A Moment of Jen
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Tuesday, May 29, 2007
posted by Jen at 5/29/2007 08:22:00 PM

Things that are not wrong with me, 1-3.

1. Head lice. Someone wrote in guessing that my Mystery Affliction is head lice. Which it is not.

Not that I don't expect to get head lice at some point, given what I know about kids and schools. But I would not let head lice keep me from my twentieth high school reunion and from Book Expo. In fact, I think it would actually add to my fun at both occasions, as I can think of several attendees who I'd make it a point to hug lingeringly.

Number two thing I don't have: Rickets. Or scurvy. Or hot dog fingers.

Thing Number Three: Pinworms. Tape worms. Any kind of worm at all.

Seriously, this is a perfectly normal condition, or so I am told, and all will be revealed eventually.

In other news, Erica Jong (remember her?), thinks that ghetto-ized girlie writers should rise up, slip the surly bonds of genre, and Take Back the Night. Or the bookstore. Or something.

"Critics have trouble taking fiction by women seriously unless they represent some distant political struggle or chic ethnicity (Arundhati Roy, Nadine Gordimer and Kiran Desai come to mind). Of course, there are exceptions, like Annie Proulx and Andrea Barrett. But they tend to write about "male" subjects: ships, cowboys, accordions. There's Pat Barker, who gained the most respect when she began to write about war. Margaret Atwood, who is Canadian and therefore gets a longer leash than most North American writers. And Isabel Allende, a wonderful writer, who has become our token South American female.

But deep down, the same old prejudice prevails. War matters; love does not. Women are destined to be undervalued as long as we write about love. To be generous, let's say the prejudice is unconscious. If Jane Austen were writing today, she'd probably meet the same fate and wind up in the chick lit section. Charlotte Brontë would be in romance, along with her sister Emily."

Agreed! True that! Right on! Amen, sister! You go...oh, wait.

"I see deeply diminished expectations in young women writers. They may grumble about the chick lit ghetto, but they dare not make a fuss for fear they won't be published at all. Their brashness is real enough, but they accept their packaging as the price of being published. My generation expected more. We did not always get it, but at least categorization outraged us. Where is the outrage now?"

Jong raises some good points, but I'm not sure she's seeing the whole picture -- or the benefits of what critical legitimacy would bring.

Sure, we could rail against the pink covers strewn with shapely body parts. We could march ourselves into Borders or Barnes & Noble, yank our paperbacks off the "Beach Read" table and park them proudly under "Literature." We could whine about the lack of reviews and respect and how it's always the boys who get taken seriously. Lord knows I've done my share of railing and whining and the rest of it (except for moving books off the beach read table...I'm indignant, not stupid).

But what good is being taken seriously when nobody's reading your stuff?

Today, in its summer reading round-up, New York Magazine reports that critics' darlings like Akhil Sharma and Gary Shteyngart -- young literary lions, best writers under forty, great reviews, passels of prizes, etc., etc. -- can't make a living from their books.

Previously, the same magazine discussed the correlation between the coveted front-page New York Times Book Review piece and sales. Turns out, there's not much of a correlation at all. There is, instead, a growing number of Big Boy Books -- from Benjamin Kunkel's INDECISION to Joshua Ferris's THEN WE CAME TO THE END -- that failed to crack the bestseller lists, in spite of great lashings of critical love.

Does Jong really think that we poor ghetto girls should protest the pink and the legs, the shoes and the purses, to eschew the pretty pastels, to hide our candy and and dress in the publishing equivalent of sackcloth and ashes so that we can be just like the boys -- respected, but not read?

It's more than a little odd to see Jong hoisting this particular banner, given that it's her peers who've been the quickest to use the term chick lit as a perjorative, to put younger writers in their place, to dismiss their work as silly fluff and suggest that their readers should be engaging with more meaningful texts (said texts typically written by them, or their peers).

Whether it's Carolyn See in the Washington Post engaging in catty speculation about how chick lit readers will spend their dotage, or Maureen Dowd in the New York Times pimping THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE as an acceptable substitute for Sophie Kinsella, to Gail Caldwell at the Boston Globe, so clearly offended by the chick lit's very existence that she can't be bothered to spell it right, Jong's generation hasn't done my generation many favors.

There are exceptions, of course: Susan Isaacs has been a generous champion of young women writers, including me. Elinor Lipman wasn't a fan of my work, but she took time off from her busy contest-judging schedule to give Alison Pace a blurb. But the exceptions prove the rule: many successful novelists of the 1970's and 1980's have greeted their little sisters not with an outstretched hand but with a boot to the head.

Jong faults my peers' diminished expectations. I give them credit for healthy pragmatism. She sees a bunch of meek, weak sisters, too cowed to make a fuss over what our books get called and where they get shelved. I see something sly and subversive -- a genre that's going to profit in the long run by being beneath the notice of the critics, where women's work always seems to land, and where it almost always seems to flourish.
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