Monday, December 29, 2008

Is Chick Lit the Kiss of Death?

Question of the Day: Is there a difference between "commercial women's fiction" and "chick lit"? I think the novel I'm writing could fit into either category; i.e., it's the funny/sad/triumphant story of three young women figuring out their spot in life (and running a marathon-- shout out to a fellow runner :). They're single and young in a city, albeit Pittsburgh rather than NYC. I've thought of it as "chick lit"-- I embrace the term, actually, but I know to many it carries a stigma. Plus, my story contains more Nikes than Manolo Blahniks, and I've heard that the Chick Lit trend peaked a few years ago. When I'm ready to pitch the book to an agent, which term do you think I should use? Does it matter? Do you deliberately avoid the "chick lit" categorization in your own writing?

Great question. (Or questions.) I'll start by addressing the first question: is there a difference between CL and commercial women's fiction? And the answer, in my mind, is slightly. But before I get into this, I want to say that I think they're both equally great and that the only people who really delineate between all of the various categories are INDUSTRY folks, not consumers, and at the end of the day, it's the consumers who matter. But, yeah, when pitching your agent, I suppose it matters how you categorize it, if only to boost its appeal to said agent. And then, once signed, it matters how your agent pitches it to editors and then, once bought, how the marketing and cover design people perceive it, because all of these interpretations help shape the final presentation of your book to the buying public...but...still, I don't think consumers walk into bookstores and think, "Gee, I want to buy a commercial women's fiction book today." Does that make sense? What I'm saying is that these categories matter, but they are not the holy grail.

Anyway, in my opinion, the difference between CL and CWF - and this is just the general perception, and again, I'm certainly not taking away from either - is that CL is slightly less weighty. Breezier, less grave subject matter, if you will. I don't even know that the married vs. single thing matters so much anymore - I think it's more about the overall plot and the issues it addresses. I also think that CWF can skew a little more literary, though this definitely isn't always true. Think of it this way: my first book, The Department of Lost and Found, was classified as CWF, though I've seen plenty of folks call it chick lit. I don't really care what people call it, as long as they buy it. :) But it was classified as CWF because of the gravity of its primary plot device: cancer, and because it was deemed slightly more literary than your classic beach read.

These days, certainly, CL gets a bad rap. The industry bought so many CL books a few years back that they oversaturated the market, and ended up publishing a lot of not-so-great reads, even though there were plenty of great ones published at the same time. And yes, there's still a market for it - just look at the trade paperback new release rack at your bookstore. But some agents will cringe at the term because so many insiders have said that the CL market is dead. I don't think it is. I think they've just repackaged a lot of these books - Emily Giffin, Jane Green - they're great writers who are called both CL and now, CWF, and really, does it matter? And do I write with one in mind? Definitely not. I write with the voice that I find suits my characters and my story best. That the industry has deemed this CWF is just fine with me because I adore my covers and the support I've gotten with marketing, etc, but I write what I write, as well as I can, the end.

But, that said, I have read a lot of editors saying that they're more apt to buy CWF (again, because of perception, whether or not they're the same thing as CL), so I might use this term in your query letter. Not because one is better than the other, in terms of writing (I just want to be clear on this, because I have plenty of friends whose work I admire who write CL), but because the industry is in such disarray right now, that I think agents might find any reason to pass on your query letter and the term CL might be it.

Of course, what REALLY matters in your query letter is a strong voice, an engaging plot and a few sentences that leave the agent wanting for more. The rest? Not nearly important.

What say you readers? How would you advise her?


Trish Ryan said...

Great points, Allison. I've been wondering if CL will make a comeback during the current economic climate (because readers are looking for a fun escape) or if the trend toward CWF will continue (because we want to read about things that feel real to us)?

In the current state of the industry, I think we do well to give agents/publishers what they're looking for, to the extent we can. A great story is a great story...we can leave the labeling up to the marketing department.

Eileen said...

I think you've given great advice. In terms of the industry I believe they still think of chick lit as something they aren't buying- but CWF is still hot. While a book may fit in either category- if I were selling I would package it as CWF.

Much like Trish I also wonder if we'll see humorous fiction or romantic comedy make a comeback. I'd love to see that!

Debra Lynn Shelton said...

I've pitched my query to two agents and have gotten requests for partials from both. I used the term: Women's Fiction/Humor. I can't guarantee this will work for everyone, in fact I have no idea if it even mattered to these agents at all. I just thought I'd throw it out there. Like Allison says, what's most important is a tight, kick-ass query that expresses both your unique voice and your story in a paragraph or two. Good luck to all!

Maya / מיה said...

Thanks so much for the feedback! It's very helpful-- this solidifies something I fuzzily understood, and it helps me understand where to take my revision. (The book's already getting a lot deeper as I go, so I think it fits CWF better than CL anyway now.) Women's fiction it is!

sarah pekkanen said...

My impression is that CWF is probably more attractive to agents and publishers, as those books have broader appeal among readers, but personally, I love both CL and CWF. I wish folks who sneer at "chick lit" would actually give those books a chance -- some of them are wonderful! But as Allison points out, if you don't have a fabulous query letter, it doesn't matter how you categorize your novel. And I really believe a great manuscript will find its way to a publisher, no matter what the label.
Sarah Pekkanen


I love this topic-- especially because I'm personally so passionate about it. Liz and I firmly believe that Chick Lit is not dead--despite what many in the INDUSTRY say. I couldn't agree with you more that it's the CONSUMERS who matter. They tell us what they want. And I think they still want Chick Lit as much as any other type of book- Commercial Women's Fiction or otherwise (BTW--thanks for explaining the difference between CL and CWL).
When I walk into a bookstore, I look for books by authors I already love (just bought Sarah Dunn's latest) but I also buy books that simply appeal to me-- because of the title, the cover or the synopsis. (I'm also a big fan of reading that first page to see if I get hooked).
At the end of the day, I think we all just want a GOOD BOOK--whether it's called Chick Lit or anything else! xo Lisa Steinke

PS: Long live Chick Lit!