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The Chick-Lit Debate

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Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing fellow author, Megan Crane, on the release of her fourth book, Names My Sisters Call Me. You can read the full transcript of the interview on Megan's website (www.megancrane.com).

It was during this interview that we touched on the chick-lit debate.

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Liza Palmer:
We were both accosted by a certain Macedonian, pole vaulting creature the other evening at Kristin Harmel's book launch. It was obvious that she looked down her nose (well, she would have to she was 9 feet tall) at our use of humor in novels. Apparently, the Macedonian was a short film maker - and when we politely asked what she made short films about she responded, "DRAMA." Confused, we pressed on, "Like, just conflict? Like car wrecks or something?" And she arrogantly recounted the obviously brilliant flick she had made with a woman rhythmically combing her hair. Seeing our confused faces (faces she most definitely thought were confused because our "little girly books" were just a manifestation of our dim natures) she continued, "Obviously combing the hair is a metaphor for masturbation."

Why is it, do you think, that there is this absolute pecking order in the art world, where someone with short films about hair combing has the clear invitation to put down female writers who have the audacity to tell stories? I mean, why is "chick lit" so universally reviled? And does Chick Lit even mean anything anymore?

Megan Crane: Well, everyone likes to feel superior to someone else. Everyone is a snob about something. So there's that.

I think that when people refer to these novels (by which I mean "chick lit" novels as a whole) as "chick lit" or "women's fiction" they are deliberately being condescending and dismissive. I have a sense that they're using these terms to either categorize and in so doing ghetto-ize the books, or to explain a kind of nauseating retro attitude they think the books display-- women who want only to get married to a hot guy while shoe shopping, etc. This opinion holds sway regardless of whether or not they have actually read any of the novels, of course.

I believe that the entire chick lit genre is unabashedly, gloriously feminist. It tells us that women can make all kinds of different choices, tell all sorts of different tales, and explore life in their own specific and peculiar ways. These are books that tell women's stories-- taking the feminist idea that the personal is political to its obvious conclusion in books that explore, celebrate, and revere the personal. I think the vicious backlash that dismisses the genre as trash is the worst kind of misogyny: these novels must be crap because they are written by and for women, and anything that is by and for women must by definition be crap. Patriarchal thinking in action.

The worst part is that these haters somehow fail to notice that certain wunderkind male writers are producing novels that sure, are brilliant, but would also be marketed as chick lit if they were women. It's frustrating.

Liza Palmer: In all of your books the primary relationships are those between women - friends, sisters, mothers and daughters. What is it about these relationships that are so compelling? I mean, you can dig and dig and dig and never fully plumb the depths of these bonds. Why is that? And why - given how remarkable and fascinating these relationships are - are the books that explore such relationships trivialized with monikers that bring up visions of tiny gum candies.

And does it matter? We talked a little bit before about chick lit and critics, so putting it all together does any of that matter or in the end is it just about you and your reader?

Megan Crane: You know, the funny thing is that Jennifer Weiner has a new book out right now (Certain Girls, which I will be buying this weekend, she is so awesome) and there she is, this powerhouse-- this absolute superstar, this success story-- and she is asked these same questions. Her books are even now being ripped apart on Jezebel. So how worked up can I get about it, waaaaaaay down here in the midlist?

That sounds like I'm very well-adjusted and blasé about it, when in fact, I am not. But it's kind of interesting to watch, that's for sure.

I think that because most women define themselves through their interactions and their sense of community, they are therefore absolutely fascinated by explorations of those communities. I know that I certainly can't get enough of reading about various different, purely female relationships. I'm looking for that thrill of recognition, or that sudden insight. Because these relationships are primal. They're so deep, and complicated, and we can't live without them, and they define us, yet they can be so very hard to navigate. Sometimes they are so incredibly painful. So... how can anyone get to the bottom of them?

And I said it before, but it bears repeating: these books are sneered at and trivialized because they are about women. I don't recall any sneering or rolled eyes when I was handed the fifty-seventh "young man reflects on the tragedies of war" tome in high school. Why? Because stories about young men and their explorations of self and their worlds and their relationships with other men are considered inherently valuable. Men are interesting. Men are worthwhile subjects for fiction. Write about young men and their worlds and you will be feted and congratulated and called a "wunderkind," and no one will call what you write anything but literary. How is a Brett Easton Ellis book any different from, say, a Lauren Weisberger or a Candace Bushnell novel: glossy worlds, jaded protagonists, and all? The only difference is this: books by and about women are perceived, as women are still perceived, to be less than similar books by men. I've been reading about the chick lit controversy for years now, and despite all the hithering and yonning about what's good literature and what's not and elitist snobbery this and commercial crap that and blah blah blah, I think it all boils down to sexism in action, plain and simple. We do not yet live in a world of gender equality, and I think this endless argument proves that. Again and again.

The bottom line for me is the reader. If she cares about my characters, if she gets that rush of recognition or insight, if she laughs or cries or thinks about her world because of something I've written, then I've succeeded. That's what it's all about.

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