Chick lit, feminist tosh, and all that jazz

23 Sep

If we’re going to judge books by their covers, then what does a glossy pastel paperback branded with toothpick legs, towering stilettos, the occasional cupcake, and a title written in the loopy script of a lovesick teenager say about the story of the grown women between the covers?

British author Polly Courtney didn’t want her latest novel, It’s a Man’s World (given the tagline “but it takes a woman to run it”) marketed as “chick lit,” that sub-genre of fiction often stigmatized as the cotton candy of literature: saccharine, insubstantial fluff that dissolves the minute it comes into contact with a warm brain. So when her publisher, HarperCollins, gave the book a “condescending and fluffy” makeover — complete with a cover spotlighting slender gams and pointy heels — Courtney subsequently announced she won’t be working with them again. She spoke to the Guardian about her decision:

“My writing has been shoehorned into a place that’s not right for it,” she said this morning. “It is commercial fiction, it is not literary, but the real issue I have is that it has been completely defined as women’s fiction … Yes it is page turning, no it’s not War and Peace. But it shouldn’t be portrayed as chick lit.”

Courtney isn’t the first woman who writes about women to find her work inaccurately packaged as chick lit. Yet should a misleading high heel on the cover of a book be a mark of shame?

According to Jennifer Weiner, the author of Good in Bed and other chick lit favorites, the genre’s light and humorous tone – or its signature subjects like dating, sex and shopping — doesn’t mean her books should automatically be equated with trite frivolity. She spoke with USA Today on the subject:

“Real” chick lit speaks very personally to women about their lives and about their choices. Those books are always going to be with us. Women want to read stories about characters who feel familiar and whose choices feel relatable.

Weiner kicked off last year’s now-infamous franzenfreude frenzy (instigated by her creation of #franzenfreude on Twitter). Her beef stemmed from the fact that Freedom, Jonathan Franzen’s critically acclaimed novel about the complex inner world of a unsatisfied housewife living in the suburbs (among other things) would’ve been slapped with a stiletto and labeled chick lit had it been written by a woman. Slate hashed out the details of the chick lit/literary fiction match:

Weiner tweeted prolifically after starting the franzenfreude meme. “In summation: NYT sexist, unfair, loves Gary Shteyngart, hates chick lit, ignores romance. And now, to go weep into my royalty statement,” she wrote on Aug. 19. Not everyone felt her pain. Paris Review editor in chief and former Farrar, Straus, and Giroux editor Lorin Stein responded to Weiner and Picoult’s complaints on the Atlantic’s Web site, slamming their desire for mass-market fiction to be reviewed by the Times as “fake populism” that “pretends to speak for women.”

So must a book by a woman about sex, love or shopping be packaged with stereotypical symbols of femininity in order to get published? For writers like Polly Courtney, that’s precisely problem. Yet with the literary establishment’s questionable legacy of being an (white) old boy’s club, it’s no wonder novels by women often get the fluff treatment.

Or get written off entirely. In an interview with the Royal Geographic Society last June, V.S. Naipaul, a recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature, callously dismissed women writers as peddlers of “feminist tosh” whose work couldn’t be compared to that of male literary giants.

In response to this “feud-picking, egomaniacal literary blowhard,” Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Willams opined about why literary difference between the sexes doesn’t equal inferiority:

The female experience in the world is unique from that of the male. Yet plenty of people, not just gasbag old men giving interviews to the Royal Geographic Society, believe different is lesser, that merit is synonymous with masculinity. That to think or run or react or write like a girl is insufficient.

There are, of course, plenty of female novelists whose books receive ample attention from influential critics — Zadie Smith, Nicole Krauss, Jhumpa Lahiri and Joyce Carol Oates, to name a few. But their ranks are far smaller than those of men, and there are numbers to prove it.

The rigid division of chick lit and fiction considered insightful and deep into mutually exclusive categories says more about the narrow vision of women’s lives than it does about the quality or content of either type of books. From the vantage point of history, all lives resemble the sweeping narratives of literary fiction, compete with epic romances, tragedies and reoccurring themes that are set against the backdrop of a distinct time and place. Yet on a day to day level, life, for many of us, is rather pedestrian and even “fluffy:” deciding what to eat for lunch, getting annoyed at AT&T customer service, constructing a marriage and babies fantasy about random cute guy on the train, searching for Mr. or Ms. Right, and, yes, shoe shopping, which I happen to thoroughly enjoy. There’s meaning to be found in the banal details, too.

Polly Courtney says she’ll self-publish her next novel. With the rise of e-books, who knows if it will even have a cover?

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