I’ve been blogging for two years and I’ve never once taken another author to task or challenged the motivations or message of a colleague’s books so this post is a major deviation for me. However I need to get this off my chest before I explode.
About a year ago Elizabeth Merrick announced that she was launching an anthology called This Is Not Chick Lit. Chick lit authors all over the world flipped out. Lauren Baratz-Logsted actually launched a competing anthology titled This Is Chick Lit in a passionate attempt to make a point. I was invited to take part in that anthology but I declined because of rather severe time constraints. But I also thought that Lauren was overreacting. If you read my blog-post “If It Walks And Talks Like A Duck…” you know that I sympathize with female authors who are writing literary fiction only to have it categorized as chick lit and if you were to form an opinion based solely on Merrick’s interview in USA Today you would assume that this is her beef as well. So if the non-chick-lit authors of the world feel that they need to print the words: This Is Not Chick Lit on the covers of their novels in order to keep their work from being incorrectly labeled then so be it. They have my support.
But now that I’ve actually seen the book I understand what set Lauren off. The problem is not the title. The problem is how Merrick is defining chick lit. The synopsis on the back cover begins with the following statement:
Chick lit: A genre of fiction that often recycles the following plot: Girl in big city desperately searches for Mr. Right in between dieting and shopping for shoes. Girl gets dumped (sometimes repeatedly). Girl finds Prince Charming.
This synopsis is then wrapped up with a quote from Gloria Steinem who has this to say:
"This Is Not Chick Lit is important not only for its content, but for its title. I'll know we're getting somewhere when equally talented male writers feel they have to separate themselves from the endless stream of fiction glorifying war, hunting and sports by naming an anthology This Is Not a Guy Thing."
So now I’m pissed.
Obviously Merrick and Steinem have read Bridget Jones and maybe one of the Shopaholic books and skimmed the first few pages of a few of the pink covered novels displayed on Borders front table. They then decided that this limited research qualified them to make a generalization about an entire genre which is that it is offensively shallow and celebrates the worst of the female stereotypes.
But my research includes a much larger sampling. The first chick lit book I ever read was Laura Caldwell’s Burning the Map. The protagonist has a boyfriend. She breaks up with him in the first chapter in which he makes an appearance. There is little dating and absolutely no shopping or dieting. This book, like many other chick-lit stories, is about the relationship between young women who are all in the middle of redefining themselves.
I’ve also read all of Jennifer Weiner’s books which deal with self-esteem, sibling relationships, mourning the loss of a child, and substance abuse. I’ve read Lynn Messina’s books that satirized pop culture. I’ve read Jennifer Belle’s books which deal with prostitution and emotional abuse. My Sophie books (which are admittedly pure escapism) are not about dieting, shopping and dating. They’re about eating dark chocolate, killing and getting laid.
But Sarah Dunn, Lynda Curnyn and Alisa Valdezs-Rodriguez do write about dating and occasionally shoe shopping and dieting. What’s interesting about their books (and MOST chick-lit books that deal with this subject) is that somewhere along the line the protagonist always realizes that she needs to get over her fear of being alone and start focusing on improving herself. These characters then change careers, improve their self-image, and learn to be self-sufficient. When and IF Mr. Right shows up they are ready to start a relationship based on mutual respect, not one filled with emotional abuse. As I’ve said before, a lot of very intelligent, well adjusted women read these books but you know who else reads chick lit? Young women with negative self-images who hook-up with emotionally abusive boyfriends because of their fear of being alone. Chick lit authors aren’t preaching to the choir. They’re using humor and shoe shopping as a way of converting the skeptics.
But regardless of whether or not they convert these readers will probably never call themselves feminists and that breaks my heart. Most women of my generation (and younger) think that feminism belongs to women who criticize other women for wearing make-up or daring to occasionally wear heels. They think that being a feminist means that you can’t laugh, date, shop or enjoy any frivolity whatsoever. They will not read any of Steinem’s excellent editorials nor will they push for the passing of legislation that will strengthen feminist causes because they feel alienated by those who are supposed to be fighting for them. The inflammatory comments printed on the back cover and those made by some of the authors featured in Merrick’s anthology (Curtis Sittenfeld wrote that accusing a woman of writing chick lit is “not unlike calling another woman a slut,” Lynne Tillman said chick lit is a genre that “announces itself as being second rate”) solidifies the fears of the women who are afraid to embrace feminism. This Is Not Chick Lit is a perfect example of how easy it is to undermine a movement that you claim to be championing.
Ms. Steinem and Ms. Merrick, you have blasted an entire genre of books written by women for women without bothering to take the time to find out if your knee jerk assumptions were correct.
Sorry, but that smacks of sexism.
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