The Unnecessary Slam on and Label of “Chick Lit”

In a recent piece in The New York Times, Jennifer Weiner remarked rather acidly that women writers are often demeaned for writing about themselves whereas men are characterized as writing about lofty theoretical topics and thus praised. She observes that Bill O’Reilly wrote a book of fiction years ago about a reporter who turned into a killer. If we apply the standards of chick lit to O’Reilly’s novel, Weiner suggests, O’Reilly will experience firsthand how women authors are demeaned and diminished in the universe of writers. He deserves nothing less, she posits wryly.

I think the assumptions undergirding the thinking about and explaining chick lit are misguided. As male and female authors, we shouldn’t be embarrassed about writing that reflects real life, real feelings and lived in the trenches experiences. We may write differently about war but does that make it less valuable and insightful? And here’s a catch as Weiner notes: chick-lit is a word ironically used to describe everything women write. Seriously. I guess that means that I write chick lit, both because I am a woman and because I reference personal experiences in virtually everything I publish --- blogs, articles, books.

Let me explain. If people accuse me of writing about topics that are informed by life experience (my own included), I do not see that as an insult. Since when is theory – delinked from reality – the paradigm of fiction or non-fiction success?

Embedded in the chick lit observations is the assumption that writing about oneself intentionally necessarily produces a weak literary product. Second, there is a belief that women are writing about themselves even when they are not doing so with psychological awareness and that too is revelatory of the female gender's weakness as an author. Finally, there is an assumption that quality writing can occur only or primarily when divorced from one’s person. All three assumptions are wrong.

Here’s my view – which stands in sharp contrast to these assumptions. Every time we write, we are reflecting ourselves, whether the work is fiction or non-fiction. What we choose to write about, how we write, the examples we use, the characters we create --- these are all reflections at some level of the author. Whether we are sufficiently self-aware is a totally different issue.

Many years ago, I wrote a book on our bankruptcy system, suggesting the collateral impact of debt on those engaged with the debtor directly and indirectly; I focused on community impacts of business insolvency. Who would have known that debt and the obligations money creates are issues prevalent in my own upbringing? And, does that realization diminish the power of the book’s argument? Indeed, for some readers, the support of community seemed “soft,” in a field like insolvency that lauds “hardness.”

Next, when we write fiction, why is it even questioned that the author’s life and life experiences inform how she or he reflects on life? Isn’t it obvious that we write not only from our brain but also from our lived experiences – even if we don’t know that is what we are doing? Haven’t psychiatrists done, somewhat controversially to be sure, psychoanalytic interpretations of literature? Isn’t it possible that outsiders see psychological conundrum that the author does not see?

Recently, I wrote a children’s book, with no express intention of saying that the story was actually my story. Indeed, it was not until a child at a book reading asked: “Are you Lady Lucy?” Yipes. The child picked up something I did not intend and did not see as a generalizable matter. And the answer to that question – if I am open and honest – is yes (to a certain extent). The final test Lady Lucy takes, for those who have read the book, is a test I take daily.

My newest book, Breakaway Learners, is at once autobiographical and deeply informed by my own life experiences. Does that diminish the impact and accuracy of the book? Since when is lived experience a negative and not generalizable? Don’t we want people who are informed by what occurs in the trenches and in real life?

Ask this question too: why do we assume that we can divorce our mind from our emotions? Our emotions are not emanating from our liver; they too are housed in our minds. OK, a math text may not support this thesis but a research project on the student disciplinary process may well be informed by one’s own life experience and that of their children. We are keen apparently on showing that quantitative data is vastly better and more important than qualitative data. Is that because one springs from the brain and not the heart? How foolish can we be as we reflect on human nature – and what makes up the whole person? And, quantitative data still need analysis and that is done by people -- and their interpretations may differ.

If chick lit means literature written by women that reflects life experience and emotion – whether that is fiction or non-fiction – then I will accept the moniker happily. I can say then, with pride, that I produce quality work informed by life experience whether that is a children’s book or an adult book or a coffee table book. The flaws in Bill O’Reilly’s novel are not because what he wrote was autobiographical; it is because he wrote a bad book. Don’t label him a writer of chick lit; that’s an insult to chick lit.

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