Harlequin vs. hero’s journey: “chick lit” trivializes good literature

The internalized sexism of woman-only literary genres

American author Jodi Picoult has written nearly two dozen successful  novels, but is often branded as a writer of “airport fiction.”
American author Jodi Picoult has written nearly two dozen successful novels, but is often branded as a writer of “airport fiction.”
Credit: 
Supplied by Lauren Gerson

Many of my favourite novels — books that made me laugh, cry, and envy the ability of the author — have been forced into tight genres like “chick lit” and “airport fiction” simply because they happen to be written by women. 

While I’ve never been a fan of squeezing my scattered taste in books into tight genres, the tendency to routinely label a novel by a female author as a “women’s book” or “chick lit” is telling of a larger issue in the literary world.

After years of reading young adult novels, I made my entrance into the intimidating “adult fiction” aisles of the library. American author Jodi Picoult was the author of the first few novels I picked up and truly loved.

Picoult has written 23 novels during her prolific career, and the last eight have been New York Times bestsellers. One of her most famous novels, My Sister’s Keeper, was adapted into a Hollywood feature film starring Abigail Breslin and Cameron Diaz.

Nudrat Kamal of The Express Tribune remarked that Picoult has written about everything “from mercy killings and school shootings to childhood leukaemia and stem-cell research.” 

Yet her novels are often marketed as harlequin romances and thrown casually onto articles like StyleCaster’s “The Smart Girl’s Guide to Summer Beach Reads” and The Guardian’s list of “airport novels” with a “flippant, disposable feel to them.” 

Not long ago, I read the novel The Corrections by acclaimed American author Jonathan Franzen. It, too, was complex. It was about love and family and vulnerability. In a world where labels like “chick lit” didn’t exist, Franzen’s and Picoult’s novels would fall under the same category. However, Franzen’s novel has been compared to classic works — James Wood of The Guardian called it a “Bleak House of the digital age” and an “intellectual critique … on human beings.” 

There’s a gaping difference there. The sexism of the literary world lies beneath reviews that brand prolific female writers like Jodi Picoult as writers of “chick lit” while loudly declaring Franzen a modern-day Dickens.

Picoult isn’t just painfully aware of this double standard — she publicly resents it. In an interview with Bryony Gordon of The Telegraph, she addressed it directly.

“If a woman had written One Day [by David Nicholls], it would have been airport fiction,” Picoult said. “Look at The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. If I had written that, it would have had a pink, fluffy cover on it.”

Fabricated genres like “chick lit” and book lists with titles like “the 20 best reads for women this summer” uphold a male-dominated literary canon by belittling and trivializing the worth of talented female authors.

Author Shazaf Fatima Haider, whose novel How it Happened was immediately branded “chick lit” in 2012, said it best in an interview for The Express Tribune. 

“It is a novel about marriage and weddings and is, therefore, usually considered as a woman-only book, which is a bit of a daft and one-dimensional way of look at it,” Haider said. “But that’s our gendered outlook at life for you.” 

Terms like “chick lit” are obviously degrading, but I’m just as perplexed by Amazon’s subcategory in their books section titled “women writers and fiction.” The category, which is hundreds of pages long, features authors from Maeve Binchy to Virginia Woolf to J.K. Rowling. 

It’s a meaningless label when being a woman is the only condition for inclusion on the list. Where’s the category titled “men’s popular fiction”? There isn’t one, because men’s fiction is the default — men’s fiction is just fiction. Literature can be a tool for change, social movement and political voice. And yet, the literary world itself has miles to go. 

When I read Lisa Genova’s Still Alice this weekend, a novel that has been adapted into an award-winning feature film, I’ll know that I’m reading literature. Not chick lit. Not airport fiction. I am reading acclaimed, worthy, intellectual literature.

In the novel of gender equity, it seems many are still on the first chapter.

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