Friday, April 22, 2011

A Visit from the Chick Squad

By: Ceilidh and Katya

I was rooting for Jennifer Egan this year when the Pulitzer Prize nominees were announced. I desperately wanted someone, anyone, other than Jonathan Franzen to win and a victory for Egan would mean another victory for women in literature. There’s still this archaic and misinformed assumption that women don’t write big, literary masterpieces because women only write for women (people who make this statement tend to conveniently forget people like Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Annie Proulx, Jane Smiley, etc, but I digress.)  It seems to have become a reoccurring theme that men are the ones who write the philosophical, strange and thoughtful books, while women focus on lighter, more easy-on-the-mind books (no doubt an extension of the boys-do-things-and-girls-are-for-decoration fallacy which Kat Banyard outlines in ‘The Equality Illusion’).

So, naturally, Egan’s victory is a huge event. But then, during her interview with the Wall Street Journal, she was asked the following question:

WSJ: Over the past year, there’s been a debate about female and male writers and how they come off in the press. Franzen made clear that “Freedom” was going to be important, while others say that Allegra Goodman was too quiet about “The Cookbook Collector.” Do you think female writers have to start proclaiming, “OK, my book is going to be the book of the century”?

Egan: Anyone can say anything, that’s easy. My focus is less on the need for women to trumpet their own achievements than to shoot high and achieve a lot. What I want to see is young, ambitious writers. And there are tons of them. Look at “The Tiger’s Wife.” There was that scandal with the Harvard student who was found to have plagiarized. But she had plagiarized very derivative, banal stuff. This is your big first move? These are your models? I’m not saying you should say you’ve never done anything good, but I don’t go around saying I’ve written the book of the century. My advice for young female writers would be to shoot high and not cower.*

The plagiarism scandal she’s referring to is about Kaavya Viswanathan, a Harvard student who, at 19, published a book called “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life”. Later, it was discovered that she had plagiarized whole passages from several well-known authors, such as Sophie Kinsella, Megan McCafferty, Meg Cabot, Salman Rushdie and Tanuja Desai Hidier.**

Well, here’s your tempest in a teacup brewing.

First of all, it was incredibly unprofessional and just downright rude of Egan to drag Megan McCafferty and the other plagiarised authors, into this for no reason. I don’t know if she’s read the Jessica Darling series – going by her general attitude I’m surprised she allows herself to read anything that’s not a Pulitzer Prize winner, to be honest – but it’s, for lack of a better work, incredibly snobby of her to just derisively refer to McCafferty’s work when the question had nothing to do with anything she really mentioned. It’s also worth noting that Egan doesn’t criticise the plagiarism itself, rather the fact that Viswanathan stole from work she considered lesser. See, aspiring writers: steal all your ideas from Franzen and John Updike, that’s a-okay!

Now, Egan’s point is not fundamentally offensive. The way I see it, her point is that women shouldn’t bow to the patriarchal assumption that they’re only qualified to write superficial prose and that they should feel free to aim for the heights. However, by going on to ‘illustrate’ her point by making references to YA and “chick-lit”, she shoots herself in the foot. She ends up implying that books by authors such as Megan McCafferty or Sophie Kinsella are somehow sub-par – by calling them ‘derivative’ and ‘banal’, Egan basically slams the whole genre in which they write.

In her attempt to ‘empower’ women writers, Egan ends up disenfranchising an entire spectrum of female authors. Of course, her rash statements could be chalked up on the excitement of the moment – after all, they interviewed her 20 minutes after she learned the news. I’m sure she didn’t realize the full implications of the statement. And this is further backed up by the fact that Megan McCafferty later announced on Twitter that she had received an apology from Egan. However, the question still remains, why don’t women writers get the recognition they deserve? And, more importantly – why is chick lit considered subpar?

Egan’s statements are really indicative of this general bias towards books for women, referred to by that dreaded moniker “chick-lit.” The term is frequently used derisively as if such books are lesser and not worthy of any other sort of reaction. There’s no real male equivalent to this either, further emphasising the so-called status quo, where men write for everyone and women are left to write about women’s issues. This also leads onto something that I’m sure has bugged many a book nerd: genre snobbery.

Now, Vinaya has already said her piece on genre snobbery, and it is truly sad that people actually need encouragement to think outside the box and try to see a book for its singular merits, instead of bumping it in the same cart with the rest of the genre. Genre fiction is still looked down upon to this day and so many books that are so obviously genre fiction are shelved in the more acceptable general fiction sections as if there’s something to be ashamed of.

Check out one of my all time favourite books, Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” It’s one of the best dystopian sci-fi novels ever written but how often do you see it in the science-fiction section of the bookshop? I’ve never seen it myself. What about the award winning “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuro Ishiguro? It’s clearly science fiction but no one ever refers to it as such. Kate Atkinson’s wonderful Jackson Brodie novels are apparently too literary to be shelved in the accurately marked crime section. Check out the nominees and winners of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and see how many of them are science fiction, or crime, or horror, or romance, or fantasy. Hell, how many of them aren’t about middle class straight white men, the dreaded default mode?

Here’s the honest truth – it’s freaking hard to write a great romance novel. It’s just as hard, if not harder, to write a horror book that genuinely scares the reader, or create an entirely new world for a sci-fi/fantasy story, or decipher a complex, gripping crime story. It’s also a serious challenge to write great young adult stories that really speak to teenagers. All of these things are worthy of our praise and our criticism. You do a disservice to a story if you dismiss it based on some preconceived notion you have of whether or not something is worthy. Jennifer Egan’s casual dismissal of chick-lit does a serious disservice to female writers everywhere, even if she is trying to dress it up as some sort of empowering message.

Here’s the thing – I love Megan McCafferty’s books. I love the Jessica Darling series. I devoured Perfect Fifths with the covers and can’t wait for Bumped. I love those books, not necessarily for the plot, which is, at times, silly, but because the characters are real. They leap from the pages. They’re fleshed out and flawed and absolutely beautiful. I discover myself through reading, and Megan’s books always made me feel like I found something to relate to.

Would I have found that place if the only books available for me were literary classics? Hell to the no! Have you seen these books? Have you any idea how hard they are to read? Try making a 13 year old read Anna Karenina through – you know you’re gonna fail, not because Tolstoi is a bad writer, but simply because it won’t hold their interest long enough. School teaches classics in a way to make children absolutely detest them – had I not been introduced to Pippi Longstocking, Harry Potter and Max, I don’t think I would have been the same person I am today.

I feel like I must evoke that scene in “Mona Lisa Smile” where Julia Roberts gets razzed for comparing Picasso’s work to the Sistine Chapel – yes, there isn’t much basis for comparison between those things. But in the long run, people still consider them to have pretty much an equal amount of merit. And I feel that it is the same in literature – things we consider banal, even silly might a few decades from now be studied in sociology classes in order to see how our generation worked.

Because we need that. We need the Jessicas and the shopaholics just as much as we need Zarathustra. We need them to inspire us and make us laugh when everything else is just so damn serious. And we needn’t snub women who do give us these laughs.

Not every book aims to be a Pulitzer winner. Some people do aim to write a book that’ll make people laugh as they read it on the beach, and that is in no way a lesser aim for a writer, regardless of sex. Maybe one day the Pulitzer committee will award a female science-fiction romance writer and all preconceptions about gender and genre will disappear. Until then, if you’re going to baselessly mock romances and declare chick-lit to be unworthy of your massive intellect and attention, I’m going to refer to every prize winning, worthy novel about a poor, middle class straight white man as dick-lit.

*Full interview can be found here
**Wikipedia article here.


  1. I don't want to undermine your point, because I agree with you wholeheartedly. But... if you want to argue that genre snubbing is wrong and needs to stop (it is and it does), then Margaret Atwood might not be the best example. If you look at her interviews, you'll see how she raises her hackles whenever somone dares to refer to her books as "science fiction". Oh no, she protests, I don't write sci-fi, I write experimental social fiction, speculative fiction and a million other things, not sci-fi. Her obvious shunning of everything associated with the sci-fi label might stem from the fact that sci-fi has long been seen as an "inferior genre", a collection of infantile fantasies about space ships and blasters written for nerdy high school students (and to some extend, it still is). Her persistence in cutting herself off from the sci-fi genre might have been one of the things that "saved" her books from being lumped with with other sci-fi works in bookstores. But the thing is: she still engaged in genre snubbing. Badly.

    Even though her novels contain a number of elements traditionally associated with sci-fi (genetic engineering, transgenic animals, xenotansplants, postapocalyptic worlds, etc.), she still fights the term tooth and nail, insists on calling Oryx and Crake an "adventure romance" and whatnot. And it's obvious she doesn't read or value other sci-fi works, because in her - supposedly - futuristic visions she tends to fall on painfully old concepts and ideas which the sci-fi genre has long since tested, chewed, digested and spat back out (for example, in Oryx and Crake people use the internet as they would use cable television in the 60s).

    Please, don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to bash Margaret Atwood on general principle - I hold some of her earlier works in high regard, and I think that Handmaid's Tale really is brilliant. What bugs me is the author's attitude and her doth-protest-too-much-ing, because it looks like she either has some personal beef with sci-fi or is trying to raise the perceived status of her works at the expense of an entire genre. Just my two cents.

  2. Thanks for reading. Yeah, Atwood might have been a dodgy example, that was my choice. I think The Handmaid's Tale is a superb book but it is clearly science-fiction. It's a shame an author I admire so much buys into the assumption that genre fiction is lesser in some manner because some of the most innovative and unique writing of the past few decades by women has been science-fiction or categorised as genre, like Ursula le Guin, Diana Wynne Jones, etc. I think we need several highly regarded authors of so-called literary fiction to declare their support for genre fiction and a distaste for the elitism that plagues literature. Here's hoping it happens!

  3. It's funny how books by guys like Bret Ellis and Chuck Palahnuiuk get praised for being original and literary and examples of great post modern writing. They're boring as shit -- that's my opinion. But something way more entertaining, like say, The Devil Wears Prada, instant chick lit. The Wonder Spot: chick-lit.

    Almost any contemporary fiction a woman writes is chick-lit or women's fiction, but any contemporary fiction a guy writes is literary fiction. People even say Jane Austen is chick lit now.

    Sure, there is a such thing as chick-lit. I don't deny it. But to bash everything that gets called chick-lit because apparently women can't write for anyone but women is ridiculous.

    What is women's fiction anyway? Why isn't there guy's fiction. It's like Asian fiction or African-America fiction. They get there own little special spot in a store because they aren't good enough, or real enough to sit with the other books. Take someone like Octavia Butler. Sure she writes Sci-Fi. But her sci-fi is so amazing it deserves more than just a Hugo or a Nebula. But because of the prejudice against genre fiction, it'll never get that.

    Never Let Me Go is a perfect example. That's sci-fi I never thought it would be counted as anything else, but it's literary? You're kidding me.

    I don't like romance stories -- specifically bodice rippers and erotica -- but I do like romance when it's presented in the scope of something else. Take Great Expectations, it centers around a romance. It's great literary fiction. I like the book, but why is it great fiction yet people try to bring down Jane Austen who writes about practically the same thing?

    Of course, misandrist fiction by women always gets accolades and gets taught in schools like crazy. Take The Red Tent. Complete man-hating garbage that teaches women they're better than the stupid sex-crazed men. In a way, women like Egan really set everyone behind.

  4. Beyond the issue chauvinism and author snobbery in the book world, I think we give 'literary' works too much credit at times. Let's be honest: if you asked the typical well-read person what his/her favorite books were, I would think that, at least eight times out of ten, the list would be a mixed bag of classics, genre fiction, and literary works. Basically, what matters isn't genre but the feelings a book invokes in a reader. (And literary fiction shouldn't be looked at as the 'gods' in the book world while genre fiction titles are just the 'mere mortals' forever reaching for heights they cannot reach. Both areas of literature have their merits and flaws.)

    Some of us get fooled into thinking that the only books that will survive are those that were of 'such great literary merit' to win awards such as the Pulitzer, but that's just not true. To say that would undermine works that have already stood the test of time even without the push of 'award status' to their names. (If it wasn't obvious enough, I often take awards with a grain of salt.)

    Anyway, this is definitely an issue of snobbery from authors all around, and I find that to be a sad, sad shame.

  5. To be honest, I rarely read anything "literary" because it just doesn't hold my attention. There are classics that I love, but on the whole they are not my thing. Of course, with the books I do like I look for a balance of entertaining content and meaningful content - there are certain popular books that I think are fairly devoid of both criteria - but I don't think it's fair for the so-called literary elite to look down on entire genres.

  6. "But she had plagiarized very derivative, banal stuff. "

    This is the line that makes me scratch my head a little. Would it have been better if she plagiarized something more "worthy?" I don't claim to be 100% original with everything I write, but I at least try to be creative. The borderline acceptance of plagiaristic content in the publishing industry these days (I mean, look at Eragon, City of ___, and all of the Twilight rehashes) is one of my biggest peeves. I know it's all in the interest of making money for some, but it really doesn't sit well with me. I find it strange that Egan's focus was to criticize what Viswanathan had stolen from, rather than the plagiarism itself.

  7. Dick-lit! Going to start using that. Very logical and well laid-out argument.

  8. As someone who writes YA, I can't get all that worked up about this. There's always been a tendency on part of 'literary' writers to bash commercial writers as banal and untalented. This is just another such example.

  9. I have to say...I agree with this post wholeheartedly. People judge too many books by their author's gender and the genre the book is. It's quite saddening because many good books don't get recognized.

  10. Awesome post, one of my favorites since I've started reading TBL. Anytime I get an eyeball roll from a genre snob, I'm sending the offender straight to this post.