As author Lynn Harris' second novel, Death by Chick Lit, gets ready to mock both its title genre and its critics, which have seen plenty of action right here, Huffington Post emailed Harris, a frequent contributor to Nerve.com, Salon, and Glamour, about chick lit as a "McFeminist" issue, fighting for a bloody shoe on her cover, and whether Ann Coulter or Elizabeth Wurtzel were more fun to mock.
When and how did you get the idea for Death by Chick Lit?
Pretty much brute-force brainstorming. (Specifically, staring at my Mac one summer day upstate at Camp Kutz, where my husband was teaching for a week. I remember the moment the title hit me -- I got all excited and looked around for someone to tell and the only people around were kids in water wings.) Anyway, I knew from the beginning that I wanted Lola to be solving another mystery in which she had a stake, and I wanted it to flow naturally from the prequel, Miss Media, yet still stand alone. And I knew I wanted to continue in the vein of media satire. Then I thought "Murder: that could be fun." And then I thought, "Which media -- rightly or wrongly -- provoke murderous rage?" It wasn't that far from there to (a) someone's killing successful chick lit authors, and (b) Lola halfway wishes she were next. That's how it's a satire of success and hype and competition in commercial publishing without being a satire of chick lit, per se.
You resurrected Lola from your first satiric novel, Miss Media, as your protagonist/sleuth. What prompted that decision, rather than simply create a new cast of characters?
I stayed with Lola out of a combination of laziness and affection. I didn't feel ready to leave her behind. Same goes for the guy she winds up marrying, and her best friend Annabel, who appeared in Miss Media only via IM. I also didn't feel quite up for starting from square negative-one with a whole new crew─from the level of craft, I mean. So I decided to let the characters I knew so well generate the particulars and the resonance of the mystery. Plus there are a bunch of new people to meet in DBCL. And I'm scheming up some more for the sequel. Tell my agent I'm on it.
Did you do any reading/research, whether of chick lit and/or mysteries and if so, what did you think? Were any particularly inspirational (or galling)?
In DBCL, the primary objects of satire are the publishing business and the ever-gentrifying, mall-ifying city of New York. So I read other books in which the setting of the mystery is the target of the satire, like Carl Hiassen's Skinny Dip, which skewers evil Everglades-destroying developers, and Jennifer Weiner's Goodnight Nobody, a murder mystery set in the perfect Connecticut suburb where all the doors of the houses always have seasonally appropriate wreaths. I tried to learn from books like that how to strike the balance between letting the characters drive the plot -- which is essential -- but also using the plot to make your point.
One of the murder weapons in your book is a martini glass, which, along with shoes and the color pink, have become staples of chick lit covers. Was there ever a plan to put a martini glass on the cover? Were there more "chick lit-ish" covers under consideration and what do you think of the final cover?
I think we did bat around the idea of sort of a pulp-novel style stiletto with blood on the heel, but it was really hard to figure out how to make it appear meta ("It's a reference to novels with bloody footwear on the cover!"), and also how to make it not look like a cautionary tale by a podiatrist. Pink, I think, was never even on the table. Not that there's anything wrong with pink books! (Or bloody Blahniks, for that matter.) But since this book is a mystery and a satire before anything else -- it's chick lit only in that it has a female protagonist, and then again, I mean, so does Anna Karenina -- the goal from the beginning was to go more pop-noir. And yeah, I love it. Except for the minor good-natured battle I lost over the fact that Lola is carrying a computer mouse in her bag, which makes no sense given that mice go with desktop computers. I sleep at night by telling myself she's carrying one of those really compact early Macs I wrote papers on in college.
You skewer all kinds of writers in the book, from Ann Coulter to Elizabeth Wurtzel, and many other popular figures, as you did in Miss Media. Which of these women were your favorite to mock?
I gotta go Coulter. Mocking her is much more salutary than taking her seriously. And also Camille Paglia, in Miss Media, if only because it allowed me to use the word "chthonic."
Erica Jong recently called chick lit a "ghetto" and novelist Jennifer Belle has called the term "detrimental" and said recently, "I just think it's sad that women are undermining the women's movement." Is chick lit a feminist issue?
It's sort of a McFeminist issue, if you ask me. Like, feminist lite. There is no one feminist orthodoxy, nor should there be, so if someone wants to make chick lit her bailiwick, fine. But if you ask me what's really hurting women right now, I'd say it's not so much Bridget Jones as Samuel Alito. Come on, people. If there are some popular women-focused books out there that are not exactly Guns of August, so what? It's entertainment. Women understand that. And much of it is really good. Well-written, witty, warm-hearted. To me, Bridget Jones -- patient zero of this wave of chick lit -- isn't dippy and empty, she's a skillfully-drawn screwball heroine. That's old-school in a new package, not some new scourge. In my opinion, the real feminist issue is not the existence of chick lit -- in its many iterations and levels of distinction─it's the way it's come to be regarded. It's the way that at this point any book featuring a woman, or by a woman who's not Mary Shelley or Nadine Freaking Gordimer is considered "chick lit" . . . a label that, let's face it, is not meant by non-fans to be flattering. Or respectful, anyway. It's the way that, by extension, female characters and their friendships and partnerships and other issues important to them are considered fluff. The term chick lit is "detrimental," but not because the literature is bad or hurtful, but because commercial literature by and for women continues to be seen as less substantial than its "male" counterpart.
Specifically, what do you think of the claim, made on Huffington Post recently by Erica Jong, as well as by many others, that women authors are pushed to market their books as chick lit to be considered in the marketplace and that that's become a "ghetto?"
I can't dispute that claim per se. But there is a difference between a "ghetto" and a genre. It's not the genre that creates the "ghetto," it's lack of respect for the genre in the outside world. You also can't deny, by the way, that the popularity of the genre has created many new opportunities for women writers to enter the marketplace.
Last year saw the release of two anthologies, Elizabeth Merrick's This Is Not Chick Lit and Lauren Baratz-Logsted's This Is Chick Lit. Have you read these books? What do you think of the claims made by each editor?
I know well of both, but -- I'm not gonna lie to HuffPo -- I haven't read either! Isn't that terrible? I'm seriously ashamed. The real and only reason is that shorter-form stories and essays, no matter how terrific, are not my favorite things to read. It's counterintuitive because you'd think, since I don't have nearly as much time as I'd like to read, that I'd go for things in nice little single servings. But instead, I lean toward books that give me a big world to get lost in. Going back to them, even for a page or two, is what for me provides a true escape. Sorry, Elizabeth and Lauren! It's not you! I did read everything that got written about them, and I think both books were necessary and important contributions to the whole chick lit debate, I really do.
You regularly cover feminist issues for publications like Glamour and Salon's Broadsheet blog, yet you poke often not-so-gentle fun at feminist ire over the chick lit debate, such as with the Jane Austen Liberation Front. Do you see a correlation between the kinds of journalistic articles you write and their political stance and Death by Chick Lit and chick lit generally? Do some of the same issues of marginalization come up for you when covering topics relating primarily to women?
Sure. I find that it's really hard for people not familiar with Glamour and Broadsheet, say, to grok that people can write Actual News and Journalism for, gasp, a women's magazine. And that Salon can have a women's blog that contains Actual News -- and does not siphon said news from the rest of the site into some sort of cutesy ghetto. We have got to do something about the knee-jerk reaction -- even among our defenders -- that anything preceded by the word "women's" is (a) fluffy and (b) therefore bad for women. Quite often, hello, it's the opposite.
Aside from the murders Lola's trying to solve (when she's not wistfully trying to get on the hit/bestseller list), Lola's ambition is one of the driving forces of the book, to the point that she often ignores her husband in favor of furthering her book sales and goals. Was this meant to be a caricature of ideas of feminism or just her own quirky personality?
Interesting question, but golly, no, it has nothing to do with feminism. That reading of it hadn't even occurred to me. It's all about Lola.
Who do you see as your main audience for the book?
Wise-ass New Yorkers, fans of satire and humorous mysteries, people who enjoy relatable characters, women, my mother's e-mail list.
Do you have anything else to add about the state of chick lit or your book specifically?
There's a lot of brow-furrowing about what it "means" that chick lit is popular. Look, I'm just glad books are popular. Of course, it'd be extra-nice if mine turn out to be, too.
Read HuffPost's exclusive excerpt of Death By Chick Lit here!