September 27th, 2011 / 7:11 pm
Behind the Scenes

Chicks Dig Pink, Frilly Things and (Domestic) Porn

When you write a book with the title It’s A Man’s World, with the tagline “but it takes a woman to run it,”  you have to have some sense that your book is going to be marketed in a certain way. I haven’t read the book in question, but the title certainly gives an impression. Maybe it’s just me but when I see that title, I think “chick lit.” I also enjoy “chick lit,” so that label is not a bad thing. That book’s author, Polly Courtney, recently had a very public reaction to how her book was being marketed as “chick-lit,” announcing she was leaving her publisher, Harper Collins, so her writing wouldn’t be pigeonholed. As writers, we often have to worry about whether or not our work will be pigeonholed based on some aspect of our identity. No one wants their creativity limited or misrepresented; pushing back against rigid, often unfair categories is a natural response for a creative person.

In her explanation for why she was leaving her publisher, Courtney distinguishes between women’s fiction, which she writes, and “chick lit,” which she very much does not. I gather that women’s fiction is serious while “chick lit” is not. She writes, “Don’t get me wrong; chick-lit is a worthy sub-genre and there is absolutely a place for it on the shelves.  Some publishers, mine included, are very successful at marketing this genre to women. The problem comes when non-chick lit content is shoe-horned into a frilly “chick-lit” package. Everyone is then 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.”

Depending on the content of the book in question, Courtney is correct in noting that disappointment is possible for everyone involved in the consumption of a book. At the same time, isn’t a cover is just a cover?  Eventually, the writing speaks for itself and either readers will like the work or they won’t. Readers are fairly sophisticated these days, aren’t they? I would like to believe readers will, more often than not, have a good sense of what a book is or isn’t about no matter what is emblazoned across the cover. Unfortunately, such does not seem to be the case and certain books are burdened by covers that alienate certain audiences.

We do judge books by covers. That’s why books have covers instead of plain cover stock bearing only the book’s title and author. When we’re browsing in a bookstore, we need a reason to pick up a book and flip through its pages.

When we see books with pastel covers and shapely legs or perfume bottles or the female silhouette on the go, we are also given a certain impression. In a 2006 article about “chick lit,” for Print, Jami Attenberg wrote, “A cosmopolitan glass indicates a sexy edge and big mistakes in pursuit of happiness; a whimsical, cursive title alerts consumers that the narrator will eventually knock over a tray of glasses in a roomful of glaring partygoers. A high heel forecasts a neurotic, shopping-prone city dweller, while a bare foot promises a more personal, emotional tale (especially if the foot’s been intricately hennaed, thus tagging it as Indian-American chick lit—not to be confused with Asian-American, African-American, or Latina chick lit).” The covers of “chick lit,” and other women’s books are deliberately coded in certain ways and time and again we are shown that those codes can be extremely limiting and, at times, inaccurate. I don’t know that all the blame rests with publishers, though. We have to be responsible for the nature of our perceptions.

It is curious how publishers decide what should appear on the covers of books written by women. Few authors have control over their book cover.  Most writers will get some say, but at the end of the day, the publisher makes the final decision about how a book is designed and marketed. More often than not, publishers assume women write books for women rather than for everyone and that men shouldn’t even be considered as a potential audience. That’s what’s certainly implied by the covers of many women’s books. We do know more women buy books than men and as such, publishers market books with that reality in mind. The way these books are marketed, though, positions most books written by women as lighter reading fare that doesn’t tackle the serious subjects men write about. Given most book covers, we ladies should probably just amuse ourselves with airy little novels about shopping and sex and perhaps, once in a while, the amusing trials of motherhood; we’d best leave the heavy book lifting to the menfolk.

Cathy Day is working on a great visual essay, “(Don’t) Judge A Book by Its Cover,” about the feminization of book covers. She started working on this project when she realized her women students were hesitant to write about certain subjects because they didn’t want a frilly pink cover slapped on their book.  In her essay, Day shows how most women’s books use, “soft focus, photography and domestic objects,” drawing on the “domesticity porn” of women’s lifestyle magazines. It is startling to see how books from twenty or thirty years ago have drastically different covers today–covers that imply that every book a woman writes is frilly “chick lit.”  The way the cover of My Antonia, for example, has been redesigned over the years, is particularly galling.

One of the more interesting parts of Day’s visual essay is when she shows how male writers are also subject to the feminization of their book covers, comparing Richard Yates’s The Easter Parade when it was first published and how the book looks today as if women need to be tricked into buying serious books by using the same design approach applied to “chick lit” and women’s fiction.

When I first read about Polly Courtney’s decision and her frustration with how her work is being marketed, I found her reaction strange. When a woman writer puts such effort into distancing herself from the stain and stigma of “chick lit,” I tend to think personal biases are clouding their judgment. Or, the decision was a well calculated move. If Courtney hadn’t made her announcement, I would have never heard of her book. I thought, “My publisher can put whatever they want on my book cover.” Then I remembered Day’s essay (you can find an excerpt of the project at She Writes). The issue is complicated. A book’s cover should reflect what the book is about. It’s unfair to try to force a woman’s book into a certain genre and set of codes simply because she is a writer with a vagina. It undermines us all.

What truly concerns me, though, is how much effort too many women writers (are forced to) put into explaining their work as “serious” and not “chick lit.” Women are still being placed in this awkward position where they never get a chance to talk about their writing because they have to worry about how they will be pigeonholed and misrepresented. That we feel the need to defend or explain our work is the problem, not that the “chick lit” genre exists or that our writing is unfairly pigeonholed when we tackle certain subjects.

This conversation about “chick lit,” versus other fiction genres is a recurring one. Earlier this year, Jennifer Weiner bristled when Jennifer Egan indirectly made some less than charitable comments about the genre. Last year, many women writers, and Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult in particular, had strong reactions about the level of hype Jonathan Franzen received for Freedom in a melee that even got its own name–Franzenfreude. That conversation positioned literary fiction against the purportedly lighter “chick lit” fare. I understand why women writers feel defensive and a bit raw about the “chick lit” label and yet I often feel like we do ourselves more harm by obsessing over the term and whether or not it is applied to writing.

The term “chick lit” is inadequate but language, in general, is inadequate. There is a male equivalent, the equally unfortunately named “lad lit.” The genre doesn’t receive as much critical attention as “chick lit” but it exists despite persistent reports of its demise. “Lad lit” books are quite similar in tone to books labeled as “chick lit.” There is, however, far less outrage over the term “lad lit,” probably because men don’t have to fight to be taken seriously in the same ways women have to fight. When men write in this genre, the choice is generally deliberate, not forced upon them. Still, I wonder about the benefit of spending so much energy worrying about the term “chick lit” and what that term means and whether or not it is (mis)applied to our work. Does the label matter? That seems like the wrong conversation to be having.

Last week, an article in Entertainment Weekly began, “For some smart, young female novelists, having their books branded “chick lit” is the worst imaginable insult. ” Everything about this conversation is imbued with troubling rhetoric. That statement positions intelligence as the antithesis of “chick lit.” And is that really the worst insult that could be lobbied against a woman writer? To consider the label “chick lit” the worst imaginable insult is, at best, a failure of imagination and at worst, evidence of internalized sexism. That article goes on to note that there are women’s books that overcome the “chick lit” label. I’d love to see us get to a place where we don’t see such a label as an obstacle. So what if a book cover is pink or frilly or domestically pornographic? Why do these markers of femininity, accurate or not, have to be perceived negatively? Pink is my favorite color. There are several issues here–the way books are marketed and the way women writers are pigeonholed by gender instead of having their writing assed on its own merits are issues that deserve our attention. The far more serious problem is the sexism (or is it misogyny?) fueling this conversation, the sexism that makes women feel so defensive and that encourages people to dismiss or disrespect women’s books whether they are “chick lit” or women’s fiction or literary fiction. Until we recognize and address the sexism at work here, we’ll continue wearing ourselves out by dealing with symptoms rather than the disease.

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53 Comments

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