Maureen Dowd Discovers Chick Lit:Welcome to the 21st Century

By Neal Comment

If you read Maureen Dowd‘s column over the weekend (and if you don’t have TimesSelect, samizdat copies exist online), you’d be forgiven for checking the date at the top of the page, as Dowd blathers on about how she walked into a bookstore and “couldn’t find a novel without a pink cover.” Yes, it’s the “ubiquitousness-of-chick-lit (and isn’t it awful?)” story most respectable columnists filed years ago…and it’s just as silly as everybody else’s version. Worse, even: The idea that a New York Times columnist is only now discovering in 2007 that the genre has been sub-divided into “black chick lit, Bollywood chick lit, Jewish chick lit, assistant chick lit,” etc., etc., is nothing short of an embarrassment, especially for somebody who’s supposedly enough of an expert on gender and culture to write a book about the subject. Labeling “Brit chick lit” as just another evolutionary development rather than the prime mover doesn’t help Dowd’s credibility any, either, although I will confess that I got a wry chuckle out of the way she dismissed This Is Not Chick Lit as “self-loathing” chick lit.

belljar-cover.jpgDowd’s stroll through a D.C. bookstore with curmudgeonly blockhead Leon Wieseltier is filled with ridiculous flourishes, as when she declares, “I even found Sylvia Plath‘s The Bell Jar with chick-lit pretty-in-pink lettering.” Let’s assume she was talking about the cover at right, which graces the most recent HarperPerennial reprint. Yes, Plath’s name is in somewhat pinkish letters, and, yes, the cover does make use of the classic “legs-in-isolation” theme. But to compare this somber-hued, dully typefaced cover with the bright colors of explicit chick lit novels published by, say, Red Dress Ink or Plume or even Harper’s Avon division is rather a stretch, unless you’re looking to be deliberately argumentative. And then there’s the idea that “the bachelorette party of log-rolling blurbs by chick-lit authors” makes the books feel “interchangeable.” Because, Lord knows, that sort of thing never happens in the rarefied world of literary fiction.

The goofiest part, though, is when Wieseltier cracks wise:

“These books do not seem particularly demanding in the manner of real novels… 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.”

To fully unpack and counterargue the assumptions about what constitutes a “real novel,” and why chick lit doesn’t live up to that standard, would take more time than you or I can reasonably spend not working, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the last time Wieseltier read a work of fiction that was so un-insular as to directly challenge the political moment, war and all, in which we find ourselves, he branded it treason. I guess writers born after 1900 just can’t win with Leon, can they? In the meantime, if Maureen Dowd is that hard up for a bookstore in the Washington, D.C., area that isn’t festooned with girly books on every display table, we have plenty of indie shops to recommend, because D.C. is a great town for serious readers of all kinds of fiction.