More Stupid Criticisms of Chick Lit

By Neal Comment

Having started the week on a “here’s what’s wrong with people who hate chick lit” riff, let’s go out for the holiday on the same note. This time the ammunition is provided by an anonymous attack by a former editor with an ax to grind, published in Dig, a weekly freebie alternative out of Boston. “Chick lit hurts America,” declares this unknown firebrand, invoking no less an authority than Lewis Lapham to support the thesis that commercial fiction written by women for women is destroying “serious women’s literature” with its anti-intellectual ways.

Most people will suspect that the author of this tirade kept his/her name off the article because s/he still wants to work in this town, but I’m wondering if it’s because s/he subconsciously recognizes how poorly thought out the argument is and feels an appropriate level of shame and embarrassment.* I’ll pick out just a few of the more prominent shortcomings, like the claim (familiar to those who’ve read Elizabeth Merrick’s introduction to This Is Not Chick Lit) that the genre is “about white, upper-middle-class American and Western European women.” Our ex-editor does at least acknowledge the existence of “black and Latina chick lit, [and] chick lit for older women,” but since these books prove our correspondent wrong at the first step, s/he immediately dismisses them as “tokenism.” That’s right, folks: Terry McMillan, whose rise to popularity actually predates that of Helen Fielding by several years (and Bridget Jones was hardly “upper-middle-class,” but whatever), is actually just a token minority kept around so Fielding and her successors don’t make the market look too whitebread. (Which is my subtle, indirect way of observing that chick lit did not spring from the forehead of Zeus in 1998; I won’t bore you with the timeline’s details.)

I’m also having a good laugh at the notion that “what’s dangerous about chick lit is that it fills trade slots at publishing companies that used to be given to literary fiction.” Yes, our ex-editor argues that unlike other trashy genres, which were dumped into bookstores as mass market paperbacks, chick lit was deceptively packaged like a real book, in hardcover even, and is keeping these serious books from getting published! But if that’s true, when our former insider says that “serious women’s literature was either overlooked for chick lit, or worse, made to look like chick lit,” how can that be? If chick lit was disguised as normal literature, how could normal literature be made to look like chick lit? Yes, yes, I know the “shoes and shopping bags” argument—but if that’s true, then the claim that chick lit was indistinguishable from “literary fiction” must be false. You can’t have it both ways. And, as we’ve noted before, when the New York Times Book Review splashes a different literary woman on its front page just about every other week, the idea that “it becomes harder and harder to find a good book” written by a woman becomes rather less tenable. (Just between you and me, though, not everybody is as impressed with those books as the folks at the Times…)

Look, I’m not going to argue with the idea that some chick lit is “hackneyed and boring and bad,” but so is some of that vaunted literary fiction. As one reader tried arguing to me recently, loosely speaking, the Lynne Tillmans of the world will always outwrite the Lauren Weisbergers; and I’m like, but you know what? People who would immediately and rightfully reject the notion that we should judge all “serious women’s fiction” by whether or not it successfully emulates Tillman have no problem declaring that everybody in chick lit writes exactly like Weisberger. And these are the same people who believe the masses have problems with close reading? Sometimes the only thing that bugs me more than anti-intellectualism is the assumption that being elitist is a shortcut to being an intellectual. (Thanks to Shakespeare’s Coffee for spotting this.)

*The only former editors of women’s fiction I know were actually fairly enthusiastic about the genre, and definitely smarter than whoever wrote this, so I got no leads. If you think you know who this person is, go ahead and tell me.