A Moment of Jen
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Tuesday, June 07, 2005
posted by Jen at 6/07/2005 04:03:00 PM

In between unloading my galleys and unpacking my bags I’ve been considering the Curtis Sittenfeld/Melissa Bank dustup from the premise that book reviews frequently reveal more about the reviewer than the material ostensibly being discussed.

I say both as the subject and writer of book reviews. They’re never about the book – not entirely.

They’re about how the reviewer is feeling on that particular morning in general and, in my case, about his/her body, about women and humor and motherhood and marriage and a whole host of other things that, in some cases, the books I’ve written don’t even really touch upon.

Thus, Curtis Sittenfeld’s quote-unquote review of THE WONDER SPOT – a nastier-than-it-needed-to-be takedown in which the book is dismissed as lightweight, inconsequential fluff -- is less about the book, or its author, than it is about Sittenfeld’s anxiety about how her own work has been perceived.

Think about it. Sittenfeld's young, she’s educated (Stanford and that obligatory Iowa MFA), she taught English at St. Albans, published in all the right places (Salon, The New York Times) and was reviewed and profiled, or both, in all of them as well.

But when her book went out into the world, was it perceived as high-minded literature, a la the Jonathans (Franzen, Safran Foer), or sparkling satire a la the Toms (Perrotta, Wolfe?)

It was not.

In fact, I’d bet that many readers picked up PREP not because they were hoping for the edifying, educational, improving literary experience Sittenfeld so clearly believes she provided, but because the way the book was sold – from its coyly come-hither cover to the gimmick of including Sittenfeld’s high-school yearbook shot with the press kit – promised THE NANNY DIARIES, only in prep school: a dishy, entertaining glimpse behind the velvet rope (or grosgrain belt) into the lives of privileged elites.

When you check out the book on Amazon or Barnes&Noble.com, you’ll find that, in addition to Ian McEwan’s SATURDAY, the books that show up under the “customers who bought PREP also enjoyed list” are Plum Sykes’ critically reviled BERGDORF BLONDES and Koren Zailckas' memoir of youthful inebriation, SMASHED.

BERGDORF BLONDES! That goes a long way toward explaining Sittenfeld’s spleen…and a long way toward making sense of her review.

Start with the first sentence:

To suggest that another woman's ostensibly literary novel is chick lit feels catty, not unlike calling another woman a slut -- doesn't the term basically bring down all of us?

(Translation: I recognize the sexism implicit in the chick lit label and the misogynistic implications of using it against another writer).

And yet, with ''The Wonder Spot,'' it's hard to resist.

(Now that I’ve demonstrated my understanding of the implicit sexism of the term, I’m going to use it anyhow).

I'm as resistant as anyone else to the assumption that because a book's author is female and because that book's protagonist is a woman who actually cares about her own romantic future, the book must fall into the chick-lit genre.

(But my book didn’t! My book had a young female protagonist who agonized about boys and boyfriends and best friends and sex. But it wasn’t chick lit! Honest to God!)

So it's not that I find Bank's topic lightweight; it's that Bank writes about it in a lightweight way.

(I’m smarter than she is. Also, my book is not chick lit. It’s CATCHER IN THE RYE! Only with blow jobs.)

Two paragraphs of plot summary, and then: “…most other characters appear and disappear, some mentioned again only, it seems, for the sake of being mentioned -- not because they organically re-enter the plot, but rather to prove that the various sections really are part of a unified whole. This willy-nilly introduction and abandonment of characters is most problematic in Sophie's parade of boyfriends, of whom there are about three times too many."

(Check out that ‘whom.’ Nice grammar, huh? See how smart I am! Also, note that I am objecting to boyfriends. Girls who have too many boyfriends are slutty, and also boyfriends mean chick lit and I don’t like chick lit and I don’t write chick lit. Do you know that The Washington Post compared my narrator to Holden Caufield? And Holden wasn’t a chick!)

A real live woman should have all the boyfriends she wants...

(But not too many – and by ‘too many’ I mean ‘more than me,’ or else she’s a slut),

but a character in a novel shouldn't date more than a reader can keep track of -- and I was taking notes as I read.

(Because I am not only smart but diligent. And not slutty. Did I mention that I won the Seventeen Magazine fiction contest when I was sixteen?).

One paragraph of complaint about the novel’s quippiness, which I also had some problems with. One paragraph about how Bank jumps around too much.

“At times, there seems to be a real lack of authorial confidence; Bank hurries from one scene to another, and the result is a jumpy tone.”

(One of the criticisms I got for PREP – not that it was criticized much; I got fabulous reviews -- was that nothing happened. So here’s what I think of books where too much happens. They’re jumpy!)

By book's end, Sophie is close to 40 -- certainly older than the typical chick in chick lit --

(Melissa Bank is a slutty old bag! Pass it on!)

-- and it's not giving away too much to say that, for a while, it appears she might wind up without a man. If that had proved to be the case, it would have represented a bold move on Bank's part. And it would have meant the book simply couldn't be chick lit; for a heroine to go manless is a violation of the genre's most basic tenet.

(Okay, true confession: I haven’t actually, you know, read that much chick lit. Or any at all. But really, why read when I can just, you know, make sweeping, albeit ignorant generalizations? I mean, who around here’s gonna check? It’s The New York Times! It’s not like they ever actually review the stuff!)

Undeniably, there were times when I laughed or winced in recognition as I read; I understood exactly what Sophie meant, and that's when I liked the book best. But this, ultimately, is the reason I know ''The Wonder Spot'' is chick lit: because its appeal relies so much on how closely readers relate to its protagonist.

(I admit it. I fell prey to the book’s easy appeal. Heh. I said ‘easy.’ And yes, I warmed to a relatable narrator who was a lot like me. It’s easy to relate to someone who’s like you, but my book did not take the easy path. My protagonist isn’t a young woman in the city struggling with romance, friendships and career. She’s a young woman in prep school struggling with romance, friendships and….and homework. See! See how that’s different? Also, I have been compared to Sylvia Plath. And the Times reviewed my book twice. Which means it can’t be chick lit. Just saying, is all.)

Good novels allow us to feel what the characters feel, no matter how dissimilar their circumstances and ours.

(Don’t I sound smart as I enlighten the readers of the Times book review as to what constitutes excellence in fiction? Do you think Plum Sykes gets to make pronouncements about anything but highlights and hemlines?)

'The Wonder Spot'' contains real meaning only if we identify with Sophie enough to infuse it with meaning of our own."

I don’t even know what to do with this last paragraph. How does Sittenfeld prove her thesis? Did she hand out copies of the book to people as unlike the protagonist as she could find? Did she convene a focus group of septuagenarian legless black veterans to see if they were amused by Sophie’s quips and moved by her struggles to find true love and get out of Hebrew school?

The more I think about the review, the more I think about the increasingly angry divide between ladies who write literature and chicks who write chick lit, the more it seems like a grown-up version of the smart versus pretty games of years ago; like so much jockeying for position in the cafeteria and mocking the girls who are nerdier/sluttier/stupider than you to make yourself feel more secure about your own place in the pecking order.

And while we’re performing the online equivalent of pulling each other’s hair and writing mean things about each other’s work on the virtual bathroom walls, men are still getting the majority of reviews in major papers and men are still penning the majority of the pieces in The New Yorker and influential magazines.

Final note: Sittenfeld’s the subject of an online discussion of PREP over at Barnes & Noble.com, where you can log in and post questions. "By the way, for those of you who haven't started the book, several people have commented to me that it's different than what they anticipate based on the cover and title. (It's darker, among other things.) So just a warning..." Sittenfeld writes as part of her welcome note.

In other words, abandon hope, all ye who came here looking for anything as trifling and inconsequential as entertainment.
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