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Friday, May 15, 2009


[Note: I originally posted this when I was guest blogging at Insideadog on February 6th, 2008. I'm so hopping mad* about something I read today that I am reposting it. It will be new to a lot of people, I think.]

Today’s post was inspired by the lovely ladies at Trashonista, who quoted my beloved agent, Daphne. Let’s talk Chick Lit. Why not? Everyone else has done it!

The first and most important thing about this blog post is the TOTAL LACK OF RESEARCH that went into it. I have worked hard on not researching this entry, so don’t go spoiling it for me by sending me links to intelligent articles and posts. My hands are unsullied by the virtual ink of information, and I plan to keep them that way.

When I was both a tiny and a medium-sized mj making my way through writing school, I had two handy categories:

1. Things I thought were useful for writing
2. Things I did not find useful for writing

My two category system has worked like a charm in my professional life.

I like books by writers that are written well and say interesting things about writing. I like books that point out, in lovely, concrete ways, why other books are good and how to make your writing strong. I tremble in awe before essays like “Politics and the English Language”by George Orwell. I enjoy Edmund Wilson explaining his thoughts on why people read detective stories. Vladmir Nabokov’s essays on Russian and English literature will cause your brain to melt in delight.** These things are useful.

Generally, as soon as I see an “ism,”I go and curl up on the carpet for a nice nap. “Ism’s” are not useful to me. I write every single day, and never once has an “ism” helped me to put together a better sentence. “Ism’s” seem useful only to people who like to talk to other people about “ism’s,” which I don’t, so it all kind of works out.

And same goes for labels. I pay zero attention to labels for books. I prefer not to know how a book is classed. I had no idea what Urban Fantasy was when I read an Urban Fantasy that I thought was terrible. Luckily, I had no idea what I’d done . . . because I might not have read more! I might not have known that I love Urban Fantasy! I might not have read Holly Black, Scott Westerfeld, Justine Larbalstier, or Cassie Clare (to name just a few).

So when everyone was debating about “Chick Lit,” I was probably off eating a sandwich somewhere and missed the whole thing. Which was fine by me. Except that I kept getting these interview questions over and over again, people asking me about my favorite “fellow Chick Lit writers” or how I felt about something “as a Chick Lit writer.”

And I was all . . . “I’m a Chick Lit writer? What the @&#$^ is that?” I am always the last to know.

My true confession is . . . I was kind of insulted. I mean, I went to a Fancy Ivy League University Writing Program and everything. I have shelves full of Serious Books. I had only a vague idea what Chick Lit was, but as far as I could tell, it dealt with three things: marriage, romance, and shoes. And I had a strike against each.

Romance: When my first boyfriend showed up at my door with flowers, my first response wasn’t to swoon. I believe what I said was, “What are these for?” He said our one month anniversary. And I just started laughing at him . . . because, one month anniversary? What? ***

Shoes: As I have revealed in the past . . . I kind of hate shoes. I pointedly look forward to the day when we can get rid of feet entirely and just have cool hoverboard-like things welded to our ankles.

Marriage: I have only ever owned one book on marriage. It was called Loving: Marriage and Family Lifestyles and it was one of my required textbooks for senior year religion, and all I did all year long in senior year religion was deface my copy of Loving: Marriage and Family Lifestyles.

Evidence: a page from the Loving book belonging to Maureen Johnson, classroom 2A. I was not being particularly subtle on this occasion. Some of my graffiti over the pictures is highly nuanced.

The only thing I really did know was that a lot of people spoke derisively of Chick Lit, basically using it as a synonym for trash and often connecting it to the word “mindless.” I heard there was a whole book dedicated to NOT being Chick Lit, and that Gloria Steinem was quoted on the cover and everything.

Why was everyone lumping me in with this? What a conundrum! I figured I’d better ask around and get more information.

“It’s your covers,” someone told me. “It’s because the girls have no heads. Well, they have heads, but they don’t have tops of heads.”

I wrote this down.

“It’s the romance,” someone else said.

I wrote this down.

“It’s the light, breezy tone you adopt,” said someone else. “Humor."

I wrote this down.

“You should just put zombies in your books,” Justine Larbalestier said. “I don’t care about your question. Just put in zombies. Zombies make everything better.”****

Someone else told me that Chick Lit is about shopping, but I don’t write about shopping. And yet . . . I am Chick Lit. Yet another person told me it was about sassy young women in the city, which I never wrote about until Suite Scarlett. And yet, I am Chick Lit. Person number fifty-seven told me it was something about women who work for magazines, which I have never written about. And yet, I am Chick Lit.

“Oh, most important,” said the last person. “You’re female. Guys don’t write Chick Lit. They tried to make up a male equivalent term, but it never really took off.”

The only real defining characteristic is that it means books written by women.

Literary terms and theories are pretty jelloid at the best of times. Unlike scientific theories, they can’t be tested or proven—not in any cool ways. You can’t, for example, “prove” new historicism by putting it in a hyperbolic chamber with a weasel. (I assume that this must be the scientific test for something. It sounds very scientific.)

Where is our science when we need it?

When you write about books, you can talk about of your butt a lot and no one can do anything about it. If you’re wrong, no one will die. Nothing will explode. Being busy/lazy, I am generally all for this kind of thing.

If established literary terms are stable as jello molds, then Chick Lit is a soufflé sitting on a fault line. It only means whatever the latest and most effective argument says it means. Or whatever you guess it means. Or whatever Wikipedia says it means. Whether the books under the banner are in any way similar (except for the sex of their authors) . . . well, that’s another question. I’ve seen all kinds of weird and wonderful books that have gotten stuck with the label. It’s very arbitrary.

Normally, this issue would instantly fail my “is it useful?” test. By rights, I should be curled up in my favorite spot, ignoring it. I do, after all, have many fears to cultivate and shiny things to covet. My time on this earth is not infinite, you know. Besides, I don’t mind being classified with other Chick Lit writers. Meg Cabot, for instance, is the queen of YA Chick Lit (or so I hear). And if you want to lump me in with Meg, GO RIGHT AHEAD.

Some people are adamant that I am not Chick Lit, which is fine too. The only problem I see is . . . there is so much negativity around a term that can really only be pinpointed as meaning female-centered. The rest is just waffle. And that does bug me.

You know, there was a very good reason that Dorothy Parker wrote (or at least was rumored to have written) “Please God, let me write like a man.” She was a great writer, but as long as she wrote about women as a woman, as long as she cracked her jokes, as long as she made her sly observations about female society . . . she wasn’t creating literature. Or so it was often perceived. Many of her male friends thought she was and promoted her relentlessly. Dorothy Parker was one of her own harshest critics.

And so it seems to be with Chick Lit. The harshest words about this term seem to be coming from other women, often under the guise of promoting the work of women. *****

Ladies, why the loathing? Do we really have nothing better to do than slap each other around over some bogus umbrella term?

Anyway, if you want to call me Chick Lit, that’s fine. I’ll just take it to mean that I write like a woman. And there ain’t nothing wrong with that.

It’s when you start calling me “Jellyfish Lit” that we’re going to have a problem.

* and lazy

** I put in these fancy names to make it sound like I know what I am talking about. This is a sure sign I have been to graduate school.

*** If any of you have read The Key to the Golden Firebird, I basically give May my response when Pete shows up at the door with flowers. Poor Pete.

**** She is right.

***** Make sure to reread that first paragraph about not doing any research. It is really quite critical to my argument.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I object to your implying that jellyfish would not write good books. How do you know until we invent a tentacle friendly keyboard? HMM?

Also, The End of Mr. Y, by Scarlett Thomas, is classed as chick lit. It is one of the awesomest, grippingest and intelligent....est books I have ever read, and only about 1 in 10 men I know of would be clever enough to understand it, maybe less. So if chick lit is supposed to be dumb, and not 'proper' literature, someone, somewhere has got things very confused...

- Ali x

10:52 PM  
Blogger Chris Hall said...

"Chick lit is a term used to denote genre fiction within women's fiction written for and marketed to young women, especially single, working women in their twenties and thirties. The genre sells well, with chick lit titles topping bestseller lists and the creation of imprints devoted entirely to chick lit. It generally deals with the issues of modern women humorously and lightheartedly.[1]

Although usually including romantic elements, women's fiction (including chick lit) is generally not considered a direct subcategory of the romance novel genre, because in women's fiction the heroine's relationship with her family or friends may be just as important as her relationship with the hero.[2]" - Wikipedia

I'm not sure if that is at ALL helpful.

I love this line from the Wikipedia page best: "Publishers continue to push the sub-genre because of its viability as a sales tactic. Various other terms have been coined as variant in attempts to attach themselves to the perceived marketability of the work."

So, who reads more (very generalized here), women or men?

11:06 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I don't understand the people. First we label people now we label books? Oh well, your "Chick Lit" books are amazing :]

12:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This won't be much of a comment, just enough to tell you that I have too much to say in a comment and will rant in my own blog, with a link back here.

Levi Montgomery

12:51 AM  
Blogger Summer said...

Isn't YA what you are? I dunno.

1:03 AM  
Blogger Nadia Murti said...

I think Chick Lit just means a "girl book." So, a book that only girls read. I don't think I like the term Chick Lit. It implies that the entire content of the book is pink fluff.


2:56 AM  
Anonymous Emily said...

Hmm. Just wondering what exactly pissed you off about that article. I mean, sure, I get the whole "women writers get less respect than men writers" and all that jazz, but that article was about books that meant something to that guy. And, no offense, but who exactly are you to judge that? Or, if not judge, to get so pissed? I don't think he was implying that women aren't able to write good literature. Some of his books were written by women. Maybe not the most feminist thing but...I just don't get it. Help me to get it. Thanks.

3:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read your books and really like them, and I'm neither a teenager nor female. I wouldn't have thought of them as chick lit either, but I don't generally group books by gender.

I think the reason why some people (mostly women) treat all chick lit books as less than, is because so many of the ones that typify the genre(?) are based on such stereotypical ideas of what women should want and should be. At least from first glance.

Books like: The Worst Wife Ever, Smart vs. Pretty, and Babyville when judge by title alone, don't look like they actually support modern ideas about women. In fact, they all sound like titles that belong back in the '50's. Just based on titles, they're an affront to women who don't want to settle down with a nice man and have some cutesy babies.

From a male perspective, a book about landing the perfect man, or the problems between sisters just doesn't scream "read me". They're just not that accessible to (many of) us. I'm guessing it's mostly a case of judging by title and cover. How many men would want to be seen reading a book called Maneater? It might be great, but the title alone discourages most average, straight guys from picking it up.

5:11 AM  
Anonymous Rachel said...

Emily: the guy did describe his taste in novels as "male". How annoying! Especially when he continued to have a classics-heavy list. Is that implying that "great" lit is male and "fun" lit is female? In my opinion NOTHING (except physically specific things like underwear) should be classified as inherently male- or female-oriented.

5:45 AM  
Blogger Vita said...

I hate the term "chick lit" because it implies 1) that the book is unintelligent and unsubstantial and 2) only unintelligent people (generally teenage/young adult girls) will read it.

There certainly are books that are not exactly "deep." They will not provoke revolutions. They are not filled with hidden symbolism. They are not supposed to be symbolizing anything. They are there for entertainment. You get that in every category - books, movies, songs, whatever. But that does not mean that every book written by a woman is "chick lit."

Also, I generally feel like books are only labeled "chick lit" if they are narrated or about a girl. It does not seem to matter how brilliant or unusual or freaking masculine this girl is; if she is a teenage girl, and if the books is marketed as YA, then the books is apparently CHICK LIT. What the crap? NO! There is no "man lit" or "guy lit" or "serious college-educated people lit," so why is there "chic lit?"

Your books are not stupid. They are not for stupid people. They are not filled with stupid words strung together in a stupid order. They may not be analyzed in AP English classes across the country, but neither are most books. Including ones written by men. Your books are genuinely GOOD and if people can only accept that if it comes with a "FOR GIRLS ONLY" sticker, then they have a serious problem.

5:49 AM  
Anonymous Diana said...


5:51 AM  
Blogger Kate said...

"If established literary terms are stable as jello molds, then Chick Lit is a soufflé sitting on a fault line."

^ That there made me laugh out load and grin like the Cheshire Cat. This is SO going on my list of favorite quotes, where I quote the awesome things that awesome people like yourself say. Thank you! ^^

7:16 AM  
Blogger bean said...

Thought this review was intereseting continuing on the whole ick of the chick lit label.
Hello, Mr. Heartache http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/17/books/review/Willett-t.html?src=twt&twt=nytimesbooks

This reviewer is not happy about it either.
and i agree.

9:13 PM  
Anonymous Tom said...

I think I need to read one of your books, MJ. Durning NanoWriMo I worked with a bunch of women in an online writing group and was dismayed at how often they ranted against Chick Lit and that their books were turning out like Chick Lit. Screw that.

As far as I can tell, never having read any I don't think, Chick Lit is just books without explosions, written by women. Jane Austen, the goddess of all ya yas, would be ranked as a chick lit writer today, which is just a goldurn shame.

Thanks for the twitterage, which is where I saw this.

3:20 AM  
Anonymous Nisha said...

people are stupid. I don't think you write chick lit.


5:47 PM  
Blogger Erin & Edna said...

Atually the Lulu Dark books are totally chick lit and there written by a guy. I guess he might be gay though so I guess that might be a bit different.

10:15 PM  
Anonymous Marcie :( said...

What would you do if your computer kept corrupting your word files, such as your manuscripts? I'm writing a book but I don't think I can stand re-writing the beginning yet again.

3:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've heard some people categorize Nicholas Sparks as Chick Lit. Nicholas Sparks is a man. Who supposedly writes for women, because romance=women. I dislike that stereotype tremendously, too.

7:45 AM  
Anonymous SarahE said...

Chick lit (and chick flicks) are a freaky term to define. Basically, I guess they ("they" meaning the higher and unknown group of persons who determine all things) apply that label to stories directed primarily at females.
Whatever. I'll read what I want to read, thank you. I dislike labels.

HOWEVER, your description of the authors of "urban fantasy" include some of my absolute favorites. I just finished all of Cassie Clare's Mortal Instruments series, and it was fantastic.

Labels are weird. DEFY THEM.

7:20 AM  
Anonymous Zina said...

Maureen. I have figured out out the male equivalent of Chick Lit. It is called Dick Lit. And it features books like "Blowing Stuff Up for Dummies" or "You and Your Muscles." Because where Chick Lit appeals to ladies' ladyness, Dick Lit appeals to men's manliness. So it works.

7:04 PM  
Anonymous Gavin said...

You had me at George Orwell. That essay is brilliant, much like everything else he writes. I feel incredibly inadequate reading his work, like i'm not smart enough to read it.

Stay the course Maureen, you're doing great.

5:49 AM  
Blogger Kasey said...

I know of only two genres of books: Books I Like and Books I Don't Like.

I don't usually label them much farther than that. Sometimes I might classify them as Well Written or Poorly Executed.

Besides that, I don't see the point of a label. It's a limiting exercise.

Also, on a completely unrelated note BED09 (or bedfay [blog every day for a year]) is now up and running at blogeveryday2009.blogspot.com. Spread the word?

You are awesome.

11:25 PM  
Anonymous Joey-la said...

where are you?? I'm starting to get worried!!

also - you and chick lit? No way! I've read some good (and some bad) chick lit, and your books are nothing like them! Well, they do share their goodness with the good chick lit :D

but overall i agree with Kasey (see above), labels are pointless!

2:28 PM  
Anonymous shaylaluna said...

I do't car if people classify you as writing Chick lit....I love your books and who cares what they are. Also I totally share your opinion of shoes. I spend as much time as I can not wearing shoes or possibly if I must, flipflops.

11:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Maureen,

I just got out for summer vacation. The past few days I have been reading and watching Doctor Who. But I have not left the house. And I am having hallucinations of David Tennant and I dream about school. I have a case of boredom. All of my friends live at least 20 minutes away. I can drive, but my friends can't. I thought that since I could drive I would go to a movie, but it's awkward going to a movie alone. HELP! What should I do?

8:04 PM  
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8:31 PM  
Blogger K. said...

Hey MJ,
Can you clue us in on Vacations from Hell? It ninja'd its way onto the sidebar.

Also, feel better soon!

2:01 AM  
Blogger Marjolein Reads said...

Hi Maureen!
Just to let you know that I really am sure that you are NOT Chicklit. I have read most of your books, and they are definately have depth and intelligence and should just be labeled as FANTASTIC BOOK, READ IT!
Just started reading the dutch translation of the Key to the Golden Firebird. Love it!

2:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just a quick note from the gushy-cephalopod-wearing Bermudez fan at your BEA signing. The octopus necklace came from www.modcloth.com.

6:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So is J.K. Rowling a Chick Lit?

12:58 AM  
Blogger erin said...

You're not into any "isms"? Not even feminism?

3:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"chick lit" has the connotation of things like gossip girl, novels about drama and cute boys. trivial things.
and i think the reason you get lumped in there is your covers. pink, frilly fonts, pastels, half-faced girls. it makes it look like your books are going to be frilly and, well, chick lit-y.

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