In the Arts section of DoubleX magazine this week is an article, The Death of Chick Lit, examining how the quintessential beach-reading genre might have to remake itself somewhat to accommodate its readers’ realities in a world in economic recession. The author, Sarah Bilston, argues that women won’t care as much about conflict spurred by fashion, romance, and high-end exploits when, in their own lives, they are struggling to hold onto their jobs and their homes. The argument she makes is an intriguing one, even if I disagree that writers in the “frivolous” genres should make their subject matter sterner; if any time called for an escape from reality, then this is it. But I certainly understand that Ms. Bilston is a professional writer and must, therefore, be concerned about selling what she produces as well, and if her potential audience is largely throwing aside her novels in disgust at just reading the summary, then she runs the risk of joining them in default, no matter how idealistically “keeping the dream alive” in trying times. Fair enough. But what captured my attention–and raised my ire–wasn’t the article itself but the reader comments on the article.
“Like the rest of America and its genius writers,” writes one commenter,
you’re just another ‘trend-spotter’. Like chick-lit hasn’t been suffering since the START of the recession in 2007. You’re 2 years late! But congrats on being another academic whose ‘study’ concludes with “we need more work here” or “______ field needs to re-invent itself”. But then again, your party scene tells that perfectly – getting a glimmer of an idea does not count as executing that idea in itself.
Another chimes in, with respect to Ms. Bilston describing a particular revision that she felt compelled to undertake: “Don’t waste your time cutting up the party scene in your book, it won’t sell any better b/c it sounds like a waste of time to read.” As I read these remarks, I was flummoxed by the fact that commenters feel the need to proclaim the utter lack of worth of a novel that they haven’t even read and to dismiss the writer’s efforts as useless. And I’m having a hard time imagining a similar type of meta article written by a male horror or sci-fi author meeting with the same scathing dismissal of his very craft.
Another commenter broadens the ad hominem attack to point out,
This sort of whiny article is precisely why the writers of chick lit are so embarassed. They should be. They write frivolous books that are basically identical to each other in content and then want to be taken seriously.
I’m not a particular fan of so-called “chicklit” or women’s fiction, and my reasons for that are a lot of the same reasons that some of the commenters give: characters whose lives and conflicts seem so unreal and, yes, frivolous that my interest just isn’t sustained. Yet, reading these comments, no matter my own personal agreeance with them as far as choosing novels to read, I find my hackles raised nonetheless and have to come to the defense of my sister-wordsmiths. Because–as escapist as their novels may be–they aren’t getting a fair shake.
Commenter LaniDianeRich–who identifies herself as an author in the chicklit genre–put it best when she wrote,
Why is it okay for Stephen King to write about grisly evil, for Tom Clancy to write about spies, for Augusten Burroughs to write about his tragic childhood, but it’s not okay for Sarah (or me, or hundreds of other writers) to write about women?
Because the arguments against writing that doesn’t fall into the “literary” genre are familiar; I heard the same spiel about a lack of realism and cookie-cutter characters during a rather uncomfortable writers’ workshop in university where a short story of mine was shredded not on its own merits but by the professor’s assessment that, because it was set in a dystopian future, then it was sci-fi and therefore of inherently less worth than my classmates’ work set in present-day reality. In Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories,” he addresses many of these arguments, suggesting that they have had a long and vigorous shelf-life despite the sheer bone-headedness of such assertions. So it’s not the arguments, per se, against “chicklit” that I find so disturbing as the vitriol that this particular genre seems always to earn. Why?
I’m just as guilty. I’m quicker to distance myself, as a writer, from chicklit than I am from the gaudily covered hardcore “science fiction” novels that sound like a thinner, dumbed-down Star Trek, even though I am a writer of neither and, in fact, as a reader, would probably prefer Confessions of a Shopaholic to a book from the Warhammer series. And, certainly, the Warhammer books aren’t regarded as fine writing or profound, yet they also aren’t subject to the same vitriol as chicklit. Rather, they’re waved off as harmless–if at times inadvertantly humorous (at least to those of us who don’t “get” the genre)–escapism. I remember once having to sit through a movie based on a Tom Clancy novel that my husband wanted to see and being driven to distraction by the sheer improbability and inanity of the whole thing, coupled with a constant hyper-masculine need to show the size of one’s dick and the heft of one’s balls by packing as many explosions, bombs, guns, guys in camo, dark-sunglassed operatives shouting in code into walkie-talkies, careening helicopter flights, and urban car chases into an hour-and-a-half sustained roar. Replace the bombs and guns with diamonds and yachts and the guys in camo with slim thirty-somethings in designer Italian couture and the car chases with posh parties and–from the description that Ms. Bilston provides of her own novel–you have chicklit. It’s no more improbable than Tom Clancy, certainly. (Perhaps significantly less so since people, presumably, do live such padded lives somewhere yet, as of passing it on I-95 this morning, Baltimore had not yet been nuked by terrorists.)
Yet I don’t see Tom Clancy or Stephen King or Dean Koontz being berated by literati who wish these authors would just get their darned heads out of the clouds and focus on reality and people (as they are in reality, of course) and “things bigger than your everyday troubles,” to quote on of the commenters on Ms. Bilston’s article.
And now this begins to remind me of a discussion that generated on my last post where I mentioned that one of the more interesting comments that I received on Another Man’s Cage accused me of writing the novel for my own pleasure (as a woman) and that of my largely female audience because I dwelled on the emotional and psychological lives of the characters. That comment–“written for a woman’s pleasure!”–was meant to be withering to the entire premise of my novel, I’m sure. It was instant damnation. It marked me, immediately, as a most unserious writer for choosing to aim my content at people with two X chromosomes. I have trouble imagining the opposite accusation–of a story being written for the pleasure and entertainment of males–as carrying the same sort of clout. Even fandom’s obsession with “Mary Sue,” that icon of female escapism, I think, marks how little we value typical feminine fantasy as compared to typical masculine fantasy. Fantasy in general is always regarded with distaste by some. But male-oriented fantasy–Warhammer and Tom Clancy and epic CGI-enhanced battle scenes–are laughed off at worst but generally consumed as the guilty pleasure that most people feel when indulging in obvious escapism. But chicklit? We need to be puttin a stop to that! But why?