Franzen Book Controversy: Chick Lit v. Dude Lit

As Elizabeth Gilbert’s stock soars, and readers are whipped into a Jonathan Franzen frenzy, Laura Fraser examines Chick Lit versus Dude Lit.

Bestselling authors Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult have been annoyed lately at all the feverish attention Jonathan Franzen has been getting in advance of his new book, Freedom. Their gripe is not just with him, but with the fact that men who write about family and relationship issues in general are ballyhooed as brilliant, while women who write about similar topics are routinely overlooked. Reviewers, in the minds of Weiner and Picoult, are like the people who marvel at the dad at the playground with his kids—amazing!—and ignore the hordes of moms.

“Would I like to be taken at least as seriously as a Jonathan Tropper or a Nick Hornby?" Weiner asked, "You bet."

Without debating the individual literary merits of Franzen vs. Weiner, Picoult, et al., I think it’s fair to say that there are as many good female writers out there as males, and also fair to say that a sizeable portion of those books written by women have been dismissed as “Chick Lit.” Maybe Eat, Pray, Love has been so successful that many recent books by women that also wander into the realm of relationships have been branded “Chick Lit” by association. Whether or not EPL actually fits that genre, reviewers have been tossing the term “Chick Lit” around promiscuously, with a derision that may derive from envy. In any case, it seems any book written by a woman that describes her emotional journey, with some humor along the way, is in danger of being painted with that broad, Bridget Jones makeup brush. I hoped the term “Chick Lit” would’ve blown up with the Sex and the City II suicide bomb, but it seems to linger like bad perfume.

There are, I understand, books that deserve to be called "Chick Lit:—ones in which finding the right Hermès purse counts as a serious plot line, and hair colorists figure in as major characters, developing from chunky highlights to subtle weaves. I don't know: I'm too busy reading Jennifer Egan, Hilary Thayer Hamann, Vendela Vida, and Mary Karr. But I suspect some reviewers take one look at the pretty cover of a female author’s book, with suspicious praise from Oprah and a few other women’s magazines, and dismiss it as the same kind of fluff. (I know, and I’m cranky about it, because it happened to my memoir, All Over the Map).

Suppose reviewers were as quick to dismiss serious men’s books that take readers on an emotional trajectory—I’m not talking Mr. Commitment (Mike Gayle’s 1999 novel) here—as they are women’s books. There are as many guys’ books that explore the nature of being a guy in the early 21st century as there are women’s books about trying to figure it all out in these confusing times. What if they called the male species “Dude Lit”? (There is another term for the genre with a more felicitous rhyme, but we chicks don’t like to use the word “dick.”)

In Chick Lit, women obsess over designers and shoes. In Dude Lit, men never change their clothes. They may not even dress; we’re not sure.

As a genre, Dude Lit books generally propel a confused, often drug-addled or alcoholic, narcissistic, philandering male protagonist to, well, not self-discovery, but some semblance of adult behavior. Nick Hornby is perhaps the prince of Dude Lit, along with Martin Amis, Jonathan Lethem, Paul Auster, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Ford, David Carr, and sometimes Michael Chabon (Dave Eggers’ touching Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius gets a mention as honorary Chick Lit).

Norman Mailer, John Updike, and Saul Bellow are in a category of their own: Prick Lit. What separates Prick Lit from Dude Lit is that the Dude Lit writers may have once, perhaps in college, said something positive about feminism, if only to get laid.

Don’t get me wrong—some of these guys are among my favorite authors, even if a few of them tend to hit the same notes in almost every book. But as a genre, Dude Lit has as many reliable attributes as Chick Lit, with some rather stark differences.

In Chick Lit, women write about their emotions. In Dude Lit, men use rock ‘n' roll songs as a stand-in for their feelings. The more complex the emotions, the more obscure the band. Heartbreak is symbolized by an obsession with a slow song by an aging punk rocker. (Jennifer Egan gets an honorary Dude Lit mention for A Visit from the Goon Squad.)

In Chick Lit, women escape their failed romances and other troubles by traveling to exotic, beautiful places. In Dude Lit, men stay in cities, the bigger and dirtier the better, and find the worst apartment in the seamiest neighborhood where they can burrow in for the long haul. They may occasionally go to the diner on the corner, or to a lonely house upstate, but they prefer to stay in the apartment, and have drug dealers and ex-girlfriends bring pizza and beer by for sustenance. If there is mysterious subway construction going on underneath the apartment, so much the better. A rehab center or homeless shelter will work, too, as a setting, as long as it isn’t too nice.

In Chick Lit, women obsess over designers and shoes. In Dude Lit, men never change their clothes. They may not even dress; we’re not sure.

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In Chick Lit, women are upbeat and optimistic through their travails, and that spunky spirit leads them to peace, contentment, and in the best case, marriage. In Dude Lit, men brood. The more they brood, the more beautiful women are inexplicably attracted to them, and then they brood on.

In Chick Lit memoirs, women struggle to get over crazy childhoods, failed marriages, bulimia, addiction to men who are bona fide jerks, and sometimes a few too many cocktails. In Dude Lit memoirs, men get over raging drug addictions, with jail time thrown in, or they struggle with the disappointment of never having made it as a rock star. In Dude Lit, men don’t usually have childhoods, or siblings.

In Chick Lit, women confide in their girlfriends. In Dude Lit, men confide in animals that are not deliberate pets, but wild animals and strays. If it’s a rat, they name it “Rat,” and if it’s a dog, “Dog.” It is sometimes difficult to keep the drug dealers and animals apart, because they have similar names.

In Chick Lit, women are forever searching for Mr. Right but falling into bed with Mr. Wrong, hating themselves for it afterward, via too much ice cream and shopping, and brushing themselves off and trying again for Mr. Right. In Dude Lit, men are commitment-phobes who sleep around and are mean to the women they’re with, but it’s OK because they feel bad about it afterward.

In Chick Lit, women try to keep themselves to a trim 224 pages or so. In Dude Lit, the bigger the better.

In Chick Lit, women finally get to a place of personal growth where they can reinvent themselves and create something new, like art. In Dude Lit, men get to a place of growth where they can finally destroy all the art they’ve ever made, or everything they’ve ever collected, preferably in a fire.

In Chick Lit, when women age, they fret about being single and losing their looks and consider cosmetic surgery. In Dude Lit, when men age, they demonstrate newfound sensitivity by writing about what narcissists they used to be, and then they marry someone much younger.

In Chick Lit, women lust after exactly the kind of sensitive, moody men Dude Lit authors write about. And then they feel disappointed in the morning.

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Laura Fraser is the author of the NYT-bestselling travel memoir, An Italian Affair, which was published long beforeEat, Pray, Love , and left out the “pray” part. Her new book, All Over the Map , includes an affair with a Brazilian, but she does not marry him.