Toward a Utopia of Book Reviewing for Women

July 7th, 2005 · 42 Comments
by Booksquare

Cover of A Little Change of FaceRecently, we posted a short piece where we read too much into a few words. Most of our enlightened readers got the point immediately. A few chastised us for, well, overreading a few words (which we’d stated up front, so that ship had sailed) and went off on another tangent entirely. Which was fine, but not really the point we wanted to make.

So let us try again: bias can be as blatant as using the qualifier “leggy” before calling someone an essayist (because, unless we’re missing something important, the two descriptions are unrelated). Bias can also exist by omission, such as in the case of the male-to-female ratios of reviewers and reviews in the New York Times Book Review. When a publication suggests that the lack of column inches is due to lack of novels written by women, it’s either a strong indication that someone needs to visit a bookstore or cop to the real reason for overlooking not only half the population but the majority of book buyers.

This isn’t paranoia on our part — we’ve previously linked to and discussed the Brown University study on this topic. includes male/female statistics in his weekly review of the NYTBR. And our guest today, Lauren Baratz-Logsted did, too. She’s not asking the Review to change now — to her mind, it’s lost its relevancy. What she’s suggesting (and we strongly support) is creating a real option for women readers — and those brave men who aren’t afraid to learn what women really think.

Toward a Utopia of Book Reviewing for Women
Lauren Baratz-Logsted

I don’t remember the exact date when the New York Times Book Review became a cultural irrelevancy for me.

Back in the years 1983-1994, when I was a buyer for one of the largest independent bookstores in the Northeast, Klein’s of Westport, now sadly defunct, we used to get our copy early with the mail on Tuesdays. As soon as it came in, I’d look through it quickly and then someone would be assigned the task of meticulously going through the store, paper in hand, to make sure we had all the important titles on the shelves. If we didn’t have a title, there would at least be time to order it for Friday shipment so that when our pampered customers knocked on the door demanding early entry on Saturday, brandishing their own copies of the NYTBR, we’d be able to give them what they wanted. Back then, this could sometimes be a frustrating process, as the paper was given to, perversely, upon occasion reviewing books that weren’t quite out yet or had been out for nearly a year.

Despite those occasional frustrations, I enjoyed reading the NYTBR back then, particularly relishing it when a book I’d already read had been reviewed, so I could compare my notes with the reviewer to see where our thoughts converged and where mine were superior. In fact, I enjoyed it so much, that for many years after I left the bookstore, it was still one of the first sections of the Saturday edition of the NYTimes, with all its lovely weekend extras, I’d turn to, my pattern being to check the weather, scan the front page, scan the letters and editorials, take a stab at the Sunday crossword, and then sit down with the review until I was done with it.

But somewhere along the way, I noticed that there was something wrong with this picture.

There’s a phrase in critical thought called “listening to the silences” and it’s the kind of thing that has resulted in some pretty fine works of literature, among them Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, which listens to the silences in King Lear and comes up with a revisioning that details the Evil Daughters’ side of the famous tragedy. Listen to the silences in almost any work and eventually you start to hear who’s not getting their say. So I started listening to the silences in the NYTBR, in the hopes of figuring out what was wrong with this reviewing institution that I had loved so long and so well, and this is what I heard: the absence of women’s voices.

Oh, to be sure, there were always some reviews written by women or about women’s books, but it struck me as being drastically disproportionate to those devoted to the other gender.

For a while, I thought maybe it was me.

So I started counting: tallying up each week to see how many XXs and XYs were represented.

And even though my numbers told me I was on to something, still, I thought maybe it was me. I mean, I’d been prone to paranoia a time or two before, right? Once, when I’d been sick, I heard the doorknob turn and immediately assumed it was a magazine-subscription salesman I’d turned down coming back to murder me, only to see my husband walk in – making me glad I’d never believed in keeping guns in the house, for surely I would have shot him dead right then – so maybe once again I was just seeing shadows?

But then came the Brown University study, confirming my suspicions, followed quickly by then Editor-in-Chief Charles McGrath’s sop to the female masses, a statement in which he claimed that the reason women were not as strongly represented was not a matter or conscious design but merely due to the fact that they didn’t write as many books.

But how could that be? I thought. I’d been a Publishers Weekly reviewer, to the tune of 292 reviews written, not to mention a bookseller for 11 years etc, and I knew women were not writing books in substantially fewer numbers than men. What was going on here?

Then I started looking at the books by women that were reviewed in the NYTBR and it occurred to me that there was something about the reviews that was…grudging. Sure, you could find the latest Cynthia Ozick or Alice Munro or Joyce Carol Oates reviewed there, or the latest Jane Smiley for that matter, but even though the reviews for those authors’ books were invariably positive, there was something less than in the way they were presented, when taken in comparison with the reviews of the male lions – Updike, Roth, Mailer, DeLillo – the whole thing bringing to mind the passage from Margaret Atwood’s Blind Assassin where one character admonishes another to thank God for small favors, to which the character replies: Why thank God? And why are they so small?

But then I heard that Sam Tanenhaus* was taking over the helm of the NYTBR and hope sprang eternal that things would change. Not that I knew much about Tanenhaus, meaning there was no specific reason for me to be hopeful, but if I am nothing else, I am as much Pollyanna as I am Paranoid Polly.

Not long into Tanenhaus’s tenure, however, I began hearing more in the silences of the NYTBR. For the first time I noticed that genres are given unequal attention as well. There are regular features of roundups on Mysteries and Science Fiction – and have been for as long as I’ve been reading the review – but there is not a similar one on Romance (don’t even get me stated on Chick-Lit – well, OK, maybe later). If they were going to leave genre out of the review entirely, however elitist that might be, at least it would be one thing. But it was quite another to pick and choose, saying certain genres have literary merit while, defined by their silence, saying another is not worth the typage. And particularly odd since that not-worth-the-typage genre happens to be written primarily by and about women and, oh yes, sells more books than any other genre out there. The NYTBR regularly reviews every new book by Stephen King, Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton and John Grisham – in full-length reviews, no less; no In Briefs for them – but show me where was the last time they gave the same typage to Nora Roberts?

OK, maybe I will get into the Chick-Lit issue now.

How can the NYTBR totally ignore Chick-Lit? It is the most successful subgenre to sprout from the publishing world in decades. People buy these books. People love these books. (OK, not all, but a lot.) Oh, sure, they review Helen Fielding because she’s unavoidable, and any novelist who happens to be the wife of one of the producers of A Beautiful Mind also has an in, but where are the reviews of Sarah Mlynowski or Julie Kenner or Cara Lockwood?

I won’t even ask, Where are the reviews of me? But I will write a novel about it, in fact have already written a novel about it, Chick-Lit: A Love Story, which will hopefully be published in July 2007 and which opens with the lines:

    “It is a publishing truth, universally acknowledged, that anyone professionally involved in the pursuit of ‘Lit-e-ra-ture,’ must, by definition, despise Chick-Lit.

    “I first met Frank D’Arcangelo, Editor-in-Chief of the New York Times Book Review, at the annual National Book Awards ceremony and while it was definitely not the best of times for me, it was a close runner-up for the worst.

    “Of course, being the kind of person I am and writing the kinds of books I do, I didn’t actually receive anything so mundane as a printed invitation to the ceremony. Rather, my agent, perennially dateless, said I could be her guest…

    “I hated the Times with their uppity tone of voice…They were Pride, as far as I was concerned, and I was Prejudiced.”

Take THAT, NYTimes!

But, seriously, where are the reviews of Chick-Lit specifically, or Romance in general, or even of most women writing today in that most August of book reviews? Is it possible that – gasp! – the most ostensibly liberal newspaper in the United States of America is – gasp again! – prejudiced?

It seems to me that one of the responsibilities of a reviewing vehicle like the NYTBR is to help readers sort the wheat from the chaff, in terms of literary books, but also, since they have chosen to do this in some genres, in all genres. There should be regular roundups on Romance. There should be regular roundups on Chick-Lit.

Not long ago, on another litblog, I heard someone say that they didn’t read Chick-Lit because they couldn’t tell which were supposed to be good or not. I’ve also heard people – many people – dismiss Chick-Lit wholesale based on one or two reading experiences or because they hated the film version of Bridget Jones’s Diary, a stance to me that makes about as much sense as never reading another literary novel because one hated The Grapes of Wrath in high school or all mysteries because Nigel Bruce in the old Sherlock Holmes movies really seemed just too silly or all mysteries, again, because Otto Penzler has so famously chosen to dismiss all cozies.

I have a dream.

I dream that one day all books will be judged, not by the gender of their authors but by the contents and the characters of their pages.

But for far too long, the pendulum has swung too strongly in the other direction. What we need here is the publishing version of Affirmative Action, jumping on the other end of the seesaw and staying there until the playing field is level once again.

Someone needs to step up to the bat here – oh, crap, a baseball metaphor, following on the heels of a mixed one – and not just in the areas of Chick-Lit or Romance, but in the area of all writing by women. Rape victims talk about taking back the night. Well, we need to start taking back the book reviews. And toward that end, I propose the creation of the following:

A book review created by, for and about women; a book review that has room for Joyce Carol Oates, every single one of her books as they come out, but that also has room for all genres. The review would appear online or in print every week. It would contain a framing essay for that week’s reviews at the front. It would contain a back-page essay on something topical at the back. The reviews would not be grudging, nor would they be puff pieces. They would form a survey of the best – and worst! – books being written by women today. There would be knowledgeable people involved in all aspects of its creation, meaning people that are far more knowledgeable than I in terms of the business and administrative ends of such an undertaking. Of course, I’d be more than happy to contribute the odd review, or even a weekly review, and the odd essay. And, let me tell you, those essays would be odd.

Then, after maybe about 10 years of this, if the enterprise is successful and the playing field does become level and the boys behave themselves sufficiently, we might start letting a few of them in.

Until that day happens, I’ll keep stockpiling my mostly unread NYTBRs next to the trashcan in the downstairs bathroom; as of yesterday, there were eight there.

You know what I really dream?

I dream that one day this dream won’t be necessary.

*Special thanks to Ed over at for his weekly Sam Tanenhaus Brownie Watch. As far as I’m concerned, Ed can write a review or essay in my Utopia anytime.

Lauren Baratz-Logsted is the author of The Thin Pink Line and Crossing the Line. Her third novel, A Little Change of Face, is now available. Her essay, “If Jane Austen Were Writing Today,” is collected in Flirting with Pride and Prejudice: Fresh Perspectives on the Original Chick-Lit Masterpiece, edited by Jennifer Crusie and due out from Benbella Books on September 1.

File Under: Wrapped Up In Books

42 responses so far ↓

  • Susan Gable // Jul 7, 2005 at 10:00 am

    Wow. Terrific in-depth analysis, Lauren. I’d love to see some of the stats for a couple weeks, exactly how many XX’s and how man XY’s.

    And if you think Chick-Lit and romance is looked down upon, try being in category romance. (Hmmm…I think I feel inspiration for another BSquare guest article coming on. ) Category is considered, even by some other romance writers, to be the low among the low. (Obviously *I* don’t feel that way. (G))

    I love that you also have a positive solution for the situation. Kudos! I’d love to see that dream become a reality. And even better, your ultimate dream – that it wouldn’t be needed anymore.

  • Lauren Baratz-Logsted // Jul 7, 2005 at 12:57 pm

    Susan, thanks so much for your kind words! Please don’t let the bastards – or the bitches! – get you down. The way I figure it, in a world where what happened in London today can happen anywhere at anytime, if people like you and I write books that give people pleasure, and even sometimes make them think, we’re fighting the good fight.

  • Susan Gable // Jul 7, 2005 at 2:23 pm

    Amen, Lauren. That’s exactly it. I write to tell a story, to entertain – to touch my reader’s emotions. If I’m lucky, I sneak something in there that might make them think – but I don’t set out to bash them over the head with it.

  • Eleanor Sullo // Jul 8, 2005 at 6:38 am

    Truly a wise and well-crafted essay. You’re the tops. You can speak for me and my genres (whatever they are at the moment) anytime. We women writers and readers applaud you and cherish your insight and hoped-for corrections to this famous inequity.
    A million thanks. Let’s hope the hallowed Times picks up this piece and reprints it. Then we’ll really know there is God (of Literature, etc.)!

  • Lauren Baratz-Logsted // Jul 8, 2005 at 9:52 am

    Winking at my New Best Friend, Susan.

    Eleanor, I would not hold my breath on the Times reprinting my piece, but I have no doubt that they keep an eye on places like Booksquare and Beatrice. I still have a few more tricks up my Davy-and-Goliath sleeve here, so we shall see!

  • Shelley Bates // Jul 8, 2005 at 10:36 am

    Well said, Lauren. I’d love to see such a site/review vehicle … aimed at what interests me and my readers. I hope you let us know how we can help.

  • Lorraine Ellis // Jul 8, 2005 at 4:05 pm

    Please don’t compare yourself to rape victims. “Take back the book reviews?” That’s just trashy.

    You think the NYTimes book review is prejudiced because it refuses to review chick-lit? They also refuse, on most occasions, to review science-fiction, mystery, or mountain-climbing books.

    You write in a genre, which, by definition adheres to a set of rules. The Times Book Review, when it reviews fiction, usually avoids anything assembled within the paint-by-numbers kit of genre. It reviews Updike, Roth, and Zadie Smith. You simply aren’t in their league, kiddo.

    Also, the opening to your new book sounds like a real snoozer. But congratulations for having the wit to emulate Jane Austen – that’s NEVER been done before! Good work!

  • Jennifer Lyon // Jul 8, 2005 at 5:16 pm

    Great essay! Everything you’ve said here is even more true for women writers of color (unless it’s one of the big names like Maya Angelou or Toni Morrison), lesbian writers, and other minorities.

  • Noel Chambers // Jul 8, 2005 at 9:29 pm

    So the fact that the NYT’s Book Review section not lavishing attention on, say, “Citizen Girl,” is a cause for alarm? Really? Having read the first fifty pages of that book while sitting on a beach, I would think it would be the other way around. (And that’s not even touching the rape comparison, which I’m sure you are beginning to regret.) I don’t actually disagree with everything you said, but the NYT generally reviews certain type of books. (Although I don’t agree with that Romance part. Is there actually a Romance novelist worth reviewing in serious way? Just wondering. And no, Diana Gabaldon does not count–she’s a terrible writer.) If those books aren’t the type you happen to read, then why buy the Book Review? As someone above said, they also don’t review a lot of other genres. When I wanted to find out if “Altered Carbon” by Richard Morgan–an award-winning scifi book–was worth reading, I didn’t run right to the NYT, why should you?

  • Booksquare // Jul 8, 2005 at 10:02 pm

    While I’m not Lauren (she’s taller and better looking), I didn’t read the rape thing as a comparison, but can see how some might. But that is beside the point of what she wrote. And I do believe it’s an important topic.

    Do I think the New York Times should review a broader range of fiction? Yes. Including genre fiction. Genre readers tend to be voracious, and while some adhere closely to their favorite genre, many others read broadly. Book review sections in newspapers are becoming increasingly irrelevant — my circle includes readers of all stripes (and all are in the prime demographic from a purchasing perspective; publishers want to reach my friends), and not one of them looks to the Los Angeles Times Book Review for information about books. It doesn’t speak to them. These are people who buy books, read them, talk about them, encourage others to buy them. You want to engage this group of people.

    I’m not sure what audience the LA Times is trying to reach, but, in my experience, it’s producers who want free copies of books, thinking they might option them. That’s not a great way for authors to make money, though some hit the jackpot, and that’s a great thing indeed. We won’t discuss how this is the last good thing that happens to a book’s author when a movie studio comes calling. Far too gruesome for this discussion.

    Why should broader, more relevant content matter? Because advertising revenue is shrinking for newspapers. They don’t make money off circulation; it’s advertising. One must be pragmatic — non-revenue generating sections are likely to be cut first. Given its location, I would imagine the NYTBR breaks even or, at the very least, contributes to its upkeep through advertising. Other dedicated sections likely don’t. If book review sections don’t draw readers, they’re going to be cut.

    I’m in favor of art for art’s sake, but the truth of the matter is that literary fiction does not pay the bills at publishing houses. Publishing is no longer a gentleman’s pastime. Writers do not have rich patrons subsidizing their work (though many of us are more than willing to accept this sort of arrangement). If the numbers are right, more books must be sold or publishers will have to choose between profit and art. Guess what won’t win?

    It is in the literary community’s interest to stop creating false divides and accept that writers range from Wharton to Pynchon to Roberts to Heinlein to Southern to [name your favorite author here]. We have different perspectives, stories, approaches, goals. There is no right to writing, and what you (whoever you might be) consider to be high art, someone else is going to consider garbage. Thus it’s all worthy of consideration and being treated with respect. It might not speak to you, but it spoke to someone (and, if the work is published and selling, more than one someone).

    And getting back on topic, yes, I do think Citizen Girl should have been considered by the NYTBR. The authors were spectacularly successful in creating a sub-genre (though not one I find interesting, personally), and, though I’ve read conflicting thoughts on their follow-up, a critical look at this book — and whether The Nanny Diaries was a fluke or not — is a fascinating topic. This is good literary discussion for many reasons.

    Would this happen? As Noel Chambers notes, the NYT is a bit set in its ways. This is why Lauren and I agree that there needs to be a serious alternative. We both have a bias toward women’s fiction (mine particularly informed by a childhood of reading classics by men and focused on males — what happened to my side of the story, especially from a historical perspective?). There are absolutely romance and women’s fiction authors worth serious review. While Diana Gabaldon writes overlong and sometimes overmuch, the fact remains that her books appeal to a wide range of readers, including men. It begs the question of what good writing really is. I can’t read Updike — his voice leaves me cold even as I can appreciate his technical skill. When I want to get lost in a book, technical skill isn’t a motivating factor — story and voice are.

  • Lauren Baratz-Logsted // Jul 9, 2005 at 8:27 am

    Booksquare, since I’m only 4’11, I doubt I’m taller than you and let’s just agree we’re equally good-looking.

    A couple of posters here don’t appear to have read my words closely and while I don’t have a problem with that, it is problematic that they don’t seem to be aware of the contents of the newspaper they are defending. The NYTBR doesn’t review much genre? They review tons of genre. They have two whole regular features: Crime, written by Marilyn Stasio; Sci-Fi & Fantasy, for years written by Newgate Callendar and now written, I think, by Gerald Jones. In fact, the only major genre that is not represented with a regular feature is Romance. Anyone can sit here and point fingers at others: “I don’t read Sci-Fi, so why should I care about that?” “I stopped reading mysteries because life’s scary enough.” “Romance sucks.” The truth is, I’ve said it, Booksquare has said it, that when it comes to books – whether literary or genre – some examples of each are good or great, and some blow. But when the ostensible great liberal paper, the Times, has regular features on certain genres but not others – and the genre they leave out is one written primarily by women – maybe it doesn’t make you wonder, but it certainly makes me wonder. And the elitist argument that the Times simply does not sully itself with such inferior stuff doesn’t wash either since books is the only area this divide exists in, i.e., when it comes to movies, you are just as likely to see – sometimes even on the same page – reviews for Pacino as Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” and reviews for “Beavis and Butthead XXXIII.”

  • ding // Jul 9, 2005 at 8:44 am

    i used to read chick lit. really. i even enjoyed it. then, it palled. it was the same no matter who i read (and the basic misreading of jane austen and her genre just made my english phd brain shudder.)

    it’s the sameness of chick lit that prevents it from entering so-called ‘high art’ or literary art. sure, there are good, engaging chick lit books out there, but come on. there’s never any change, either in perspective, voice or story. and to compare chick lit authors to ‘marginalized’ voices – please. i’ve never read such a mainstream, conventional, white genre in my life.

    yes, is there room for the nyt or the nyrb to review other types of literature? absolutely. i’d love to see the nytbr actually review some really excellent graphic novels out there but i won’t hold my breath.

    literary history has shown that so-called low art will not disappear nor be ignored; pulp, penny novellas, comics, romance novels, horror, sci-fi (even the ‘literary’ ones) have an immense influence on our culture. but i’m not sure that, because they have such a hold on our every day reading habits, that’s a valid reason why all genre distinctions (and distinctions about value) should disappear. there ARE such things as good books and really bad books. unfortunately, because the genre relies on such a tight formula (and since the genre first appeared quality has mostly tanked) most chick lit falls into the latter. they may be amusing, and may even speak to a portion of feminine experience (not mine, but i always preferred the brontes for models for feminine behavior) but they’re not… very good.

    but, um, this post got a mention on bookslut. nice:

  • Dee J // Jul 9, 2005 at 1:22 pm

    — I’m in favor of art for art’s sake, but the truth of the matter is that literary fiction does not pay the bills at publishing houses. Publishing is no longer a gentleman’s pastime.

    Firstly, literary fiction, does pay many of its bills, or have your failed to notice the likes of DeLillo, Morrison, McEwan, Franzen, Atwood, Munro or John Irving or the hundreds of other authors whose work is read avidly and in hardcover. For every one of these big stars an editor has to take a chance on an unknown. Sometimes you get a Foer Safran, sometimes you get a flop which is pulped. Sometimes it takes several tries before an author breaks out and finds her audience (in any genre).

    Whether you like the above authors or not, they sell. I don’t like all of them. Some I think are downright bad and their success mystifies me. I deliberately chose this mix to show the diversity of successful literary authors. (Though literary publishing from where I come from is still largely dominated by English, white and male authors) These writers may not sell like Steven King, but they do ok by their houses. The market is competitive and many chick-lit novels get banished to remainder tables and then to the recycling bin along with the literary novels that fail in the market. Harlequinn is having a hard time reaching audiences. Marvel Comics is having a hard time selling comics. EVERYONE is having a hard time due to the massive choice within the market.

    Secondly, ‘chick-lit’ is not synonymous with ‘fiction authored by women’.

    Dee J.

  • Booksquare // Jul 9, 2005 at 2:59 pm

    Speaking for myself, I don’t equate chicklit with fiction authored by women, though I am macabre enough to see the irony of the thought. When it comes down to it, labels are marketing decisions.

    The first point of Lauren’s article was that the New York Times strongly favors books by men and male reviewers. Her second point was that it was time to create a viable alternative for women’s fiction — not just chicklit. She clearly indicated that there’s a wide spectrum of fiction being ignored by the so-called paper of record. There isn’t a place where writing by women — and I again, I mean the full spectrum, not just literary, not just romance — is discussed openly and intelligently.

    Some literary authors (and I’m a bit bothered by that description because of the arbitrariness of labels — once, a friend referred to her work as half-lit because she stradles labels) probably do earn back their publisher’s investment in them, but everything I’ve read indicates these are the exception (my background happens to be in entertainment finance on various levels, so I have a very good understanding of the economics involved in the acquistion and distribution of various media, including books. It’s not pretty.). For example, romance novels comprise approximately 50% of total mass market sales. Mystery comprises another large percentage. I think of all the major genres, science fiction/fantasy is the smallest (though finding accurate sales information is difficult). Publishers traditionally throw a lot of product into the market and hope something sticks — but sales of straight literary fiction are not paying the bills. We all have something to say about The DaVinci Code, but the book’s success has funded a lot of other authors.

    That’s how the business works, and publishing is a notoriously inefficient business. There are no guarantees, even when you think you have a surefire hit. It will be interesting to see if The Historian rises above the crowd — there’s certainly enough buzz within literary circles and the publisher is putting a lot of muscles behind the book, but will that translate to mass sales? It was reviewed in this week’s NYTBR — will that matter? After all, this title is essentially going head-to-head with Harry Potter.

  • Lauren Baratz-Logsted // Jul 10, 2005 at 3:50 am

    Booksquare is doing such a good job running with the ball that I’ll just interrupt to say its Safran Foer, not the other way around, Jonathan Safran Foer.

  • Anon // Jul 10, 2005 at 6:13 am

    The problem is the essay is way too long and not welll written and so the points that are valid are lost in the rhetoric and the self promo. The rape comment can’t be ignored it’s in there.

  • Katie // Jul 10, 2005 at 8:57 pm

    I hold in my hand a novel by the award-winning Ashland Prince, author of “Captive Conquest,” “Autmn Angel,” and “Cajun Caress.” This particular novel that I’m holding, however, is entitled “Viking Rose,” about the intense, throbbing passion that ignites between a spirited Irish maiden and a fearless Viking raider. I can’t be positive, but I would be willing to bet Ms. Price did not read a review for this work in the New York Times Book Review. Is it because she’s a woman? No. It’s because she’s written a piece of crap.

    The complaint that the female voice is silent in the NYTBR seems logical to me, but the use of the examples of romance novels and chick-lit seem to explain its absence. Avid readers of romance novels don’t need distinguished literary critics to analyze the diction of “He’d spied the very fires of Hell burning in her livid eyes, yet her voice was now as dulcet as freshly laden honey,” just as readers or would-be readers of chick-lit novels can probably determine, without the help of the Times, that wacky hijinks are going to keep the main character and her paramour apart until the last page. As Ding pointed out earlier, these are two genres that rely on formula and rarely translate into lasting art.

    When I listen to the silence, I do not hear the conniving bastards at the New York Times smoking cigars and muttering that a woman’s place is in the home. I hear an absence of quality contemporary literature written by a female. And somehow I don’t think that Ms. Baratz-Logsted’s upcoming novel is going to fill that void.

    P.S. The rape comment was more than a little dicey, and paraphrasing Martin Luther King Jr. when you’re talking about, of all things, CHICK-LIT, is downright moronic. You might be taken a little more seriously if you didn’t resort to the speechwriting tactics that kids who run for SGA treasurers in middle schools think to be brilliant.

  • Booksquare // Jul 10, 2005 at 10:18 pm

    Ah, c’mon Katie, if we’re gonna play, let’s play fair. I’m not going to guess why you have, at hand, a book by Ashland Price (yeah, you tried to fool me by mistyping the last name (g)), but I’m going to suggest that picking the worst of any genre is like shooting fish in a barrel (but can we at least pick something from this century and name the award? I’m an award-winning author…). There is a lot of crap published in the romance genre. There is a lot of crap published under the banner of chicklit. Likewise mystery/crime, science fiction, fantasy, Westerns, literary, and children’s fiction. I don’t have to look far for equally egregious, overwritten examples.

    We’re arguing here for serious, critical consideration of work. I believe such consideration will lead to better works — the lack of serious consideration will lead to continued complacency, especially on the part of authors. I’ve said (in response to comments to another post) that I don’t believe there is a conspiracy, and I don’t believe the NYT is going to change its policy. I also believe that is a mistake because ignoring all forms of fiction alienates readers and subscribers. But that’s not my problem.

    As for formula… Yeah, romance follows a certain structure. So does mystery. So do sonnets. And haiku. Also architecture. It ain’t the bones, it’s how you connect them. Spend some time trying to write haiku, good haiku, then tell me that formula makes it easier. I’ll respect you more than I can say because I cannot write to the romance “formula” any more than I can write haiku. Not built that way and it’s not as easy as it look. Trust me. Or not — give it a shot yourself.

    I won’t argue the political correctness of language or the line where it’s acceptable to use certain analogies. I will ask you, seriously, if there’s something moronic about books dealing with rape, addiction, parents with addictions, identity, eating disorders, or even death. Because those are topics covered by chicklit (at least the chicklit in my possession). Sure, there’s a lot of less serious subject matter — surviving on low paying jobs, figuring out where one fits in the world. realizing that one must compromise ideals for reality — covered by chicklit, but I understand that not every author does this well.

    Chicklit, like other fiction (including romance), explores the human condition We as critical readers have been taught to discount the female experience. If you doubt me, go back and review the male writers you studied versus the female writers. Was Dickens better than Austen? Better than Wharton? Who was taught more?

    I don’t believe there’s a lack of quality contemporary literature written by females; I believe there’s a lack of variety in what’s being reviewed. And (setting aside all of my ingrained elitism — and there’s plenty!), I believe this does a serious disservice to readers because it alienates them.

    I want someone to convince me that I’m wrong or misguided. So far nobody has addressed the actual points discussed by me or Lauren. Stop picking at the edges and talk about the issue. You want to write a rebuttal to Lauren’s post (without ad hominem attacks — that’s my job)? Do it. Submit it. Justify your position. Offer an alternative. I’m willing to look at all sides of an issue.

  • ding // Jul 10, 2005 at 11:28 pm

    a serious rebuttal arguing what?
    literary value? the absence of radical feminine voices in mainstream venues? the value of chick lit v. literary fiction? what makes art and what makes commercial pap? all of these are related to why chick lit doesn’t get props the way you think it should.

    (and as for it exploring the human condition, i think chick lit is a story of white, upper/middle class experience. it’s *a* human condition but please don’t pass it off as universal.)

    ok, here’s my argument: chick lit doesn’t deserve a special place in literary reviews – not because it’s chick lit but because it doesn’t do anything new or noteworthy with the form. like a haiku or a sonnet, the genre’s rules are tight. i write haiku; however, i don’t think my funny little haikus are just as good as classic haiku written by artists centuries ago. (or even by real crafting poets today.) why? because i just stick to the form without ever playing inside of it.

    in the same way, chick lit (not literary fiction written by women) fails to play within its form. it fails to challenge either the rules of the genre or the readers’ own expectations. it fails to engage on any level other than what it is – it fails to transcend itself which is what literary fiction aspires to. (i say aspire because i acknowledge not every project is successful.)

    in my view, when the big literary magazines take on genre books the books they’ve chosen (though they may not be literary fiction) at least attempt to transcend their genre – in some way. (will they start reviewing more women authors, period? well, who’s to say when sexism will end?) when chick lit transcends its own built in limitations, i daresay a reviewer will notice.

    (perhaps the first step will be to stop calling it ‘chick lit.’ it diminishes female experience to a youthful fad.)

    i don’t think anyone here is discounting feminine experience; i think that, for most women who are critical of the chick lit genre, we’re discounting the version of feminine experience chick lit espouses.

  • ananke // Jul 11, 2005 at 12:56 am

    I’ve gotta agree with the point that a dearth of seriously-reviewed chicklit is not equal to discrimination. I agree it exists and isn’t confined to the reviews but to publishing but please, for the love of all that’s holy, get a sense of proportion. Hyperbole is all well and good (admittedly it hasn’t got much of a place in an essay but, well, ue what you need) but comparing un-reviewed Chicklit to rape? And chicklit itself to civil rights?

    Totally and utterly disrespectful, unwarranted and plain offensive.

    Writing by women is not equal to chicklit, so your essay falls apart there. Bemoan the lack of womens writing reviewed in serious lit publications! Please! Don’t bring chicklit into it because it’s all too similar to asking why the Movie Show and Roger Ebert aren’t reviewing Sailor Moon Series 17. Totally ridiculous and devaluing the point entirely. Chicklit, despite the name, is not literature. It’s penny-dreadfulls with pink covers, wacky hijinks and ever-so-quirky heroines.

  • K. McCandless // Jul 11, 2005 at 3:10 am

    Leaving aside the whole question of whither Chicklit, I think the reason Hunt’s second novel got slammed so hard was because she was originally supposed to be a literary novelist. The second coming of Lorrie Moore. To move into genre fiction now smacks of cynicism.

    Yes, I know. Writers should have the freedom to move around, to experiment, blah blah blah. Still, the whole effect would be like if Foer’s next book is a private eye mystery in Los Angeles, 1950.

  • Booksquare // Jul 11, 2005 at 8:03 am

    Ding — you may have written the first comment that pushes this discussion forwared, and I thank you for it. Lauren’s essay posited that the time has come for a review publication that explores all avenues of fiction written by women (or women’s fiction, as it’s easier to type). Chicklit happens to be the genre she writes in (again, I will state that labels are a marketing construct, not necessarily a true gauge of the contents of a book), however, it’s not where she reads exclusively.

    In yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, the dedicated book review section reviewed three titles by women authors (including George Sand). Five of the reviews were written by women (including the review of the female authors). This does not come anywhere close to representing the breadth of fiction (or even non-fiction). This particular section is bizarrely weighted toward non-fiction — I say bizarrely considering the audience.

    This isn’t about chicklit — it wasn’t ever, really. It’s about discussing all aspects of women’s fiction. Now as for chicklit failing to transcend its (nascent — we have to be realistic and acknowledge that the form is relatively new on the literary scene) genre, how do you or I know for sure? I don’t have a trusted resource to help me find outstanding examples, and, given my reading schedule (which ranges from heavy to burdensome), I don’t have a lot of time to sift through every title on the shelf. I am asking for something that major newspapers and other review journals won’t give me.

    I would suggest that if you believe that chicklit is just the white woman’s experience, you need to look further. I know a lot of black female authors who are working within the genre — to varying degrees of success. They would argue this issue differently because they would also note that their fiction is further marginalized by virtue of being shelved separately from other women’s fiction (not every store does this, but a lot do). Most readers don’t know that this fiction exists — meaning these stories aren’t reaching a wider audience.

    I believe that authors, like everyone else, grow complacent. Their editors want to replicate previous successes; their readers are not always comfortable with accepting change. It’s a fact that chicklit speaks to a large audience, whether or not it reflects your personal experience (it doesn’t mine). It’s also a fact that a lot of the books written by women are being ignored by major review publications. Not every book is worthy of review, but I would argue (as Lauren said) that seriously discussing the bad of any genre is important.

  • K. McCandless // Jul 11, 2005 at 8:23 am

    To be honest, I really do hate the term “Chicklit”. However, if that’s the term we’re going to use, then why isn’t Envy, by Kathryn Harrison, (also reviewed in the LA Times book section) considered part of the genre? It’s about a woman, written by a woman and it seems to be looking at a relationship between a man and a woman.

  • Susan Gable // Jul 11, 2005 at 10:26 am

    Ding said: (and as for it exploring the human condition, i think chick lit is a story of white, upper/middle class experience. it’s *a* human condition but please don’t pass it off as universal.)

    Okay, so Roots doesn’t pass your test for universal, either. It was about the black brought-to-USA-as-slaves-and-their-descendents human experience. Gee, that’s not universal, and it’s certainly not my experience, so I guess I shouldn’t have been able to get something from that story.

    I wrote a (gasp) romance novel that explored the issues of organ transplants and losing a child. What emotions came out of that experience for both characters? That’s a human condition, but it most certainly isn’t a *universal* human condition. In fact, I know at least one mom of a transplant child who just couldn’t bear to finish my book because it was too MUCH of her own personal human experience. In other words, more of my readers had NOT had the actual experiences (and thank goodness for that) that I was writing about, and yet, they were able to take something from the book.

    I read books that feature soldiers (never been a soldier), doctors (never been a doctor) and serial killers (never been one of those, either.) You do not have to directly experience something to gain from reading a book about the experience. In fact, I dare say, that’s the value of a book, right there. They allow us to gain insights and even compassion about experiences we’ve never had.

    That’s actually one of the reasons I like to write the types of stories I do. I like to throw in some kind of contemporary social issue – because I want to explore how that actually IMPACTS someone’s life. Someone’s emotions. Take it from a headline on a news program to an actual human experience. (“Organ transplant waiting list grows even longer, clip at eleven” to sitting at the bedside with a loved one, waiting for the news that a heart has been found, and that your good fortune means someone else’s tragedy – someone else has died so that your loved one can live. And yeah, I did that within the bounds of a romance novel.)

    Ding said: chick lit (not literary fiction written by women) fails to play within its form. it fails to challenge either the rules of the genre or the readers’ own expectations.

    It’s one thing to sometimes push the boundries on a genre (and how you can know which ones push without reading them boggles me.), or slightly challenge your readers’ expections but it’s totally another to fail to live up to your readers’ expectations. When you do that, they don’t buy your books again. A murder mystery where they never solve the murder would totally tick me off as a reader. Tick me off badly enough and I don’t buy another book by that author.

    And frankly, I’d rather keep my loyal readers than bring in a small handful of “new converts” to my genre because I colored so far outside their normal expectations.

    *That* is why genre fiction is generally more of a commercial success than literary fiction is.

    The need for story to help us make sense of our lives, the universe around us, our emotions, is a deep human need. It goes back to the days around the campfire. (Thank you, Jenny Cruisie.) Jenny once said that the world doesn’t need more people to craft a perfect sentence. We need storytellers. People who go into the darkness and shed light. People who bring back the treasure, the things that help us understand and believe and have hope.

    I make no apologies for what I write. For the HEA that I provide in my stories. I want to read hopeful stuff.

    Booksquare said: I believe that authors, like everyone else, grow complacent. Their editors want to replicate previous successes; their readers are not always comfortable with accepting change.

    Some of the problem comes from people actually trying to pay the bills by doing this. Yes, sometimes these books get “cranked” out by writers rushing toward too many deadlines – so they can pay their bills. And there is nothing wrong with wanting to pay the bills – all the other people involved in writing as a business, from the CEO’s of the publishing companies all the way down to the receptionist and the mailroom clerk of the publishing companies, to the agents, they ALL expect to make enough of a living to pay their bills. And yet, that’s becoming harder and harder for your working writer. (In fact, one higher up of a publishing company recently told a roomful of his writers that they should no longer expect to make a living as a writer. Well, why not, when everyone else does?? We’re supposed to be hobbyists who hold down other jobs to pay the bills? Tell the editors that. “Sorry, editors, but we’re cutting your salaries again. We know you LOVE what you do so much, so please, go out, get another job to pay the bills, and continue editing books on the side because you love it.” Oh, and it was a roomful of women, and I am willing to bet it wouldn’t have been said to a roomful of male writers – because I’m sure they would have reacted to a statement like that, challenged it.)

    Yes, the editors want to replicate the success they see around them. So does the rest of the entertainment industry, from tv (If I see one more new reality type show, I’m throwing the tv out the damn window!) and movies. Remade movies abound this summer. (sigh)

    Yes, that does get old quickly. But unless an author is willing to sit around until all the planets aliegn correctly, then they need another book sold and released – to keep the career moving, to keep the bills paid.

    I agree that discussing the bad of a genre can help. Lord knows that there are enough romance novels out there that I won’t read because they’re badly written or they just don’t work for me. Yes, there is junk. But there’s junk in literary fiction, too.

  • Lauren Baratz-Logsted // Jul 11, 2005 at 12:30 pm

    I for one am thrilled with the diversity of voices contributing to this discussion. I’m often asked when interviewed what my goals are with my work. I always answer, “If it’s a comedy, I have to make the reader laugh. And, no matter what I’m writing, I need to make the reader think.” Well, by those standards, my essay here was a success: I’ve made you laugh (even if some of you are laughing at me!) and I’ve made you think (even if what you’re thinking is, “Wow, she’s a jerk”). And the coments of everyone else here have sometimes made me laugh – sometimes in appreciation, sometimes in frustration – but all of them have made me think and for that I thank you.

  • Pam // Jul 12, 2005 at 6:15 am

    What I think is the real issue here is categorizing books correctly. There are many chick lit books unfortunately, that have given rise to this stereotype of fluff. You can usually tell by the cover and blurb, exactly what you’re getting. These books are not going to win any literary awards. But, sometimes fluff is good, and these books are ‘comfort reads’.

    The tricky part, the unfair part, is when a book that does verge on literary, that is well written, that is different, that has something to say, is marketed as chick lit. A pink cover is slapped on the book, and off it goes into chick lit territory. There are many of these books, and these are the ones that are worthy of NYTimes recognition, but because of the pink cover, and the chick lit marketing push, they may fail to reach much of their audience.

  • Pam // Jul 12, 2005 at 6:22 am

    To add onto my previous post…..the most unfair thing of all, is the perception that this second category, the well written, almost literary book, cannot be accepted as chick lit. The message that has been sneeringly handed down by the literary types such as the book headed by Elizabeth Merrick, called THIS IS NOT CHICK LIT, is that if it’s good, it can’t be Chick lit, because Chick lit isn’t good. So, if it is marketed as Chick lit then it cannot be good.

    It is interesting, because all other genres have literary writers within the genre. But, this is not assumed to be the case with Chick Lit. I think it’s a jealousy thing more than anything else, which is clearly evident from the Elizabeth Merrick book above. Chick lit sells, and that must mean it is of poor quality, that all Chick Lit books are ‘written to formula’.

    The only way really to defend against this, is to just keep writing quality books, and selling them. And to hope that the only people really influenced by these elitist opinions, are other writers. I trust that readers are more intelligent in choosing what they want to read.

  • Lauren Baratz-Logsted // Jul 12, 2005 at 10:10 am

    Someone posted this on just a little while ago:

    So it looks like, if I’m seeing shadows, well, a few other people are seeing those shadows with me.

    And, Pam, just a hunch, but I don’t think This Is Not Chick Lit will get the last word.

  • William Lexner // Jul 12, 2005 at 9:32 pm

    The horrific truth that no one seems to want to utter aloud is the unfaceable truth that on the whole, men are better writers than women.

    I point to The Telegraphs list of Top 50 Books by Female Authors:;$sessionid$C1LPU2QPSWWOLQFIQMGSFF4AVCBQWIV0

    There are true works of magnificence on this list. Furthermore, there are hundreds of other books by females worthy of merit. Some of my favorite authors are women, but Atwood, Le Guin, and Proulx are exceptions to the rule.

    Yet, I suggest off the top of your head, you list the top 50 novels you have read by men. Not of all time, simply those you have READ. The male list will eclipse this one within the first few minutes of your compiliation. There’s a reason for this phenomena.

    Women tend to think about people, while men tend to think about ideas. (yes, a generalization) Until a female author transcends character studies and says something worthy of the paper her novel is printed upon, she’ll not be considered for reviews. (nor should a character study be considered anything but a sketch next to a novel of ideas which is the true final masterpiece) Miserly truth indeed, and I’m certain to be flamed for typing the truth you all find impolitic.

    That’s ok, I can handle the fallout.

  • ding // Jul 12, 2005 at 9:44 pm

    i’m not saying a book has to totally turn into italo calvino. i hate italo calvino. if a romance novel i’m reading suddenly goes postmodern, yeah, that would piss me off.

    but writers like eloisa james, jennifer cruisie and julia quinn get attention (and reviewed) because they add something to their genre. (and, see? i’ve even read them. all of their books, actually.) but they are the exceptions, aren’t they? that’s all i’m saying – the majority of chick lit books don’t do that.

    and as for the life of the artist torn between aesthetics and the need to pay the bills…i hear you. really. historically, that’s the reason women became authors – aphra behn needed to pay the bills so she banged out some sentimental fiction and the first major female novelist was born. it’s what we do. as for universality… i don’t believe in it. i believe everything created in art, even a romance, comes from a particular social condition that’s informed by our very specific subject positions in society – our ethnicity, our class, our region, our education, our gender, our sexuality. ‘Roots’ is about as universal as ‘Gone With the Wind’.

  • Booksquare // Jul 12, 2005 at 11:01 pm

    William, I’m going to say upfront that I was hesitant to approve your post. Not because you were deliberately provocative, but because I don’t believe that you can handle the fallout. I’m basing this on the evidence you presented.

    A (male) friend asked me not to address comments of this nature because it is, as he said, like shooting fish in a barrel. Such deliberate cruelty is, according to him, beneath me. While I disagreed (only because contentiousness makes me happy), I know him to be right.

    And you to be full of it — as you well know. P.S. – please explain how my list of male authors will eclipse the Telegraph list. In detail. Because I’m not getting your train of thought.

  • William Lexner // Jul 12, 2005 at 11:46 pm

    Deliberately provocative?

    Exactly. But then, the comparison of rape and book reviews was not?

    See, I didn’t begin the discrimination. As an avid reader, I judge each and every novel or collection on its own literary merits. The sex of the author is a complete non-issue.

    The problem only arises when people fail to see past sex and judge books by the authors genitalia. You didn’t approve when I did it, and I don’t approve of you judging NY Times reviews by which novels they push based upon a dangly or lack thereof.

    You are claiming sexism while deliberately practicing the same despicable decay of thought. Whether you feel you are on the ‘correct side’ of this bias game or not, is not pertinent to the issue. The only argument made was that there were not enough books reviewed in the New York Times by authors who posessed vaginas. Merit never entered into the picture, and as such, you are just as woefully guilty of the sexism you only suspect exists at the Times.

    Perhaps there was never a conscious effort to review the same percentage of women as men because the editorial staff is not so ignorant as to judge human beings or works of art in such a divisive manner.

  • neva // Jul 14, 2005 at 1:05 am

    i think my major problem, among other things, is that ms. baratz-logsted’s essay just smacks of self-promotion and personal interest. The way it was written notwithstanding, I get the feeling that the thesis statement is:

    “I’m mad that I wasn’t reviewed by NYTBR! Wait, hey, it turns out that other chick-lit authors aren’t reviewed there as well. Maybe I could use this issue to get back at NYTBR! Take that, NYTBR!”

    I read the essay thrice because I do agree with some points. But I can’t quite get behind Ms. Logsted because it reads like a personal whine hiding behind a legitimate cause.

    And yes, NYTBR SHOULD review other genres as well, like chick-lit, but how about teaming up with other chick lit authors instead and write a collective statement to be published in major brodsheets, or something like that? If Ms. Baratz-Logsted is REALLY serious about this cause, that is.

  • neva // Jul 14, 2005 at 1:29 am

    i would also like to add that the essay was really hard (not hard to understand, but just tortuous) to read, what with all the inappropriate allusions to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech and disturbingly careless reference of the term “rape.”

    for the record, i have read 2 of ms. logsted’s novels (think pink line and crossing the line), and in my humble opinion, sorry to say, they aren’t representative of the better-written ones. I think this fact has also contributed in my skepticism re: her essay. that’s why it seems to me that this essay was written primarily to bring attention to her works.

  • Lauren Baratz-Logsted // Jul 14, 2005 at 7:14 am

    I got curious about my own reading habits, so I went through my reading journal. So far, of the 202 titles I’ve read thus far this year, 114 are by women, 88 are by men; of the 31 I gave stars to, 14 are by women, 17 are by men.

  • Kay // Jul 15, 2005 at 9:40 am

    How much Lad Lit outside of Nick Hornby is reviewed? I would argue that the lack of reviews is because of the basic lack of quality books, rather than the gender of the author.

    Ding and Katie have basically made this case and I don’t need to elaborate except for one small, telling detail. On the Red Dress Ink website they provide “writing guidelines” for authors interested in submitting proposals. One guideline is: “Shaken, not stirred: Predictability is not your friend. So shake it up. Put your heroine in some inspired and crazy circumstances. Give her quirky characteristics. (Maybe even a job that’s not in publishing). Innovate, don’t imitate.”

    If a publisher has to tell people specifically what type of job not to give their protagonist, you know you’re not dealing with high art.

    (On a personal note: I read all types of fiction including chick-lit. Many chick-lit books are enjoyable; all of them are forgettable.)

  • Anonymous // Jul 15, 2006 at 9:26 am

    Chick Lit is not reviewed because it is not linguistically interesting or challenging. I’ve read plenty of chick lit (for work) and plenty of literature (for pleasure) and I must say, the simple truth is that romance and chick lit genre writing is not masterly. The prose is not playful and intelligent and evocative and difficult and careful. Not at all. The prose, when it is not intentionally purple, is written to be ignored. The plot is where the emotional life of the chick lit novel exists, not the language.

    I’m not saying all literature is masterly either. But it strives to be.

    It needs to be said that books marketed as commercial fiction are meant to be read quickly. The commercial fiction reader returns to the book store a day or a week later, and buys another quick, easily digestable read. The book industry survives on this model of publishing. I’m not saying that’s good or bad, I’m just saying: romance and chick lit are not meant to be literary and they are not. They are meant to be read quickly and easily. The pleasant experience of reading them is then supposed to spur the reader to buy more books of that type.

    So to compare any chick lit book to literary fiction is impossible. The very fact that it IS a chick lit book means that it is not literary (i.e. the prose is not high quality, striving to be masterly). To be crying “unfair” is simply preposterous. For a Chick Lit novel to be written in a linguistically bracing and vigorous way means that it is not, by definition, a chick lit novel at all.


  • Anonymous // Jul 15, 2006 at 9:39 am

    I’d like to add on to my last post: I too believe women are underrepresented in the NYTBR, but the answer to better respresentation is not to lower the review standards to include chick lit and romance. Women should not receive the honor of being reviewed in the paper of record simply because they are women. They should be AND SHOULD WANT TO BE held to rigorous standards of reviewing.

    Remember, chick lit lovers, when THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA was unfavorably reviewed in the NYTBR…twice? Now imagine week after week of that, ad infinitum. Sound fun? Sounds like a huge waste of review space to me.


  • Booksquare // Jul 16, 2006 at 2:40 pm

    I doubt Lauren’s checking in on this thread any longer, but since I live here…

    I have to disagree with this comment:

    I’ve read plenty of chick lit (for work) and plenty of literature (for pleasure) and I must say, the simple truth is that romance and chick lit genre writing is not masterly. The prose is not playful and intelligent and evocative and difficult and careful. Not at all.

    Just as with any genre of fiction (including literary), there is good, there is bad, there is absolutely astounding, and there’s dreck. Because so much of how a book is labeled is a marketing decision, it is possible for really excellent books to be passed by simply because they are “genre”. Critical reviewing involves looking, seriously, at the good and bad of all fiction. If we agree that women’s fiction (in this case, fiction written by women) should be held to rigorous standards — and I hold all my reading to such standards, though my taste isn’t always in line with others) — then we need to review women’s fiction rigorously.

    It is egregious that it’s being reviewed in far lower numbers than “men’s” fiction. Whether or not the bias toward males writers is intentional, it does exist.

    As for this:

    So to compare any chick lit book to literary fiction is impossible. The very fact that it IS a chick lit book means that it is not literary (i.e. the prose is not high quality, striving to be masterly).

    I, and others, have argued that Elizabeth Crane’s “All This Heavenly Glory” is chicklit by virtue of subject matter and approach (she, for what it’s worth deplores this label). It is sold as literary fiction. You will have to read it for yourself to decide, but I think it’s a great read (so much so that it made the LitBlog Co-Ops Winter list). I also think it would have found a wider audience if marketed as chicklit — of course, being marketed that way would have destroyed its literary cred. The author was limited by marketing to a specific audience — a different in-house choice would have had different results.

    I know many literary authors, chicklit authors, mystery authors, romance authors, and while I’d agree that not all of them are striving for a masterly tone, I know many who are. There are many authors in this world and very few of them can be truly great. I am firmly against assuming something is less-than-powerful because of its label.

    So what if “The Devil Wears Prada” was unfavorably reviewed by the NYT? How many other books have received unfavorable reviews from that publication? Slamming a book isn’t exclusive to chicklit. For whatever reason — most likely collective schadenfreude — the book resonated with audiences. It resonated with smart, educated people. It didn’t resonate with me, but lots of things don’t. The NYT receives a great many books for review consideration every week and necessarily picks and chooses what to review. It’s not a waste of space to review the good and bad of any genre — it is a disservice, however, to wilfully exclude readers because of pre-conceived notions about what constitutes quality.

    I’ve all but stopped reading the LAT book review section because I can only handle so many reviews of motion picture industry-related books (not to mention the aforementioned bias toward books written by men). The LAT does seem to have an inclination toward non-fiction as well; I don’t read a lot of non-fiction. Given my annual book budget (separate and distinct from the books I get from all types of publishers for review), this editorial bias on the part of the LAT means a lot of books don’t come to my attention.

    And I’m not alone — I find very few people that I know, people who read seriously and frivolous fiction, who consider the LAT book review section as a primary source for learning about books. It could be argued that unread newsprint is as much a waste of space as pages devoted to reviewing books like “Prada.”

  • susan // Jul 18, 2006 at 11:56 am

    Anonymous thinks the distinction between literary fiction and chicklit rests in the former’s “masterly” style. If we’re paying attention to style, it’s an interesting choice of adjective, especially when accompanied by the desire for “vigorous” prose . . . . then again, who doesn’t like a good thrusting sentence?

    Of course, “masterly” style has often been far from self-evident—the Romantics’ idea of good style was quite different from Pope’s, T. S. Eliot’s from Milton’s, etc. In any case, there’s the larger question of whether style is the best or only criterion for judging aesthetic value. It’s only pretty recently that style has seemed so important—post-Nietzsche, Wilde, and Flaubert. What about truth, beauty, sweetness, or usefulness?

    Booksquare rightly points out that there are stylistically innovative chicklit novels, just as there are detective and sci-fi novels. And you can argue, as booksquare does, that some chicklit novels should be reviewed by the NYTBR because of their brilliant prose style. More radically, though, you could ask questions about the criteria the reviewers in the NYTBR use to evaluate and define fiction/literature/literariness. Aesthetic judgments are always tied up in questions that go beyond the aesthetic, and involve larger judgments about what’s good, worthwhile, beautiful, significant, valuable, etc., which can be—and frequently have been—inflected by gender. To say that ideas are more important than people, as a previous commenter did (“some of my favourite authors are women”), is not a purely aesthetic judgement.

    It seems more productive to try and open up these debates about value within existing cultural institutions than to start a new journal, as the original post suggested. In fact there IS a Women’s Review of Books that’s been going for over 20 years. Depressingly, these “alternate spheres” gestures don’t seem to have had enough impact on mainstream cultural institutions. And they seem a bit eighties—not in a leggings way; just a dated way.

    The paradox, I think, is that places like the NYTBR act as cultural gatekeepers, defining what counts as “good” literature—but if we all agreed on what counted as good literature, there would be little point in reviews or in the NYTBR itself.

  • Emily Alward // May 22, 2007 at 6:28 pm

    Very interesting discussion, but it all dates from 1 to 2 years ago. (Not that Much has changed in the NYTimes’ reviewing practices, I’ll warrant.

    I’m mentioning this because Booksquare looks like a worthwhile book-world venue, and the news notes on the site (S & S, for example) seem up to date, but I’m puzzled about why the two are paired. Or did I just stumble onto the particular text above because I was trolling Google for book reviewing info.? I don’t know whether to subscribe to Booksquare or not.

    Emily Alward

  • Kassia Krozser // May 22, 2007 at 7:30 pm

    Yes, Emily — this particular post is going on to two years old (July 2005). If you check out the home page, you’ll see that there’s lots and lots of new stuff on a regular basis.