This devil term

Posted by Jabeen Akhtar on 21 January 2012


This is my 2012 essay for First City Magazine.  [Am I being lazy for reposting essays I wrote for publication, rather than creating new content for my blog?  Perhaps, my friend.  Perhaps.]

Publishers like to put books in neat little categories. Go to any bookstore and you’ll see a slew of labels all describing the same thing: fiction.  On one hand, breaking books down as literary, commercial, mystery, young adult, sci-fi/fantasy, romance, immigrant or historical fiction makes sense.  Marketing teams at publishing houses have proven strategies for publicizing books that fall into each of these genres. They know the target demographic, the right book jacket designs and the right media to approach that will hasten the transition from manuscript to book-on-the-shelf and generate greater sales.  Anything leading to greater sales is good for the writer.

On the other hand, these oversimplified categories can cause writers some real pain.  If you’ve just spent years writing a tale about a murder on a naval base that has complex characters, political undertones and a writing style that could rival any New York Times literary darling, your novel will be stamped “commercial thriller” faster than you can say Lee Child.  Still, “commercial thriller” has a nice ring to it.  It still makes your book sound important, interesting, and gives it broad appeal.  Having your book labeled “chick lit,” on the other hand, is likely the death knell for ever being considered a serious writer. 

What is chick lit, exactly?  Loosely interpreted, it’s a novel about chicks for chicks. That encompasses a lot of novels.  Let’s narrow the definition.  How about those pink, sugar-dusted novels devoted to stilettos, clubbing and gossiping that are as indulgent and self-esteem lowering as eating an almost-stale cupcake at 2:00 a.m.?  Now we’ve gone too narrow.  Generally speaking, the chick lit label swallows any and every book that is written by a female author, has a female protagonist, is somewhat light-hearted, and involves relationships, career and general life issues.  Reverse the sexes, and that sounds a lot like Nick Hornby’sHigh Fidelity or Tom Perrotta’s Joe College.  Both are among my favorite novels and deserve all the critical acclaim they received.  Neither, however, had to be denigrated to a category associated with frivolity and lowest-common denominator appeal.  To be fair, this isn’t just about the sexes. Plenty of female authors writing about relationships, career, etc. avoid the chick lit label by writing in a tone that is simply not light-hearted, and that is simply unfortunate for female comedic writers.

Author Curtis Sittenfeld once said, “To suggest that another woman's ostensibly literary novel is chick lit feels catty, not unlike calling another woman a slut.” Another way to summarize the situation is this: for so-called chick lit writers, any sharp witticism is "juiciness" or "quirkiness,” whereas if you're a bespectacled literary writer man in a tweed jacket, or a woman writing something utterly depressing, it is "illuminating" or “keenly observed."  The danger of the chick lit label is that your writing is considered trash, your demographic is narrowed to women audiences only and is guaranteed to never be reviewed by major news outlets. 

I confess that I worried about the chick lit label while drafting my own novel.  I’m a chick, I’ve written some lit (and no, you’re not the only one who notices how dangerously close those two words are to an unmentionable part of a woman's body).  Furthermore, my novel has a female protagonist, is comedic and involves relationships.  Nevermind that my novel also addresses racism, immigration, generational differences, failure, sexual identity and has a protagonist who would rather take bong hits than apply lipstick. Once my novel got in the hands of a publisher, I worried, I was screwed.  As I drafted the manuscript, I thought that I had better change the text fast to keep myself safely away from this devil term, and asked friends for advice.  Aside from pretending Jabeen was a boy’s name and changing Samira to Saleem, what could I do to guarantee no one would call my novel chick lit?

"Use bigger words," someone said, “to make the text seem smarter and harder to read.  And take longer to describe sunsets and lunches."

I thought about this—adding more traditional literary devices.  I could use bigger words, but that would mean grabbing a dictionary and learning some new vocabulary.  I laughed that one off.  How about dragging out passages to attach meaning to mundane and insignificant details, or to just show readers how infatuated I am with my own words?  This also sounded like too challenging a task as superfluous writing is sometimes more frivolous to me than designer name-dropping and there's nothing I really love about myself.

"Make someone sick," another friend said.  "Terminal illness. The critics seem to like it when people slowly die."   

This was a great suggestion. Two-thirds of the way through the novel, I could drop a plot twist where the mother discovers she has breast cancer.  Samira would then have to put her healing on hold to care for her ailing mother.  The situation would be ripe for tender, mother-daughter moments that would pull at the heart-strings of critics.  This could work, and would be tragic enough to stop anyone from calling my novel chick lit. The only problem, as far as I could tell, is that it would make my novel suck.

"Just kill someone off," was the last suggestion.  “Have a character die from the chest the wound he got when he was tortured at Guantanamo Bay.” 

This was pointless.  Chick lit label or not, I decided I wasn’t going to weigh down my novel with literary safe bets just to ensure it was taken seriously. All I ever cared about was for my novel to make people laugh for 280 pages anyway.

As it turned out, I worried for no reason--on Facebook, Twitter and through my website, I've heard from more male readers than female.  Maybe that has to do with the fact that my wonderful publisher knew my novel wasn’t chick lit and so never labeled it as that, even though a few reporters tried to, and the novel received great coverage.  However, the term is so easily and lazily tossed around by reporters and the literary establishment that I think I only narrowly escaped. When I publish my next novel, just to be on the safe side, I’m going to wear a beard.