The Great Chick Lit Roundup

March 4th, 2005 · 4 Comments
by Booksquare

When Mary Bly told the world that she wrote romance, one thought stuck with us: shame. We cannot think of any other genre of fiction that comes with built-in shame for its readers. The covers, of course, don’t help, but they could be plain brown wrappers, and the comments would still come. Jill Monroe posted this week about how one woman asked Jill, to her face, if her book was crap (it isn’t — we would not allow Jill to write crap; that is our sole territory, and we protect it fiercely). For some reason romance novels aren’t considered “real” books. Readers often feel compelled to defend their choices by pointing out that the mix a whole lot of heavy reading in with the fluff (we are guilty of this). The subject matter is source of shame: that’s the Victorian era, still biting us. Hard.

Intellectuals call women’s fiction “guilty” pleasures — as if enjoying what you’re reading is a crime. Over at Beatrice, author Meg Wolitzer falls into this trap. Even as she admits to liking some (but not all — all would be a stretch for even the most devoted of fanatical fans) chicklit, she notes her guilt. Justifies her pleasure. How long before she and others can just come out and admit they read a wide variety of fiction — and it’s something they enjoy. Without qualifiers.

Because the world of blogs is often like a party with lots of little conversations, this thought of Wolitzer’s struck a nerve with Jennifer Weiner:

The Pink Ladies are completely apolitical. Yet beneath their manicured, high-gloss surfaces is a depiction of a certain kind of urban female life at this point in time. If these books were placed in a time capsule and opened up at a much later date, people would get to see what these post-post-post-feminist women were like.

Weiner takes a view of women’s fiction that is more in line with ours: there’s a whole lot more going on than hot pink covers and discovering that men are, indeed, a different species (now if only science would catch on):

I think that these novels all have politics as their underpinning: the politics of the boardroom, the politics of the bedroom, the dance that goes on in the workplace between women and men and or young women and older women; the conversation that goes on at home between husbands and wives about money and work when babies come along.

Now, astute readers will notice we’ve been a little inconsistent in our use of of the chick and lit compound in this post. No, we weren’t testing to see who is still awake — though maybe we should. Hey!! You!!! Wake UP!

Thank you. Men’s Health has discovered the key to understanding women. Okay, they’re not the first, and they won’t be the last. Certain revelations are as cyclical as summer. We find it rather cute that each time the truth is learned, it is greeted with the same level of enthusiasm that Columbus’s crew exhibited (hallelujah, fresh water and less scurvy). Yes, a man discovers that romances lay out all the things that women want (and do). That this is a guy who will start getting lucky on a more consistent basis is beside the point.

What intrigued us was an interesting morphing of terminology. He may not even realize he did it. At one point, he’s looking at “chicklit”, mere paragraphs later he’s confused the whole spectrum of women’s fiction into a single catch-all phrase “chick lit”:

In fact, there was no end to my ignorance of this important new genre. So that night I rushed out to a local bookstore, loaded up on contemporary romance novels, and conducted a quick crash course. It was quite an eye-opener. 1-900-Lover showcased an out-of-work high-school teacher who starts her own phone-sex service and meets the man of her dreams in the process. Hot August Nights dealt with a high-school principal who hires a baseball coach to nuzzle her mound and tease her pitching rubber with his tongue, though he inexplicably refuses to remove her panties, making her wild with desire to feel him against her naked skin. As is only to be expected. And White Bikini Panties explored a mousy young woman’s abrupt decision to throw out her conventional panties and start wearing spicy thongs.

Honestly, I think a lot of male readers would have been just fine with the white bikini panties. But that was not the point. The point was, in Rolf and the Rueful Rhododendron, you never got within a stone’s throw of white bikini panties. Much less crotch-nuzzling Don Zimmers.

We totally agree that the image of Don Zimmer is unpleasant. But if we have to have it in our mind, so do you. Zim aside, the article gets extra credit for treating its subject matter with respect and humor. Though clearly someone has no idea of what real-life CPAs do all day.

M.J. Rose picks up this theme, and her comments inspire us to a radical proclamation. As of now, we are declaring faux intellectual guilt about reading to be passé. It is done. Either you like what you read or not. There is no guilt. Rose suggests that sometimes you want pizza, sometimes you want clams. Neither is better, neither is worse. Get over your guilt. Read.

File Under: Square Pegs

4 responses so far ↓

  • David Thayer // Mar 6, 2005 at 12:06 pm

    This covers an awful lot of ground. As a guy I view Mens Health with a certain unhealthy disdain, maybe it’s the writer in me, maybe not. But Don Zimmer…c’mon he told Steinbrenner where to go and he had Pedro cold until he slipped on that Fenway grass. Anyway I’m a fan of Zim and Jennifer Weiner and yet feel no shame.

  • booksquare // Mar 8, 2005 at 11:20 pm

    Hey, we don’t diss Zim around here (nor Torre. Steinbrenner is totally fair game) — though Zim and dirty acts? We have to draw the line somewhere. That being said, the Pedro moment proved the beauty of TiVo.

    As for shame…can you go out in public with a copy of Men’s Health (which, apparently, is quite different than what I thought (that’s the hazard of a career in Hollywood!)? Sit in public with the cover in full view. Let people see that’s what you’re reading?

    When it comes to women’s fiction, half the battle is the fact that the covers are, well, godawful. Some of best writing in the genre I’ve read (Laura Kinsale comes to mind) is buried in awful covers (Fabio, for example).

    Probably I’m asking this of the wrong person, but would you sit in public and read Jennifer Weiner? Would you sit in public and read a romance novel (with a lurid cover)? This is not a challenge — I won’t ask you to do what I can’t necessarily do myself. But when it comes to shame, the fact that I can’t read books I enjoy in public (and that is the lot of the reader) without feeling like I’m being judged (it’s not so much guilt as experience) is bothersome.

    To me, that’s shame.

  • David Thayer // Mar 9, 2005 at 7:34 am

    K2, I didn’t see this for a few days. No I’d probably hide the book inside Sports Illustrated or something equally manly…Road and Track. The marketing of books aimed at women is all too obvious in any bookstore and it must frustrate the authors to drive their readership away. Would I read Jennifer Weiner in public? Sure, but I think in my case people would be puzzled rather than judgmental, so it probably is more reflective of a double standard than any great courage on my part.

  • booksquare // Mar 9, 2005 at 9:47 pm

    David, you’re not a chicken, by any means. The covers are only the tip of the shame iceberg. The New York Times cannot discuss romance without using the term bodice ripper. Do they use such derogatory terms for any other industry leader? Quite possibly Mary Kay (and I’ve had some, well not harsh, but less than positive thoughts there).

    If you’re smart (and I like to think I am) and you’re educated (ditto) and well read (double ditto), you quickly learn that reading women’s fiction proudly is the social equivalent of Monster Truck thingies (hey, you read Road and Track, you know what I mean ). Smart people don’t read trash. We all know what kind of people read that stuff.

    Yet the truth is very different. And women who enjoy what they read are made to feel like it’s a “guilty” thing because admitting the truth is anti-intellectual. This bothers me, especially when I succumb to peer pressure!