With Summer Reading Season in Full Swing, Rutgers Professors Deconstruct 'Chick Lit'
Not to panic, Jane Austen. The Devil Wears Prada isn’t nudging Pride and Prejudice off the canon of great literature any time soon.
But the genre often called – derisively, condescendingly -- “chick lit” has its defenders. Some Rutgers academics say novels such as The Nanny Diaries and Confessions of a Shopaholic have merit in their own right, both as a mirror on contemporary society and as a portal into future reading.
Or, as Paul Blaney suggests, perhaps not entirely tongue-in-cheek, “Why should everybody have to read literature with a capital L when some of this other stuff is more interesting?”
Blaney, who teaches writing in the School of Arts and Sciences and is a widely published short-story writer, is one of several Rutgers professors who shared their sometimes surprising observations as the summer beach-reading season was getting into full swing, including the fact that its practitioners often bristle at the very term.
“Women writers understandably resist and resent the term ‘chick lit,’ ” says Lauren Grodstein, a professor of English at Rutgers-Camden who has two non-chick lit novels under her belt: A Friend of the Family and Reproduction is the Flaw of Love, as well as a short-story collection. “Too often, women writers are not given their due, and when they write about domestic fare, it’s too easy to put them into a ghetto. That’s demeaning.”
What exactly are we talking about when we talk about “chick lit?” Perhaps it’s easiest to describe its fan base, suggests Carolyn Williams, professor and chair of the Department of English in the School of Arts and Sciences.
“The target audience is women,” Williams says simply. She likens chick lit to its celluloid cousin, the chick flick.
“They both focus on relationships and other things that are supposed to be of greater interest to women than to men – fashion, for example,” Williams says. And the packaging of both – frothy covers for the books, repartee-filled trailers for the movies – provides a signal to potential consumers, she suggests: “Time off from more serious concerns.”
Annie Papreck King, an assistant professor of English in the School of Arts and Sciences, says tone and content drive the chick-lit market.
“It’s the same plot we have seen from Shakespeare to Austen to 99 percent of the romantic comedies that Hollywood churns out: Guy and girl meet, complications and misunderstandings develop, complications and misunderstandings are resolved, guy and girl wind up together in the end,” King says.
“But I don’t mean to come across in a denigrating tone at all,” she adds: “We all know how it’s going to end, but we still love to see how we’re going to get there.”
Blaney, a writer-in-residence at Rutgers who teaches a seminar on writing, agrees that the novels trend toward the formulaic.
“Very often, it’s women who find the wrong man. He’s kind of dashing and charming, and when it all goes wrong and she subsequently has her heart broken, she takes up with the less good-looking but more solid man,” Blaney says.
Grodstein detects what she terms “a certain aspirational element” to the themes: “The characters tend to live in London, New York, San Francisco; they tend to meet the ‘ideal’ guy. These books are read by women who are not going to go out and meet Mr. Perfect, but who see a pleasing model and a nice escape in what they’re reading,” she says.
But it’s risky to overgeneralize, the Rutgers experts warn.
“Men write domestic books, too, and as a woman writer I can’t help suspect that men writing about these issues are taken more seriously by taste-makers – critics, members of awards committees – than their women counterparts,” Grodstein says, citing Jonathan Franzen as one successful male writer who chronicles family life in his books.
Moreover, the genre has antecedents that go back centuries, both in England and in the United States.
“Abolitionist literature has tropes that we can now look at and see chick lit reflected in,” Grodstein says. “Same with the Bronte sisters, and Jane Austen. But these are also books that critics and readers would agree have great literary merit, and I don’t think their modern incarnations would have the same credibility.”
Last spring, Annie King taught a course entitled “Introduction to Women Writers,” which began with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and ended with Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, a retelling of the Austen classic.
“The students loved it, but so many of them told me about roommates or even strangers on the bus who couldn’t believe Fielding was actually assigned for a college course!” King recalls. “Fielding’s chick lit, though, when taken in tandem with Austen, worked so well to show the students that all of the issues women had to deal with during Austen’s time had not disappeared 200 years later.”
Where the two literary traditions diverge is not necessarily in the choice of topic, Williams notes, but rather in the author’s handling of it.
“I don’t agree that Austen is a forerunner of chick lit – except in the sense that the genre of the novel in general was sometimes thought to be particularly read by women – but Austen is definitely lit lit,” the department chair says. “Austen and other classic novelists might focus on romance, but the romance element is always situated within a certain density of concern with other cultural and political issues – social class, say, or politics, or war.
“I think maybe chick lit is chick lit because it doesn’t offer that dense web of contextualization, so a reader can just focus on the romance.”
Jennifer Weiner, arguably the American author most associated with the genre, told USA Today last month that the narratives she and her colleagues tell go beyond “sex, shoes and shopping.”
“‘Real’ chick lit speaks very personally to women about their lives and about their choices,” Weiner said. “Those books are always going to be with us. Women want to read stories about characters who feel familiar and whose choices feel relatable.”