Last weekend I read "This is Not Chick Lit, Original Stories by America's Best Women Writers," edited by Elizabeth Merrick. As a contributor to "This is Chick-Lit," an anthology that was conceived as a response to that book, I was looking forward to reading it.
The stories in "This is Not Chick Lit" are definitely not chick lit; rather self-consciously so. As to whether or not the authors whose work appears here are "America's Best Women Writers," it's probably best to say simply that superlatives, when left in the wrong hands, can be dangerous things indeed.
Last year my first novel was published and as far as I was concerned it wasn't chick lit. When the publisher told me that they planned to market it as if it were, I agreed instantly. The label didn't sound insulting, it just seemed like smart marketing for a book that didn't fit easily into any specific genre. As far as I was concerned, I'd written a book, and I was over the moon that it was being published. When the cover art came it showed a slender girl in a little black dress perched precariously on sky-high stilettos. It sure looked like chick lit, and I was glad that it did.
Little did anyone know that the summer of 2005's hardcover fiction bestseller list would be ruled by a 656-page vampire book that was as critically acclaimed as it was popular. Vampire tales have long been known as category killers, no pun intended. There are vampire romances, novels of vampire erotica, and, yes, vampire chick lit. But I don't dislike vampire books or the authors who write them. Nor do I feel compelled to edit a collection of short stories called "This is Not a Vampire Story," and target as the audience the people who enjoy reading vampire books, with the conceit that they are in desperate need of having their horizons broadened. If you enjoy vampire books, buy them, read them, wear a turtleneck -- neither my nor any other non-vampire- tale tellers' career will suffer because of your choice.
If this comparison seems a little farfetched, I assure you it is not. "This is Not Chick Lit" was published to try to teach chick lit readers a lesson. "Chick lit's formula numbs our senses. Literature, by contrast, grants us access to countless new cultures, places, and inner lives," asserts Ms. Merrick in her collection's introduction. She also seems to believe that literary fiction is difficult for readers to find, as she writes. "It has become nearly impossible to enter a bookstore without tripping over a pile of pink books." Huh?
"This is Chick-Lit" is a collection of stories - all kinds - some wonderfully funny, some extremely clever and others that are more serious -- by 18 women writers who are proud to be part of the chick lit genre. Lauren Baratz-Logsted, who edited this collection and is herself the author of several chick lit books, is actually quite a "lit" herself, having contributed an excellent essay to "Flirting with Pride and Prejudice." She is also the author of 'the forthcoming "Vertigo," which its publisher bills as "a literary novel set in the Victorian era with erotic and suspense undertones."
When Lauren contacted me and asked me to contribute a short story to the collection, she included a link to a piece she guest-blogged on Beatrice.com. I'd been largely unaware of how deep the animosity between the "chicks" and the "lits" had become. The only real notice I'd taken was Curtis Sittenfeld's exceptionally nasty review of Melissa Bank's "The Wonder Spot" in the NYTBR. Reading that left me reeling from the idea that someone whose first novel was a wonderfully reviewed bestseller could choose to metaphorically kneecap another writer, Tonya Harding style.
I felt honored and privileged to have been invited to be a part of this collection. The premise seemed like a lot of fun, and above all, it was a very positive endeavor. The other writers who had already agreed to participate were a terrific group of women with whom I was glad to be associated, among them Raelynn Hillhouse, Jennifer Coburn, Harley Jane Kozak and Lauren herself.
"This is Not Chick Lit" is so soured by Merrick's introduction that it's hard to enjoy the 17 stories that follow. Merrick states, "Chick lit shuts down our consciousness. Literature expands our imaginations." She also notes that chick lit protagonists are white, and that "details about race and class are almost always absent." This is incredibly offensive and dismissive. Karen Siplin and Kayla Perrin are African-American writers who contributed to "This is Chick-Lit" and have been writing chick lit for years, with characters of many races. Another contributor, Cara Lockwood, is partially of Asian descent and has written chick lit about bi-racial characters.
The idea that the plot is "Girl in big city desperately searches for Mr. Right in between dieting and shopping for shoes," as noted on the back-cover copy of "This is Not Chick Lit" is incorrect and shows an unwillingness to really look at the genre with any degree of objectivity.
Merrick believes that chick lit's popularity is the reason that more "literary" women writers do not get published, and that when they do, their books get less attention than more commercial fare. This may be true, but it's purely a function of our free market economy. When it comes to review attention, literary novels receive much more ink.
Before I became involved in the whole "This Is Not" v. "This Is" debate, I thought of Elizabeth Merrick as a smart, tough woman who stood for something that mattered. While I didn't know her personally, I certainly respected her. She counted bylines and called attention, loudly, repeatedly and correctly, to the fact that women had far fewer bylines in The New Yorker than men. She produced two readings series, Cupcake and Grace, which provided fantastic, literary women writers a place to be heard. She has been a real champion for parity for women in magazine and book publishing. We share a same favorite author, Louise Erdrich, the writer I selected for "Reaching Across the Aisle," the appendix to "This is Chick-Lit." But recently she seems to have turned a good deal of her tremendous and wonderful energy into bashing the work of others.
In her introduction to "This is Not Chick Lit," Merrick says, "Literature employs carefully crafted language to expand our reality, instead of beating us over the head with clichés that promote a narrow worldview."
It's hard for me to support someone who can write that, when anyone who has written a book can certainly vouch for how difficult it is to create a story that will hold a reader's interest and let them care about the characters. That comes from the use of language, carefully crafted, and it is the only thing that counts, whether you're writing a literary novel, a chick lit book, or a blog post.
As for a narrow worldview, well, let's just say that I know one when I see one.
Read Elizabeth Merrick's's related post on Huffpo: "This Is Not Chick Lit: What's In A Title?"