Chick Lit? Women’s Literature? Why Not Just….Literature?
Published: Aug 11, 2010
A line I wrote the other day struck a nerve, and a reader responded. And not just a smart, sensitive soul. Diane Meier is a novelist with a personal story to tell — a story that powerfully makes her point. She is also a marketing guru, author of “The New American Wedding” and president of MEIER, a NYC based luxury marketing firm, married to bestselling author and BBC broadcaster, Frank Delaney. Find out more at www.dianemeier.com. But let me open the door for her and get out of the way…..
If you’re anything like me, you count on Head Butler to plow through the stacks of popular (and less popular) culture and separate the dross from the gold. You’ll note favorites, and at least in my case, more often than not, follow up. I did just that with the back-to-back reviews of Alexandra Lebenthal’s The Recessionistas and Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home. He made them feel compelling and important; so good work, Jesse, mission accomplished. But the first line of the Lebenthal review caught me. And I just had to comment.
“It’s painful to open a novel categorized as ‘Chick Lit.’”
No kidding. Imagine how it feels when it’s your book.
My first novel — “The Season of Second Chances” [To buy it from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.] — was published a few months ago. It was the lead book for Henry Holt and one of the Independent Book Sellers’ top choices for Spring, and my publishers and I were full of optimism. My early reviews were gratifying and the consumer reviews from the Amazon Vine (pre-publication) readers were all five star.
Except one: “My Chick Lit Loving Wife Hated This Book,” read the headline.
I thought, I’m sorry that you’re disappointed, but it’s like trying to blame steak for not being ice cream.
What I didn’t see was that the chick-lit argument had landed squarely on my doorstep.
Was it Chick Lit?
“Five stars because it is NOT Chick Lit.”
“Zero stars because it is NOT Chick Lit.”
What? Who asked for this as a review?
“The Season of Second Chances” is a story about a middle-aged woman, bright and sharp but closed and guarded, who leaves the anonymity of New York for the intrusions that come with a small college town. That she finds a redefinition of feminist values in the restoration of an old house was not only a metaphor to me, it seemed the literal task at hand, given that a house needs to know how you want to live if it is going to be capable of becoming a home. My protagonist had no idea, but we watch her learn. It’s very domestic. And therein, apparently, lies the trap.
Most critics felt the need to talk about how “surprisingly” intelligent the book was. Their tell-tale phrase: how many “notches above Chick Lit” they deemed it. Or they registered amazement that a book so domestic in tone might have been intended for — can you imagine — educated, intelligent readers.
And it wasn’t just the content. The very clever Lizzie Skurnick noted that no matter how well written or smart the book, the fact that it had flowers on the cover would keep it from serious reviews or any prizes. Really? I thought. Flowers? William Morris designs that are literally contextual to the story will keep me from serious attention? Even the most academic reviews grudgingly liked the book, though they were clearly torn about admiring a novel that was, and they noted, “contemporary and domestic.”
Let me suggest that Chick Lit is what we used to call the “Beach Book” and that it is its own genre, like mysteries or sci-fi: interesting to a specific audience primarily because of the nature and form of the genre itself. Some good stuff, some bad, no doubt. As in all genre writing, you come across an Ed McBain every now and then. But crossover is not the point, if the targeted reader simply wants a light little fantasy with some kissing scenes and a few pairs of Jimmy Choos.
Still, if Tom Wolfe had written “The Recessionistas,” he would have noted the brands of shoes, the Birkin bags and the personal trainers. And he would have been praised for his attention to detail. That Lebenthal’s book or my book were not intended to be seen as Chick Lit just makes the gulf between books by men and women more personal. At least to me.
But my concern is larger, for the issue is insidious: the way Chick Lit has been used to denigrate a wide swath of novels about contemporary life that happen to be written by women.
If you think it’s not affecting our work, not affecting what the publishers are handed, not affecting the legacy we leave for future generations, you’re wrong. In The New York Times, the judges of the UK Orange Prize (for women novelists) bemoaned the grim and brutal content offered this year in the submitted manuscripts. Their conclusion: No serious woman writer wanted to be painted with the Women’s Lit label, and that issues contemporary and domestic, if not presented with violence, are apparently (to academics, to critics and to the general culture — male and female alike) seen to have less value.
Most telling, I think, are the attempted “corrections,” as those who try to right the misunderstanding of Chick Lit labels on some of our books slap on another label: “Women’s Literature.” As opposed to what, Literature?
And then there is the Orange Prize itself, well-meaning, no doubt, in an attempt to offer appeasement for the short-change in status (critical attention, prizes, grants, awards) our culture allows women writers. But for god’s sake, a prize for a Woman Writer, as opposed to a REAL Writer?
As one of the characters in my book says about social justice: “They may be very happy to give your team a bus, but don’t imagine it will be in the fast lane.”
Gail Caldwell is likely to fare somewhat better because the Memoir is still, apparently, high ground. I’m not sure why, exactly. The novel is the memoir of the imagination, after all. Once it’s on paper, its all about lives, as real as we can make them for you. And if we — readers, writers, critics, academics — don’t respect the lives of women who are not snipers or heroine addicts, what does it say about us, men and women of this contemporary and domestic culture?