Friday, February 09, 2007

MAUREEN DOWD: Heels Over Hemingway

I was cruising through Borders, looking for a copy of “Nostromo.”

Suddenly I was swimming in pink. I turned frantically from display table to display table, but I couldn’t find a novel without a pink cover. I was accosted by a sisterhood of cartoon women, sexy string beans in minis and stilettos, fashionably dashing about book covers with the requisite urban props — lattes, books, purses, shopping bags, guns and, most critically, a diamond ring.

Was it a Valentine’s Day special?

No, I realized with growing alarm, chick lit was no longer a niche. It had staged a coup of the literature shelves. Hot babes had shimmied into the grizzled old boys’ club, the land of Conrad, Faulkner and Maugham. The store was possessed with the devil spawn of “The Devil Wears Prada.” The blood-red high heel ending in a devil’s pitchfork on the cover of the Lauren Weisberger best seller might as well be driving a stake through the heart of the classics.

I even found Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” with chick-lit pretty-in-pink lettering.

“Penis lit versus Venus lit,” said my friend Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, who was with me. “An unacceptable choice.”

“Looking for Mr. Goodbunny” by Kathleen O’Reilly sits atop George Orwell’s “1984.” “Mine Are Spectacular!” by Janice Kaplan and Lynn Schnurnberger hovers over “Ulysses.” Sophie Kinsella’s “Shopaholic” series cuddles up to Rudyard Kipling.

Even Will Shakespeare is buffeted by rampaging 30-year-old heroines, each one frantically trying to get their guy or figure out if he’s the right guy, or if he meant what he said, or if he should be with them instead of their BFF or cousin, or if he’ll come back, or if she’ll end up stuck home alone eating Häagen-Dazs and watching “CSI” and “Sex and the City” reruns.

Trying to keep up with soap-opera modernity, “Romeo and Juliet” has been reissued with a perky pink cover.

There are subsections of chick lit: black chick lit (“Diva Diaries”), Bollywood chick lit (“Salaam, Paris”), Jewish chick lit (“The J.A.P. Chronicles” and “The Matzo Ball Heiress”) and assistant lit, which has its own subsection of Hollywood-assistant lit (“The Second Assistant”), mystery lit (“Sex, Murder and a Double Latte”), shopping lit (“Retail Therapy”), the self-loathing genre (“This Is Not Chick Lit”) and Brit chick lit (“Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging”).

The narrator of that last, Georgia, begins with a note to her readers: “Hello, American-type chums! (Perhaps you say ‘Howdy’ in America — I don’t know — but then I’m not really sure where Tibet is either, or my lipstick.) ... I hope you like my diary and don’t hold it against me that my great-great-great-grandparents colonized you. (Not just the two of them. ...).”

Giving the books an even more interchangeable feeling is the bachelorette party of log-rolling blurbs by chick-lit authors. Jennifer “Good in Bed” Weiner blurbs Sarah Mlynowski’s “Me vs. Me” and Karen McCullah Lutz’s “The Bachelorette Party.” Lauren Weisberger blurbs Emily “Something Borrowed” Giffin.

I took home three dozen of the working women romances. They can lull you into a hypnotic state with their simple life lessons — one heroine emulated Doris Day, another Audrey Hepburn, one was the spitting image of Carolyn Bessette, another Charlize Theron — but they’re a long way from Becky Sharp and Elizabeth Bennet. They’re all chick and no lit.

Please do not confuse these books with the love-and-marriage of Jane Austen. These are more like multicultural Harlequin romances. They’re Cinderella bodice rippers — Manolo trippers — girls with long legs, long shiny hair and sparkling eyes stumbling through life, eating potato skins loaded with bacon bits and melted swiss, drinking cocktails, looking for the right man and dispensing nuggets of hard-won wisdom, like, “Any guy who can watch you hurl Cheez Doodles is a keeper,” and, “You can’t puke in wicker. It leaks.”

In the 19th century in America, people often linked the reading of novels with women. Women were creatures of sensibility, and men were creatures of action. But now, Leon suggested, American fiction seems to be undergoing a certain re-feminization.

“These books do not seem particularly demanding in the manner of real novels,” Leon said. “And when we’re at war and the country is under threat, they seem a little insular. America’s reading women could do a lot worse than to put down ‘Will Francine Get Her Guy?’ and pick up ‘The Red Badge of Courage.’ ”

The novel was once said to be a mirror of its times. In my local bookstore, it’s more like a makeup mirror.

40 comments:

Janet said...

Thank you for this essay. I've been a full-time writer for thirty years. The chiclit invasion scream scares me half to death. Daily I scream aloud, "Please try reading some real books." --JB

MaryJanice Davidson said...

You forgot vampire chick lit, like my UNDEAD AND UNWED series (secretary turned vampire queen). Sorry we contaminated you. Maybe you could host a book burning.

Anonymous said...

Wow can I come I've never been to a book burning? Also could someone point me in the direction of the real books?

First of all is it wrong to want to read something insular? I recently struggled through a very tough time and I found very little comfort in my copies of Virginia Woolf.

Second I've found that most people who make these complaints tend to dislike chick lit and romance as well (they're two different genres btw) for one of two reasons. First, they are threatened by the female empowerment. Independent women enjoying sex using the lookism that is so inherent in our culture to their own advantage. This doesn't seem to be the case here. The second reason many have trouble with this genre and genre fiction in general is that it is accessible.

Literature by it's very nature inspires a great deal of elitism. Some, Jane Austen for example, simply because it was written centuries ago. However, unlike the literature authors of today I doubt Austen was being intentionally inaccessible. In fact I would argue that she is the forerunner of modern romance. I would bet that many of the scholars of her time found she compared unfavorably to Pope and Swift.

Maybe in another hundred years some of the chick lit authors will be held up as examples of our time and become part of the cannon of classic
literature.

In any case, one has to wonder why this bothers you so much. I don't read a great deal of chick lit, but I've never found myself upset about it. The idea of books for women by women simply reassures me that feminism is going strong.
AJ

Katie. said...

Just a few minor quibbles about accuracy.

1) "Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging," is NOT brit-lit chick. It's brit young adult. It's also been out for years and is actually quite good. But it's still meant for teenagers.

2) Shakespeare got re-issued with pastel covers (including the pink "Romeo and Juliet") when I was still in high school. In the 90's. Before chick lit ever became a catch phrase.

3) Your issues are with Borders. Not once do you berate the actual bookstore for the way they organize their books. Have you even noticed that Borders doesn't have a biography section? What kind of bookstore doesn't have a biography section?

The reason you felt surrounded by pink books (um, most of which you mentioned aren't actually pink, though) is because Borders is EVIL.

Chick lit itself is not evil. Personally, I think it's GREAT that so many women are writing books, getting them published, and having them enjoyed by other women.

Sure, chick lit might be considered "dumb" by all of you "real" authors. But shouldn't you be more worried about the generation of teenagers coming up who don't enjoy reading? (Unless it's Harry Potter.) You are essentially complaining about a faction of readers who LOVE to read books, who buy a LOT of books, and tend to enjoy the hell out of them.

What in the world is wrong with that? Pulp, mass-marketed, serialized fiction has been around for decades. Although usually it was written by men. Now it's written by women, for women.

And it's selling books. The publishing industry is slowly dying and you're complaining about... women who read too much crap? At least we are buying that crap and doing our part to keep the industry humming along. All of you serious authors should thank us for pouring our money into the publishing houses that then use those monies to publish the serious authors.

Again. Your ire would be better directed at the kids who are being raised without an appreciation for books. They don't even like the bad stuff. They don't like ANY of it.

(Except some of the girls. Who love, love, LOVE their "Princess Diaries." Which you didn't even mention. They're the pinkest-pink-books around. But also fabulous.)

So, please don't judge me because of what I choose to read (and most of us chick lit readers are simply women who love books and we read more than JUST chick lit). Instead, you should be glad that we spend so much of our hard-earned money trying to keep your industry afloat.

(And MaryJanice... I LOVE YOUR BOOKS! Oh, wow. I'm all giddy because Betsy is easily one of my favorite vampires in all of fiction. Please don't listen to Ms. Dowd and keep up the good work. Because I will keep buying your books.)

Amalia said...

Your essay is based on a philosophical assumption I have to disagree with. Just because a woman reads chick lit does not mean that it is supplanting canonical texts. I am a high school English teacher. I dip into the canon many times a year - Salinger, Tennyson, Shakespeare, Austen and others all grace my bedside table. Right next to them are authors like Kauffman, Weiner, Giffin and Cabot. People read for many purposes, and I believe that chick lit serves the purposes of entertainment, escapism, and romance. Not every text does, but then not every "classic" makes me a more evolved thinker, either.
What is happening in book stores is the same thing that is happening on the internet - equality of information. It is up to the reader to decide what she needs and what will satisfy those needs best.
How can that be wrong?

~Amalia~
www.caringforbear.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

So, according to Leon, we're supposed to read war books during a time of war? And I'm guessing books about peace when we're not at war? What are the rules here, Leon?

As someone who reads across a wide variety of genres, I resent the idea that the American woman reads only one type of book. That is generalization at it's worst.

Plus, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a woman who wants to read a chick lit type book. It's an escape from reality because reality can suck at times.

I read whatever I'm in the mood to read (sorry Leon - war books are not at the top of my list). Right now, I seem to be in the mood for a little Ann Rule.

Guinan said...

I just know this is the first sign of the apocalypse. Pink books! Quick, someone text message George Bush, tell him it isn't gay marriage that will be the downfall of mankind it's books in pink covers! Just how long have you had this aversion to the color pink?

In all seriousness, so chick lit isn't your cup of tea fine, personally I have no taste for horror or heavy crime novels. Doesn't mean those authors aren't good, or the stories satisfying to those who read them, it just means I don't like them and I don't flip out when I find a Dean Koontz book in the literature section. I'm not a big chick lit fan, but some authors I really do enjoy and often read their books. Here's a tip, try being a bit more open minded. You might find that just because a book isn't relevant or entertaining to you, just because maybe it's been written in the last decade, isn't uber serious and has a pink cover doesn't make it any less important to others. And frankly in a generation that has 100+ cable channels, DVRs, DVDs, Netflix, YouTube, Wii, and a plethora of other entertainment options, to find a large portion of the population actually READING has got to be worth something. There is nothing glorious, or noble about war. If you want war watch CNN, unlike in 1895 when the Red Badge of Courage was written, you can find out everything you ever wanted to know about war with out leaving the living room. In this day and age after having war, child abuse, natural disasters, and numerous other tragedies in their face all day long, most people want to be entertained and reading is a great way to accomplish that.

Do yourself a favor, take the time to actually read some of the better chick lit authors and then make statements based on individual writers not blanket an entire genre with out some facts. Here's a tip for you, start off slowly by going to the literature section of your local bookstore and there in the new books you'll find a small hardcover book with a bright hot pink cover, graced by a pair of lovely red lips entitled "You Suck". It's Christopher Moore's newest book, no it isn't chick lit but it's a good start to get you over your Pink phobia, and it might just give you something you desperately need.

A sense of humor.

Anonymous said...

You know? There's nothing more tedious than some literary snob telling others what they "should" be reading.

As a reader of "chick-lit", romance, mystery, and other "mass-market" genres; I find myself highly offended when my intelligence is called into question simply because I enjoy books that aren't considered "classics" or "modern literature". It royally chaps my ass.

I'm a woman who holds a Masters degree and am currently working on my doctorate. I also very much enjoy MaryJanice Davidson, Nora Roberts, and Sophie Kinsella novels. *SHOCK!HORROR!* I'm shaming women EVERYWHERE methinks! Give me a friggin' break.

This pretentious and sanctimonious attitude just drives me crazy. Here's a bit of advice. LOOSEN UP. Get a damn life and a sense of humor. If you'd stop looking down your nose at people, you might just see what's right in front of your face.

I read "Red Badge of Courage" in high school also. It's quite depressing and boring. It's also very short. Some of us can read a book in a very short time. What am I to do once I'm done with that one? Pick up "Wuthering Heights"? "The Odessy"? Oh yeah. Read those too. Found them both depressing too.

As someone else pointed out, this "lesser genre" is what millions of people LIKE to read. It's what keeps the literary snobs and "modern fiction" authors (who apparently don't think that this genre are "real books" right JB? What have you written that anyone would recognize?) able to write their "amazing" works (which by the way, are ONLY amazing because people like you SAY they are. I find most of the modern lit to be politically infused crap that's useless as any sort of sociological yardstick unless you land on the "right" side of the fence with the thinking).

I've been cheering everyone else's comments on here. Well DONE everyone. I concur with you all as well. Well, except that first one. What is UP with that?

I read what *I* want to read. Not what "they" tell me is right. This IS America, Land of the Free the last time I checked, is it not? If I want to fill my bookshelves with "literary fluff" to entertain the hell out of me in between schoolwork, my JOB, my family, and my home, well it's not any of your damn business is it now?

~J

Anonymous said...

As an avid reader of any and all books that I can generally get my hands on no matter the genre (Sci-Fi, Mystery, Non-Fiction, Fiction, Literature, and yes Chick Lit), I was upset by the article.

Reading tastes are subjective to everyone, just as television is. I personally feel that reality television is ridiculous and turning the nation into a bunch of people who want nothing more than to watch other “real” people embarrass, degrade, and exploit themselves and others for entertainment value. But what do I do about it? I don’t like it so I don’t watch it; it’s my preference and my decision. My sister who watches every reality show imaginable is not subjected to my opinions at all, she likes it, and she watches it.

Literature is only Literature and not fiction because its classic, who’s to say that in fifty or a hundred years there aren’t some of the authors that you so randomly mentioned in the Literature section. Not only that but as wonderful as I find Jane Austin, Pride and Prejudice, the characters Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, I also enjoy modern characters and settings. If you were to actually read any of the books that you apparently abhore by their pink covers you’ll realize that they are simply modern re-tellings of the classics to which you hold in such high esteem. Bridget Jones Diary is a modern day Pride and Prejudice. Many of the classics by Austin, Eyre, Dickens, and Shakespeare are simply being retold to a new generation that may not have the patience to sit through flowery language that they don’t fully understand because…it’s not the eighteen hundreds and no one talks like that anymore.

What exactly is the difference between a retelling of Romeo and Juliet in language kids today can understand and the numerous Shakespeare translations out there that help kids get through eleventh grade English? Granted when reading something like Bridget Jones’ Diary many people don’t realize that the basis of the story originated long ago by a wonderful author named Jane Austin but they are getting the same message.

As a former bookstore employee (for over three years), you have to realize that a bookstore is a business, just like any other place. What is popular is going to be prominently displayed, in an effort to get people to come in the store, and maybe just maybe they come in for Chick lit and leave with Literature. It is not the job of the book store to tell the people what to read, it is the job of the bookstore to give the people what they want to read. After having worked there for so long and hearing young kids come up and ask for “this book called, like, Hamlet or something, but I don’t know who wrote it” It gets a little frustrating but any book that can entice someone to read, and lead them to explore other books is perfectly all right with me.

There are times when I’m sitting home and I’ll pull out Tolstoy or Dickens or any number of Classics, and there are times when I want to just have fun, imagine a world where things aren’t life and death, seriousness and hard ship, but escape to some place where you know there will be a happily ever after.

Anonymous said...

I'm not an expert on the publishing industry, but it seems to me that an oversaturation of "chick-lit" doesn't threaten canonical texts as much as it hijacks the more compelling and diverse reality of urban working women and supplants it w/some weird daydream sprung from old sex and the city reruns. As a working New York woman - I am weary of my urban sisters endlessly depicted as neurotic, narcissistic shoe fetishists who live in weirdly segregated cities. And, lord, I am SO TIRED of HIGH HEELS as a metaphor for the female spirit! But I suspect that these anemic, chick-lit heroines reveal more about the crass commericialization of feminist ideals than what people are actually reading. There's always been trashy books...trashy books crammed full of deliberate product placement? That's a more recent phenomenon, no?

Becca, 15, Charming but Insane said...

When one writes "Sex and the City," he or she should use capitalization because it is a proper noun.

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