What We Talk About When We Talk About Chick Lit
A brief treatise on the nature of relationship fiction
by Steve Almond
I cop to a certain ignorance when it comes to pop culture. I don’t have a TV. I don’t take a newspaper. My internet connection is, as far as I can tell, powered by hamster. I actually tend to avoid pop culture, which has always seemed to me (more or less) an excuse to be clever without feeling much. Perhaps for this reason I was not aware, until recently, that there was a literary genre known as Dick Lit. And, more strangely, that I was considered in some quarters to be a Dick Lit author.
Imagine my horror.
Here’s how it happened: I took part in a panel last Spring called the Fiction of Singledom. Almost immediately, the moderator brought up Chick Lit and a spirited discussion ensued. At a certain point, I said something brilliant like, “Well, I don’t know if there’s a male equivalent of Chick Lit, but if there is—”
“Actually, there is,” said another panelist.
“Really? What’s it called?”
“Well,” she said demurely, “it rhymes with chick lit.”
Shtick lit? I thought. Hick lit? Nick lit?
And then it dawned on me.
The problem is I really couldn’t figure out very many examples of what Dick Lit would be, actually. The audience seemed equally baffled. A few minutes later, a woman in the crowd said, “I know of a lot of books in which a female narrator explores her romantic relationships. But I’m curious to hear about some books where male narrators do the same thing.” There was a conspicuous silence from the panel.
Finally, rather meekly, I said, “Well, Mathew Klam does have that great collection, Sam the Cat.” But I couldn’t think of a single other example of what I had been instructed to call Dick Lit – other than my book. This may well be because I’m so poorly read. But then, I didn’t hear any of the other four authors on the panel offering up titles. So: there may in fact be a genre known as Dick Lit, and my book of stories (which includes several male narrators fretting over their romantic screwups) may be a member of this genre. But I’m not exactly solid on either front.
Chick Lit, on the other hand, is pretty firmly established. There’s no shortage of books dedicated to the neurotic cogitations of single women. In fact, there’s an entire imprint of Harlequin (Red Dress Ink) dedicated to the churning out of such volumes. Why is this? Let me offer a few off-the-cuff guesses.
To begin with, there are simple market forces.
The last time I checked, 70 percent of readers were women, and I’d put the percentage who read relationship fiction (the broader province of Chick/Dick lit) to be in the high 90s. Almost the entire crowd at the panel on Singledom was female. And the majority of my own readers – from what I can tell – are women. This is because women are more likely to struggle, in a conscious way, with the problems that beset romantic relationships, to talk about these problems, and to seek out writing that helps make sense of them.
There is also an element of escapism in many of the chick lit books, which tend to put the protagonist through the ringer for a couple of hundred pages, before delivering them, well, if not the man of their dreams, at least the self-esteem of their dreams. (Viewed from this angle, Chick Lit books might be viewed as the progressive, more nuanced descendants of the romance novel.)
How ever you view the genre, we can all agree that men simply don’t talk about their feelings in the same way that women do. When the emotional weather turns nasty, they tend to defer to Sportscenter. They are allowed – even, to some extent, pressured – to live further from the chaos of their feelings. Accordingly, they don’t read much. And when they do read, it’s more likely to be non-fiction, Tom Clancy, historical novels, or the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.
Does this sound sexist? Tough titties. It’s the truth. Most of the dudes I know wouldn’t be caught dead reading Good in Bed.
This gender bias is also in place on the supply side. By which I mean, when men write literary fiction, they tend not to place the primary focus on a romantic entanglements. They write, instead, about war, or professional ambitions. These areas, after all, are officially sanctioned male domains. Which is to say, even in the sensitivo world of belle lettres, there’s still something suspect about a guy who writes too much about his feelings – particularly his feelings about women.
There’s also a difference in the way that male and female authors are labeled, one that does boil down to literary sexism. Simply put: a female author is more likely to be reduced to a label than a man.
Let me offer an example. A book such as Airships, the classic story collection by Barry Hannah, would never be referred to as Dick Lit. And yet many of the stories are, in fact, focused on romantic turmoil. Nor did I hear anyone refer to David Schickler’s recent collection, Kissing in Manhattan, as Dick Lit (or Chick Lit) though its focus is, almost exclusively, on young singles in Manhattan hoping to meet the Right One.
In the end, Chick Lit and Dick Lit are labels, and as dopey as any of the other labels coined by the marketing arms of various publisher houses. The best writing, after all, cuts beneath gender, to the universal feelings of desire and despair that live inside all of us. We would never think to call Pride and Prejudice or Howard’s End Chick Lit, though, in terms of plot and themes, they probably qualify.
So I’m not sure I appreciate my new classification, with its musk of condescension. But there’s no use getting bent out of shape. In the end, authors are simply trying to get their work in front of readers. That’s hard enough to do in this era of frantic inattention. So if someone wants to call me a purveyor of Dick Lit, so be it. I can’t stop them.
In the end, all the best relationship fiction is really about the suffering of desire, and making people feel less alone with this suffering. Those who turn to books for a vicarious, life-affirming journey towards actualization are to be praised for reading. But the highest calling of literature (or any art) remains the conversion of doubt into meaning, the provision of solace to the grief-stricken, and, as a hopeful result, the transmission of love from the author to the reader.