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Chick Lit! Why Not 'Dick Lit'?

14/08/2014 16:45 | Updated 20 May 2015

What's wrong with the word 'chick lit'? It's just a label. Shorthand.

Maybe. Or maybe it's another way of putting women down.

I could see the logic if we split all commercial fiction in two according to gender. Books about emotions likely to appeal to women would be categorised as chick lit. Books about explosions likely to appeal to men would be categorised as dick lit.

But we don't do this. Commercial fiction likely to appeal to men is just called fiction. The term dick lit exists. But it's been used to describe books written by men that explore soft subjects like girlfriends - books written by writers like Nicky Hornby and Jonathan Franzen. It's a term that hasn't really caught on. It's hanging about on the sidelines, like a footballer hoping to play.

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The word chick lit, on the other hand, is everywhere. It's used all the time, by women and by men. You could argue - and some do - that chick lit is just another category, like thrillers or detective stories. It's meant to sum up a style of breathless, lighthearted girly fiction that's about love and relationships. It probably started as a logical way of capitalising on the success of Bridget Jones and Sex and the City.

It's the comic element that attracts the label most, I think. I sometimes wonder if it's a way of making sure that men don't inadvertently read anything witty written by a woman. That might be a bit shocking, like seeing a female stand-up on Mock the Week. As Dr Johnson said about women preachers, it is not done well, and you're surprised to find it being done at all.

Sometimes the term chick lit is used whether a book is comic or tragic. The boundaries are stretched so wide these days that it seems to mean any commercial fiction written by or for women. It's just another way of saying 'women's fiction' – the category that W.H.Smith removed some years ago after complaints that the practice was condescending.

I know that categorisation helps to sell books. And some categories make sense. I can understand the difference between literary fiction and commercial fiction. Not everyone is Will Self.

I also accept that, in general, women and men like different kinds of entertainment. When it comes to film, for example, the men in my house are more likely to watch something with a high body count, while my daughter and I have happily worked our way through the entire oeuvre of Sandra Bullock.

But what I'm arguing is that the term chick lit is a) pejorative (do you know a woman in your entire acquaintance who describes herself as a chick, even with an ironic fourth-wave feminist smile?) and b) so broad as to be utterly useless.

Most fiction-buyers are women. They enjoy motivation, depth of characterisation and psychological development whether it's a Nordic crime novel or a book based on the Bletchley code-breakers.

Calling all commercial fiction about relationships chick lit is like an episode of Masterchef in which men explore different all the different cuisines - Asian, French, traditional British - while women have their own special category called cooking.

I declare an interest. I've just written a romantic comedy about two people who should obviously be together but never quite manage to meet. I'm not Jane Austen. I'm not Hilary Mantel. I'm not going to be shortlisted for the Man Booker.

But does that mean I have to write chick lit?

Marianne Kavanagh's debut novel For Once In My Life is published by Text at £10.99.

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