SHAKING blog

Friday, July 01, 2005

And Now For Something Completely Different...

Recently there's been a bit of a flap in the publishing world (which I think is fairly similar to the sound of one hand flapping) on the nature of "Chick Lit," a marketing term used to describe books dealing with youngish women making their way in the world. See evidently Chick Lit is a term that makes some female writers nervous; they find it demeaning and worry these books trivialize the Very Serious Writing they do. To that end, a bunch of these Very Serious Writer Girls--excuse me "Womyn"--have gotten together to do a collection of stories called, "This is NOT Chick Lit: A Collection of Original Stories by America's Best Women Writers". To them I'd like to say, "Hey ladies, get over yourselves. By referring to yourselves as 'America's Best Women Writers' you're not exactly invalidating the accusations of insecurity, cattiness and an inability to compete with the big boys that some say define a certain feminine mystique. On the contrary, you're exacerbating them, you ding-dongs."

So when I discovered another woman writer, Lauren Baratz-Logsted, who'd written a very cogent argument against the pretensions of these Very Serious Female Writers, I e-mailed her to say, "nice job!" Well, she then asked if Renee and I would run an essay she wrote on the subject on our site, and we thought that sounded like a great idea. So, below are Lauren's thoughts on the issue. And if you'd like more info on her or the new book she has that's about to come out, visit her website: http://www.laurenbaratzlogsted.com/

THIS IS CHICK-LIT: DEFINING A SUBGENRE by: Lauren Baratz-Logsted

Back in April, the following listing appeared on Publishers Marketplace:

“THIS IS NOT CHICK LIT: A Collection of Original Stories by America's Best Women Writers, selected and introduced by Elizabeth Merrick, founder of the Cupcake Reading Series and blog, created to support women writers of literary fiction, including stories by Francine Prose, Myla Goldberg, Vendela Vida, Aimee Bender, Curtis Sittenfeld, Jennifer Eagan, and Samantha Hunt, to Julia Cheiffetz at the Random House publishing group (NA). NA rights: rbernstein@randomhouse.com.”

Pretty much well every writer I know who has ever been tarred with the pink Chick-Lit brush was incensed at this announcement. And I would imagine that the writer listed as Jennifer Eagan here was pretty incensed too, given that they spelled her name wrong: it’s Egan. We were incensed at what seemed to be a pretty blatant bitch-slap at those of us the writers in the above collection clearly deemed to be less than. We were incensed that while they were taking a swipe at our much-maligned subgenre, they were at the same time capitalizing on its name for exploitation purposes, a topic I detailed at length in an essay at www.beatrice.com on April 26. I mean, can you imagine titling any other collection in this way? Can you imagine calling a book THIS IS NOT MYSTERY? Or THIS IS NOT SCI-FI/FANTASY? Or THIS IS NOT WESTERN? The notion of defining art by what it’s not – the mind reels.
And yet…and yet…this whole tempest has got me thinking: What exactly is Chick-Lit? And, if I can’t define it for everyone else, can I at least define it for me?
Ask a half dozen writers for definitions of Chick-Lit and you’re likely to get a half dozen different answers. In that regard, the designation of Chick-Lit has become similar to the diagnosis of PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified) for autism, an umbrella term that I’ve come to learn can cover nearly every child you encounter if you look at them in the right way; or perhaps, I should say, the wrong way. In terms of writing, the Chick-Lit diagnosis has become so widespread as to be nearly meaningless. Sometimes, the designation is handed out merely by virtue of which publisher publishes one’s books. Lisa Tucker’s The Song Reader, a serious and thoughtful coming-of-age story, gets the designation because her publisher is DownTown Press. Caren Lissner’s Carrie Pilby, a wonderful and quirky novel about the inherent social difficulties of being an incredibly intelligent female, also gets that designation because her publisher, like mine, is Red Dress Ink, and even though Elinor Lipman wrote an identically themed novel, The Pursuit of Alice Thrift, which was deemed literary because the publisher is Random House. To some degree I’ve begun to feel like so many of us are the literary equivalent of octoroons back in slave days: just a little smidgen of pink on our book jackets and it’s back down on the farm for us.
I would hazard to say the most common definition of Chick-Lit I hear runs something along the lines of, “A frothy confection about a modern twentysomething woman juggling relationships and career, often in urban settings.”
I don’t know about you, I mean, I guess I’d read that book, but I certainly wouldn’t read dozens just like it year after year as many devotees of Chick-Lit currently do. I’d get bored with the sameness. Don’t they get bored with the sameness? And yet they don’t. Here’s why I think that is:
The books, quite simply, aren’t the same.
Never mind that the books frequently feature twentysomething women, although not all do (my most recent, A Little Change of Face, features a 39-year-old librarian), never mind they often have urban settings, although not all do (Lee Nichols’ Tales of a Drama Queen jumps right to mind, quickly followed by Heather Cochran’s Mean Season). And, hey, what’s wrong with books being about the juggling of careers and relationships? Isn’t that what modern life is made up of? (I recently read that the literary novelist Kazuo Ishiguro gave his daughter The Devil Wears Prada so she’d have a better grasp of the real world, a tidbit that caused some pause in the literary world but didn’t surprise me one bit having read Laura Miller’s essay in the New York Times Book Review earlier this year where she bemoaned the lack of the workplace as a theme in the modern literary novel, suggesting that one of the reason’s for Chick-Li’s resounding success is that it addresses that thing – the working life – that matters, by necessity, to modern readers so very much.) And while I’m saying “hey” and getting outraged over here: Hey, what’s the matter with some of our writerly energies being focused on relationships, i.e. love? Would not the world be a better place if we were all a little more concerned with love?
But back to our definition.
For me, what makes a book Chick-Lit all comes down to the tone. No matter how often the books deal with serious issues – and a surprising number of them do, witness Caren Lissner’s second book, Starting from Square Two, about a young widow making her way back into the world – there is always a certain comic appreciation or irony to the writer’s voice. In fact, I would argue that the best Chick-Lit books are not frothy confections at all, although we have our share of those, just as every genre has its share of books that are more style than substance. But, for me, the best books are always those that strike a perfect balance: books that are neither so light there’s no weight to them; books that are neither so dark that not even a glimmer of light ever shines through. Most of all, they are books that not only have plot but also have theme.
A quick survey of my own books will highlight what I’m talking about.
On the surface, The Thin Pink Line is about a woman who fakes an entire pregnancy. Scratch the surface, and you see that it’s about how all too frequently we live our lives pursuing things – husbands, babies – more because everyone else is doing it than that we’ve given any real thought to the thing itself.
On the surface, Crossing the Line continues the madcap adventures of sociopathic anti-heroine Jane Tyler. Scratch the surface, and it’s about the joys and perils and responsibilities of cross-cultural adoption.
On the surface, A Little Change of Face is about an attractive librarian who alters her looks for the worse. Scratch the surface, and it’s about the ambivalence of women – nay, all human beings – concerning the importance of physical attractiveness and how we all want to be perceived as being physically beautiful while at the same time free to feel certain that we are loved for who we are.
You get the idea.
The books I love to write most, and read most, are books that say something about who we are and how we live our lives. If a book can do that, and make me laugh several times along the way, that’s all to the good.
Channeling Martin Luther King here:
I have a dream.
I dream that one day all books will be judged not by the pinkness of our book jackets but by the contents and the characters portrayed on the pages in between.
May it be so.

Lauren Baratz-Logsted is the author of The Thin Pink Line and Crossing the Line. Her third novel, A Little Change of Face, will be published in July 2005. Her essay, “If Jane Austen Were Writing Today,” is collected in Flirting with Pride and Prejudice: Fresh Perspectives on the Original Chick-Lit Masterpiece, edited by Jennifer Crusie and due out from Benbella Books on September 1.

7 Comments:

Blogger Lexi Carter said...

for readers though, what it boils down to is the "chick lit" book is so adhering to a formula we think it's taking the place of the *gasp* category romance. Just take away the requiste "happy every after," throw in a "hip" urban setting, a publishing/media career is always good, only bottom of the pole and making minimal salary though, torture the girls with angst of "supposed" rejection and charge a PREMIUM for the SHORT experience and there you go -- chick lit.

Especially when every sub genre now has their "chick lit" offering: we've got every publisher rushing to put out something no matter if it's mystery, religious, science fiction, fantasy, older women, and of course, what used to be romance.

But like all good genres, there will always be someone (or someones) who will rise above the masses and create a good story, so those of us addicted to not only a good latte but a read will occasionally find that diamond in the rough.

July 01, 2005 2:24 PM  
Blogger Robin said...

I think you've nailed it, Lexi. But as an avid reader myself, I think there's a lot of very poor "literary" fiction that gets published, too, and yet no one would dare demean that group of writers by lumping them together and dismissing them. (Certainly an individual reviewer can take a particular literary author to task, but why is the same courtesy not extended to all writers?)

The answer, I'm certain, is snobbery. Still, it baffles me that people who claim to be intellectuals, who claim to like literature, are willing to close their minds to something they might enjoy. As with foodies, just because one might like a prime cut of beef, this does not mean the diner won't also enjoy a salad, a bowl of pasta, or a piece of baklava. Just as we crave different foods at different times, just as we choose to see different types of movies based on our moods, it seems that those who so willingly bash an entire genre of literature do so because they don't know any better.

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