So many of us wondered what made Amy Sutherland's recent New York Times piece "What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage" one of the most emailed articles of all time. The piece was insightful, sure, but the most emailed of all time? Could it have had to do with the title?
I've been thinking a lot about this--the question of titles--in regard to my recent controversial anthology This Is Not Chick Lit: Original Stories by America's Best Women Writers (Random House $13.95). Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine a national debate would erupt from the book's title. Chick lit writers are furious! Who do these literary fiction writers think they are?! It's so sexist to suggest not all writing by women is exactly the same! Panels have been held around town on "the question of chick lit." Countless articles have been written on the subject.
My anthology, which includes new short stories by writers like Jennifer Egan, Francine Prose, Curtis Sittenfeld and Lynne Tillman, is meant to celebrate serious writing by women. This Is Not Chick Lit is simply making a statement about another kind of writing by women-- a statement that would otherwise get lost if I called the book, say, Really Great Short Stories by Women. Still, chick lit writers are miffed enough to publish a retaliatory anthology titled This Is Chick Lit (the first sentence of which is "This collection was born out of anger"). Meow.
Look: This Is Not Chick Lit puts a spotlight on serious women literary writers, who are, by the way, having a true artistic blossoming right now, a golden literary moment, though you wouldn't know that just from looking around at the bookstore. Women writers of literary fiction aren't getting the same airtime as either our big boy books (a phrase I believe was coined by Alice Sebold to refer to the serious literary tomes that win most of the big awards) or the pink-covered chick lit genre multiplying wildly--more feet! more purses! more stilettos! (still, all these years after Bridget Jones, it's true) — at the front of your local bookstore.
The claws have come out, however, in this strong response to This Is Not Chick Lit, and some chick lit writers have expressed extreme opinions on the very notion that other kinds of work by women might deserve some space in the front of the bookstore. Quick to criticize any detractors of their genre, some chick lit authors frequently suggest that we need more, not less, light escapist entertainment in these post-9/11 times. Might a quick round through your television channels this very moment suggest otherwise? More power to these writers if they can come up with something as complex and delightful as a Busby Berkeley musical from the 30s, that distraction from the Depression--fine. But one more realist, formulaic novel about a girl in a low-level media job shopping for a man? Exactly how does that lift our spirits the same way an elaborately choreographed musical number with headdresses and a fountain can? (Honestly I would be thrilled to no end to see such a finale in a chick lit novel--who wouldn't? Aspiring chick lit writers of America, consider it a challenge.)
Another frequent, defensive chorus often goes like this: "But Jane Austen wrote chick lit!" In Austen's time, of course, women needed men for basic economic survival, and without a shrewd marriage could easily be out on the street or working in the scullery (and if you've ever watched PBS's reality show Manor House you know exactly how appealing a scullery maid's fourteen-hour day of physical labor seems). In Austen's time, the stakes involved in marriage were simply far, far higher, therefore the story more compelling. To limit our narrative about women in the twenty-first century to one ur-myth of a young and fashionable urban quest for a husband isn't simply untrue to the complexity of women's lives today, it's dull after awhile: the stakes are so low. Husbands aren't that hard to find, it turns out, and if the city-girl protagonist isn't working the street corner or in a basement doing hand washing fourteen hours a day at the beginning of the book (um: pretty much guaranteed she's not), she's surely not going to descend to such misery by page 302 simply by remaining single.
So, what did Shamu teach me about chick lit? Titles matter. Look, there's a war on complex thought in this country, and during a time when only Oprah, it seems, can get people to buy literary fiction, if the title of my book opens the door to a much larger audience reading eighteen amazing women writers they might not otherwise run across, then my job is accomplished.
By the way, anyone see that movie Snakes on a Plane?
Read Rachel Pine's related post on Huffpo: "This Is Chick Lit: Sick Of Being Kicked Around"