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.
A 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?