below - and thanks for the thoughtful article.
Megan Crane & E. Lockhat's Pink Lady-Vassar Girl dialog

3:56 AM  
Anonymous Mary Pearson said...

Rosemary, I am so glad you posted this! I was beginning to think I was the only one who had a problem with the term, "chick lit." I don't like it one bit. To me, it is dismissive and insulting and might as well be bimbo-lit. True, maybe I am old school feminist and anyone raised after the 60's just doesn't carry the same connotions with the term.

And also, as you mentioned, it seems like a label that says, don't read this book if you are a boy. And that seems to be a double standard too, that we accept without question that girls will read boy books but boys won't read girls books. Giving the label "chick lit" to a whole chunk of books guarantees they won't be read by boys. What is the male counterpart? Shall we label books like HATCHET, and IRONMAN as "dude lit" so that girls won't ever think of opening them?

On the other hand, I notice that both you and I are from California. Maybe it is a regional thing and we bring more to the term than others do. I've queried some of my friends in other states and they don't seem to have a problem with it--but then again they are younger than me. I will be interested in seeing how others weigh in on this.

11:13 AM  
Blogger cc said...

I remember someone saying that I write YA Chick Lit and being confused. I never thought I wrote chick lit, I just write. But I'll tell you, I love Chick Flicks.

I think they should come up with a new genre, DICK LIT


The thing about the chick flick moniker is that it makes it seem easily dismissable as irrelevant or not deep. But it's not.


And pink, well, pink is fabulous, pink like my clogs, like my t-shirt, like my oven mitts, like my crepe pan.

12:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hmm... hmm... yes. well.

I like pink. Lots. I am wearing pink shoes and sitting on pink sheets. I think pink is a lovely, eye-catching colour for a book jacket.

But I am loathe to use the term "chick lit" for YA books. I don't like that *every book written by a woman* or *every book with love in it* seems to be thrown into that category, where because it seems like just a way to denegrate them. I don't like the words "chick lit" any more than I like the words "kiddie lit". In fact, both of those words REALLY piss me off. To me, both categorizations are insulting and demeaning.

While I think it is cool that 'pink' girls are popular, I would REALLY REALLY DEARLY LOVE to see publishers putting money behind books with DIFFERENT types of women featured, without them automatically being categorized as boring, literary, 'grey' books. How about we celebrate the electric blue girls and the crimson dames?

(Also, Rosemary, I haven't read your book yet, but it is very cute and on display!)

Jennifer aka
literaticat @ livejournal

1:38 PM  

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