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For a genre whose name recalls something as harmless as candy- coated gum, the term "chick-lit" sure has become divisive.
While the term was coined by writer and University of Illinois at Chicago Professor Cris Mazza in a series of mid-1990s anthologies of alternative women's fiction, it's now commonly used to describe solidly commercial novels in the Bridget Jones's Diary vein.
According to ChickLitBooks.com, the genre "is written mainly by women for women," and differs from traditional women-centric fiction because its stories are "told in a more confiding, personal tone, like having your best friend tell you about your life."
Stephanie Harzewski of the English Department at the University of Pennsylvania says that standard chick-lit "explores the . . .conflict between relishing one's independence vs. wanting a safety net or emotional security that a partner can provide."
And that's a pretty accurate description of Bridget, written by Helen Fielding, as well as enormously popular titles by Marian Keyes (The Last Chance Saloon, Rachel's Holiday, Sushi for Beginners).
Of course, female authors wrote about women before Fielding's lovingly neurotic British heroine made her 1999 debut. But that novel and its subsequent movie versions "really kicked this market into high gear," says author and book promoter Penny Sansevieri. "Publisher's Weekly predicted the genre would have faded six seasons ago, but it hasn't and won't, and here's why: The genre speaks to a whole group of women who have been previously overlooked."
To fans, chick-lit is a positive term that can encompass authors and subjects both light and more serious. "As a Baby Boomer author, I think 'chick-lit' is not only legit . . . it is empowering and validating," says Deborah Uetz, author of Into the Mist, a guide to coping with a loved one's Alzheimer's disease, along with another, yet-to-be released "chick-lit" title.
But some see it as a dismissal of female authors, a way to categorize every book written by women in one cutesy catch phrase.
"I hate the term 'chick-lit!' says author Becky Due " 'Women's Literature' or 'Fiction' works just fine," says Due , who characterizes her work, like The Gentlemen's Club: A Story For All Women, as "novels about strong women.
"Would men stand for 'Dude Lit?' " she asks.
Mazza, who coined the phrase to describe a completely different sort of women's story, responded to the current craze earlier this year in an essay, "Chick Lit and the Perversion of a Genre," in Poets and Writers magazine
According to Penn professor Harzewski, "Mazza basically argues how chick lit went from something exciting and literary to something commercial, with one-dimensional writing and characters."
Harzewski says that while she's concerned that younger female writers might feel pushed into writing "chick-lit" because its success may make it seem the only way to break into a writing career, the genre has helped change "the way single women are represented. Historically, the never-married woman in literature has to be the object of scorn, pity or derision. . . . While chick lit may contain or undermine its representations of stylish achieving, professional women by having many novels end in marriage, it offers funny, capable single women who are not looking to settle."
Best-selling author Jennifer Weiner (In Her Shoes) finds the term "aggravating. But the thing I try to tell myself is that the readers do not care. Ninety-nine percent of the people in a bookstore don't really know the term 'chick-lit' - or they think it's gum."
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