Choose carefully: Chicks or lits?

Who said beating a dead horse does no good?

Published August 11, 2006 10:12PM (EDT)

Having never read anything that might plausibly be described as chick lit (I spare Jane Austen that distinction, for good reason), I refuse to take sides in the umpteenth and newly roiling debate over the genre. But here's a recap of the ruckus: This round started with the recent publication of the anthology "This Is Not Chick Lit" and its forthcoming rival "This Is Chick Lit;" the Huffington Post's Rachel Sklar has played moderator.

Elizabeth Merrick, the editor of "This Is Not Chick Lit," says the genre "numbs our senses" and "shuts down our consciousness," whereas literature "grants us access to countless new cultures, places, and inner lives." Rachel Pine, a contributor to "This Is Chick Lit," counters that Merrick's definition is unfairly blinkered: "The idea that the plot is 'Girl in big city desperately searches for Mr. Right in between dieting and shopping for shoes,' as noted on the back-cover copy of 'This Is Not Chick Lit' is incorrect and shows an unwillingness to really look at the genre with any degree of objectivity."

Much of the problem begins at the publishing house. I go into embarrassing, flailing convulsions when I pass the pink ghetto at my local chain bookstore, but it's the packaging I'm allergic to. That's why I adore HuffPo's recent Photoshopping endeavor in response to the recent debate. Their reworking of the covers of the so-dubbed "big boy books" underscores just how toxic chick-lit marketing can be. Seeing Tom Friedman's blockbuster "The World Is Flat" recast as a pink-hued suburban cartoon underscores how gendered book design has become. Would the same audience have bought Benjamin Klunkel's "Indecision" if the cover had displayed a gaggle of high-heeled feet?

That's not to say that all -- or even most -- chick lit qualifies as intelligent, masterful storytelling. And it shouldn't have to be. Some of us would just like to stop the trend of all writing by women being painted with the same broad brush. Ian McEwan and Clive Cussler are very different writers, and there's room for them both; there's no reason that all literature by women should have a pair of pink shoes on the cover. Publishers, take note!

Still, the current chick-lit death match may be for a good cause. Sklar sums it up nicely on HuffPo: "We're in a place where 'This Is Chick Lit' and 'This Is Not Chick Lit' can coexist side by side, each making their own arguments for why women writers can be funny, serious, smart, goofy, sexy, literary, poetic, or alternatively a guilty or not-so-guilty pleasure. This, as it turns out, is discourse -- and as long as it's showcasing some good, smart, accomplished women writers, then I think it takes us that much closer to turning the chick lit frog into a prince."

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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