Great Chick-Lit of the 70’s (or, the Books That Raised Me)

The industry is buzzing about chick-lit again. I don’t know much about this whole phenomenon, except in a strange way I do, because I was raised on chick-lit. As a kid in the 1970s, the first grownup books I read (and really enjoyed) were the racy, funny and wise novels that my grandmother, my mother and my older sister left lying around the house. These books had a big influence on me, and I wonder if the chick-lit of today could possibly be as good.

1. The first adult book I ever read was Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York, a hilarious but sensitive sex comedy about a single Jewish woman hunting for the love of her life while slumming with some clearly unsuitable replacements. This novel came straight off Grandma Jeannette’s shelf in Miami Beach, and I do believe I even smuggled it back home in my little suitcase so I could finish reading it when summer vacation ended too soon. I learned a lot about human sexuality by reading this book (a bestseller at the time), and I distinctly remember asking my sister to explain words like “diaphragm” and “orgasm”, which is hilarious in retrospect since my sister probably didn’t know what these words meant either.

Sheila Levine‘s gimmick is that the book is a suicide note, because the narrator has given up on finding a man and has decided to kill herself (she doesn’t succeed, and the novel ends with Sheila’s epilogue to her suicide note, in which she worries about whether or not her rescuers put her apartment door back on the hinges after they broke it down to save her life). I wonder what happened to Gail Parent? I liked Sheila Levine so much that I bought her follow-up, David Meyer is a Mother, but it wasn’t as good. I remember hearing that Gail Parent wrote scripts for the show “Rhoda”, which makes a lot of sense since Rhoda Morgenstern and Sheila Levine are basically the same character. I also remember a terrible-looking film version of Sheila Levine coming out with Jeannie Berlin in the title role. It ran for about two days in theatres and has since disappeared from the face of the earth, even though Roy Scheider was in it just before starring in Jaws.

The book is still in print, but I don’t like the shiny new cover anywhere near as much as the old one.

2. I think I picked up Sue Kaufman’s Diary of a Mad Housewife from my Mom’s collection. This is a sharp satire about the miserable, unappreciated wife of a young, obnoxious social-climbing Manhattan lawyer. In the book’s best moments, such as the climactic cocktail party that collapses into a faux-pas-ridden disaster, Kaufman’s sharp and observant narrative takes on a Dostoevskian intensity. It’s not for nothing that the title evokes Nikolai Gogol.

Diary of a Mad Housewife also beat the odds when it was made into an absolutely great film starring Carrie Snodgress as timid Tina Balser, Richard Benjamin as her jerk husband and Frank Langella as a ratty suitor. Here’s some surprising Mad Housewife trivia: Neil Young saw this movie and wrote the song “A Man Needs A Maid” about it:

Now I’ll go somewhere, I don’t know when
I was watching a movie with a friend
I fell in love with the actress
She was playing a part that I could understand

Neil Young then went on to meet, date and marry Carrie Snodgress, which shows that he must have really liked the movie. The strange thing about all this is that the song “A Man Needs A Maid” expresses a man’s plaintive desire for a submissive woman, whereas the book and the movie are clearly attempting to skewer the notion that submissive women can be happy in relationships. No wonder Neil and Carrie got divorced a few years later.

Sue Kaufman’s novel is still available in a new edition with an introduction by spoken-word poet Maggie Estep (this book’s hip credentials are through the roof). Incidentally, Diary of a Mad Housewife should technically be categorized as chick-lit of the 60’s, but I didn’t read it until the 70’s, and I like the way the title “Great Chick-Lit of the 70’s” sounds.

3. My sister turned me on to Kin-Flicks, an absolutely wonderful literary bestseller by Lisa Alther that inspired me as both a reader and a writer.

Kin-Flicks is about the phases in the life of a girl from the American South, Ginny Babcock, who we meet as a lusty cheerleader with a jock boyfriend. But she quickly switches gears after the town hoodlum steals her away from the jock, after which she escapes to college and becomes a tweedy intellectual under the guise of a stern and matronly philosophy professor. Ginny then goes on to morph into a sex-crazed vegetarian lesbian, a dutiful country housewife and several other original life forms before she finally exhausts herself from all the changes.

Back in her hometown, where her mother is sick, a mature Ginny peers at cells dividing under a microscope, and begins to understand the cycle of dependency and rejection that has dominated her entire life to this moment. Kin-Flicks is, among other things, the most Taoist book I’ve read since the Tao Te Ching, but the book is as funny and engaging as it is wise. Kin-Flicks is still in print as well, again in a trashy looking cover that doesn’t do the work justice. Here’s the the paperback version I read.

Now that I’ve talked about these three books, I may as well come clean; the whole concept of this article is admittedly offensive, and I don’t really think it makes sense to categorize books as varied as Sheila Levine, Diary or Kin-Flicks as prototypes for a commercial genre. These books are not chick-lit … and yet it seems clear that they were marketed as guilty pleasure reading for largely female audiences (plus one nerdy kid on Long Island who didn’t know better).

So, is it possible that among the pink stacks of today’s “Women’s Category Fiction” shelves there exist writers as timeless as Gail Parent, Sue Kaufman, Lisa Alther? Well, I don’t know the answer to that question, because I don’t read chick-lit. I haven’t since the 70’s, anyway.

What about you?

27 Responses

  1. 70s Chick LitDoes Erica
    70s Chick Lit

    Does Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying count?

    A book I recall liking a great deal was Lois Gould’s Such Good Friends, her first novel. A Manhattan woman’s husband suddenly dies and she discovers how unfaithful he was. It was, like Jong’s book, very smart in that New York Jewishy way. I read Gould’s next three novels (she was married to the famous psychiatrist Robert Gould after the death of her first husband; my creative writing teacher told me Such Good Friends was autobiographical) and by the last one, I wasn’t as interested in her work.

    Such Good Friends didn’t have the luck of the other books (I still remember Frank Langella’s amazing performance in Diary of a Mad Housewife); Otto Preminger made it into a pretty terrible movie (despite a decent cast: Dyan Cannon, James Coco, Ken Howard, Burgess Meredith, Sam Levene, Doris Roberts and a lot of NY stage actors).

  2. Lesbian 70s ChickLitAlso, if
    Lesbian 70s ChickLit

    Also, if lesbian books count, the other “chick lit” book I remember that had a great influence on me at this time was Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle. An independent bookstore opened and closed within a few months on Kings Highway, Brooklyn, and it was owned by two women in their thirties who were incredibly nice (and also really beautiful). I walked in their store when it was brand-new and when they saw me pick up Rubyfruit Jungle, which I knew nothing about, they said, Oh, you must read this. And they were right.

    As with Lois Gould and Erica Jong, Brown’s later books seemed to get less and less interesting to me — just as David Meyer was nowhere as good as Sheila Levine.

    I don’t know any other lesbian chick-lit books of this time. But years earlier, around 1965, when I was around 14, I discovered Ann Bannon’s Beebo Brinker and while I didn’t quite “get” it, I was entranced.

  3. I wouldn’t call Rubyfruit
    I wouldn’t call Rubyfruit Jungle or Fear of Flying “chick lit”, but I read and enjoyed both books.

  4. Doc, just to be clear about
    Doc, just to be clear about this (as I wrote above), I don’t *really* think any of the three novels I wrote about should be called “chick-lit” either.

  5. I read all of the books cited
    I read all of the books cited here at some point and mostly liked them, Kin Flicks in particular and anything by Erica Jong.

    After I read the books by Lois Gould and her friends (most of whom, I learned, had NY-psychiatrist husbands, some of whom practiced in the same building), I got really tired of their lives.

    Fear of Flying is the only real masterpiece of the group, I think.

    The difference between these books and chick lit is that they are literature, while chick lit is commercial writing (the difference? Opinions?).

    Richard, you mentioned lesbian chick lit. Are you aware of teen chick lit (the sub genre that harvard student got busted on for plagarism). An actual title: ‘The World, My Butt, and Other Large, Round Objects.’

    So, how about writing lesbian teen chick lit? (you go first….)

  6. Yes. And I agree that “Great
    Yes. And I agree that “Great Chick-Lit of the ’70s” although inherently offensive, does have a nice ring to it. It’s kind of like the word “Blaxploitation”. It’s the damn marketeers – trying to fit everything into a marketable niche!

  7. Whoops, I almost forgot. Of
    Whoops, I almost forgot. Of course there must be *gay* teen lit — Dick Lit. (sorry, I couldn’t resist ….)

  8. Glass CeilingAm I insane to
    Glass Ceiling

    Am I insane to think the responses here are by males. Interesting. Even “RUBYFRUIT” had a looming subtext where struggle had to do with females being included in the culture at large with the looming question of whether or not that inclusion would change the scheme of things. Where are the women who would ostensibly find the term “Chick” Lit offensive. I find it offensive. My eyes to the sky. One more failed attempt by Madison Avenue/Publishing to find — ironically — a mainstream audience. Another cute if mindless niche. “Gay books” and “Chick” Lit seem to travel some of the same literate, marketing paths. Both to that glass ceiling in the numbers sky. If a book doesn’t sell like the Big Boy books, it’s prescribed value is thrown into that steaming heap called the backlist. We need to stop being manipulated and start seeing (and writing) books in a more fundamental way: how can a book be a chick book is as relevant as how can a book have a sexuality. This in the culture that more often than not gets the notion of what a sexuality is mixed up and confused with what a gender is. I have yet to meet a book with a penis but I suppose anything is possible. From the Publishing Publicist’s Book Committee Conference (that decides fate itself and is almost completely female) both genre’s fail. The numbers game always wins. Which is why the glass ceiling is as real and as relevant as a book tour. Lewis Carroll had it right with a chick whose name was Alice. She fell through the thing rather than aspiring to it.

  9. Tim … I do agree, it’s
    Tim … I do agree, it’s quite funny that so far only men have responded to this article! Not sure what this signifies, if anything.

  10. I just have to respond, not
    I just have to respond, not because I want to disagree with danjazz but just because I feel strongly about this … I can’t agree that “Fear of Flying” is the only masterpiece of the group. To be honest, I never even finished “Fear of Flying”, though I remember it had some good moments. The two masterpieces here are, in my opinion, Alther’s “Kin-Flicks” and maybe the film version of “Diary of a Mad Housewife”. I’m leaving Gail Parent out because I don’t think this book tried to be anything more than an engaging comedy.

  11. Levi – My assessment of Fear
    Levi – My assessment of Fear of Flying is a purely personal reaction. I’d put Kin Flicks very close. I never saw the movie of Housewife; maybe I should check it out?

    Fear of Flying caused Erica Jong to be dubbed the ‘female Henry Miller,’ which is absurd, but resulted in a close friendship between the two writers. (Miller loved the book and gave her advice on handling fame.) Jong wrote a fine memoir about their relationship.

  12. it signifies women arent
    it signifies women arent reading or that they don’t care to respond.

  13. Love Girls & Love Hotels:
    Love Girls & Love Hotels: C.Hanrahan

    I’m 78 pages into this 2006 book I found at the Austin Faulk Library and I am reading it as fast I can because it’s interesting, the prose flows and I have 100% empathy with the character so far. The next book I will read is The Accidental by Ali Smith, which may not be chick-lit.

  14. Um.So back in the 70s there

    So back in the 70s there were some books that were written by women that were pretty good? Could it be that some of the books written by women today might also be pretty good? What are the odds, eh, Hoss? My head hurts.

    The “chick lit” label has always irritated me because it seems like a pointless dichotomy. (Oh, the serious women writers and the frivolous ones?) Is there a differentiation made for men? Does the stuff they write about getting drunk and getting laid get referred to as “dick lit” in the spheres of people who talk about books ad nauseam? (And yes, I know I referred to my series of books for Jamelah Reads the Classics as chick lit, because I’m funny that way.)

    I read some books by some dudes and they were alright.


  15. Well, yes, Jamelah,
    Well, yes, Jamelah, categorizations are offensive, and I said so towards the end of the article. But these categorizations have a real impact on the way books are published and sold (not just based on gender but also ethnicity, age, etc.) so I hope I’m not doing anything offensive by calling attention to it.

    I would never compare a book by, say, Ann Beattie or Margaret Atwood or Doris Lessing or Iris Murdoch to “chick-lit”. I’m probably pushing it regarding Lisa Alther, even. As for the other two … well, look at the way these books are marketed (especially in the recent editions). If a book is found on the chick-lit shelf of a bookstore, it’s probably safe to say that everybody concerned with the publication and sale of the book thinks of the book as “chick-lit”, and the evidence shows that this is the ghetto these three books have always been in, even today, even Lisa Alther’s very “literary” book. Again, just look at the example of the recent cover design.

    Anyway, also, I didn’t say these books are “pretty good” … I was attempting to rave about how great they are. Maybe I’m on the same side of this argument as you are, all actual gender realities aside.

  16. It is true that “dick-lit”
    It is true that “dick-lit” has never really taken off, but that’s likely for the same reason “chick-lit” won out over “vulvature.” We need to be able to mention these terms in USA Today if they’re going to carry any weight.

    So what would be a good name for male chick-lit? And who are its modern vanguards? (The forebears are pretty easy: O. Henry = Kate Chopin; Martin Amis = Erica Jong…) I’d be all for it.

    Once we get past the idea that chick-lit refers to lit by chicks, however, I fail to see what’s wrong with the term. It’s a major genre, which either developed organically or was imposed by narrow-minded publishers (and it’s ultimately irrelevant which came first). It contains a lot of crap which is written solely to fulfill the formula of the genre, as well as some masterpieces that have been unfairly pigeonholed. In other words, it’s exactly like science-fiction, or fantasy, or detective-fiction, or any other genre. And I’m all about genre – my love for Raymond Chandler hinges on my understanding of the genre in which he’s writing, and of his complete mastery of it. One could argue that genres unfairly color our reading (“it was great, for a sci-fi novel”), but no more, I would argue, than having a Penguin Classics icon stamped to the cover does.

  17. Ahem.Levi — Where would

    Levi — Where would LitKicks be if I weren’t here to give you a hard time? I ask you. But don’t answer that. (Unless you want to say how awesome I am, that is. Okay, I’ll stop.) Anyway, what prompted me was the question, “So, is it possible that among the pink stacks of today’s ‘Women’s Category Fiction’ shelves there exist writers as timeless as Gail Parent, Sue Kaufman, Lisa Alther?” Yes, of course it’s possible. As you probably know, I mostly read writers who have been dead for at least 50 years, so I can’t name names, but still. Or maybe I’m just mad because you didn’t mention my favorite work of chick-lit from the 70s: Wifey, by Judy Blume. Extramarital affairs and getting the clap? Come on.

    Milton — Heh. But the term “dick-lit” is catchy, man. The thing is, and you touched on it in your post, that the term is dismissive. I know that all genre fiction gets dismissed to an extent because it’s just genre fiction, right? These books used to be called romance novels (and some of them still are, I suppose), but there’s this category of them about women with fancy jobs and fancy shoes and fancy neuroses chasing after fancy men that get put into the chick-lit genre, I suppose because they’re targeted toward a specific age/income demographic. I’m bothered by it because if these are books about young women getting their careers/love lives together (and from the ones I’ve heard of and/or read, that seems to be a fair assessment) then what was wrong with the old term? Whether or not any of it’s any good (and I think the fact that some is has already been covered), the expectation, I think, especially from people outside of its immediate fanbase is that it’s just pink, sparkly crap. There’s nothing wrong with publishing crap just because people will read it (it’s been happening for generations) but the problem is the term itself — “Here, women. It’s worthless, but it’s just for you!” — and there’s not a specific, well-marketed genre for men, is there? And I’m all for being equal-opportunity. I also think that it means that women writers have to apologize about writing about love or sex or getting drunk and making bad decisions, because if it’s literary then it has to come with this “but it’s not chick lit!” disclaimer. It’s just annoying. Bite me, publishing. There.

  18. Bite me?Okay. I haven’t
    Bite me?

    Okay. I haven’t rolled on the floor laughing since my arrival in France. I am SHOCKED to note that the stuffing in these Louis le 16th chairs (when observed from rollicking below) are filled with straw. (You think I’m kidding). STRAW everywhere. I never kid. If I weren’t rolling on the floor, I’d never know this. Look. I have some hermaphrodite friends, and they claim no one ever writes books for them much less markets books for them. And not only that, but where are the Hermaphrodite-Lit children’s books. Discrimination. I said: PROVE you’re a hermaphrodite, and so they did. I beg you. Please. Someone out there write a book for and about these people. No one loves them.

    I would.

    Well, I would TRY.

    But I’m busy; I’m washing my hair that night. And all the real furniture is leaking straw.

    Bite me?

    I would not know where to begin.

  19. HarlequinI would suggest that

    I would suggest that the James Bond series is Dick Lit, but maybe women like these books, too. I don’t know.

    A few years ago, I purposed in my heart to write a Harlequin romance novel, or at least try to, just to see if I could sell it and make some money. I took a week off from work.

    The result was a short story about a man who falls in love with a younger man who dresses like a woman. I haven’t really pushed that story, not because I’m embarrassed by it, but because the writing isn’t up to par. So you could call that Dick Lit. I don’t know if it’s worth going back and editing.

  20. chicklit websiteFor a (very)
    chicklit website

    For a (very) funny response to the Maureen Dowd column on chicklit.

    Although I usually agree with Maureen Dowd, um, not this time.

    Besides, chicklit is losing ground to paranormal romance – can’t wait to read the column mocking that genre.

  21. Brooklyn said, “If a book is
    Brooklyn said, “If a book is found on the chick-lit shelf of a bookstore, it’s probably safe to say that everybody concerned with the publication and sale of the book thinks of the book as “chick-lit.”

    Actually, it’s not safe to say that at all. Writers and even editors frequently aren’t calling the shots on how a book is marketed. Writers can hope that their titles are used, can try to influence cover design, and can lobby for the book to be placed in a certain section. But unless you’re Stephen King, a writer has no actual power to make demands about marketing.

    Novelist Sarahbeth Purcell recently discussed this at

    “And, in defense of some authors, in fact, many authors I am personal friends with, some of us don’t choose to be placed in the ‘chick’ section of a bookstore. We don’t make our sex an issue one way or the other. It’s all done for us, usually, against our wishes.”

    The “chick lit” term was created as a marketing term, not a term about literary quality. Jennifer Weiner, one of the queens of so-called chick lit, first made a splash with her book Good in Bed. A major portion of this book is devoted to…a mother’s anguish and sense of powerlessness over her critically ill infant. Yet it’s considered chick lit because it is marketed to women.

    Marketers don’t care about gender. The majority of book buyers are women and so they’re targeting women customers.

    Back to labels. Nathan Barker, owner of Kaleighbug Books and Scrybepress Publisher, told me that so many excellent horrors are now getting categorized as romance novels (to increase sales)that he goes through the romances searching for spec fiction.

  22. Marta, I definitely agree
    Marta, I definitely agree with you on at least one point: I bet that many of the women writers who find themselves categorized into “chick-lit” had no idea this would happen to their manuscript, and do not choose or want the label. That sounds very believable to me.

  23. I recently bought a
    I recently bought a secondhand copy of Diary of… which I’ve just started reading. In my (early) teens, I had a great love of Judy Blume books. I thought (and still do) that they were smart, funny books for teenagers and, as a book-absorbed kid, I frequently lost myself in her tales of everyday kids going through everyday events. That was, until my grandma picked up a secondhand copy of Wifey for me. That was kind of absorbing in a different way; an early introduction to both sexually explicit writing AND a dysfunctional marriage. Suffice it to say, I reread Wifey several times. I think my enduring love of suburban literature and movies from the mid 70s (I’m thinking An Unmarried Woman and even Looking for Goodbar) comes from this early introduction to the dissatisfied American housewife. Another writer -male, alas – who kind of tapped into that mood was Paul Zindel. My Darling, My Hamburger explores the idea that discontent in relationships can start in High School.

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