Thank you for stopping by my blog, Crazy-for-Books, today and talking about women’s fiction… or is it chick lit? I’m not quite sure what to call it anymore! I’ve always associated “chick lit” with the Red Dress Ink-type books that Harlequin had out some years ago (and that I was addicted to!). They were a bit on the lighter side and fun reads! Although they delved into some issues, I don’t think they were as deep as some of the women’s literature that I am addicted to nowadays (but that is just my take on it!). Here are some questions I’ve been pondering and would love your take on them! –Jennifer
SSC is a book about a middle aged woman (Joy Harkness is 48 when the book begins), a college professor at Columbia University, a PhD, a published poet and biographer – but she doesn’t really register her own achievements and importance. She lives alone, she has never really deeply connected with anyone since the death of her brother when she was a child – but I’m not sure that she recognizes this. In fact, the reader recognizes a lot of things about Joy long before she sees them in herself. A move from the anonymity of New York City to an insular community at Amherst College creates an opportunity for change. Joy sells her Riverside Drive apartment and buys a decrepit Victorian house that needs – everything. In the restoration of that house, the decisions required by its renovation, and the interaction of the community around the house and her new work, Joy finds herself. Coming of age, one of the characters says, can happen at any age.
The Season of Second Chances is, basically, a book that says that we are what we are, most essentially, when we are ‘at home’. And the opportunity of self-expression and the development of personal taste and authentic style are among the most creative and valuable gifts we can share – because, they let the world see us – in all our unique one-of-a-kind individuality. Style, says one of my favorite characters, is the texture of the world.
It took about a year to write – in stolen moments. Neither the writing nor the publication was linear, so it’s a little difficult to describe it to you here — but the book was bought in September and not launched until a year from that next March, because we had missed the Summer catalog deadline for the late Winter/Spring releases.
A review of Alexandra Lebenthal’s book, The Recessionitas, labeled it as Chick Lit in the first paragraph, and – in the same sentence, bemoaned that label because “this was a book that Balzac would have loved”. And certainly, we, the readers, are meant to understand, Balzac would never have read or written Chick Lit. What makes you think that Lebenthal wrote Chick Lit, I thought. So — I wrote to this reviewer, he encouraged me to expand my note, and when I did, he ran it on his site and sent it on to his editor at Huff Post, where they immediately picked it up for release that same day.
Your questions, 4 – 9 – are really all – pretty much — the same question. So I’m going to combine them, if that’s okay with you:
Sure! I had actually combined some initially, but then separated them out! So, feel free to answer them however works best for you!
Chick Lit is, I believe, and simply put — the renaming/marketing slang of what we used to call a Beach Book; a light, breezy, confection of a read about romance, retail and popular culture. Accent on the ‘confection’. Nothing wrong with that. As you note, you consumed them, you enjoyed them, they can sell like hotcakes, they can reach a large audience of women (note – women). Chick Lit, at its best, is a genre book – a category — like SciFi or Romance or Thriller or Mystery. And these genres have their (often considerable) followers. I have no argument with the labeling of genre books. I am a marketer, of course. I do have a problem with the mis-labeling of genre books. And that mis-labeling comes across most egregiously in two forms:
1) the deliberate ways in which publishers mis-direct books toward the Chick Lit genre to try and cash in on the genre category’s large potential audience; and
2) the level of prejudice inherent in the culture as illustrated by the mis-labeling of books that are NOT that of that Chick Lit genre.
In an early review of SSC, the reviewer, who liked the book, found herself surprised. She said that she was so enjoying Chick Lit – and then suggested the definition of that term, in the words she used –“a contemporary woman”, “a story domestic in nature”, “redemption an
d style”. Very confusing – since those notes could describe Jennifer Weiner – but could also describe John Updike, Henry James, Anne Tyler, Flaubert, Jane Austen. Reviewers need to lose these labels and find their own truths and standards in the books they cover. It takes more intellectual energy, to be sure. But if they can’t do that, they shouldn’t be reviewing books. The number of reviews for my book that felt the need to determine that the book “wasn’t Chick Lit”, was “better than Chick Lit”, “set new standards for Chick Lit”. The reader review that panned it because it “WASN’T Chick Lit “– I mean – who said it was? These reviews were not the exception, mind you, they were the rule. And it suggests, I think, a kind of discomfort – a need to try and find another way of talking about writing. When a reviewer feels the need to say, This isn’t this thing – rather than say what it is — you know they’re struggling. But the reparations intended by calling my work Women’s Fiction or Women’s Literature are almost more insulting, because that’s not a matter of misunderstanding. It’s a deliberate gesture. And it’s meant well. By labeling something Women’s Literature, you are separating out novels by living authors, who happen to be women, into a category that is ‘different’ than novels written by men. In other words – Women’s Fiction — as opposed to what – Fiction? Literature? Women writers as opposed to – Real writers? Can you imagine doing that to the work of men? Would you call Philip Roth’s novels, Male Fiction? Would you refer to him as a Male Writer? I hardly think so. And the difference is intended to diminish, even when it’s meant as a gesture of good will. It’s condescending. It suggests “other” in ways that never raise the bar. It’s good for no one. Not marketing, not authors, not the state of writing, not the culture.
Therefore, in specific answer to your question — bloggers and reviewers should try to elevate the standards and not allow themselves to be pulled into bad habits. Call it literature. Call it fiction. Call it a novel. Call the author an author. Like the book or not like it on the merits of the actual book, not it’s category. And for heaven’s sake, leave gender out of it. As to marketing, to answer more directly: Brigette Jones, The Devil Wears Prada, Nanny Diaries – these kinds of books hang together within a genre in ways that make sense. I would never stop anyone from marketing them as a genre, although I, personally and professionally, think that labels can be a lazy approach to marketing. But that’s another article, indeed. The misdirection toward a genre that doesn’t apply, on the other hand, is not only lazy, it’s dishonest – and bad for everyone; the book, the author, the reader and the culture.
Authors should write. They must address their own truths, without regard for how the market is going to try to pigeon-hole them. See the NYTimes piece of how The Orange Prize judges have noted that their submitted manuscripts are desperately grim and violent, suggesting that women authors fear that stories without violence will relegate them to a dismissible ‘women’s lit’ channel of criticism. This means that some of the most talented women writing today are not telling their own stories, not telling our stories – cheating themselves and cheating us all.
I have just finished my second novel. The Lowell Girl is a story about a woman who sets out to prove the fact of discrimination against women, in an irrefutable way. But also, as the product of old-moneyed New England, and a disappearing tribe that maintained a closed society, we see her journey into a world that is, in contrast, inclusive of differences – in all forms. The next work will be set in the world of marketing, advertising and fashion in the 1970’s. And I’m starting that – now!