People outside of the book world often apply the Chick-Lit genre to any book told from the perspective of a woman or that is appealing to women, but it is actually MUCH more specific than that.
Like general women’s fiction, Chick-Lit addresses issues of womanhood but it does so in a humorous and lighthearted fashion. Both women’s fiction and Chick-Lit deal in similar themes—love, marriage, fidelity, work, friendship—and are written by women for women. The difference is largely a question of tone. Regular women’s fiction, like the novels written by Maeve Binchy or Elizabeth Berg, tends to be bit more serious and down to earth. Chick-Lit, on the other hand, is distinguished by its humor and “hipness”. Chick-Lit novels are full of plucky, wisecracking characters, ridiculous situations and trendy, urban locales. Pop culture and fashion factor very heavily—great shoes, trendy drinks and jobs in publishing or fashion. The characters’ ages are also important here. Chick-Lit almost always posits young women setting out to conquer the world in their own way. In the past, Chick-Lit was most easily distinguished by its marketing attempts – specifically its girly covers, often featuring a shoe, martini or tube of lipstick.
Over the last decade, the term “Chick-Lit” has become an increasingly unappealing label both for young female authors and their readers. A few years ago author Polly Courtney wrote about her decision to drop her publisher, HarperCollins, after it tried to “shoe-horn” her new novel into a “frilly, Chick-Lit” package. When the girly cover doesn’t reflect the story inside, she writes, everyone is disappointed: “the author, for seeing his or her work portrayed as such; the readers, for finding there is too much substance in the plot; and the passers-by, who might actually have enjoyed the contents but dismissed the book on the grounds of its frivolous cover.”
More recently, publishers have moved away the Chick-Lit label and the overly girly covers. Is this because authors like Courtney are resisting the label? Or because there is less traditional Chick-Lit being produced? Or is it just because the girly-glam Chick-Lit branding is no longer trendy? I believe it is a combination of all of these factors. The fact of the matter is that we are no longer living in the 1990s and early 2000s, when Chick-Lit had its heyday. The lifestyles portrayed by Sex and the City and the like, with their $800 designer shoes, simply feel out of touch. There’s no question that the evolution of Chick-Lit is a reflection of our current social and economic circumstances.
Is this to say that Chick-Lit is no longer being produced? Of course not, but it is usually not being called Chick-Lit or branded with a shoe on the cover. There are still plenty of light and fluffy books that feature young women out to make their mark, but these days the stories are generally tempered with a dose of reality. For example, Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close paints a realistic picture of 20-something girls in New York City. They are “hip”, smart women living in the big city but they also struggle with the job market and money issues, frequent not-so-glamorous dive bars, and date not-so-charming men. Other examples of realistic novels in the contemporary women category (which is generally the label being used in place of “Chick-Lit”) are Me Before You/After You/Still Me by Jojo Moyes, Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan and many of the books by Jane Green, Cecilia Ahern and Marian Keyes.
Even Sophie Kinsella, of Confessions of a Shopaholic fame, has moved away from the glamour of her earlier books. In last year’s My Not So Perfect Life, the protagonist is only masquerading as a glamour girl on social media. In reality, she has recently been fired and forced to move back in with her parents on their family farm.
Surprise Me, Kinsella’s 2018 release, deals with marital discord. At first, I wasn’t sold on the premise. It follows a married couple who are informed by their doctor that they are healthy enough to potentially have 60+ more years together. For some reason, this prospect throws them into disarray. Talk about first world problems! Thankfully, the plot thickens (and deepens!) as the story continues. They decide to plan little surprises for each other to liven things up and discover in the process that maybe they don’t know each other as well as they thought. It’s still a charming, funny read that offers plenty of escapism, but the premise is a bit more down to earth than Confessions of a Shopaholic. That said, Shopaholic dealt with a young woman batting shopping addiction/consumer debt, so maybe it wouldn’t be considered so out of place in this new onslaught of realistic, issue-driven Chick-Lit after all.
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This article was originally published in the April edition of Cover to Cover in The Napanee Guide.