BOOK REVIEWS     Sue Parrill, Editor

In the Classroom or In the Bedroom

Chick Lit: The New
Woman’s Fiction

Edited by Suzanne Ferris and Mallory Young.
Routledge Publishing, 2005.
288 pages. Trade Paperback. $26.95.

Reviewed by Jessica Lynice Hooten.

While most academics may not glance twice at “chick lit,” a few have come together to show why chick lit should receive literary and scholarly attention. Editors Suzanne Ferriss, an English professor at Nova  Southeastern University, and Mallory Young, a professor of English and French at Tarleton State University, have compiled fifteen essays from a range of professional academics who (with one exception) argue for the value of studying chick lit because of its sociological implications for women and its relationship in literary history to novels such as Pride and Prejudice.

In the opening essay, Cris Mazza explains her creation of the term “chick lit” for the title of her post-feminist fiction anthology. Published in 1995, the book draws together twenty-two stories by unknown female writers of fiction, which all deal with the issues of modern women humorously and lightheartedly. The collection predates what is now known as chick lit, which arguably started with Helen Fielding’s novel Bridget Jones’s Diary in 1996.

Since Fielding’s novel unabashedly filches Jane Austen’s plot from Pride and Prejudice (a connection discussed in almost every essay), many of these writers propose that chick lit originated in the nineteenth- century novels written by women. Ferris argues for the connection between the current popular fiction and that of Austen in her essay “Narrative and Cinematic Doubleness: Pride and Prejudice and Bridget Jones’s Diary,” which does an excellent job of assessing recent adaptations of both of these, but does little to convince readers of any more connection between the two than their plots.

Many current chick lit novels follow a formula, which includes plots similar to those of an Austen or Brontë novel. For example, Elizabeth Hale attempts to demonstrate in her essay how the plot of The Nanny Diaries resembles that of Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey. In addition to the comparable plots, chick lit novels often feature a career-driven heroine, an obsession with appearance, and a passion for shopping, elements not often associated with nineteenth-century novels, though some of the essayists try to make this case. Among the first four essayists, who discuss the origins of and influences on chick lit, only Juliette Wells demands more from the definition of literature than an interesting plot and a female perspective.

In her essay “Mothers of Chick Lit? Women Writers, Readers, and Literary History,” Wells asks whether chick lit belongs in the company of women authors such as Austen, Edith Wharton, the Brontës, and Frances Burney. She quotes from Northanger Abbey, where Austen describes novels as being recommended by their “wit, genius, and taste,” three essential qualities lacking in chick lit, and concludes that while “chick lit amuses and engrosses […] it does not richly reimagine in literary form the worlds that inspire it.”

Instead of literary significance, the next six essays demonstrate that the novels exhibit the sociological and psychological problems of the modern woman, and not just the modern single woman. What began as a genre for white, single, young females now includes subgenres such as “sistah lit,” “southern chick lit,” and “chick lit, jr.” In Lisa A. Guerrero’s analysis of sistah lit, she explains the difference “between the romance fantasy that chicks are allowed to believe in and the real-life experiences that sistahs are forced to live in.” Joanna Webb Johnson defends chick lit, jr. because “the very complexity and heavy-handedness of [novels by Salinger and Knowles] makes them no longer popular with contemporary young adult readers.” By including women of different ethnicities, ages, and regions, chick lit reaches out to a broad audience and offers social significance.

The last four essays analyze the social significance of chick lit by detailing the novels’ approaches to sexuality, feminism, fashion, and self-identity. A. Rochelle Mabry praises chick lit for moving women out of the Harlequin obsession, but she worries that they “still ultimately emphasize that what a woman really wants is to find the right guy with whom to spend the rest of her life.” In “Fashionably Indebted,” Jessica Van Slooten discusses how these “novels hover between fantasy and reality,” making them “safe substitutes” for expressing our desires to have it all. Thus, these novels provide alternatives to what culture demands for women—homemaking, Mr. Right, thin waists, and sexual fidelity—as well as amusing escapes from reality.

In closing remarks, Shari Benstock suggests that the real test for whether chick lit deserves literary attention will be its significance beyond the current time. While Mazza claims we need to read chick lit because women are writing books about women, and Mabry encourages us to read these novels because they allow women to express desire, these arguments stray from proving that chick lit should be studied as great literature. Instead chick lit novels may be worth buying and reading only as a form of popular literature which provides laughter, escapism, and as much temporal pleasure as the final kiss in a film.

Jessica Lynice Hooten is a Ph.D. student at Baylor University and the 2005 third-place winner in JASNA’s annual essay contest, postgraduate division. She is a member of the North Texas Region.

JASNA News v.23, no. 1, Spring 2007, p. 21

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