Jennifer Weiner argues that some of it is “straight-up packaging”:
If you’re writing for FSG or Knopf it’s like it cannot, by definition, possibly be something as degraded as chick lit, because they don’t publish that stuff! If your book has a cover that’s just typography and color, it’s literature, but if there’s a female body part, it’s chick lit. If you’re smiling in your (color) author photo, it’s chick lit. If you’re smirking, or giving a stern, thin-lipped stare in your black-and-white picture, and if you go out of your way in every interview to talk about how “unserious books do not deserve serious attention,” then it’s literature. (Or, more likely, it was literature all along but you just want to make quadruply sure that absolutely no one is mistaken about your serious intentions and gets you confused with one of this icky pink girls who have cooties.)
Eliza Berman pushes back against Weiner’s observation about authors’ book-jacket photos:
I compared the photos for the top 20 best-selling female authors in [Amazon’s] “Women’s Fiction” [category] with the same group in “Literary Fiction.” If they didn’t have a photo, I skipped them and moved on to the next one. If they appeared twice within the top 20, I only counted them once.
On the first count, smiling versus unsmiling, Weiner was right. Sort of. Seventy-five percent of “Women’s Lit” authors were smiling, compared to 55 percent of “Literary Fiction” authors. But if you look at not just whether someone’s smiling, but with how much gusto, of the shiny, happy writers, 60 percent of chick lit authors bared their pearly whites, while more than 70 percent of the literary writers did. The chick lit writers smiled more often, but when the literary writers smiled, they did it with abandon.