‘I’m Not a Chick Lit Writer’

Lynn Messina, the author of the forthcoming Girls’ Guide to Dating Zombies, rails against the derogatory term that just won’t die.

I’m not a chick lit writer.

Yes, I wrote a novel called Fashionistas, which featured well-heeled fashion editors drinking pink cocktails in swank hotel bars. But it was a satire taking aim at well-heeled fashion editors drinking pink cocktails in swank hotel bars. The editor in chief of Fashionista magazine puts Jesus Christ in haute couture on the cover because she thinks the messiah is the ultimate cultural get: As John Lennon proved, nobody is bigger than Jesus. She builds the entire issue around him with articles about must-have resurrection wear and hot nativity scenes owned by hotter celebrities.

My publicist clucked benignly at my insistence that Fashionistas wasn’t chick lit. “PR lesson number one,” she said, “always play to your largest audience.”

But rather than widening the field, chick lit seemed to narrow it. The term itself was demeaning and dismissive and precluded half the human race. Moreover, it implied that my heroine’s biggest concern was finding a boyfriend after a series of humiliating/wacky/awkward/emotionally scarring first dates.

Appalled, I dug in. The world would end in a fiery conflagration before I aligned myself with those frothy, pink-covered dating sagas.

The aversion was not unique to me.

An article about chick lit in The Independent in September (“Have We Fallen Out of Love with Chick Lit?”) demonstrates clearly that few chick lit writers actually consider themselves chick lit writers: Polly Courtney’s contention that her most recent novel, which is set at a men’s magazine, isn’t chick lit because it deals with “social issues” is far too familiar.

The defensive posturing might salve our consciences, but it does little to alter public perception. Fashionistas was universally hailed as chick lit, a fact that ultimately worked to its benefit. For all my disavowing, the book did in fact play to a large audience, and I had the wonderful pleasure of publishing two more novels before the backlash kicked in (a backlash that, curiously, seems to be only just beginning in England, home of Bridget Jones).

The backlash hit me hard. My next two books—one about media execs on a remote island in southeast Asia, the other a fictionalized account of my own endless movie-option epic—were roundly rejected for being chick lit, even by editors who wrote lovely notes about how much they liked my writing. One editor even waxed nostalgic for the glory days of chick lit when she’d offered mid five figures for Fashionistas. (Her memory, though flattering, is faulty: She rejected the manuscript, for which I ultimately got mid four figures.)

In the wake of these failures, I evaluated my writing and identified the elements that made my books chick lit: subject matter, style, humor, setting. The only solution was to change everything, so my next project was a middle-grade book about robots who invent an incredible machine that turns out to be smarter than they.

That didn’t sell.

Next, my agent suggested I write a cozy (a type of mystery; think Murder, She Wrote) because the cozy market was thriving in the weak economy. I began a murder mystery set in a small, dysfunctional co-op apartment building near Washington Square Park. Twenty pages of stilted dialogue and stagy scenes later, I realized I was wasting my time. Even if I managed to finish the book, it would be workmanlike at best. I don’t love mysteries. I’m not inspired by a capable amateur sleuth, or even an incapable one, trying to figure out whodunit. I’m inspired by smart, funny career women trying to figure out life.

Damn the consequences, I thought. I’m writing chick lit.

But not just any chick lit—chick lit with a calculated twist, something that would make it palatable to a chick-lit-adverse public. Zombies, I thought, over lunch with a People.com editor who mentioned in passing the many zombie projects in the works for 2012. Brain-munching, flesh-rotting, argh-spewing zombies. Everybody loves a reanimated corpse.

Three months later, the first draft of The Girls Guide to Dating Zombies was done.

Even so, I’m still not comfortable with the label “chick lit.” The feminist in me who has struggled for twenty years to be taken seriously as a woman cringes at any use of the word chick that doesn’t refer to a newly hatched bird. But I’m done fighting the inevitable. The battle over nomenclature was always just a distraction anyway. Its goal was to divide women into two camps—This Isn’t Chick Lit (edited by Elizabeth Merrick) versus This Is Chick Lit (edited by Lauren Baratz-Logsted)—when we should have been joining forces against a sexist culture that insists on pigeonholing women’s commercial fiction into any category, cutesy or otherwise, and leaving men’s commercial fiction to stand as, well, fiction.

This is why, in the spirit of defeat and defiance, I’m reclaiming the term chick lit for myself: I’m a chick lit writer.

Worse—I’m a zombie chick lit writer.

Oh, yes, the end of the world is upon us.

 

Lynn Messina is the author of six novels, including The Girls’ Guide to Dating Zombies, which will be available as an ebook on Valentine’s Day. In the meantime, get great zombie-dating tips at zombiedating.wordpress.com.


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  1. [...] you wrote about being a “chicklit” author for us, first we’ll ask: Is this chicklit? On one level, it’s absolutely chick lit. I [...]

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