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Why Does Maureen Dowd Hate Popular Women?

“Hey, Maureen, 2003 called,” quips Whitney Gaskell, “it wants its column back.” Not without reason, that’s become one of the easiest comebacks to Maureen Dowd‘s handwringing over bestselling chick lit writers; at my other blog,, Sarahbeth Purcell dates Dowd (right) all the way back to 1997. (Kyra Davis also shares sarcasm-laced gratitude for the slam against her genre.) “Her column breaks no new ground, offers no new evidence, and it’s marred by some impressively lazy arguments,” Jennifer Weiner writes, before tearing into one especially insipid element of Dowd’s broadside: “I seriously doubt that the readers who enjoy their Jane Green, Sophie Kinsella, Emily Giffin et al will be throwing down their pink books and making a mad dash for The Red Badge of Courage on Leon Wieseltier‘s say-so. I can’t speak for anyone else, but as for me? I read it in high school.”

Whitney Gaskell’s email went on to refute Dowd’s dismissal of the genre as irrelevant frippery. “How many chick lit critics have actually read beyond the cover copy? They always seem to miss the fact that behind the pink covers, books in this genre are often thoughtful and richly drawn, covering topics from rape to infidelity, from infertility to finding one’s path in life,” Gaskell emails. “In other words, they’re books that are relevant and real to the women who read them. I wonder if Ms. Dowd and Mr. Wieseltier—who pompously decries chick lit as too fluffy and thus inappropriate for these serious times—have similar objections to readers picking up the latest Carl Hiaasen or Robert Parker? Or is it only offensive to them when women writers turn their pens to commercial fiction?”

“One of the many things I admire about men is that they are unashamedly comfortable about their tastes in relaxation,” concurs British novelist Lauren Henderson, who’s penned several mysteries and romantic comedies as well as Jane Austen’s Guide to Dating, in support of that idea. “The venom with which Dowd spits out the words ‘Harlequin romances’ suggests a hate of her own gender—not to mention a narrowminded attitude that assumes that a woman can’t enjoy novels by Sophie Kinsella as well as those by Toni Morrison.” She adds that the best writers offered to readers as chick lit are “funnier, snappier, and write considerably better” than Dowd does while trying to criticize the genre, sniffing: “Someone making snotty remarks about ‘Sex and the City reruns’ should try a little harder to sound less like a poor imitation of Carrie Bradshaw.” (Then again, Lauren Lipton remarks, “Here’s a gal whose livelihood is based on a tiresome catty-chick schtick; reading her column is like being forced to listen to some endlessly snippy, shallow sorority girl.”)

Stella Duffy, Henderson’s comrade in the “Tart City” movement of women crime writers, advances this theme further in her comments. “When (name any woman writer, ever) writes about family/relationships she is considered domestic. When Mike Leigh does exactly the same (only with added shouting by the women, which he equates with ‘character’) he is considered universal,” Duffy observes. “Dowd is only reiterating the classic view that men’s work is valid when women’s is for women only. We know the stats: Women read women and men, men read men. That’s it. That’s how it is. And until we change that one, what is considered ‘women’s fiction’ will continue to be denigrated, by both women and men, because it’s an easy buck to slag it off. It is a feminist issue. But it might require the women—and men—involved (on both sides of the fence, those successful in the work and those denigrating it) to get involved in the discussion to make a difference.”

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