- The Cultural Politics of Chick Lit: Popular Fiction, Postfeminism, and Representation by Heike Mißler
Despite proclamations since the first decade of the twenty-first century that chick lit and correlative media phenomenon like Sex and the City are “dead,” this market niche is going over a quarter of a century strong. Heike Mißler’s study marks a new and substantial contribution in scholarly analyses of the multimedia and cross-genre body of literary and cultural production grouped commercially under the umbrella known as “chick lit.” The Cultural Politics of Chick Lit: Popular Fiction, Postfeminism, and Representation extends earlier investigations of chick lit formulas with a focus on “recessionista lit,” new regional subsets such as Southern chick lit, and the genre’s increase in Asian, African-American, Hispanic, and lesbian protagonists. To be sure, pre-recession era chick lit occasionally offered variation from its Bridget Jones-esque white, straight, middle-class, urban protagonist, and some texts such as Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez’s The Dirty Girls Social Club (2003) were international bestsellers, but such novels were standouts from the generic template.
Besides thorough close readings of less canonical novels and their media reception, Mißler offers the first in-depth qualitative analysis of chick lit blogs, author websites, and online fan communities. Paying tribute to and building on the legacy of Janice A. Radway’s Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (1984), Mißler surveys chick lit reading communities to pinpoint the appeal of the genre as well as its mixed messages: challenging the status quo more often than not to contain it or offering frustrating if not bleak disillusionment as in Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus’s Citizen Girl (2004). Mißler breaks new ground in her analysis of the marketing of chick lit, especially online, as she convincingly shows that marketers invite readers to participate in a brand community, where the brands “are not so much the texts themselves or the publishing house as in the case of Harlequin/Mills&Boon, but their authors and what they and their novels represent,” with an author’s name synonymous [End Page 514] for a certain type of product (p. 58). Mißler’s reading of chick lit as well as its thriving online culture is by no means an uncritical sales pitch of new, more culturally diverse variants. The strength of her study lies in its detailed fascination with this popular fiction and in its reader-response hermeneutics, which gives its most avid readers a framework to make sense of their genre. Mißler diplomatically reveals chick lit’s limitations; it often problematizes the idea of romantic love, especially in newer texts that choose a career-focused trajectory, only to substitute it with a “notion of neoliberal love, a love at least partly chosen for its capitalist benefits,” as the “constraints of the genre usually coerce the novels back into complicity” (pp. 200, 161). While chick lit is a Bildungsroman of self-realization, the almost certain happily-ever-after ending that occurs after the protagonist accepts and integrates the source of conflict is, at the level of gender politics, a bait-and-switch.
Simultaneously, this heterogeneous genre demonstrates the elasticity of the romance, offers a variant of the quest tradition, and especially more recently, presents a sociological treatment of unsettled agenda items of the feminist project, in particular the work-life balance and the negotiations of career with motherhood. Mißler’s well-researched study thoroughly acquaints those unfamiliar with the old-school chick lit formula and brings readers up to date on the genre’s development, its platform for comedic writing of distinction by women, and its intrinsic mixed messages. Her take on Plum Sykes’s Bergdorf Blondes (2004), “vintage” chick lit, is first rate in its measured assessment of the class privilege of its narrator and how it ironically circumscribes her psychologically and socially. Mißler’s study is not only “on trend” in terms of chronicling new permutations in chick lit, but I wager it...