Gray Lady Lit, And Ladies Who Love It

March 18th, 2005 · 3 Comments
by Booksquare

Guesting over at Beatrice, Jennifer Weiner takes up Ron Hogan’s offer to continue the conversation started last week (or the week before that, we can’t say which week) by Meg Wolitzer. After dismissing her mea culpas without a trace of guilt, Weiner addresses Wolitzer’s faux guilt over deriving pleasure from chicklit. After all, Weiner sometimes picks up titles from a category she calls The Gray Ladies:

Unlike chick lit, which typically arrives swathed in pink with a pair of high heels kicking up on the cover, Gray Lady lit immediately lets you know the gravity of its intentions: Austere fonts announce titles scourged of all whimsy, sometimes pared down to a single, portentous word (Unless, Almost). The covers are moody studies in murky blues and muddy greens, or they’re the red and black and whites of ambulance bays or wartime photography. (When the trade paperback comes, though, it will be tricked out like a forty-year-old crammed into her niece’s Limited tank top, in the hopes of duping readers into thinking that they’re getting a light-hearted good time–I once mistook my former writing professor Joyce Carol Oates’ I’ll Take You There for a Red Dress Ink offering because it had a pair of flower-toting bridesmaids on the cover.) The first sentence will usually confirm all of your fears about what is to follow: “It happens that I am going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now.” (Unless) “I lie in bed these days and watch home movies–a useless exercise, to be sure, but I can’t stop myself.” (Family History)

Heavy-duty issues of the day will be discussed, usually in the first person, and there will be death (often sudden), regret and disappointment (always permanent). At least one character will have cancer. In fact, cancer might comprise the biggest theme of Gray Lady lit. In Motherkind, Jayne Anne Phillip’s heroine has a baby and takes in a mother dying of lung cancer. In She Is Me, both a mother and daughter are stricken, the mother with skin cancer that leaves a suppurating, bad-smelling, gaping hole in her cheek. (I spent seventy-five pages waiting for Cathleen Schine to tell me the family had grown up near Love Canal. No such luck.)

If you want Prince Charming, you’ve come to the wrong shelf, sister. The men of Gray Lady lit are, almost to a one, cads and dodgers, liars and cheats, plagiarists and philanderers. (Luckily, thanks to the death theme, they also have a convenient knack for keeling over.) And if you crave a happy ending, forget about that, too. The best you can get is ambiguity, perhaps tinged with the faint hope of things getting better.

And a good time was had by all. Seriously, if you want to read heavy, depressing stuff (and sometimes you do), go for it. If you want to have a little fun, it’s a free country. There is no need to feel guilt. Now that we’ve settled that, it’s time for authors to stop judging authors based on what emerges from their brains. How dull a world would it be if everyone wrote like Jonathan Safran Foer.

File Under: Books/Mags/Blogs

3 responses so far ↓

  • The Happy Booker // Mar 18, 2005 at 8:22 pm

    Meg is everywhere these days. high visibility at a time when her book has just been released. The gray vs. pink discussion has probably been a good thing, as we’ve all linked to it in the past week. THB

  • booksquare // Mar 19, 2005 at 9:55 am

    If only Meg Wolitzer hadn’t used the word “guilt” — anything but that. Her original post struck me the wrong way (heck, how hard is that?), but then her Salon post fascinated me (ditto!). This may be one of the more interesting publicity blitzes I’ve encountered lately. Hmm, must consider further.

    After coffee!

    Really enjoying your blog, by the way!

  • The Happy Booker // Mar 19, 2005 at 3:21 pm

    sister, I am totally digging your blog AND your design! I am thinking of putting a “meg” site counter on my blog, just to track her–she’s everywhere! but you’ve got to hand it to her… we’re sitting here Meg-talking, and whether she’s right or wrong– or just uptight about her mother!– she’s clearly on our radar.