Books

Chick Lit's Big Fight

The authors of literature square off against the scribblers of entertainment in a bookstore battle for honour and respect.

By Helaine Olen, 16 Aug 2006, AlterNet.org

This Is Not Chick Lit

  • This Is Not Chick Lit
  • Elizabeth Merrick (Ed.)
  • Random House (2005)

It's hard to believe it has been a decade since we first met scrappy singleton Bridget Jones. Her semi-comic everywoman trials and travails launched the modern publishing phenom of "chick-lit," in which 20- and 30-something women with lovable flaws hunt successfully for both the perfect man and the ultimate pair of designer heels.

Yet of all the things that might mark the 10th anniversary of Bridget Jones's Diary, an anthology titled This Is Not Chick Lit: Original Stories by America's Best Women Writers, edited by Elizabeth Merrick, might be the most unexpected gift of all.

"When Bridget Jones's Diary came out in 1996, as a young woman writer, I was just elated," recalls Merrick, a New York author and writing instructor. "Then it just got harder and harder to find literary works by women."

The fictional empowerment of chick-lit heroines, it seems, comes with a real-life cost: less attention paid to serious women scribes. Merrick points out that as the Jonathans -- that's Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Lethem and Jonathan Safran Foer -- saw their careers take off for the literary stratosphere, many of their female contemporaries found their own work languishing, receiving less press and sales than their male counterparts.

All, that is, except for chick-lit writers. By 2004, Publishers Weekly was estimating more than 200 chick-lit tales were being published annually, even as women remained dismally unrepresented in literary magazines and op-ed pages.

Merrick, 33, is not the first to wonder about the effect of chick lit on women's writing. Over the past few years, novelists Francine Prose, Beryl Bainbridge and Doris Lessing have all attempted to take on the lack of respect they feel is accorded to serious writing by women. But Merrick and her inflammatory title touched a nerve in the collective conscious the others had not.

When Random House last year announced the publication of This Is Not Chick Lit, with contributions from such A-list writers as Jennifer Egan and Aimee Bender, the roar of outrage from the literary blogosphere was immediate. "We've got the country's (self-proclaimed) best women writers turning up their noses at their fellow women authors' more commercial efforts," wrote one of the most famous chick-lit authors of them all, Jennifer Weiner, whose works include the novels Good in Bed and In Her Shoes.

This was, in some ways, a follow-up to a post Weiner had made on the popular lit blog Beatrice.com earlier in the year when she wrote, "The best chick-lit books deal with race and class, gender wars and workplace dynamics, not just shoes and shopping." As for more literary works, she noted their depressing insistence on exploring "death (often sudden), regret and disappointment (always permanent)."

Soon plans were announced for a competing anthology, This Is Chick Lit, edited by Lauren Baratz-Logsted. "Where do these women get off naming themselves 'America's Best Women Writers'?" she wrote on Beatrice.com. "The reason chick lit sells in such great abundance is that it provides readers with a reliable form of entertainment. Is there something wrong with this?"

Many say no, seeing positive qualities in the genre. "Women have professional opportunities they didn't have in earlier generations, but now women have to find a lasting personal relationship while running a corporation. The old demands on women have not disappeared," notes Suzanne Ferriss, an English professor and co-editor of the nonfiction anthology Chick Lit: The New Women's Fiction. "A lot of people say chick lit is escapist froth. We think they are wrong. It is trying to engage with real women's lives."

It is indeed true that many women -- myself included -- can viscerally identify with the problems chick-lit heroines face. I will never again sign up to deliver snacks to my son's school without thinking ruefully of Allison Pearson's "I Don't Know How She Does It," in which would-be mistress of the universe Kate Reddy finds herself smashing in store-bought mince pies in the middle of the night to make them look homemade. Nonetheless, the cry that chick lit deals with real women's concerns in a relatable way while literary fiction spins off into greater degrees of irrelevance is somewhat disingenuous.

First, it is not as though literary fiction doesn't -- at least some of the time -- trawl the same terrain as chick lit, though Weiner is not wrong when she says the stories tend to not end as happily. But perhaps more important, the formula of chick lit itself -- with its comedic farce and fantasy solutions to real-life problems -- ultimately undercuts its claim to social relevance. Super-consumer Becky of Sophie Kinsella's "Shopaholic" series never files for bankruptcy protection. Kate Reddy quits her job and moves to the country with her family only to find -- lo and behold -- a small toy factory in need of saving. Deus ex machina and coincidence reign in the world of modern gal fiction.

Chick lit begins the feminist conversation but does not even come close to suggesting any answers. What it does, ultimately, is offer both its characters and readers an easy, fantasy-based way of viewing significant social issues in apolitical terms, making it the perfect literature for George W. Bush's America. That nasty workaholic boss or those pesky 10 extra pounds? Not to worry. Chick-lit heroines are always just a few chapters away from a happy ending. A boyfriend or husband, a fun job, a gay best friend, designer shoes and pocketbooks, a credit card. What more -- besides a book contract -- can a girl want?

I spoke with Elizabeth Merrick recently by phone to find out how she came up with the idea for her anthology, and why she thinks male writers are often viewed as more significant than their female counterparts.

Helaine Olen: How did you get the idea for this book? Why do you think it was needed?

Elizabeth Merrick: The book was a natural progression from my reading series, which focuses on women writers of literary fiction, which came about after years of being appalled, as a young writer, at how little promotion serious women writers get, and how few bylines in our major American literary publications. You need review space, and review space is still very biased toward men and bylines at our literary publications. Look at Harper's or The New Yorker. It's a very good week if there are 25 per cent or 30 per cent female bylines.

As that was happening, serious books by women were edged further off the front display tables by these knockoffs of Bridget Jones's Diary, and then it just got harder and harder to find literary works by women. I wanted to make a way for the audience of readers who want more literary work to be able to find it. And so that's how this anthology was born.

I've worked in book publishing, I've worked in journalism, and I don't think badly intentioned people are going into this field, or into book publishing for that matter. So what's going on?

It's not malicious, and it's not conscious. The editors in power I think often have an aesthetic that may be a more male writing style. That's my best guess. It is absolutely not malicious; it is just a big, big, cultural blind spot. I think this is something that is still a cultural space where we're processing a shift after 30 years of the feminist movement.

And how does the economics of book publishing factor in? We know fewer and fewer people read either a book or a newspaper every year...

We know that the book-buying audience is diminishing, and it's just such a heroic effort to stay alive. We know that the reading audience is diminishing; we know that certainly this generation of kids has a lot more to do to distract them from reading books than one or two generations ago even. So part of it is the changing economics of publishing, and the need to have a healthy bottom line. And commercial work always, in the history of publishing, ensures the bottom line whereas literary work never does. And that's just the way it is, and that makes sense.

However, there is this golden moment of women writers right now; it's like a golden age and a blossoming of women fiction writers, and it's not getting that much attention.

OK, then, what about buyers? I assume publishers would be bringing out and promoting female literary fiction if women were buying those books. I mean, they want to make money.

I think we're about to take an imaginative leap in terms of the marketing of serious books by women. It just hasn't happened yet. Actually, chick lit is almost the first step in that. When Bridget Jones's Diary came out in 1996, as a young woman writer, I was just elated to just see a book by a woman writer about this stuff get out there in the bookstore. But now you have like the eight-millionth generation knockoff of it, which is just so much more poorly written than that book (which I actually thought was quite funny), and it's a whole different situation. So I think it's just a matter of discovering.

The publishing industry is an industry that people are involved with because they're passionate about literature, and they're generally pretty overworked and working with very tight budgets and a diminishing audience so I think it just will take a little more time to figure out how to find a good way to bring books to their audience.

How much are women responsible themselves? After all, they are buying -- or not buying -- these books.

I think you're dealing with 5,000 years of patriarchal culture there. There's an informal poll, I think it was the U.K. Guardian that said women read men's and women's books, but men actually just read books written by men. I don't have a problem if men don't want to read books by women; I think that's fine. My issue is equal pay for equal work, and that women writers need to be able to have careers, so we need to get these byline discrepancies changed, and we need to really make sure that women's books get reviewed.

Do you believe serious fiction written by women has a harder time getting published than that written by men?

Yes, I do. I think it will get easier over the next few years, but for now, my big lament is: we have a slot for the Big Boy Genius Book. The Foers, the Lethems, the Whiteheads, the Eggers, the Franzens. Do we have a slot for the Big Girl Genius Book? An ambitious novel, epic, that doesn't just ape male novels but deals with women's lives and themes? That gets a big marketing push because it is taken seriously?

But there are some well-known women literary writers. There are "big" female names -- Kathryn Harrison, Jhumpa Lahari, Zadie Smith come to mind immediately. They get reviewed by the New York Times, they get rather respectable reviews, and certainly in literary circles they're well known.

Look at any other field. I think it's great that we have Hillary Clinton in the Senate. That is wonderful, and it's great that Zadie Smith gets lots of attention. However, because Hillary Clinton is in the Senate doesn't mean that we have more than 15 per cent of the Senate women. It's great to have our really noticeable women literary writers, but the reality across the board is still really unbalanced.

Why use such a provocative title?

It's funny. When I was recently at a wedding and asked what my own novel, Girly, was about, I gave the overview -- that it's epic, told in seven voices, about sexuality and spirituality and two intense sisters -- and the woman who asked, smirked, "So it's NOT CHICK LIT." She didn't know about the anthology, and isn't particularly literary, so I think it's just a sense that it's in the ether: what else could we be reading now? The title is a reminder that there is a huge amount of amazing work by women that is not this formulaic stuff that has taken over the front of the bookstore.

What, if anything, is wrong with chick lit?

We all need light reading, light entertainment from time to time -- I'm certainly not against that. You will see me at the gym with Us Weekly now and then. But there is an amazing flourishing of women literary writers at the moment that is being obscured by a huge pile of pink books with purses and shoes on the cover. Women readers are having a hard time finding substantive reading material because of the dominance of these narratives.

Yet the announcement of the book last year aroused an enormous negative response.

The strength of some responses was a surprise to me...I think some people perceive it as, "Oh, that's anti-feminist," but I don't think it's anti-feminist to suggest, "No, we don't have just one story, we have many stories, they're not getting heard." It's essential that they be heard, because if we don't hear them and we just hear that it's all about marriage and designer shoes, then that diminishes us. It diminishes our imagination."

A number of writers are now publishing their stories in This Is Chick Lit, timed to coincide with the publication of your book. Do you believe this will help or hurt your book?

I am thrilled that there is a debate and such an opportunity to notice the difference between literary fiction and the chick lit genre, and put a little more emphasis on the literary. I don't see how it can hurt. I'm so proud of the quality of the work we're including; it just shines. These 18 writers are truly remarkable.

Helaine Olen has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Salon and other publications. She is an associate editor at LiteraryMama.com.  [Tyee]

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