I am a fan of a website that delivers on the promise of acting as a kind of "concierge for the brain." And as such, it's called, Head Butler. I count on them to plow through the stacks of popular (and less popular) culture and separate the dross from the gold. More often than not, I follow the Butler's advice immediately. Amazon owes a debt to Jesse Kornbluth, the Butler, himself. I did just that with the back-to-back reviews of Alexandra Lebenthal's novel, "The Recessionistas" and Gail Caldwell's memoir, "Let's Take the Long Way Home." HB made them feel compelling and important; so, good work, Jesse, mission accomplished. But while he admired the book enough to suggest that Balzac would have loved it, the first line of the Lebenthal review caught me:
"It's painful to open a novel categorized as 'Chick Lit.'"
No kidding, I thought. Imagine how it feels when it's your book.
My first novel, "The Season of Second Chances," [To buy it from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.] was published a few months ago. It was the lead book for Henry Holt and one of the Independent Book Sellers' top choices for Spring, and my publishers and I were full of optimism. My early reviews were gratifying and the consumer reviews from the Amazon Vine (pre-publication) readers were all five star.
Except one: "My Chick Lit Loving Wife Hated This Book," read the headline.
Okay, I wanted to respond, I'm sorry that you're disappointed, but it's like trying to blame a hot dog for not being ice cream.
What I didn't see was that the chick-lit argument had landed squarely on my doorstep.
Was "The Season of Second Chances" Chick Lit or not? That, in itself, became the general theme of most reviews, professional and consumer.
"Five stars because it is NOT Chick Lit."
"Zero stars because it is NOT Chick Lit."
What? Who asked for this as a mark of critical analysis?
"The Season of Second Chances" is a story about a middle-aged woman, bright and sharp, closed and guarded, who leaves the anonymity of New York for the intrusions that come with life in a small college town. That she finds a redefinition of feminist values in the restoration of an old house, was not only a metaphor to me, it seemed the literal task at hand, given that a house needs to know how you want to live, if it is going to be capable of becoming a home. My protagonist had no idea how to approach her own inner life, but we watch her learn. It's very domestic. And therein, apparently, lies the trap.
Most critics felt the need to talk about how "surprisingly" intelligent the book was. Their tell-tale phrase: how many "notches above Chick Lit" they deemed the book. Or they registered amazement that a book so domestic in tone might have been intended for -- can you imagine -- educated, intelligent readers.
And it wasn't just the content. The very clever Lizzie Skurnick noted that no matter how well written or smart the book, the fact that it had flowers on the cover would keep it from serious reviews or any prizes. Really? I thought. Flowers? William Morris designs, that are literally contextual to the story, will keep me from serious attention? Even the most academic reviewers grudgingly liked the book, though they were clearly torn about admiring a novel that was, and they always noted, "contemporary and domestic."
Let me suggest that Chick Lit is what we used to call the "Beach Book." And that it is its own genre, like mysteries or sci-fi; interesting to a specific audience primarily because of the nature and form of the genre itself. Some good stuff, some bad, no doubt, as in all genre writing, you come across an Ed McBain every now and then. But crossover is not the point, if the targeted reader simply wants a light little fantasy with some kissing scenes and a few pairs of Jimmy Choos.
Still, if Tom Wolfe had written "The Recessionistas," he would have noted the brands of shoes, the Birkin bags and the personal trainers. And he would have been praised for his attention to detail. That Lebenthal's book or my book were not intended to be seen as Chick Lit, just makes the gulf between books by men and women more personal. At least to me.
But my concern is larger, for the issue is insidious: the way Chick Lit has been used to denigrate a wide swath of novels about contemporary life that happen to be written by women.
If you think it's not affecting our work, not affecting what the publishers are handed, not affecting the legacy we leave for future generations, you're wrong. In The New York Times, the judges of the UK Orange Prize (for women novelists) bemoaned the grim and brutal content offered this year in the submitted manuscripts. Their conclusion: No serious woman writer wanted to be painted with the Women's Lit label, and issues contemporary and domestic, if not presented with violence, are apparently (to academics, to critics and to the general culture -- male and female, alike) seen to have less value.
Most telling, I think, are the attempted "corrections," as those who try to right the misunderstanding of Chick Lit labels on some of our books, slap on another label: "Women's Literature." As opposed to what, Literature?
And then there is the Orange Prize itself, well-meaning, no doubt, in an attempt to offer appeasement for the short-change in status (critical attention, prizes, grants, awards) our culture allows women writers. But for god's sake, a prize for a Woman Writer, as opposed to a REAL Writer?
As one of the characters in my book says about social justice: "They may be very happy to give your team a bus, but don't imagine it will be in the fast lane."
Gail Caldwell is likely to fare somewhat better because the Memoir is still, apparently, high ground. I'm not sure why, exactly. The novel is the memoir of the imagination, after all. Once it's on paper, its all about lives, as real as we can make them for you. And if we --- readers, writers, critics, academics --- don't respect the lives of women who are not snipers or heroine addicts, what does it say about us, men and women of this contemporary and domestic culture?
Diane Meier -- marketing guru, author of "The New American Wedding" and president of MEIER, a NYC based luxury marketing firm -- is married to bestselling author and BBC broadcaster, Frank Delaney. Her first novel, "The Season of Second Chances," was released by Henry Holt this Spring. Find out more at www.dianemeier.com.
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