August 21, 2014
I reread Laurie Colwin last week, the novel, Family Happiness. And I am still thinking about “chicklit” (a term I dislike, because I’d never actually call a human person a “chick”) and how I’ve changed my mind about it. The problem with chicklit, I used to think, was that so much of it was shallow and silly and that important books kept being undermined by being shushed away into that category. I used to agree with authors who’d protest that any book about women and relationships was automatically written off as “chicklit”, and also that it was a travesty how women’s fiction was always pushed to the margins. I wrote an entire essay about this, which referenced the line from Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: “This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop – everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.”
I still think that it’s true that women’s fiction gets pushed to the margins, but I’ve recently realized that this has nothing to do with chicklit. I have recently determined, in the past few weeks as I’ve reread To the Lighthouse, and Family Happiness, and as I’m reading Caroline Adderson’s new novel, Ellen in Pieces, right this very minute* (nearly) that there is indeed a way to write about women and relations, to write women’s fiction (for I emphatically believe that there is such a thing, and that literature is all the better for it) that will never be confused for chicklit ever.
The key, of course, is to subvert readers’ expectations, to resist the formula from which chicklit is concocted. I’m thinking about Laurie Colwin, especially, whose subversion is oh-so-subtle that undiscerning readers might miss it, but it’s there. It’s not to resist happy endings, necessarily, but to acknowledge that happiness is complicated, and endings are only relative. Colwin’s writing doesn’t hinge on “issues” or crises to propel her plots, and some might protest that Laurie Colwin doesn’t plot at all (just as Jennifer Weiner** took down Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs for not having a driving plot, for failing to conform to chicklit’s basic requirements, as if that somehow makes it less of a book). Indeed, her books are full of upper-middle-class women sitting on lush sofas wearing exquisite worn cardigans and turning their minds over and over again. There is pages of this. And I love it. There are no villains. Everybody is just conflicted and deeply flawed, and when they run into one another, things happen (and those things are often further conversations).
Colwin walks this narrow line between light and substance, and I think the effect of lightness comes from so much visual light—illumination, brightness, joy—and this is far from the same thing as shallow. She has been compared to Jane Austen, which I agree with, but I’m not nuts about Jane Austen, so I’m conflicted. I have this suspicion that if I came at it the other way though—reading Jane Austen with a view to her being a bit like Laurie Colwin—I could come to a new appreciation. Either way, Laurie Colwin isn’t chicklit, even though her characters are neurotic and wear specific shoes. They’re books without a template, my vague Austen references aside. Immediately readable, but as with Woolf and Adderson (though on a more subtle level), Colwin is trying to push the novel to be something more, beyond its own limits, to get life to fit inside.
How do you tell a story about the many sides of happiness? Of love?
There is a place for formulaic books, and they certainly have their legions of readers, though I no longer count myself among them. (This isn’t true. I love detective fiction. But maybe the difference is that the very formula for detective fiction is to surprise its readers. As with the best of literary fiction, you rarely known who’s going to come around the next corner.) I just don’t have the patience anymore for a book that’s going to turn out exactly as I expect. I read that book already. I want the unfamiliar, which can be breezy (Maria Semple, Laurie Colwin) or more dense (Adderson, Woolf), or a thousand other things, but it isn’t chicklit, which reduces women and their lives to types and tropes. Whose very trademarks are endings that are always going to be tidy.
“I just have a very hard time seeing entertainment as a bad thing,” said Jennifer Weiner in her interview with Rebecca Mead. But just because something isn’t a bad thing doesn’t make it literature.
*This sentence was true on Saturday, when I wrote it.
**It occurs to me now that the two books by Jennifer Weiner I enjoyed most were Fly Away Home and Goodnight Nobody, both of which were probably her most formula defiant. And maybe her point is that nobody noticed these distinctions, so she gave up even trying, which is why “[i]n later novels, she decided to ‘give my characters the thing that none of us get, which is the promise that it’s going to be O.K.’”
*** Also, speaking of worn-out templates, I basically wrote about this exact same thing two years ago. I am not sure why I can’t just get over it, but then again, I’m not the only one.