Other than mentioning the dueling op-eds at the Huffington Post, I’ve avoided the Chick Lit vs. Not Chick Lit debate because, well, I’ve got friends and colleagues in both camps and I’ve always held that “chick lit” is just a marketing label under which there’s some excellent social satire, and that the only thing that separates certain “literary” writers from the chick lit label isn’t even the polish of their prose, just the promotional efforts of their agents and publicists. So even though quite a few book reviewers have taken the opportunity provided by Elizabeth Merrick’s This Is Not Chick Lit to get some elitist condescension towards chick lit out of their system, I haven’t said anything… until St. Petersburg Times reviewer Colette Bancroft let loose some howling whoppers that I just couldn’t let slip.
“The women whose stories are collected here are not the party-girl likes of Plum Sykes and Candace Bushnell, who got their starts writing fashion copy and sex columns,” sneers Bancroft. Funny—you know who else got her start writing fashion copy? Dorothy Parker. Oh, and I guess Bancroft would like to ask Dawn Raffel to hand in her literary credibility card, since working as an editor for Oprah magazine probably means she can’t be a real writer. But wait, Bancroft’s not done yet: “Instead, these women have studied at the Iowa Writers Workshop, taught at Princeton and Sarah Lawrence, published in Granta and McSweeney’s.” Well, if you’ve been through a creative writing program, I suppose you must be a real writer…like Princeton graduate Jennifer Weiner, perhaps?
The banality continues as Bancroft digs into the individual stories. She thinks Jennifer Egan’s “Selling the General,” for example, “could be read as a dark parody of chick lit” because the protagonist’s a disgraced publicist (“a classic chick lit job”) whose only client is an international dictator. Get it? The writer has put fluffy and serious together, so it must be a parody of fluffy! Too bad it’s not particularly innovative: Helen Fielding already put fluffy and serious together ages ago in Cause Celeb. Don’t get me wrong; Egan’s story is good—in fact, it’s a perfect illustration of the arbitrary line between “very good chick lit” and “not chick lit.” Of course, it can’t be chick lit because Egan’s a National Book Award nominee… how soon critics forget, however, that before Look at Me got on the 2001 fiction shortlist, many of them were content to dismiss it as a potboiler about a model whose face gets disfigured in a car wreck. Mind you, they were lazy in doing so, but as Bancroft makes plain here, that’s something of an occupational hazard for book reviewers. (Not to waste too much time on the subject, but to suggest that “Curtis Sittenfeld’s ‘Volunteers Are Shining Stars’ gives a creepy twist to the baby hunger that strikes some childless women” is so deeply fundamental a misreading of the story that it would be enough to call the credibility of the entire article into question if by some miracle there wasn’t all that other evidence.) Fortunately, there’s usually one or two books a season that have already done all the thinking such reviewers need; this season, it appears to be This Is Not Chick Lit.