You know chick-lit novels, those pastel bonbons that have turned your local Barnes & Noble into a gingerbread house of crap writing. Maybe you’ve even bought a book or two, anything from Candace Bushnell’s 4 Blondes, to one of Sophie Kinsella’s innumerable Shopaholic titles. A little harmless beach reading, you thought at the time. Doesn’t hurt anybody.
Well, I know chick lit. I used to read, edit and publish it, and I’m here to tell you: Chick lit does hurt people. Chick lit hurts America.
Chick lit claims to be representative of women’s lives, their hopes, fears, dreams and values. But it’s actually about white, upper-middle-class American and Western European women. Chick-lit defenders like to point out that there is black and Latina chick lit, chick lit for older women, but this is all tokenism—a chance for women of every color and age to be portrayed as annoying, shallow twits. Just like George W. claims to be a regular Joe, chick lit claims to be the story of the Everywoman, when really, it’s the story of Some Women of a Certain Class. Which is pretty ironic, given that chick-lit authors cry elitism more often than their characters accidentally trip on their own designer shoes and fall into tall, handsome strangers.
Last October, in Harper’s Magazine, Lewis Lapham published an article called “We Now Live in a Fascist State.” In it, he discusses the different ways nations, including the US, oppress their people. One of those ways is to devalue intellectualism and criticism. Lapham writes, “By removing the chore of having to think for oneself, one frees up more leisure time to enjoy the convenience of the Internet services that know exactly what one likes to hear and see and wear and eat.” And read, I would add.
It’s easy to see that Lapham is criticizing the Bush administration—from its hypocritical portrayal of political foes as elitist, to accusations that its critics are in league with terrorists—but it is also directed at our culture in general, which is the place where anti-intellectualism becomes accepted. In our culture, the people who dare to speak against chick lit are accused of being literary snobs. In our culture, there is no longer a difference between snobbery and discerning taste.
When reading the arguments of the defenders of chick lit, it’s easy to see that the Bush-styled propaganda of the last few years has finally pervaded our cultural consciousness to the point that we have turned it into our own. Chick-lit supporters accuse their critics of snobbery and anti-feminism. Jennifer Weiner, author of Good in Bed and a star of the genre, has said of the debate: “It bothers me as a feminist that these are other women throwing stones; we’re all women and we’re all writers.” Um, which is why I own every word Ann Coulter has ever drooled onto a page and would never dream of calling her a shrieking cuntbag in public? Not so much. “If you’re not with us, you’re with the terrorists!” Right, Ms. Weiner?
The only issue here is the one that the chick literati never address but instead try to obfuscate with the red herrings of feminism and elitism, which is that their writing is hackneyed and boring and bad. Point out to a chick-lit author that her writing is inferior and formulaic, and she will call you a vengeful, misogynistic stone-thrower.
But while the work may not hold up under scrutiny, the sales do. Beyond adding to the cultural cesspool, what’s dangerous about chick lit is that it fills trade slots at publishing companies that used to be given to literary fiction. Unlike romance or sci-fi, chick lit is a genre that is in direct competition with literature because of its price point and packaging. Romance novels look like romance novels. I know not to buy a book with a longhaired, bare-chested hunk monkey on the cover if I don’t want to read one. But chick lit premiered in hardcover and then moved to trade paperback. And though they’re all about boys, there are seldom any boys on the cover. Brilliant! The genre succeeded exactly because it looked more literary than its embarrassing romance counterpart. You could take Bridget Jones’s Diary on the T and not look like a dateless loser. And while this meant huge sales, it also meant that forever after, serious women’s literature was either overlooked for chick lit, or worse, made to look like chick lit.
The truth is that chick lit is bad for America because it’s bad for ambitious, literary writers, male or female. And that means it’s bad for all of us. As America increasingly devalues intellectual rigor, education and compassion, it becomes harder and harder to find a good book. And believe me—the ex-fiction editor—it’s not because they’re not out there. It’s because the market is saturated by bad writers claiming to rep for all women, crowding the bookshelves, making sure their one marginal, vapid story is produced ten million times over, like some pretty pink version of hell.