I have a favorite independent bookstore near my office. There are tables full of new fiction and non-fiction, shelves filled with New York Times bestsellers, and one particular bookshelf full of pastel pink and purple books. These pink and purple books, of course, are in the “chick lit” section. Even without searching for titles like Confessions of a Shopaholic, you can tell from the rose- and lavender-colored hues that this bookshelf is where you will find the fluffier books which are primarily written for women, by women.
But one book critic has had enough of this “flouncy frivolity.” Imogen Russell Williams from the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper finds it “almost impossible” to pick up a pink, “candy coated” book. Particularly when the book in question is being marketed to teen girls, Williams writes, “This kind of packaging often does a disservice to thought-provoking content, because knee-jerk anti-pinkers like me assume whatever’s inside must match the cover for ersatz, grinning emptiness.” You might just think pink is a color, so what? But colors have coded messages and to a certain degree, they’re supposed to have coded messages: The colors red, white and blue together mean something. I love the femininity of pink; I carry around a pink purse and a pink iPhone cover because I like being feminine in those ways. The problem, though, is that when it comes to marketing, the color pink doesn’t denote anything particularly serious: baby girls, pink-cheeked cherubs, beauty parlors, pink nail polish. So when a book cover is pink, it is sending that coded message about the quality of the book: it’s not particularly serious. The problem is further compounded when books (excluding romance novels, which I am not discussing here) that could be neutral are marketed in a gendered way. Pink or purple books send coded messages about which readers would enjoy the book: teen girls and women — and only teen girls and women. Pink means not for men.
For example, here’s a story: A few weeks ago, Kate, Intern Lauren, and I scurried over to Barnes & Noble after work to hear a discussion between Candace Bushnell, author of Sex and the City, and Cecily von Ziegesar, author of the Gossip Girl series. As anyone could have predicted, someone stood up during the Q&A section and asked what the authors thought about the terms “chick lit” and “clique lit” (as in, books about cliques of girls or women). Candace Bushnell made a joke about how she always hopes one of her new book covers won’t have a picture of a stiletto on it. Yet she also seemed accepting of the fact that publishing companies market books in ways they think will appeal to the audience. Cecily von Ziegesar, however, surprised us: She railed against terms like “chick lit” and “clique lit,” saying she thinks they box in or label certain books, and even mentioned (to the shock of The Frisky staff) that her husband won’t read them.
Cecily von Ziegesar wasn’t trying to argue that the Gossip Girl series isn’t targeted towards teenage girls, nor am I trying to argue that Confessions of a Shopaholic is not targeted towards women who love to shop. Of course they are. But there are lots of books which may or may not be targeted just to teen girls or to women which are being marketed towards teen girls or women with the coded messages of pink and purple or, as Bushnell mentioned, with handbags and stilettos. If you don’t believe me, go look at the covers of books written by authors like Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner and then look where they are placed in bookstores, such as the one near my office. It’s a bit of a philosophical question, but it’s one worth asking: Why do some books about women have to be books for women? Maybe there are some guys out there who will read a book regardless of its pink “chick lit” cover. But as Cecily von Ziegesar shockingly said, her own husband won’t read books marketed that way.
Book critic Imogen Russell Williams’ complaint is not just that the coded messages of book packaging encourage people to think “men will like these things”/”women will like those things.” Marketing books in a gendered way alienates male readers with money to burn in their pockets. “Surely it’s daft and wrong-headed,” she asks, “to ensure that half of your potential audience will never pick up the product?”
I don’t know what the answer is to this problem. Advertising agencies rely on coded messages, including the color pink, to sell books, so I don’t see them changing any time soon. But when the high priestess of Gossip Girl, Cecily von Ziegesar herself, is unhappy with “chick lit,” you really have to take notice.