Monday, May 10, 2004 posted by Jen at 5/10/2004 08:19:00 PM
Make that a mammoth, poorly-informed pudenda
It's backlash time for the chick-lit craze, and Newsday steps in with one of the most comprehensive, and well-written pieces about the phenomenon so far (and I'm not just saying that because they quote the way-smarter-than-me Elaine Showalter saying nice things about my books).
I don't want to belabor the whole chick-lit label: offensive or useful? debate.
I do, however, want to make two teeny-tiny points.
Point One: Plum Sykes is losing it.
Sykes, a Vogue contributing editor, fashion celebrity and London-born Oxford graduate, prefers to call her first novel a social comedy, in the manner of "Breakfast at Tiffany's."
Yeah, well, I always thought GOOD IN BED was more of a bildungsroman than anything else. But it's so darn hard to spell!
She also likes the fashion-conscious label "chic lit," as one magazine dubbed it. She did research, she says, to reflect accurately the lifestyles and lingo of Park Avenue princesses: ana for anorexic or perfect, A.T.M. for rich boyfriend, M.I.T. for mogul in training, and M.T.M. for married to mogul, better than the previous two.
"Ana" for "anorexic." Wow.
"I feel that most chick lit, unfortunately, is about depressed girls eating lots of chocolate," Sykes says over a plate of one sliced apple and one sliced orange at a trendy West Village restaurant.
One sliced apple and one sliced orange. Do you think that's a snack? Lunch? Her entire caloric intake for the week?
And honestly, between her temper tantrums and her author photo, Plum seems as though she could benefit greatly from a nice Cadbury bar or six.
I know I shouldn't be snarky, but the whole depressed-girls-eating-chocolate thing irks me, because it's so simple-minded and reductive.
Look: plenty of chick-lit books have scenes where the heroine does precisely that. Lots of chick-lit books have elements of poor-poor-pitiful-me-ness. But very few of them are about sad sacks who wallow in misery and empty calories until Prince Charming comes along.
The books are about young women -- frequently smart, funny, successful or striving to get that way -- finding their place in the world, navigating the perils of romance, the workplace, their families of origin and the families they build for themselves. It's not just girl-wants-boy, girl-loses-boy, girl-binges-on-Godiva-until-better-boy-shows-up.
Which brings us to Point Two: Erica Jong.
Like the genre of chick-lit itself, the backlash, which invariably features Esteemed Elder Lady Novelist Turning Up Nose At Girlie Books, originated in England. There, it was Doris Lessing and Beryl Bainbridge dismissing Bridget Jones and her spawn as silly fluff.
On this side of the pond, we've got La Erica, author of Fear of Flying, the semi-autobiographical story of one Isadora White Stollerman Wing trying to find happiness and good sex in Germany and abroad, trashing the books she helped to inspire. According to Newsday,
Erica Jong, speaking up via e-mail, is scathing: "Chick lit is nothing more than the contemporary version of the 'How to Get Married Novel' invented by Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen - and done much better by them (needless to say)."
Her landmark "Fear of Flying," she says, "details the disappointments of marriage and the search for freedom and individuality, while Chick Lit is a retro form that details the search for and nabbing of a husband, any husband." Today's 20- and 30-somethings, she says, "are looking for the opposite of what their mothers looked for. Their mothers sought freedom; they seek slavery. They want The Ring, The White Wedding, The Bugaboo Frog Stroller - and hey - let them have it all." They'll come around as they age, she predicts.
First of all -- and leaving aside Jong's loopy assertion that marriage equals slavery -- not every chick-lit book is about getting married.
Not even the majority of books are about getting married. And even the ones that are about getting married are always about much, much more than that. They're about searching for love mostly as a by-product of searching for identity.
Jong seems blithely ignorant about the genre she dismisses.
Nor does she seem particularly aware of what her own books were about.
Fear of Flying? Isadora White Stollerman Wing tries to escape unhappy marriage with half-Chinese psychiatrist, lusts after Adrian Goodlove.
How to Save Your Own Life? Our girl Izzie finally dumps the shrink, lusts after Josh Ace (a not-too-thinly-veiled Jonathan Fast, whom she married in real life).
Parachutes & Kisses: novelist Isadora White Stollerman Wing Ace breaks up with Josh, falls for a Boy Named Bean. In a scene which was permanently seared on my poor impressionable pre-Bat-Mitzvah-aged brain, she has sex with him during her period. He sucks her tampon. I'm still not quite over it.
Finally, in Any Woman's Blues, artist Leila Sand (yet another iteration of Erica/Isadora/Candida) falls hopelessly under the spell of goy-with-guns (another iteration of Bean) and is saved by Alcoholics Anonymous, a good shrink, her twin daughters, and a new series of paintings.
To make a long, long, looong story short, EVERY BOOK THIS WOMAN WROTE IN HER TWENTIES AND THIRTIES WAS ABOUT A WOMAN CHASING AFTER A GUY.
Every. Single. One.
Now she's disgusted to read about young female protagonists chasing after guys of their own? Or she's discomfited because, in her narrow view of the genre, which seems more the product of skimming a few book flaps and covers than actually, you know, reading what she's critiquing, women are going after the trappings of upper-middle-class domesticity instead of just the guy?
The heroines of the current crop of chick-lit books aren't any more obsessed with landing Mr. Right than Isadora/Candida/Leila were were back in the day. Nor are its heroines any more willing to find their bliss in a man's hands -- or points south -- than Jong's were.
Like Jong's heroine, the chick-lit lasses are looking for happiness, first and foremost, and whether they find it with a guy, or in a trip around the world, or in telling off the boss from hell or breaking up with the bad boyfriend, is completely up to the author.
We're doing what she was doing, only with less free love and a minimum of tampon-sucking.
And there's another piece to the puzzle, which is this: Jong's books (and, as you can tell, I've read almost all of them), go on and on, at great and explicit length, in pieces of fiction and true-life essays, about how hurt she was by the critical bashing her books received, bitching endlessly about how The New Yorker called her heroine "a mammoth pudenda," and how the drubbings that stung the worst were the ones meted out by -- you'll never believe it -- older women writers.
Here's Jong in HOW TO SAVE YOUR OWN LIFE:
"A vicious woman columnist waltz up to me, told me that she wrote poetry too, but unlike me did not write "commercial poetry," and then confided that she had only read the first three pages of Candida before throwing it against the wall -- because she couldn't stand 'pornography.' . . . Reah Taylor Carnovsky appeared (behind her shelflike bosom and her mustachioed upper lip) to pronounce me "a piddling poetaster." (Reah made her living putting other women writers down, so it could not be said she was biased toward her own sex.")
And, in FEAR OF FIFTY:
"A male writer surely has to find his voice, but does he also have to first convince the world that he has the right to find his voice? A woman writer must not only invent the wheel, she must grow the tree and chop it down, whittle it round, and learn to make it roll. Then she must clear a path for herself (over the catcalls of the kibitzers)."