Saturday, February 27, 2010

Chick Lit & Dick Lit

Day 18 of the “What are you reading, and why?” project.

I think Phyllis called this a beach book! Time is a River by Mary Alice Monroe. She read it for a book group and enjoyed it. And Monroe has written several woman-centered books, including The Beach House, so maybe they are all beach books! But are they “chick lit”?

What is it that gets called “chick lit,” and is this primarily a fond term or a pejorative one? Is it a mostly a marketing tag, identifying its hoped-for and most likely audience, etc.? Is it feminist or anti-feminist? Or is it detached from the idea of labels as suggestive of any kind of evaluative determination, and primarily, instead, about fun?

As in, “Girls just want to have fun!” (Cyndi Lauper in your head now?) (By coincidence, I saw Baby Mama again last night, so she's in my head.)

Does chick lit have to contain shopping in general and shoes in specific?

Of course, the answers to all my questions of definition can easily be found in Wikipedia, or, with further research, in numerous articles by teachers, critics, and scholars of chick lit:

Chick lit has a self-determining female protagonist who is able to solve her problems with gumption and humor. Chick lit is indeed marketed to female readers, etc. Early chick lit writers, before the term was a term, are among the greats—Jane Austen, for example, herself ever popular among female readers. Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding descends quite consciously and comically from Pride and Prejudice. Et cetera.

I ask partly because the other day I was pondering that thing that happens when a man is intimate or personal or sensitive in his writing, and the world goes, “Oh, he’s so brave!” etc., and a woman is intimate, etc. in her writing, and the world goes, “Poo, she’s so confessional!”

He talks about masturbation. “Bold!”

She talks about her period. “Yuck.”

He talks about his penis. “What else is there to talk about?”

She mentions her vagina. “Guffaw.”

And so on. And I think this is still happening.

So I wondered, “If there is such a thing as ‘chick lit,’ why isn’t there ‘dick lit’?”

And, of course, there is. Turns out I have read plenty of it: Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, various books by Nick Hornby. Probably Lamb and so on by Christopher Moore. That’s, by extrapolation, according to some men who have posted lists at Amazon or thereabouts.

I have to tell you I was afraid to Google “dick lit” and then afraid to click anything with a dick in it. At Wikipedia, I only got an article about Moby Dick, which is not funny enough to be dick lit, and I didn’t click very far among lists and blogs, but I got the gist of it.

Dick lit is essentially chick lit for men.

(And you can check this out at Urban Dictionary. Where the younger male audience is specified, but the examples point to the older male audience for virile adventure fiction. Of course, I realize now, from handling a lot of pulp fiction and men's romance at Babbitt's, that there was plenty of dick lit before there was this term, as with chick lit.)

So if it has a sense of humor and is written by a man, it’s dick lit, and if it has a sense of humor and is written by a woman, it’s chick lit, as long as it has a self-determining protagonist who is male or female. (Next, we may get Pat lit.) At least there is indeed equal time for reproductive parts out there in popular literature.

So I ask you, is there anything you’ve read that you’d like to label chick lit or dick lit?

Who has read some “chick lit,” and why? For fun, for book groups, for a college class. And what are we/you looking for in that kind of book? Fun? A good story? Romance? Someone to identify with? Self-determination?

Have any men among us read anything that someone else calls “chick lit”? And would you be embarrassed to be caught reading it? If so, why?

I was embarrassed to click dick lit, but I was not embarrassed to read Hornby, Foer, or Moore. Is John Irving dick lit? Is Saul Bellow intellectual dick lit? What about Philip Roth? I’m pretty sure Portnoy’s Complaint is dick lit.


Susan said...

I tend to think of "chick lit" as pejorative. It seems to suggest that the work is "not to be taken seriously." While I agree there are books--written by both men and women--that don't have serious literary merit, I think the problem is that work written by women (and arguably "for women") is too often assumed to be inferior. While the term "dick lit" does exist--at least in the urban dictionary--we don't really hear it applied to male-centric writing as regularly as we hear terms like "chick lit."

I took a course in literature by women as an undergrad and we read work by Toni Morrison, Aphra Behn, Mary Wollstonecraft, Margaret Fuller, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen & etc. We ended the semester with Bridget Jones's Diary. I remember the instructor telling us how she fought to have a course in literature by women, and how a number of (older) male faculty members were against it. One of them claimed that women wrote "only fluff" using Jane Austen as an example. The bias against writing by women filters down from publishing into higher education.

Still, I feel uncomfortable with "chick lit." I think it tends to feed into certain gender stereotypes... I dislike the assumption that because I'm a woman, it's assumed I'm necessarily interested in shoe shopping and babies and biological clocks and dieting and lengthy meditations on one's menses. I don't have a problem with these things per se (though I tend to be disinterested in work that limits itself to these topics), but I think "chick lit" is reductive--both the term itself and the connotations attached to it.

Also: I laughed so hard I cried at the thought of googling "dick lit" and then being afraid to click on the results. I can only imagine!

SarahJane said...

I really like your examples of masturbation vs. menstruation, penis vs. vagina (who would win?!).
I think "Chick Lit" is definitely derogatory. "And the lord Oprah made them all."
Personally I have an aversion. There are many groups on Good Reads, for example, that are dedicated to Chick Lit, and I swerve wide of them. Perhaps I am being unfair? I have read Jane Austen and wasn't all that excited, and Bridget Jones Diary was a dopey time-waster.
But I don't like "Dick Lit" either. I hated Portnoy's Complaint, and now vow never to read "Everything is Illuminated." I've been considering it for years now. Glad to give that up.

Unknown said...

The flipside of this, what makes it possible, is of course "literary fiction," which may be an even more problematic term. It seems to mean, "This is the good shit that smart people read to be uplifted and improved, not the escapist scuzz that nobrains read on the subway."

You can imagine what Charles Dickens or Jane Austen would have made of that. Melville sure wasn't happy he couldn't get a readership.

Still, it is an old split & surely predates Dwight McDonald's Masscult-Midcult-High Cult problem. Odd how it only seems to bother people in the "high" end of the trade.

Regarding Dick Lit, did you see the NYT Book Review on the downward (wilting?) curve of the writing of American Males?

One of these guys is a neighbor, so I should withhold comment.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. I don’t necessarily classify books into either chick lit or dick lit, but if I did, I think I would toss Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy, and Ian Fleming into the dick lit category. (The humor in former two is, I think, entirely unintentional and unself-conscious. At least Ian Fleming wrote “Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang,” which suggests that even he got the humorousness of James Bond’s cars and gadgets.) (And I guess this poses the question of whether you’d separate dick lit into two broad yet separate streams – the unselfconscious macho dick lit of Cussler, Clancy, et al., versus a more generous and not-so-macho strain that you could sum up with the example of Armistead Maupin?)

But, with respect to reading books that others think of as chick lit – which they find humorous that I read – I have to count among my favorites the many novels of Georgette Heyer. They involve that self-determining female protagonist the definition you cite calls for, humor, interpersonal relationships, and even shopping (albeit in the Georgian era’s Pantheon Bazaar or Bruton Street or Fanchon’s, and not in modern Manhattan or for modern shoes).

I have to say that I rank Heyer with Jane Austen, at least with respect to her romances. (Admittedly, her mysteries are still on my “to do” list, so I can’t speak to them, other than noting that I know they were plotted by her husband, and then fleshed-out by her.) In fact, years ago, I detoured Dick Hettlinger (a professor at Kenyon) from a discussion of society as viewed through the works of Jane Austen to a lengthy discussion based on the novels of Georgette Heyer instead. I think it frustrated him a bit, but I pointed out that thematically and sociologically, we were sticking to the same subject, and the same society.

What did I find in Heyer's works? Well, I already mentioned humor and relationships, and I have to add what I think of as brilliant research and a captivating writing style. (I also like the idea that the cadets at Sandhurst are taught the Battle of Waterloo using her “An Infamous Army.”)

And so I am a source of amusement to some of my female friends who themselves won’t deign to pick up one of her books to see why I am reading it. (I get the same reaction when they see I’m reading some books by Lois McMasters Bujold. Maybe it is concern over stereotypes and the image of the “romance novel” – maybe it’s the fault of the cover illustrators.) But I still read – and re-read – them. And why do I read them? Because they’re fun.


Kathleen said...

Thanks for all the comments! Lots of Georgette Heyer at Babbitt's, so I will look at her books. Laughing at "wilting," but I don't want to be unkind. And Sarah, the "dick lit" label on Foer was just one man's opinion. I found the book illuminating, as promised.

Kim said...

More important to me than the categorization of chick vs dick, male vs female author and/or audience, is the age and life-experience of the author (and intended audience if there is one.) For years I read primarily female authors because I was able to relate to them, but as I have grown older I find I often cannot relate well to writers 20 or 30 years younger than I am, with some exceptions. And now I am at a stage where I am interested in good writing by persons of either gender who are thoughtful, articulate, interesting, and insightful. I love Hornsby (About a Boy, my favorite), Richard Russo, Johnathon Lethem (Motherless Brooklyn), Silas House, John Irving, JD Salinger, and many many others. (Only Irving and Hornsby on your dick lit list). I don't care much for most "chick lit" with a few exceptions. I loved Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, for example.

Kathleen said...

Thanks for this, too. And it's not really my list. I didn't even know there WAS dick lit, although it does seem...tit for tat, so to speak. It's some guy's list.

From looking at the chick lit lists and sites, that "genre" does seem aimed at young women. In the have-shoes-will-shop mode.

Kim said...

Or in the Have-Pants-Will-Travel mode.

Chrissy said...

I've only ever heard of chick lit...dick lit is new to me but catchy I guess!
I love chick lit. I go through phases. Sometimes I want to read Romance, or Fiction, other times non fiction or chick this month has been all about the chick lit. I classify chick lit anything my husband wouldn't really be interested in reading lol.
I came across a fun website for Evinda Lepins. She's an awesome new author that has got it going on. I am really looking forward to learning more about her. So far all I really know is what is on her website that she writes about her past relationships which I think that's the best way to write. I like to know other peoples life stories keeps them out of mine!

Chrissy said...

I left a post about Evinda Lepins and wanted to say that since this is based on her life story it makes me even more closer to her, which will make a great story.. And I have a question...since I haven't really heard of "dick lit" could you give me an example of a book that I could check out...Thanks :)