Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Defining A Genre

I pulled Suzanne's comment from over the weekend and brought it to the main board because I thought it was good discussion fodder. Here's what she asked:

After reading a review of Emily Griffin's latest book and then thinking of yours, I have a question. How would you define the genre of 'chick lit?' When I think of chick lit, I think of happy-go-lucky twenty-something romances. But when I think of your books, I would classify them as post-chick-lit, something more grown-up and mature. What are your thoughts? Do you consider yourself writing for a specific genre when you are writing your novels?

My books are generally classified as "women's fiction" or "commercial fiction," while, you're right, Emily Giffin is generally classified as "chick lit." These are fluid categories, however, and some books don't fall into one easily. I think, in general, "chick lit" is thought of as less literary (whether or not this is the case - I'm just passing along the stereotypes), and generally tackles less weighty subjects than "women's fiction," which, obviously, is targeted at women (as is chick lit - the markets aren't too different, though CL might skew younger) but maybe at women who like their prose to be meatier. (Again, I'm not passing judgments - Emily Giffin, for example, is a great writer who knows her audience, and yes, our new books cover remarkably similar themes!)

These days, as you can see from all of my caveats above, "chick lit" often has a derogatory connotation, and I don't mean it to be so by my comments. CL has a HUGE market - I guess I think of CL books as classic "beach reads," but after an enormous push for CL books on the heels of the success of books like The Devil Wears Prada (actually, the push started long before this, I think), the quality of these reads deteriorated faster than you can say "single girl in her twenties looking for love in a fab pair of shoes," and now, many authors don't wear the CL badge with much pride. Which is silly. Because if you do it well, as Giffin proves you can, you can crank out a book that's both smart and relatively easy-to-read. No shame in that as all.

As far as all of these categories, well, I'm not the one who categorizes my book in the first place. That's up to the publicists and marketers at my publishers, and they were the ones who deemed me "women's fiction," or "commercial fiction." I try to write the best book I know how, one that I'd pick up in a store, one that I wouldn't roll my eyes at or, conversely, find too dense (and I mean weighty, not dumb) to really get into. I do constantly go back and fiddle with sentence that I think are overly simplistic or amateurish, and I don't think that will ever stop, regardless of how many books I write or what catagory I fall into. I want to be proud of every word that goes onto my pages.

In the end, do these labels matter? Maybe when the sales team is shopping around the book to stores whose buyers are wary of buying "chick lit," but really, I'm not so sure that readers care all that much about the categorization, as long as the book appeals to their personal sensibilities. I know if I pick up a book that is waaaaay too chick lit-y for me, I'll put it back down, but not because the cover or whatever says it's "chick lit," but because I read 1000000 of those books in my 20s and just don't enjoy most of them as much anymore. (Generally speaking, of course, as I buy Giffin and others with frequency.) But on the other end, I'll do the same with a heavily literary book or any book that doesn't appeal to me: CL is just an easy classification that doesn't mean too much to me as a buyer.

But what about you guys: do you agree with these classifications and will you buy/not buy a book based on them? And who do you think of as classic (and good!) chick lit?


Anonymous said...

I think you nailed it several times here. While labels shouldn't matter, as an aspiring author it's important to know where to "place" your book and how that will help to pitch and hopefully market it. Also it helps to give me a sense of where I "fit" in today's book market.

I think Jennifer Weiner is definitely great, intelligent chick lit. I really enjoyed Certain Girls and found it hysterical to read that some critics thought it wrong for the cover to be pink - because that designated it for women. It is a book for women and there's nothing wrong with that!

Frankly, if I sell my novel and people read it and love it - they are welcome to call it whatever they wish!!

Amie Stuart said...

I actually like the term post-chick lit! LOL I've *heard* that the term chick lit is now considered bad juju, but then heard of editors who are still looking for it (from an editor who laughed and said they didn't call it that anymore).

Anyway I still love it and still read it. I think one of the things, if not THE thing, I love(d) the most was reading about women who didn't a) need a man to save them and then get married and spit out babies* and/or b) wasn't 40'something and doing the post-divorce rebuild-your-life.

(*I have children and love them but heartily dislike the get married/have babies to be fulfilled propaganda that permeates our world).

You already know I love Jane Green *g* (and I dare ANYONE to call Babyville fluffy).

Larramie said...

While not 100% positive, I think that THE OPPOSITE OF LOVE is classified as CL on its Catalog page -- if that's the term -- and I was stunned. Therefore, dismissing a book for its label might have you missing a wonderful, amazingly written novel.

suzanneelizabeths.com said...

Allison, thank you for answering my question in such a thoughtful and thorough post.

When I read 'The Dept' my impression was that the character you presented was as complex as the problem she faced. There were even moments when I didn't like the choices she made, but I admired her strength, determination, and her vulnerability. I'm currently reading Anita Shreeve's Body Surfing, the main character is 29, and as complex as the characters you have created.

The quality of your writing makes your books a pleasure to read. My hope is that your books will reach the NYT bestseller list, because they deserve that wider audience.

I also want to thank you for mentioning Trish Ryan's book on your blog. After reading about it here, I picked up a copy and am really enjoying it.

As always, kudos for creating a blog that is must-reading.


Diana Peterfreund said...

I don't mind the term chick lit and use it to describe my published novels.

What I *do* mind is people who use that term as a weapon, and it's become so prevalent that when I was speaking at a theater event recently, and described a clearly chick lit play (humorous, about the dating life of a single mom with a thousand pairs of shoes) as "chick lit" -- I got dirty looks from the director, the playwright, and some of the members of the audience. Later, my husband said that since they didn't know I was "reclaiming" that term, they were offended by it, and thought I was slamming the play, calling it shallow or fluffy.

I also did a profile interview with a local paper where the journalist spent the entire interview trying to get me to alternately defend chick lit, defend the fact I wrote chick lit DESPITE having gone to Yale (Her opening volley was "You majored in Lit at Yale, you must have read all the classics, so why are you writing *this*?" She wanted me to slam Curtis Sittenfeld for calling chick lit writers "sluts" -- I wanted to talk about my book. In the end, she didn't get the ammo she wanted for her article, and proceeded to make the rather ridiculous argument that my upcoming action adventure YA fantasy would "cement" my status as a chick lit author.


Nothing against chick lit, which I write, but the YA is NOT chick lit.

Anonymous said...

Ultimately it's a semantics issue. I am over the shoes and shopping chick lit stories about bad bosses and lousy boyfriend. But I love stories about women in their 30s and 40s figuring out what they want. If the stories are easy to read, so much the better. I like the term grown-up chick lit, or upscale chick lit, or commercial women's fiction. I think they're kind of all the same.

Maureen McGowan said...

I've never liked the term chick lit, because I think it's always been used as a derogatory term by the press to marginalize books by and about young women. I get that people like Diana are trying to reclaim it... but I fear it's a losing battle. Chick lit will always equate with "fluff" or "low quality" in the general public's mind. I think it's too ingrained to change easily.

But I think you're right that it's the publisher etc who ultimately decides whether a book is chick lit or women's fiction. I don't think it's a reflection on the quality of the prose or even the weight of the topics in the stories. There have been several books put out as chick lit that had very dark and weighty themes. And I've read (tried to read) some put foward as women's fiction that had clunky prose and super lightweight topics.

I think publishers just try to market a book in a way they think will get the most sales.