When is chick lit not chick lit? When it’s a domestic thriller.
This women-driven literary genre is having “a moment,” as Joyce Carol Oates explains in a February story for The New Yorker. This year alone, Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney, She Was the Quiet One by Michele Campbell, Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell, Tips for Living by Renee Shafransky, Silent Victim by Caroline Mitchell, The Glass Forest by Cynthia Swanson, and Best Friends Forever by Margot Hunt have all been released. Each of these books revolves around fraught interpersonal relationships, a central mystery, and a character who knows more than she’s (usually) telling. While Electra (written around 400 BCE), Sophocles’s family tragedy of murder, revenge, and conspiracy, pioneered the genre in many ways, the current resurgence is often pegged to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (2012), which sold 2 million copies in six months, topped the New York Times bestseller list for eight weeks, and was adapted into a 2014 movie. Gone Girl was inspired by the disappearance of Laci Peterson, though it also owes much to Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods (1994) or, for that matter, Jane Eyre (1847) and Rebecca (1938).
But unlike Charlotte Brontë, who wrote as “Currer Bell,” women are assertively leading the current explosion—or in the case of Daniel Mallory, who wrote The Woman in the Window as A.J. Finn, men are using ambiguous pen names to tap into an engaged readership that’s driving sales for bestsellers like Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies (2015), Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train (2016), Aimee Molloy’s The Perfect Mother (2018), and Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects (2018).
It’s not coincidental that these titles blend together: There’s a distinctly white, middle- to upper-middle-class flavor to books that revolve around troubled marriages or the stresses that come with parenting. They’re unsettling, creepy, and sometimes distressing, but not too much so; in many cases, they involve serious themes such as misogynistic violence, rape, self-harm, and molestation, but they are covered in a glossy veneer of “privileged people problems.” In these books, certain women are allowed to be messy, make mistakes, and commit heinous crimes while also being presented as anti-heroines who are simply ensnared in systems larger than themselves. In other words, these leading women are allowed to be like the male protagonists who have dominated the shelves for centuries.
Authors are confronting the social attitudes that trap women, and the patriarchy that punishes them no matter what they do, without flinching away from subjects like fighting over childcare responsibilities and wanting revenge on unfaithful spouses. They explore not just the darknesses of married life—and the public pressure to have a perfect marriage—but also the ins and outs of other kinds of relationships. The genre has recently expanded to confront the hidden tensions of friendships, especially among mothers, and highlight women’s very real desires to both write and read stories that speak to their actual experience. Unlike guy lit (so-called “manfiction”), these women are fully-fledged characters who can be complicated and sometimes deeply dislikable.
The flip from Brontë hiding behind a masculine pseudonym to Flynn and other authors proudly asserting their femininity is a huge literary sea change wherein women authors are writing narratives about their own experiences and inner dramas. At the same time, they’re also asserting that these narratives are universal—not to be crammed into the oft-derided category of “chick lit,” a term that generally seems to be used to describe books written by, about, and for women, though some critics have tried out “chick noir” as a brand. These books are positioned for commercial success, with Gone Girl, Sharp Objects, and Big Little Lies being adapted for TV shows and movies.
Yet the resurgence of domestic thrillers comes with its own dark side. As publishers chase the next Gone Girl and market (white) likely suspects with prodigious budgets, the persistence of a formula leaves other fantastic books by women of color by the wayside.
Thus, psychological thrillers such as Helen Oyeyemi’s White Is for Witching (2009), Tayari Jones’s Silver Sparrow (2012), and Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017) are left off roundups of creepy books with unreliable narrators in favor of glossy commercial titles that feature thin white women on the cover. Shobha Rao’s Girls Burn Brighter (2016) follows two best friends fighting patriarchy. In Little Fires Everywhere (2017), Celeste Ng explores the planned perfection of an Ohio community and the politics of transcultural adoption. (However, Little Fires Everywhere broke through the usual whiteness barrier with an upcoming TV adaptation.)
Conversations about diversity, or lack thereof, in fiction are not new, of course. But it’s disappointing to see a genre with such tremendous potential quickly subsumed in a wave of white-as-default as publishers and authors search for the next big commercial success in the same old places. Positioning books by white women authors as “universally relatable” suggests that the experiences of white communities can be neatly mapped onto communities of color. That a fraught marriage or friendship between white people is instantly accessible to a woman in a biracial marriage, or two Latinas struggling with cultural and social pressures that affect their friendship, or a trans woman married to a cis lesbian and dealing with a dark family secret (that isn’t her gender). And while some explore mental health, they’re less likely to feature more nuanced disability politics.
The literary community should have learned something in recent years: There’s a market for diverse books, and readers are hungry for a broader spectrum of lived experience in their literature. Women want to read about themselves, and domestic thrillers represent an opportunity to dig deeply into the lives of women in a way that counters misogynistic trends in fiction, but the genre is falling short as it fails to dig deeper into the full spectrum of what it means to be a woman living in a man’s world.