Can Chick Lit Reflect the Post 9/11 World?

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Debra Pickett puts forth an interesting notion: Why hasn’t there been a 9/11-themed chick lit title? It’s an idea that might just get the Merrick & Baratz-Logsted camps declaring a truce.

In her column, Pickett cites Jay McInerney’s The Good Life as a “literary” exemplar of the post-9/11 novel. But even a cursory look reveals that The Good Life is as “fluffy” as its pink cover counterparts. The characters may be older than your typical chick lit protagonists and they may be committing adultery. But in their own way, they’re looking for Mr. or Ms. Right and trying to forge their identities to get behind their stalled midlife crises. They all have a lot of free time and they spend much of the book gleefully swiping their credit cards to obtain more consumer goods.

The Good Life‘s grand conceit is that, despite 9/11’s turmoil, nothing has essentially changed. But its even broader conceit is that these fluffy relationships are viewed by the characters as more substantial than world events.

Ergo, chick lit. Albeit, with really lousy sex scenes and odd references to mersangers.

So if McInerney can do it, why not chick lit authors? What if Mr. Right turned out to be an al-Qaeda terrorist operative? Or what if somebody wrote a book in which a Homeland Security operative or security inspector applied the same scrutiny to her dating life as she does with her job (in one fell swoop, you’ve got chick lit, a way to examine post-9/11 life, and a way to expose women’s issues within an underreported vocational bloc)?

Traditionally, Activists Have Been Drawn Like Moths to the Great Light of Self-Immolation

So Many Books: “Here’s my problem. Instead of fighting for a bigger piece of the pie for all women writers–more bylines and review space at the literary publications, chick lit vs literary fiction sets up a dynamic pitting women writers against each other for the same small piece of pie. This is so old-school. Has everyone forgotten what we learned from the feminist movement? I’m not looking for chick lit and literary writers to band together and get all kum-ba-ya or anything, that’s plain dumb and naive. But it’s even dumber for the two genres to fight against each other especially after acknowledging there is a bigger issue involved.”

More On Merrick

I must quibble with Elizabeth Merrick’s Huffington Post article, which states this point:

But one more realist, formulaic novel about a girl in a low-level media job shopping for a man? Exactly how does that lift our spirits the same way an elaborately choreographed musical number with headdresses and a fountain can?

A formulaic chick lit title may be trite, but I’m pretty certain that it can lift one’s spirits better than a book which leaves the reader exhausted. Here’s the question I put forth to Ms. Merrick: Without taking away the literary merits of hard fiction, how does a gloomy novel which leaves one depressed and, in manic cases, suicidal lift one’s spirits? Maybe Merrick has an odd reader reaction when she finishes up a book (in which case, kudos to her), but, as much as I love Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica, I think it can be safely said that one’s spirits aren’t lifted at all when reading a sad tale about a dying woman whose life is falling apart. Unless, of course, you’re the kind of person who categorizes The Killing Fields as a great comedy classic.

Merrick Hysterics

Elizabeth Merrick: “We all need light reading, light entertainment from time to time–I’m certainly not against that. You will see me at the gym with Us Weekly now and then. But there is an amazing flourishing of women literary writers at the moment that is being obscured by a huge pile of pink books with purses and shoes on the cover. Women readers are having a hard time finding substantive reading material because of the dominance of these narratives.”

So let me get this straight. The minute that copies of the latest Zadie Smith or Monica Ali book appear at a bookstore, a blancmange-like entity made up of pink books wanders from the back of the stacks and blocks literary visibility with its slick flagstone epidermis?

Aside from the sweeping generalization that all chick lit is worthless, this is just as absurd as claiming that penny dreadfuls stopped Elizabeth Gaskell or the Bronte sisters from writing, much less capitalizing, upon their respective audiences. So long as there are women writers with literary ambitions and publishers looking for the next Sue Monk Kidd, the system will continue to produce its steady share of women writing literary fiction. I agree with Merrick that there’s a definite gender disparity in literary fiction (there is, as of yet, no estrogen answer to the Jonathans) which needs to be rectified, but if chick lit permits women to work their way to authors like Mary Gaitskill and Kelly Link, then what’s the problem here?

Could it just be possible that readers are more likely to purchase The Devil Wears Prada than Girly? Again, we have a situation here that comes back to this very obvious dichotomy. Literary fiction has consistently undersold popular fiction. But this is a commercial factor, not a literary one. And that’s just the way it is. Most book geeks (like myself) prefer the former, but to occlude the latter from one’s view, or to dismiss popular fiction without sampling is highly ignorant. (And isn’t it interesting that Merrick fails to cite a single example of books that she considers “much more poorly written [sic]” than Bridget Jones’ Diary?)