Friday, August 04, 2006

Chick Lit: The Smart vs. Pretty Debate

I've been talking about chick lit this week, and if you'll excuse me, I'll climb up on my soapbox for a little rant. I've been a fan or author in most of the more denigrated genres that are sneered at by the literary elites. I've written and read romance novels. I've been a lifelong science fiction and fantasy reader, and I even read media tie-in books. But I've never seen anything that equals the amount of hate directed at chick lit. It's not men flinching at the girl cooties on the pink covers. It's other women who are furious, up in arms and talking about revolution against these books that they seem to see as heralding the downfall of western civilization. See what I meant about how awful women can be to other women?

They're not content to just not read the books they don't like. They won't be happy until those books are no longer published and no one else is reading them. There's even an anthology called This is Not Chick Lit to tell us what we should be reading instead. It's the literary equivalent of telling us we should be eating organic broccoli and whole grains and avoiding sweets entirely.

I find this kind of baffling. There are a lot of books published, and you can only read so many, so why not just focus on the ones you want to read instead of wasting time campaigning against the things you don't like or assuming that because you don't like it, it's worthless? I don't read horror. I'm a wimp, and I don't think it's fun to be scared. I'll admit that sometimes I do worry about the possible psychological impact these books could have on certain people. I've read exactly one Stephen King book, and that was enough to let me know that the genre can be very well written. I couldn't characterize the whole genre as hack-and-slash crap, though I'm sure there is some junk in there, just like there is for every genre. But there are enough books I like for me to read and talk about, so I'm not going to waste time talking about how I don't like horror. I don't feel like I'd sell more books or get more shelf space if bookstores stopped devoting entire sections to horror. Quite frankly, I don't care. At least horror readers are reading, and if they're going to bookstores, there's an increased chance that they might see and buy my books, so it's all good.

But the self-proclaimed elite female literary writers aren't content to let the people who want light entertainment read the pastel-covered books. No! They must stamp them out. They seem to see these books as a threat to their very existence, as though every pink book with a martini glass on the cover somehow canceled out a more worthy work. But I'm not sure what they have their panties in a twist about. Yeah, a few of the higher profile chick lit authors get huge advances and hit bestseller lists, but the bulk of us are solidly midlist. The more serious literary works are more likely to get reviewed in major newspapers and magazines. Even fashion magazines like Glamour and Elle seldom mention chick lit unless there's a celebrity tie-in or movie adaptation. Otherwise, their book columns are about more literary works. A certain author who has equated saying that an author writes chick lit with calling her a slut is regularly -- well, Mom reads this, so I won't say what the New York Times does to her, but you can get the picture. One of the publishing industry blogs once counted the number of mentions she got in the Times. It's the serious stuff and never chick lit that gets selected by Oprah and the national morning show book clubs. There are those tables in the front of bookstores that once were very pastel-tinged, but hello! That was because those tables are for trade paperbacks, and for several years, chick lit was the predominant genre published in trade paperback. Now that the literary side of things has started publishing in trade paperback, the tables are decidedly more mixed. I'm not seeing the source of the jealousy or sense of threat here.

I've seen the situation compared to the age-old smart vs. pretty split that goes back to high school, and I never thought I'd be on the "pretty" side of things, but here I appear to be. But when you look at it, it's smart vs. pretty in a bizarroland universe. It's in an elite private high school where everyone there is fairly smart and academically focused, but one group of girls accessorizes their uniforms, styles their hair and wears makeup, while the other group is determined to make people accept them for who they are. They don't wear makeup or waste time on frivolous stuff like parties or dating because they'd rather build their academic credentials. The "smart" crowd runs the school newspaper and yearbook, and therefore gets total say on what gets covered or immortalized. They win all the scholarships and academic awards. They run the drama club (doing only challenging theater, of course). They even get the smart guys -- the cool, intellectual smart guys, not the nerds. And then the "smart" girls just about riot and stage a protest when one of the "pretty" girls is elected prom queen because they can't handle a member of the other group getting even that much recognition.

Meanwhile, we also seem to get a lot of flak from romance authors, who see us as upsetting the "rules" they think are what readers really want to read. They insist that readers want a guaranteed happy ending with the guy the heroine meets in chapter one, that no one would want to read about the quest to find the right guy. It's enough to make a girl feel a little paranoid, with attacks coming from all sides. When declining chick lit sales were reported, the literary authors and the romance authors were practically dancing in the streets and shooting guns into the air in celebration.

I'm not even sure the attacks are valid. When critics describe what they think of as the typical chick lit novel -- a group of girlfriends drinking cosmopolitans, obsessing about Manolos, sleeping around and dishing with their gay best friends -- it sounds to me more like an episode of Sex and the City than like any chick lit novel I've ever read. I've probably devoted more pages to shoe obsession (but with magical reasons) than I've seen in any other chick lit book. Yeah, the Shopaholic books have a lot of shopping in them (duh!), but those books are about the pathology and how out of control that woman's life is than they are about "whee! shopping!" Otherwise, the shoe thing might be a minor character quirk or the writing technique of using specific details (something you'd think literary authors would understand). It's a lot funnier and paints a much more vivid picture for Bridget Jones to step in a pan of mashed potatoes in her new kitten-heel black suede shoes than for her to merely step in a pan of mashed potatoes while preparing for a disastrous dinner party.

I've read maybe three chick lit books that follow the supposedly formula plot of girl in publishing dating lots of losers before meeting Mr. Right, but that similarity is only on the back cover. The books themselves are very different and are about so much more (which makes you wonder if these anti-chicklitters have actually read anything beyond the covers). For instance, Melissa Senate's See Jane Date wasn't so much about the dating as it was about family and her growing realization while getting ready for her cousin's wedding that because her parents were both dead, she was pretty much alone in the world and wouldn't get to experience her own wedding along with her parents. No wonder the poor girl didn't want to face that family wedding alone and without a date!

I will admit that I'm getting tired of the gay best friend, but that's popping up in all books, not just chick lit. It wouldn't be so bad if that character wasn't almost always either Will or Jack from Will and Grace. There are other potential sounding board characters out there, or at least some other character types. My administrative assistant when I worked in PR kept a Bible on his desk that he read during breaks and was probably the most strictly morally upright person in the office (think Angela on The Office, but a gay man -- and a bit nicer if you were on his good side), for instance. I haven't seen that kind of gay sidekick character show up yet in a book.

I recently read a book by the writer known for the slut comparison (I refuse to give her publicity here) because I figured I couldn't talk about her without having actually read something or I'd be as guilty of making assumptions as she is. And I must say, it was a chick lit-like plot, but it wasn't good enough to be chick lit. It wasn't funny or entertaining, the heroine was boring with no real character to her, and the story was pointless. I also didn't feel like I'd been edified in any way. I didn't learn anything about the human psyche or the way the world works, or anything like that. I don't see how that can be declared "good" and good for us to read, while books published as chick lit are "bad." I guess if you take a chick lit-like plot (girl falls for her cousin's boyfriend in college and never manages to get involved in a real, deep relationship afterward because subconsciously she's waiting for him) and write it in a boring way, it becomes "good." Whatever.

Oh well. Enough ranting. Read what you enjoy. Try new things to see whether or not you enjoy them before you bash them. Don't waste your time focusing on things you don't like, and don't judge other people on what they enjoy. There's plenty of things out there for all of us. I did find this take on the whole debate, so I'm not the only one getting miffed about this.

And now, I really must get back to work. Busy, busy, busy.


Kirsten said...

Bravo, Shanna! Well said!

briar_rose_01 said...

Absolutely! I cannot stand it when I let myself feel embarassed over my reading choices or like I have to explain the book's merits. Why can't intelligent people celebrate the fact that women are reading & encourage that? If nothing else, if chick lit draws young women toward reading & the world of literature opens to them, doesn't that lend the genre merit?