What's In A Name? Catherine McKenzie Tackles The Chick Lit Label
Two weeks ago we posted about the return of Bridget Jones and what this news means for the chick lit and mainstream women's fiction genres. Author Catherine McKenzie, who writes funny, contemporary stories featuring complex, relatable female protagonists, has a bone to pick with the chick lit tag. Specifically, how and why contemporary stories written for (and often by) women receive the label and what it means to her as a writer:
So, I’m a woman who writes commercial fiction. Generally, first-person narratives that have a mix of humor set against a topical background. There’s a theme to my books, underneath the plot, but I don’t want to, you know, hit anyone over the head with it. And so, my books more often than not get labeled ‘chick lit’.
There are many ways that this label gets used. There’s the ‘this was more serious than I generally like my chick lit.’ There’s the ‘this is more intelligent than chick lit generally is.” And, luckily, more often than not, there’s just ‘this is great chick lit!” And then there are the messages, emails, tweets etc. from men, always sheepish: “my wife/girlfriend left your book lying around …”
When I was first published I was, to be honest, puzzled by these statements. See, I thought I knew what chick lit was, and I didn’t think I was writing it. I’d read, and enjoyed Bridget Jones’s Diary and a few Sophie Kinsella books, but if I was trying to emulate someone, it was Nick Hornby. In fact, I deliberately stayed away from many of the markers that I thought delineated chick lit, because, back then, I thought that there were markers that delineated books that got labeled that way. I didn’t understand, as I’ve come to, that pretty much any book written by a woman with a woman protagonist that has any kind of romantic relationship at its center (or even alongside its center) is labeled that way. Similar to the way that the movie industry labels romantic comedies as chick flicks whether they’re highly original or formulaic.
I sound annoyed, I know. I always do when this topic comes up, and the reason shouldn’t shock you. I find the term dismissive. I find it an easy way to set aside the hard-fought work of a generation of women writers. And I just don’t get it. Writing comedy is hard. Writing compelling stories that keep people turning the pages late into the night is hard. I’m not saying that my novels are comparable to The Corrections, for example, but I’m also convinced that if Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot — which is a wonderful book — had been written by someone named Julia Eugenides, it would’ve had a pink cover, and reviewers would be complaining that it was “too wordy” or “not romantic enough” etc. for chick lit.
So why can’t I just let it go? Own the title? Proudly declare that “I write chick lit” with my chin held out proud? I guess it’s because I don’t like labels, never have. Other than: “writer.” Writer doing the best she can, hoping she won’t be put in a box before being given the chance to keep you turning the pages late into the night. Even if you’re a guy.
- Catherine McKenzie