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March 17, 2007

Dangerous Territory

The Guardian Books Blog seems to be all down with everything I wrote papers on in my “Authorship and its Institutions” class last year. Like this on acknowledgements pages (though my paper was way better). And this response. Oh yeah– I also wrote a paper called “Oh No! Not Another Portmanteau!” about blooks, which the Guardian blog has nothing to say about (so 2006) but I justed wanted to let you know about that fine title.

Anyway. A Guardian blogger defended chick lit last week. Oh chick lit, you are indeed “much maligned” and the topic of my final paper “Writing in the Shadow of a Hungry Genre”. Now, I don’t seek out chick lit usually, though I have read some excellent books in my time which fortunately or unfortunately fall into that genre. Just to give you my chick lit cred, I’ve enjoyed books including Don’t You Want Me? and My Life on a Plate by India Knight; Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner (and I love her blog). I’ve been known to read the novels of Jenny Colgan as well.

So I’m not a complete snob; I’ve read around a bit, and I think chick lit/lit is divided more than anything by the use of language. It is not subject matter, plot or character (though there are patterns relating to these in chick lit). Just because there are similarities between the plots of The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver and Me vs. Me by Sarah Mlynowski does not demean one nor heighten the other. And you know what? I am going to read both these books in the next month and let you know if my hunch is right– that in terms of language, they’re worlds apart. (Thanks Ragdoll for that link). I will let you know.

I do agree with the Guardian blogger that chick lit needs no defending. I think chick lit and lit fic could coexist quite happily, could support each other even, that women deserve a wide range of books to choose from and there’s nothing wrong with a novel you can drop in the tub. But. My title was about “the hungry genre”, because chick-lit is a cannibal! Female literary fiction writers (and their readers) have good reason to be threatened by a genre that tries to force all women’s writing into a narrow pigeonhole for the sake of marketibility (and forget about those who don’t fit). It is this pigeonholing that connects Lionel Shriver to “chick-lit” at all (for her last book, she got “anti-chick lit”; her new book is “the next step after chick lit”). Have you ever read Lionel Shriver? I’ve never read anything less “chicky” in my life! And all of this blurring of distinctions would be not so terrible if there wasn’t so much chick lit churned out that’s absolute garbage. My crux/thesis statement? That chick lit is “no longer just a genre of popular fiction, but instead has become the touchstone by which almost all contemporary fiction written by women is gauged”. And I don’t think that this is good for anyone.

And it’s the garbage that is the main problem, undermining Jenny Colgan’s quite chick-litty but good (I think) books; putting crabby brilliant Lionel Shriver up against writers it would be beneath her to spit on; giving India Knight pink covers and cartoons even though the woman is a serious comic genius; re-doing Nancy Mitford with all the chick-lit frills (and see Shriver spitting point). I just wish that readers would demand more of their reading. I wish that different kinds of writers didn’t need to feel threatened by one another. But as I concluded my paper (and with the aid a thesaurus, I can see): “Anti-chick lit’s corybantic gestures and the force of its criticism are a direct response to chick lit’s literary cannibalism, and a last ditch effort not to be eaten alive”.

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