The unexpected feminism of chick lit

Eleven years ago Random House published a collection of stories by young authors, some of those that at that time were considered the most promising female voices of literary fiction: for example Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who is 2013 would have achieved a global success with the Americanah novel and with the pamphlet We should all be feminists (both out in Italy for Einaudi) and Jennifer Egan , Pulitzer Prize in 2011 with Time is a Bastard (published by minimum fax). The collection was called This Is Not Chick Lit. Original Stories by America’s Best Women Writers. The message he wanted to send: “This is literature, ok, written by women, but literature, not one of those books with pink covers and a glass of martini thrown in there somewhere”. The subtext, the malicious ones would point out, is that, if not otherwise specified, pink cover frivolities and martini glass were precisely what one would have expected from a collection of all-female stories.

Much more recently, Lucinda Rosenfeld, a New York writer, has written an interesting piece on Lit Hub that talks about chick lit. Rosenfeld – whose fifth novel, Class, has just been released in America – had discovered with great sorrow that she had been called a “lit chick”, a “literary girl”, by the New York Review of Books. The author’s pride was not hurt by having been called a “girl” when she was on the threshold of middle age (although no one would dream of calling Jonathan Franzen a “lit boy”, even if it is almost his own the same age). Rather, the indirect implication of those words bothered her: it was enough to reverse the order of factors, and immediately her novel was put in the same category as Sophie Kinsella’s I Love Shopping series and Bridget Jones’s Diary. What a chauvinist! Rosenfeld thought at first. But then he began to wonder if the opposite was not true: perhaps, rather than using the term chick lit, it is to despise it which indicates a lack of respect for women.
The author defines chick lit as «that amorphous and often denigrated subgenre of female fiction that tends to concentrate on forty-year-old brave and often unlucky heroines, in search of love». It is a category, he continues, easily accused of being “crap and escapism from reality”, so one understands why the juxtaposition of it has not filled it with joy. However, Rosenfeld thinks, his reaction, and more generally that widespread attitude of denigrating the chick lit, is problematic: “It is a way of giving a reason to those critics who, for much of the twentieth century, conceived the Great American novel as a project by male definition ».
One of the main problems of the term chick lit is to establish what belongs to this category. Of course, the most glaring cases do not require a debate to be included (the aforementioned Kinsella and Bridget Jones , for example), but according to a broader sense the definition of chick lit can be applied to any work of fiction written by women for women, and where the romantic aspect plays a fundamental role. According to this criterion, Rosenfeld notes, today we will define Jane Austen as chick lit. His argument is not very different from that of those who – perhaps to criticize an obsession perhaps a little too contemporary in separating genre literature from literature, well, literary – maintains that, if only it had been published in the bookstore this year, The young Holden would have ended up on the Young adult shelves.

If Anna Karenina had been written by Lea Tolstoy, would it have been considered a work of universal value?

The term chick lit dates back to the mid-nineties, and it is more or less since it was born that people discuss whether it is derogatory or not. According to some, it was the essayist Cris Mazza who coined it, to indicate what he considered a “post-feminist” form of fiction, although others claim that the expression existed ” on an informal level»Practically always. But it was the release of the first chapter of Bridget Jones, in 1995, to popularize the term: the British media immediately took possession of it to describe the light and very “en rose” touch of Helen Fielding. Doris Lessing hastened to describe the newly baptized literary genre as “something worthy of being immediately forgotten”. Gloria Steinem, on the other hand, argued that the mere fact that there was a particular term for naming works written by-women-for-women was indicative of a double standard: “Let’s think about it: if Anna Karenina had been written by Lea Tolstoy, or if The Scarlet Letter had been written by Nancy Hawthorne, or if Madame Bovary had it been the work of Greta Flaubert … would they also have been considered works of universal value? ” It is likely – added a few years later Marian Keyes, author of books often referred to as chick lit – that it is a word invented specifically ” to humiliate women and what women love “.

But others have pointed out that there is nothing wrong with using the expression chick lit, let alone reading it: let’s call it a “genre that mostly speaks of sex, shoes and shopping,” wrote Diane Shipley in Guardian. There is no risk of confusion with George Eliot or Virginia Woolf, but it is not a good reason to understand it in a derogatory sense. Above all it does not mean that his admirers (indeed, admirers) are idiots: “One of the biggest misunderstandings about chick lit is that the chick-lit readers read only novels of this kind”. On the other hand, when it is proven that one can safely range from Tolstoy to Sophie Kinsella.