Does "chick lit" deserve more literary respect?

Cristen Conger

Courtesy: Turtles and Pearls

Jennifer Weiner, bestselling author of "Good In Bed" and a number of other "commercial women's fiction" (a much nicer name for "chick lit") titles, doesn't need any help selling her books. In fact, when you've racked up more than 4.5 million sales for novels bearing your name and headshot inside the book jacket, you'd think kicking back and resting on literary laurels would be in order -- but not for Weiner who has positioned herself at the forefront a now-longstanding conversation over the value and recognition of fiction aimed at a female audience. Beginning in 2010, Weiner took to Twitter to express her dismay at the rapid and seemingly unvetted embrace of Jonathan Franzen's novel (which I thoroughly enjoyed) "Freedom," which had recently been published to immediate acclaim:

I think it's a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it's literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it's romance, or a beach book - in short, it's something unworthy of a serious critic's attention."

And since then, Weiner has periodically harnessed the power of her nearly 82,000 Twitter followers to call out Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides and other writers and critics for what she perceives as a double standard that rewards literature penned by and about men as inherently superior. In 2012, a report from the Women in Literary Arts organization VIDA supported Weiner's stance with its revelation that nearly three-fourths of authors reviewed by the Boston Review, Harper's, London Review of Books and other well respected outlets were male authored. Weiner, for instance, despite spending plenty of time on The New York Times bestseller list has never been reviewed by the publication. As book critic Lizzie Skurnick told the LA Times in 2010 regarding Weiner: "She's super smart, but her books are perceived as fluffy. It's very hard to have that [intelligence] acknowledged when you write for women, and your readers love you and come to see you."

Caroline and I dug further into this issue of author gender, literary respect and book marketing in our podcast "Can you judge a book by its gendered cover?", which I highly recommend listening to (of course). More recently, a New Yorker profile of Weiner and her quest for literary respect re-piqued my interest in this what we're really talking about when we talk about the value of commercial women's fiction, particularly because an undertone (and sometimes overtone) of "what's OK to enjoy and still be perceived as an intelligent female reader?" emerges. Does the flippant -- a woman at a beach, recovering from heartache, running up a credit card bill -- maintain any value, and why don't we hear similar debates in regard to "commercial men's fiction," (which isn't really a thing because "male" stuff often doesn't get niche categorized in the same way women-oriented fare does, but for the sake of argument think Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy, John Grisholm and the like)? I don't have the answers (if I did I'd probably have a corner office at Penguin), but fittingly I do have some recommended reading:

"Written Off: Jennifer Weiner's Quest for Literary Respect" by Rebecca Mead. The New Yorker.

Through her blog and her Twitter account, [Jennifer] Weiner has stoked a lively public discussion about the reception and consumption of fiction written by women. This audience is smaller than the one that buys her books, and barely intersects with it. Yet social media have given Weiner a parallel notoriety, as an unlikely feminist enforcer.

"Jennifer Weiner, I Love You, But You're Smothering Me" by Kelly Faircloth. Jezebel.

When I was an insecure college freshman, Good in Bed was a godsend. The protagonist was wickedly funny, even as she voiced my fears about the way my weight would limit my future, that nobody would ever love me, nobody interesting would ever hire me. It was a reminder to buck up, kid, it'll be fine. But something has started to bother me about Jennifer Weiner's cheerleading for happy endings.

"Jennifer Weiner's Curious Definition of Literary Sisterhood" by Michelle Dean. Flavorwire.

"Literariness" involves experimentation, and experimentation demands moving away from established forms. And Weiner's kind of novel, whatever you might think of its merits, is an established kind of book. People know what to expect from it. That's why it makes for a relaxing read, and why you'll often see the hoity-toitiest of literary fiction readers bringing one or two of those books on vacation.