The Moral of the Story: Lose the Guillotine, Lose the Audience

Guardian: ” They sat in their seats and hooted and whistled and shouted and slow-clapped. It felt as though the audience was providing the ending that Sofia Coppola was too decorous to show, bringing down the guillotine on a rather silly, spoilt little film. Marie Antoinette is a poodle-brained period fancy. Part curtsy, part style spread, it tells the tale of a beautiful queen and the lovely parties she attends. If ever a movie deserved to be thrown to the mob, it is this one.” (via Romancing the Tome)

New Literary Pejoratives

The time has come for the literary world to move well beyond the terms “chick lit” and “lad lit” and add more literary pejoratives to the lexicon. After all, if we can’t find a way to take the piss out of every book turned out by the publishers, how can the literary world be counted upon to sustain its vitriol? Crouch-Peck altercations in restaurants simply aren’t cutting it these days. The book review sections continue to play it safe. The time has come to step up the enmity with a brand new set of ad hominen terminology!

What follows is a running list of terms with which to flood your blogs, your essays, your literary cocktail party banter and your term papers with. Feel free to add your suggestions in the comments.

  • Brit Lit: Any novel published by the Granta 20 authors. Should be used as a pejorative particularly when the author is very friendly (e.g., Sarah Waters and David Mitchell).
  • Clit Lit: Any steamy but ultimately banal memoir relying upon explicit description of sexual conquests to boost sales. (Example: Toni Bentley’s The Surrender.)
  • Corp Lit: A bland memoir ostensibly penned by a former CEO, but actually ghost-written by someone else, often masquerading as a self-help book or a source of empowerment. (See Jack Welch’s oeuvre.)
  • Geezer Lit: Any novel that is published to placate a Very Important Author along the lines of Mailer, Updike or Roth. Ideally, the book features an affluent protagonist over 50 who is (a) going through a midlife crisis, (b) having an extramarital affair, or (c) living in a spacious New England home.
  • Thick Lit: Novels that are ridiculously long and are announced by publishers as “a major literary event.” (See Paul Anderson’s Hunger’s Brides and Suzanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.) Also applies to more credible long-winded novelists along the lines of David Foster Wallace and William T. Vollmann.
  • Trick Lit: Novels that frame or recontextualize their stories through a common tale or mythology because the novelist can’t come up with anything particularly original on his own. (See Gregory Maguire.)
  • Wonk Lit: Any memoir or political volume published by a former politician. Often, wonk lit titles are desperate ploys to restore credibility and/or standing with a public who has rapidly forgotten of the ex-politician in question. (Examples: Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Gary Hart’s Restoration of the Republic.)

Vanity Press Equals Vanity Proposal?

Cameron Kelly has proposed to his girlfriend by self-publishing a book, 50 Reasons Why You Should Marry Me and 51 Reasons Why I Should Marry You. A sample PDF reveals some cornball reasons and some dud gags, all accompanied by photos. Take for example “Reason No. 26,” which features Mr. Kelly wearing a really bad wig and sunglasses, accompanied by the caption: “I cut my hair.” Indeed.

I’m positive that this means something to both Kelly and his fiancee. (She said yes.) For the record, I hope to self-publish a book by the end of the year entitled 329 Reasons Why 90% of Blogs and Vanity Press Titles Are About As Exciting As Your Relative’s Interminable Vacation Slideshow. (via Critical Mass)

A War on Contemporary Bildungsromans?

The Chronicle of Higher Education offers an overview of “lad lit,” noting, “Virtually every writer of guy lit is an almost-thirtysomething graduate of an elite college or university.” This is indeed the case, but I have to ask whether this makes any of the novels presented here (Kyle Baker’s Love Monkey, Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision, Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land) distinctly “lad lit.” Aren’t these actually Bildungsromans? Like its taxonomic cousin “chick lit,” many of these titles deal with common themes involving eking out an existence or forming an identity. With chick lit, we see women who are growing out of singledom, debating how to balance a career and snag a man. With lad lit, the novels feature thirtysomething slackers who refuse to grow up, often relying upon the crutch of pop culture to stave off the inevitable growth process.

And that’s the key distinction here among the lad lit and chick lit titles: an individual developing and trying to find a place in society. Kyle Smith’s Tom Farrell is 32 and remarks in the early pages that he is living a lifestyle no less different from the one that he occupied as a teenager, still eating his cereal out of a Star Wars bowl. We have Benjamin Kunkel’s Dwight Wilmerding (a surname perhaps not coincidentally connoting “Bildungsroman”) resorting to checking his e-mail rather than figuring out what to do with his life. Lipsyte’s Lewis Miner can’t even take care of himself, marveling at his sallow-colored teeth in the mirror and harassing various people from his high school. These are all men who live child-like existences and who have deferred the process of growing up for a later time. And the central question of these three novels is whether or not these protagonists will actually grow up. While the emphasis here is contemporary, how different is this really from the book-length formations of Tom Jones or Tristram Shandy?

Now some of these titles may be more popular than literary, nevertheless, they do deal with themes of formation. Ergo, thematically at least, I suspect we may have an interesting assault upon contemporary Bildungsromans.

It’s also important to note that Bildungsromans are not exclusively male and that the work of Jennifer Weiner and Curtis Sittenfeld is no less different. Take, for example, the parallels that one can draw with Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, a lengthy poem in which a young woman must overcome folkways and expectations in the Victorian period. There is this moment in which Aurora watches another couple in the Sixth Book:

A woman sauntered slow, in front,
Munching an apple,–she left off amazed
As if I had snatched it: that’s not she, at least.
A man walked arm-linked with a lady veiled,
Both heads dropped closer than the need of talk:
They started; he forgot her with his face
And she, herself,–and clung to him as if
My look were fatal.

How different is this really from a chick lit protagonist trash-talking a beautiful couple living a perceived ideal just beyond her reach? Or the prep school tyranny experienced by Sittenfeld’s Lee Fiora? Or Weiner’s Rose Feller plagued by her sister’s seemingly adept way of stringing along men while she remains alone? Interestingly, like Weiner’s work, the prose here relies on observations which reflect the protgaonist’s anxieties and hesitations.

Beyond the stigma against popular tales which feature happy endings (or perhaps it’s those decidedly unmasculine pink covers; thankfully, I live in San Francisco and this is not much of a problem while reading on the subway), I’m wondering if the pejorative labels often attached to chick lit and lad lit might represent a reluctance in our literary culture to contemplate the delayed impulse that many twentysomethings have in forming careers, in getting married, and in growing up.

The recent Times contemporary fiction list, with its paucity of authors under 40, has generated much discussion about who might be “the voice of our generation.” I think this question is moot. There are plenty of authors attempting to chronicle exactly what twentysomethings and thirtysomethings are going through these days. The problem is that their work suffers an instant crib death when received by the literary community. Jonathan Safran Foer is turned into a punching bag. Benjamin Kunkel is drowned in the hype. Curtis Sittenfeld declares war on any book even remotely resembling chick lit. While it is perfectly acceptable for Updike and Roth to turn out endless books about middle-aged men entering into adulterous affairs or having midlife crises, it is apparently unacceptable for younger writers to write about younger protagonists trying to figure out their lives. By this token, why aren’t Updike and Roth torn new ones for “geezer lit?”

Perhaps the time has come to stop attaching dismissive labels to these books and consider how contemporary authors are attempting to bring back issues of formation in a literary climate which declares sincerity a strumpet and novels involving younger people mere baubles.