A little less than twenty years ago, the “chick lit” genre was launched, arguably, with Helen Fielding’s 1996 Bridget Jones’s Diary. Next week, Fielding releases the third book in the Bridge Jones franchise, Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy.
Looking back, its easy to claim that Bridget Jones was a phenomenon: the book spawned a sequel as well as two films, and plenty of imitators (along with Candace Bushnell’s New York Observer Columns, Sex and the City). More recent books of the genre would be hard pressed to deny the influence of Fielding. The success of the book did for chick lit what Harry Potter did for young adult fantasy or The Hunger Games has done for dystopian future narratives: the success launched the genre, or at least just reinvigorated it.
The term “chick lit” was most likely coined by Cris Mazza for the anthology Chick Lit Postfeminist Fiction. The anthology, released a year before Bridget Jones’s Diary, “draws together twenty-two stories by unknown female writers of fiction, which all deal with the issues of modern women humorously and lightheartedly(1).” While Mazza may have used the term first, the anthology seems to miss one important point, the mass market appeal of authors like Fielding.
Another early adopter of the term was James Wolcott writing in The New Yorker, “Hear Me Purr,” in 1996. He takes the phrase somewhat further than simply humorous fiction expecting it to have political ramifications:
“The butch sensibility that imbued so much female writing in the seventies didn’t moderate or modulate into maturity. Instead, too much feminist and postfeminist writing has reverted in the nines to a popularity contest coquetry … What makes chick writers so marketable? it isn’t just the bonhomous attitude, the trail of cigarette smoke in their style. In large part, it’s because chicks are so unthreatening to men–to male editors and readers alike.” (2)
Wolcott’s article is contrasting the rise of serious power women in journalism to writers like Candace Bushnell, who like her character, Carrie Bradshaw, was writing a sex gossip column. Wolcott’s implication seems to be that women writing chick lit are somehow undermining serious female writers, thus launching nearly decades of efforts defending the popular genre.
If the term “chick lit” has to have devolved into something diminutive, the publishing houses themselves are partly blame. As Jenny Geras points out in the Guardian, readers’ perception of these genres is merely marketing:
“What publishers know very well, and what the “chick lit is fluff” lobby often forgets, is that book jackets are decisions made by publishers. We decide what a book looks like and this is a complicated decision, influenced by what we think looks good, what we think will position the book most clearly in the marketplace, and how best to signal quickly to both retailers and readers what kind of book it is. The downside of this labelling process is that a whole range of completely different books get lumped together and confused. The only thing that “these books” really have in common is that they’re written primarily by women and about relationships. Apart from that, they encompass as wide a range as any other genre. Kinsella and Jennifer Weiner, say, have no more in common than do Alan Hollinghurst and Jonathan Franzen, or Lee Child and Mark Billingham. But I’ve yet to read an article in which either of the latter two pairs have had to defend their difference from one another and the rest of the genre, or engage in hand-wringing analysis about why their books sell so well.” (3)
Its not that male authors don’t write about relationship drama, or even that male readers don’t read relationship drama, its simply that it isn’t branded as chick lit.
Much of the English Literature canon — perhaps not Harold Bloom’s, but certainly the canon according to university English departments and Educational Testing Services GRE subject tests — draws on nineteenth century novels by women about relationships. Defenders of modern “chick lit” love to draw comparisons to these early masters. Yet, these female authors disenfranchise the kind of female power Fielding, Bushnell, and imitators have attempted to capture.
Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, for instance, was first published under a male author’s name, Currer Bell. Bronte had to disguise her gender just to have the novel published. Her sister, Emily Bronte wrote Wuthering Heights from the perspective of Mr. Lockwood. Or, take for example, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, often cited as the model for Bridget Jones. Austen’s text begins: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” There is no empowerment of the female voice here, even though Austen is a woman. Instead, it buries the following novel behind the veil of a man’s desire for a wife.
Instead, consider the narrative structure of Bridget Jones’s Diary: first person diary entries. Bridget is empowered with her own voice. She communicates directly to the reader her own fears, anxieties, and goals. Its a direct and simple way of accessing Bridget’s interiority, and the witty acknowledgement of her failures are funny. But the simplicity and the humor shouldn’t detract from what’s really happening: empowering Bridget with her own voice.
Allowing a character a voice is a frequent way of assessing agency within a text. In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the African natives never say a word. Instead, they are allowed, at best, odd noises and grunting — an oft cited example of their dehumanization. In another example, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein relies on language to define humanity. It is because the monster learns to speak that the reader is even able to experience the story, as the monster provides much of the narrative voice. The nineteenth-century female novelists like Austen and the Bronte sisters failed in that kind of empowerment.
From a structural standpoint, Bridget Jones has more in common with Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Henry Fielding’s Shamela. Like Bridget, Pamela finds herself voicing her own narrative directly through a series of letters. Henry Fielding’s Shamela, a satire of Richardson’s work, follows. Pamela ends up raped by her employer, and Bridget’s ruinous affair with office mate Daniel Cleaver, while consensual, is in a way, a modern version of Pamela’s experience. But both, while tragi-comedies, are spoken by their female protagonists.
Austen and the Bronte’s are more palatable and desirable ancestors of chick lit to aficionados for several reasons. All of the women are still widely read–and often even enjoyed–by modern women. After all, no one voluntarily reads a seven hundred page book about a woman choosing to marry her rapist unless it ends up on Oprah’s Book Club, something Pamela is unlikely to achieve anytime soon. That Austen and the Bronte’s were women probably helps solidify them as standard-bearers of pro-chick lit feminism. But really, the primary thing Helen Fielding and Jane Austen have in common is that they are both able to sell a lot of books.
Instead, perhaps the trouble is simple the genre’s name. “Chick lit” itself implies a certain silliness and an inability even to say a multisyllabic word like “literature.” Part of the success of the term “chick lit” probably stems from the simple fact that the name rhymes. In that case, perhaps the solution to the diminutive stature of “chick lit” is a rebranding. After all, it is primarily a marketing conceit established by big publishing houses. Instead, let’s just start calling everything “ muliebrous omnibus,” loosely meaning “womanly collection of printed items.”
Housing Works is hosting Helen Fielding for the launch of the new Bridget Jones novel as a ticketed event.