On Rethinking Chick Lit and Judging a Book by Its Cover

Posted June 12, 2015 by LeahAdmin in Discussions / 42 Comments

Rethinking Chick Lit

A few weeks ago, I attended the book group speed dating event at BEA, where I sat down at a table stacked high with books. Titles by Anthony Marra, Lauren Groff, Bill Clegg, and Atul Gawande caught my attention, but my eye slid right over Dietland by Sarai Walker, which I immediately dismissed as chick lit, a genre I have historically avoided in favor of more “serious” literature.

Dietland by Sarai WalkerA rep from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt came over to tell us about Dietland, and I half listened as she pitched a novel about an overweight woman working at a New York City teen magazine and saving up for weight-loss surgery. But then I heard something about an underground feminist guerilla group and my ears perked right up. I slipped a copy of the novel onto my pile and then devoured it (puns!) a week later.

What I found inside Dietland‘s cupcake-covered dust jacket wasn’t the fluffy, frivolous novel full of tropes that the title and cover had led me to expect. As I read, I kept marveling, “I thought this was going to be chick lit, but it’s so smart and bold!” And it made me realize, finally, tangibly, what a stupid category “chick lit” is. It was an odd sensation to have my expectation of this book, based on its packaging, be blown out of the water — to see that a book I thought of as chick lit was actually very well written and thought-provoking. And who says chick lit can’t be those things? Maybe I shouldn’t dismiss this genre. But why do I?

Why should I expect that a book clothed in bright colors, with a title alluding to body image, will be shallow and silly? Why should a book about a woman who is uncomfortable with her body be seen as less important than a book about a man having a mid-life crisis and cheating on his wife? (Not that I’m remotely interested in books about the latter.)

I have never been a fan of the term “chick lit” because of the lack of a male equivalent, but I still formed definite opinions about the books under its umbrella without having read more than one or two of them. And that’s not fair.

I love when a book is able to confront my pre-conceived notions, and Dietland blew some of mine out of the water. I’ve been contemplating how I think of chick lit (whether the term is unnecessary and problematic is another story) and reading this book actually made me curious to try some of the other novels I might have dismissed at first glance. And that, my friends, is the power of taking chances and trying things outside your comfort zone. I tried something new, I loved it, and I may just let it lead me down the rabbit hole.

Have you ever read a book that challenged your perceptions of a genre?

— OR —

Am I wrong in calling Dietland chick lit based on its cover? Is it just literary fiction in an unusual package?

You guys, this whole experience has been a lesson in that old adage about judging a book by its cover. But which perception is wrong: My assumption that this book is chick lit based on the cover, or my assumption that chick lit doesn’t have value? Or both?

  • Diane D

    I appreciate that you set the record straight on this one, as I too dismissed it as fluff! I will now reconsider.

  • I kind of feel that publishers know what kind of covers readers of each genre gravitate toward and they usually go with that. It’s interesting that they decided to throw a curve ball. I thought this was a fluff chick lit book, too, until I read reviews. I admire that in a way, challenging the status quo. Although I would probably be a tad annoyed at finding out something was chick lit when I thought it was deeper than that. Hmm..good discussion!

    • I’ve heard that from a lot of people! Which makes the cover kind of a strange choice. It’s very clever, but I can’t help wondering if it’s keeping some of its target readers away.

  • This one was sent to me several months ago from a publicist with another book and the suggestion that I read it/would like it. Like you, I started to read the synopsis and wasn’t sure, but then I noticed that there were notes of feminism and an underground movement (which I’m not sure most people even get to in in the description). I’m so glad I gave it a chance, because I definitely don’t think it’s typical “chick lit” – most readers comforted by the genre would likely be turned off by the shift Dietland takes. As for the marketing, I don’t think it’s necessarily being marketed as chick lit either…they’ve been pretty clear about its feminist bent and the “Jennifer” side, especially with things like this: http://www.fuckabilitytheory.com . Either way, I’m glad people are starting to notice that cupcake is definitely a grenade 😉

    • Ooh, that’s a good point about chick lit usually being more of a comforting, non-challenging genre. I guess it just seems like an odd choice of cover? You have to look really closely to get the joke, and it seems like a lot of people have dismissed it at first glance.

      • The cover threw me off, too. At first glance, I thought this was going to be much lighter than it was! (Not that it was heavy… just “meatier” than I expected)

        • I think “meatier” vs “heavier” is a good distinction to make! It managed to say a lot of important things while still being light and fun.

  • I’d seen this cover around a few times and then saw it pop up on Shannon’s blog…and I was like, “I can’t believe Shannon is reading this, seems so out of her wheelhouse”! Then, I noticed the cupcake was actually a grenade and thought it was kind of a brilliant cover. Needless to say, the premise still doesn’t really grab me…but it’s getting such good reviews I might give it a try later this year once things have died down a bit.
    I feel a little bit like the same thing could be said of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Chick lit (or whatever you want to call it) style cover and title, but really interesting, smart, witty book.

  • I think the marketing for this one is subversive and interesting. As others have pointed out seeing that the cupcake is grenade really alters perception of the cover. I heard about this title during the run-up to Winter Institute and knew it wasn’t being marketed as “chick-lit” but as literary fiction — the publisher, HMH, focuses most of its adult list on high quality fiction and non-fiction.

    It’s only that sly cover that even hints at an association with lighter women’s fiction. Like you, I don’t read a lot of chick lit, but I have found that much of it, like other forms of entertaining genre fiction (mystery, sci-fi, fantasy) will often embed elements of serious themes into otherwise straightforward stories with easily relatable characters and uncomplicated prose. I try to approach books with the idea that it’s not genres — though I will admit to having genres I don’t like — that are bad, but rather that some books are better than others. I don’t always succeed, but it’s great when I find gems I might otherwise have overlooked.

    • I like what you said about individual books being good or bad, but not genres as a whole; it’s good to remember that, try new things, and be surprised!

  • Kay

    I think all of us need to challenge our preconceived notions now and then. A book is a book is a book. And there is a reader somewhere who will likely enjoy every single book. I don’t like the ‘labels’ at all. Know it’s futile to not expect them, but think that we all judge way too much. Some readers prefer ‘fluff’, at least part of the time. And that cover is quite, quite clever.

    • Although labels may be unnecessarily restrictive, I do think a book’s cover can often help readers decide if a book is a style they will like. Is it a perfect means? No, but it’s easier than reading the descriptions and blurbs of every book on the table at a bookstore. But yes, we definitely should challenge ourselves and step outside our comfort zones; you never know when you’ll be surprised. And this cover is very clever! I just wonder if it’s turning off readers who haven’t looked too closely.

  • I’ve wondered if maybe the cover was purposeful in order to get women who would normally pick up “fluffier” reads to engage with more subversive topics. I don’t think this would work for everyone (some would quickly put it down), but I wonder if anyone had/will have their mind changed by it! I personally love this cover.

    I too am guilty of writing off books that look like “chick lit”—I never would have picked up Where’d You Go, Bernadette if not for Shannon’s recommendation! I wonder if this is where the ever-dreaded “for fans of X, Y, Z” would come in handy? That way you’d know a little more what you’re in for, instead of just seeing shoes/shopping/makeup and beelining to another book.

    Not sure that what I said here is coherent, but awesome post! 🙂

    • Hmm, I wonder! I saw a weird review on Goodreads about how she didn’t like how Plum “turned from a hopeful dreamer into an angry ,confrontational and quite unlikeable young woman.” I was like, you completely missed the point!

      I like the “for fans of” approach! I think choosing which authors blurb a book can also go a long way for targeting groups of readers.

  • Great thoughts here Leah – I felt the same about Dietland. I hate the term “chick lit” too – as well as “chick flicks” – they are very dismissive terms. However, with movies, I DO enjoy “chick flicks” (although not so much lately – they’ve mostly been horrible!), whereas I usually don’t touch “chick lit” with a ten foot pole. I don’t know why I treat the two differently, and I know that my aversion to chick lit is snobby. I think it’s partly due to the fact that when I was in high school and was starting to explore reading adult fiction more (beyond kid’s lit & my endless series obsession) I devoured “chick lit” books. I read stuff like the Shopoholic books – and then grew sick of them so fast. I grew frustrated with the formulaic plots and horribly cliched characters. It put me off reading any books that looked like / were marketed like that again.

    • “Chick” is just such an infantilizing, dismissive word! I hate it.

      I wonder if the difference between “chick lit” and “chick flick” is also partly that watching a movie is much more passive than reading a book? Reading requires you to actively engage, whereas you can just sit back and look at a screen to watch a movie. It probably also doesn’t hurt than a movie only takes two hours to watch!

      • I think that’s definitely part of it – movies are my “fluff” entertainment too, and so I don’t need them to be as meaningful as my reading – although more thoughtful movies are definitely great too. And you’re right – the time commitment is much shorter!

  • The *term* chick lit is terrible but the books that fall under it’s umbrella don’t always. Of course there are ones that are frustratingly simple or stereotpyical. Some of them do focus on finding a man as the solution to all of life’s problems. BUT there are lots of them that are more about self discovery, about being a whole person alone, about marriages struggling, addiction, abuse and mental illness. They may be wrapped in pastel covers, but their content stands alone. I always think that Marian Keyes does this SO WELL. Her books are hilarious and easy to burn through but they tend to tackle more serious suibject matter.

    I’m glad that Dietland has made you rethink this for yourself anyway! Your review has basically solidified the fact that I’m going to the bookstore to buy this today.

  • I hate the term chick lit and I use it all the time. I don’t know how else to describe the books that make up a genre i typically don’t want to read. As for having no male equivalent, in the UK there is Lad Lit. Think Nick Hornby. Not quite the same, but still…

    • It is an unfortunate word, but it’s even more unfortunate that there isn’t a better one! I don’t think “women’s lit” is much better. Can we just say “commercial fiction” to refer to everything from Shopoholic to James Patterson? (I think I might start doing that.)

      I didn’t know about Lad Lit! I like Nick Hornby…

  • I had this up on my screen at work the other day and got sucked away to other things before I could comment. But I’m back because this is such a great post. I think Bernadette challenged my idea of chick lit, but I wish MORE books would challenge me in this way. Great post, Leah!

    • I don’t think I really thought of Bernadette as chick lit just because I knew the author was a writer for Arrested Development, but I can see how it could be seen that way. And it was so good!

  • I’m awful at judging a book by its cover. If it looks girly I probably won’t read it. I bet I’m missing out on a wealth of good fiction.

  • I enjoy fluffy books, but I loathe the covers that typically accompany them (the pastels, cupcakes, and/or women’s shoes). I try to just weigh the cover as one factor of the many that go into selecting what I’ll read next. Great post!

  • Terra

    Chick lit is a genre that doesn’t interest me; give me a well written story of almost any genre and I might read it. But that category makes it sound fluffy. I like humor like P.G. Wodehouse but calling a book chick lit does not endear it to me, usually. There are exceptions of course.

    • I like what you said about enjoying a well-written story regardless of genre — but just the term “chick lit” sounds so infantilizing and dismissive in itself!

  • I love the crap out of this post. 🙂 I historically avoid ‘chick lit’ because it just doesn’t interest me, my light reading trends more towards murders and invading aliens, the end of the world – y’know – light reading. 🙂 But I do loathe the term, and the covers, and the pre-conceived notion that they can’t be ‘serious’ drives me nuts too.

    I do think that Dietland is being marketed poorly, though I don’t have better ideas on how to market it. 🙂

    • Thanks! I’m not sure how it could be marketed better, either. It’s such a clever cover, but I worry that people are going to look right past it.

  • Lindsey Stefan

    I do the same thing. I tend to dismiss “chick lit” right off the bat. I recently read a book by Liza Palmer that I really enjoyed and it was actually about embracing chick lit and allowing ourselves to enjoy things that are fun without feeling bad about it!

    I will have to look out for this one and I guess we will both work on our preconceived notions about books! 🙂

  • I love this post, I love this discussion, and I love that you’ve brought it up. I don’t like the term chick lit. As a woman I think it stinks that this “genre” needs a label at all. Where’s the dick lit? Can we start using that term to denigrate things written by men? Sigh.

    I avoid lighter books because I just don’t like lighter themes. And I’m guilty of letting my eyes slide by covers that look frothy. Like you, I read Dietland and was surprised. I guess we just never know and we really ought to give things a chance 😀

    • Right?! It’s such an insulting label. I mean, first off I hate the word “chick” as it pertains to women; it’s so infantilizing. It’s also frustrating that there is no genre called “dick lit.” Another reminder that female voices are for women, while male voices are for everyone.

  • Yesss!!! I put this on hold after hearing the review because I also thought it was a lighter read at first. I used to read a ton of “chick lit” back in the day and there are some really excellent books out there getting the sideways glance as being light and fluffy. Not always the case. Kristin Hannah, Jojo Moyes and Jodi Picoult have some heavier themes and can be read by ANYONE. I hate the term “chick lit” and then started using “women’s lit” in posts, but that doesn’t seem right either. “Commercial lit” is a great term for the likes of Patterson, etc. At the library much of the those books are called “popular fiction” because they are the most requested. Maybe just referring to books as “for fans of…” and leaving the labels out is the way to go.

    • I think I’m going to start using “commercial fiction” instead of “chick lit;” it’s just so infantilizing and dismissive; why should it be separate from popular fiction by/about men? I like the “for fans of” approach too!

  • You ask tough questions! I typically mean that something is a light read when I describe it as chick lit. I’m not sure how I feel about this in the context of gender discrimination. I do think of other books as ‘dick lit’, acknowledging that there are also light books about male protagonists, so I don’t think it’s necessarily a problem of dismissing books about women as lesser. But I’m not a fan of books being targeted at specific genders, so I think the term may still be problematic. Anyway, to answer your question, by my definition I think this would be poorly packaged literary fiction.

    • I think it’s great that you have a “dick lit” category in your mind to balance things out, but my problem is that our culture as a whole doesn’t use the term as often. I don’t like books being targeted at specific genders, either, so I think I’m going to think of light reads as “commercial fiction” rather than give them gender distinctions.

      • I was wondering if their might be a more neutral term to convey the same thing. Part of me feels like “commercial fiction” or “genre fiction” could have negative connotations, in a snobby kind of way, but given that this is already true of chick lit, I think they’re probably an improvement.

        • Hmm, “commercial fiction” maybe does sound snobby, but I guess I’d rather be snobby than sexist 😛 There’s no way to win!