Is Chick Lit Getting Better For Women?

BY Cristen Conger / POSTED February 11, 2013
Hammerbrook - City can this really be true?
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Jessica Grose's heroine is a muumuu-wearing blogger in "Sad Desk Salad." Jessica Grose’s heroine is a muumuu-wearing blogger in “Sad Desk Salad.”

Over at The New Republic, Molly Fisher declares “a new brand of chick lit has emerged. It is set against a somewhat less glamorous backdrop: the blogosphere.” To support her thesis, she highlights three new chick lit titles coming out that revolve around blogger heroines who seem to barely have time to update their Facebook statuses, much less go therapeutic shoe shopping a la Carrie Bradshaw: Jessica Grose’s “Sad Desk Salad,” Karin Tannabe’s “The List,” and Janis Thomas’ “Something New.” From what Fischer describes, the plots stray from the prototypical chick lit fare by focusing less around the long-term getting of some incredible guy (who even if flawed has the inhuman capability to morph from a monogamy-averse cad into a ring-shopping dreamboat in under 300 pages) than the long-term getting/retaining of some incredible — by Internet standards — job. Fisher writes:

We are told repeatedly that these characters can destroy lives and dominate news cycles; the authors question the morality of their heroines’ actions, but not the premise that they wield power. These women really are famous enough (in their sphere) to merit dedicated hate blogs. Their brutal hours really do prove worth it in the end. So perhaps what most clearly differentiates the new media chick lit from the old media chick lit is its affirmative spirit: the authors aren’t offering takedowns of a glamorous world, they’re validating the blog post peons. The old version of journalism was either pretty easy or very fancy. The new version is hard and lowly, and its disciples accordingly impressive.

This self-importance is crucial to the real romance these books offer—the fantasy of a job that matters, that you’re good at, that earns recognition, and that rewards the sacrifices it demands. Work has moved to the heart of the story.

Female labor, however, has always been at the heart of so-called chick lit, ever since its first titles were published in the 19th century, courtesy of the Brontë sisters and their contemporaries. As Kerstin Fest explains in her 2008 comparison of working women in Jane Eyre-era novels and modern chick lit, these books initially came about as a product of Victorian social unease regarding women and employment outside the home. As a result, “tales of women in the workplace are also tales about what it means to be a woman,” Fest writes. And in the following 120 years, she argues, chick lit has carried on that tradition, while nevertheless largely sticking to its Victorian guns that pits a public, masculine-by-default workplace against a private, feminine domestic. Dedication to one’s job often comes at the expense of one’s private (read: romantic) life, as exemplified in best sellers like “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Bridgett Jones’ Diary.” The happily-ever-after comes not only with snagging fella, but also retaining femininity after temporarily ditching in the pursuit of career advancement.

Now, that tide seems to have turned, judging by Fisher’s chick lit roundup. The heroines lead more lower-rent lives than Carrie Bradshaw & Co., are working in the wild world of new media and, most crucially, enjoy a fairy tale wrap-up at the office, not the alter. As Fisher concludes, “Working in journalism is no longer a convenient context for fantasy; the job—ever more improbable—has become the fantasy itself.” At long last, it seems, chick lit is catching up to nonfiction female empowerment beyond credit cards, hot flings and hangovers. Professional tenacity, perhaps, is no longer conflated with endangering one’s womanhood.

Yes, this small sample size of chick lit should be taken into account, but as an unmarried new media professional in her late 20s, that dream-job-before-dream-guy preference resonates with conversations my girlfriends and I have over the occasion “Sex & the City”-style brunch. Speaking to Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore, former Politico blogger and author of “The List,” Karin Tannabe, echoed how real-world working girl conditions have changed in the new media, post-recession landscape:

“I don’t have many girlfriends who go out for three martini lunches with their version of Mr. Big. But I do know a lot of girls who work 60+ hour weeks and just hope they don’t make a wrong move so that they can keep on trucking at that pace. And usually in flats, not Carrie’s Manolos.”

Nailing down a 401k, health benefits and a handsome salary certainly isn’t a particularly romantic escapist fantasy. But in the chick lit canon so rife with idealized femininity winning out over ambition, this 21st-century heroine could be a welcome new chapter in women’s fiction.

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