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?)

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3 Comments

  1. Touche! I’m with you. There’s a place for both forms of fiction, even if commercial fiction does muscle out literary fiction from time to time. Bookstores are there to sell books and cater to their readers, who usually like to sample both! Thanks for letting me share. 🙂
    –Kimberly Llewellyn
    Author of the comedy, Tulle Little, Tulle Late (Aug ’06)
    (Yeah, yeah, one of those pink books! LOL!)

  2. Good commentary! While I agree with Merrick’s general premise that there are an unprecedented number of talented female writers writing today, I think her nonsensical, bile-filled attacks against chick lit authors are completely unfounded, if not downright ridiculous, and fails to give a wide group of likewise talented writers their proper due…which certainly appears to be hypocrisy at its best. Like any entertainment industry, publishing is a field that is sustained by its ability to attract consumers and readers, something which is increasingly difficult to do in an age when TV, movies, video games, etc. regularly dominate popular culture, and writers who are able to maintain consistent success on any level should be applauded, not denigrated. What Merrick fails to recognize is that there are some very talented writers within the chick lit genre (Jennifer Weiner, Emily Giffin, Marian Keyes, to name a few – indeed, one could very easily include Curtis Sittenfeld in this group, although she has somehow been given a pass and included in Merrick’s anthology), as there are in ALL genres, and that their success has not precluded or reduced the opportunities for other female writers to achieve similar commercial success. What is Merrick trying to say here? Is there some sort of finite limit to how many successful female authors there can be at one time? I mean, is the success of these chick lit authors really preventing readers from recognizing other talented writers, including a self-proclaimed “literary” talent such as Merrick herself?

    This smacks of abject jealousy (at best) and I would suggest that Merrick, instead of lashing out at other authors who have achieved the success she so desperately seeks, instead focus her energy on honing her craft so that she might be able to attract a wider audience for her future novels. It is worth pointing out that all of the recognized literary giants throughout contemporary history do share one common trait – they have all managed to reach and/or sustain some level of critical and commercial success in their careers, proving that (in many cases) good writing IS recognized (believe it or not!). It just seems ridiculous that Merrick sees fit to dismiss and criticize an entire genre that she obviously has never bothered to research or understand (and a group of women writers who are, arguably, equally or more talented than many included in Merrick’s anthology), and blames it for the lack of recognition for both her book and those of the authors included in her anthology. It’s almost embarassing to watch, like a child crying out to mommy and daddy because someone else was given more Christmas presents, or the unpopular girl sitting in the corner telling herself that the only reason no one likes her is that they are just too stupid to understand her genius.

    But hey, if it is so easy for these chick lit authors to achieve bestseller status, if they really are given so many advantages that “real” writers like Merrick and her ilk are denied, then I would issue one challenge to Merrick: create a pseudonym, write a chick lit novel and see if you can produce a bestseller. Such an immense literary talent should have no problem whipping out a vapid, formulaic chick lit novel, right? Then, all it would take is a nice pink cover and the book would be an instant success! Right… I think she would be surprised to find that readers are more fickle than she realizes and that creating a commercial success is an extremely difficult task for any writer – whether chick lit or “literary” (we’ll go with Merrick’s insipid MFA definition of what “literary” here…).

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