Chick Lit, here I come

It’s been suggested by some readers here that I look into the chick lit phenomenon, a genre we skipped in Why We Read What We Read because it simply isn’t bestselling—at least not bestselling enough to thrust a title into the top 15 for any one year. Still, one really can’t ignore the hot pink drawings gracing innumerable slim paperbacks at one’s local bookstore. These titles occupy premium display space at the chain stores, proof enough that they are selling in very satisfying quantities indeed.

As a clueless outsider, I wasn’t sure even what “chick lit” really was. After all, 70% of literary fiction is read by women, and with even autobiographical journeys like Eat, Pray, Love scoring big with the ladies, it wasn’t clear to me that all of those offerings didn’t qualify. However, according to the book reviewers over at, chick lit is women’s fiction of a very special type:

It’s all in the tone. Chick lit is told in a more confiding, personal tone. It’s like having a best friend tell you about her life….Humor is a strong point in chick lit, too….THAT is what really separates chick lit from regular women’s fiction.

Got it. Less Maya Angelou, more Bridget Jones.

I also learned that chick lit, like romantic fiction, comes in multiple sub-genres. You’ve got City Girl Lit, and Wedding Lit, and Hen Lit (for “older” women in their 30s to 60s). You’ve got Christian Lit, “Bigger Girl” Lit, even “Lad Lit” that’s written by and about men (but in that all-important light and humorous tone).

I started with Mom Lit. It seemed like it would be different from The Nanny Diaries (which I did read once) and Sex and the City (which I still watch a lot) without veering too far into one of the more peculiar branches of the genre.

And I started with a powerhouse: Jennifer Weiner. Though chick lit hasn’t broken through to an annual list’s top 15, Weiner is still a bestselling author who sold nearly 300,000 copies of The Guy Not Taken in 2007. That’s not the book I read, though. I picked up Little Earthquakes, a story about women who meet in a prenatal yoga class and become friends, supporting each other through their trials with their husbands and new babies.

Well, I wasn’t very impressed. I just felt so neutral about this book: it wasn’t horribly boring, but it wasn’t terribly interesting. And, disappointingly, despite the promises of, it just wasn’t that funny. It was light, certainly, and it had scenes that I know were supposed to be funny, but the only thing that I thought was genuinely amusing was when the women took turns tossing yarmulkes across the room at their babies’ bare heads.

Of course, a book needn’t be funny if it has depth, but I thought Little Earthquakes was lacking in that department as well. It wasn’t really about anything—except that caring for an infant is really, really hard. That’s all true, and I can see the book being comforting to overworked new moms (if they would even have time to read it), but I just needed more.

Halfway through, in fact, I needed so much more that I swapped Little Earthquakes for Tom Perrotta’s Little Children. Both the titular and thematic similarities were coincidental, but the comparison well demonstrated what I want from a novel that my foray into chick lit just wasn’t delivering.

Themes. Themes! Themes!! I like my books to be about something bigger, to comment upon the human condition, to explore our tweaked-out selves in some thoughtful way. It’s not a matter of topic: like Weiner, Perrotta writes about parents, children, marriage, and suburban life. But he does it in a way that’s so much less shallow, so much less predictable, and just—honestly—so much better.

His story follows a number of befuddled characters: a stay-at-home mom who can’t quite figure how she ever ended up married with a child; a hot stay-at-home dad who sneaks out at night to watch skateboarders instead of studying for the bar exam he’s failed twice; an angry retired cop with an agenda; a panty-sniffer; and yes, even a child molester. Perhaps these dark edges give Perrotta an immediate literary advantage. But either way, he works his theme both literally and figuratively: the characters are linked by the “little children” around which their lives revolve, while also becoming helpless “little children” themselves in the face of their own desires.

After finishing Little Children, I did eventually get to the embarrassingly shallow ending of Little Earthquakes, in which all is magically resolved. What’s so strange to me is that Weiner goes out of her way to crystallize the genuine, overwhelming difficulty of motherhood, but then gives us an ending that glazes over all the problems she’s spent 400 pages cataloging. Does realism not apply to denouements? Perrotta’s ending, on the other hand, manages to be generally positive without undermining the issues and complexities explored in the novel.

I wonder—and this is a theory, not a statement—if one difference between literary and genre fiction is how they deal with truth: the former dishes it out relentlessly while the latter can’t quite look it in the eye.

We’ll see. I’m not judging all chick lit based on this one book. I’ll be back with reviews of Family Trust, Having It and Eating It, and maybe some of that quirky “Lad Lit” if I can get my hands on it.

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