Fun Frothy Fem­i­nism

It turns out that the state of chick lit is strong— just don’t call it that.

Fashion (Canada) - - The Market | Moments - By Sab­rina Mad­deaux

By the time I reached univer­sity, I knew the ac­cept­able an­swer to “Who’s your favourite au­thor?” should un­der no cir­cum­stances be “So­phie Kin­sella.” De­spite her back cat­a­logue of New York Times bestsellers—in­clud­ing the in­sanely suc­cess­ful Con­fes­sions of a Shopa­holic series—it wasn’t pru­dent to cite as your scribe of choice a pretty young wo­man who wrote mostly about pretty young women and their dal­liances with men, shoes and ca­reer chaos. Not if you wanted to be taken se­ri­ously, that is. No, you were much bet­ter off cit­ing Noam Chom­sky, Kurt Von­negut or, hell, even Stephen King. Chick lit, the sort of nov­els Kin­sella wrote, were for silly women: the type who can’t ex­er­cise a mod­icum of self-re­straint when in driv­ing dis­tance of an end-of-sea­son sale. When Emily Gif­fin’s first novel, Some­thing Bor­rowed, hit stores in 2005, with that giant en­gage­ment ring and cutesy low­er­case type­face on its pas­tel pink cover, I steered clear of it like it was a bot­tle of birth­day-cake vodka. When Gif­fin was her­alded as one of the big­gest chick lit nov­el­ists of all time by ev­ery­one from The New York Times (in the Style sec­tion, nat­u­rally) to Buz­zfeed, my stance was qui­etly reaf­firmed. “I’ve never writ­ten chick lit,” de­clares Gif­fin when I speak with her over the phone. “My char­ac­ters aren’t sit­ting in swanky bars, drink­ing mar­ti­nis and shoe shop­ping; I’ve al­ways dealt with nu­anced re­la­tion­ship is­sues and the messi­ness of life. If a man wrote the same sto­ries, it wouldn’t be called chick lit.”

Gif­fin, who was briefly a lawyer with a Man­hat­tan firm be­fore be­com­ing a nov­el­ist, knows how to make a point: “Nora Ephron is con­sid­ered a rom­com writer, and Woody Allen is given all kinds of ac­co­lades. They both write re­la­tion­ship-driven sto­ries about peo­ple sort­ing out their emo­tions. How does Woody Allen get more weight than Nora Ephron?”

It’s not some­thing you’ll hear Gif­fin, fresh off the book tour for her in­stant best­seller, All We Ever Wanted, talk about of­ten. Af­ter all, she ad­mits to be­ing the ben­e­fi­ciary of some savvy mar­ket­ing on the part of her pub­lisher, chang­ing the ti­tle of her first book from its work­ing ti­tle, Rolling the Dice, to Some­thing Bor­rowed and putting a pink cover on it when the chick lit genre was ex­plod­ing with hits like Brid­get Jones’s Di­ary and The Devil Wears Prada. “I usu­ally dance around these ques­tions; but it’s the end of my tour and, what the heck, I’m just go­ing to tell the truth here,” Gif­fin tells me.

Per­haps Lau­ren Weis­berger, the name be­hind The Devil Wears Prada, Ev­ery­one Worth Know­ing and new

re­lease When Life Gives You Lu­l­ule­mons, was of the same mind when she flat out told me she didn’t want to an­swer ques­tions about her ex­pe­ri­ence as a fe­male au­thor and stonewalled any dis­cus­sion of fem­i­nism with one-word answers and po­lite nods when we chat­ted. How­ever, it seems more likely that Gif­fin and Weis­berger are two dif­fer­ent women who aim to write two very dif­fer­ent types of nov­els.

Weis­berger fo­cuses on writ­ing “fun, en­gag­ing books that make peo­ple laugh,” while Gif­fin prides her­self on her nu­anced char­ac­ters, like that of a boy who’s badly burned in a camp­fire or a young un­wed mother who se­cretly gives up her baby for adop­tion. Her new re­lease, All We Ever Wanted, tack­les a #MeToo-style sex­ual as­sault along­side is­sues of clas­sism, racism and sub­stance abuse. That the two women’s works are pack­aged un­der the mis­nomer “chick lit” is at best non­sen­si­cal and at worst blatantly sex­ist.

It’s ironic that the term was first used iron­i­cally in 1995 by Cris Mazza and Jef­frey DeShell as the ti­tle for their edited an­thol­ogy of “post­fem­i­nist” short-fic­tion writ­ing, Chick Lit: Post­fem­i­nist Fic­tion. And while it has fallen out of favour these days, as buzzy mar­ket­ing terms tend to do, around the mid-aughts it was widely used to de­scribe nov­els writ­ten by fe­male au­thors for pre­sumed fe­male au­di­ences. While com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful, chick lit nov­els were of­ten dis­missed by crit­ics. The re­view from The New York Times for Brid­get Jones’s Di­ary was scathing: “Brid­get is such a sorry spec­ta­cle, wal­low­ing in her man-crazed help­less­ness, that her fool­ish­ness can­not be ex­cused.”

Over the years, fe­male au­thors have gone to bat­tle over the term, with some, like Jenny Col­gan and Jen­nifer Weiner, launch­ing a pas­sion­ate de­fence of their genre and oth­ers, like Dame Beryl Bain­bridge and Doris Less­ing, declar­ing it dam­ag­ing to fe­male writ­ers. “It’s a pity that so many young women are writ­ing like that […] It would be bet­ter, per­haps, if they wrote books about their lives as they re­ally saw them and not these help­less girls, drunken, wor­ry­ing about their weight and so on,” Less­ing told BBC Ra­dio 4’s To­day. (Ouch.)

As the new fem­i­nist re­sis­tance and the #MeToo move­ment took hold, chick lit—both the term and the genre—seemed in­creas­ingly out of touch. While the mar­ket flooded with fem­i­nist-y and in­creas­ingly di­verse works by fe­male writ­ers (Rox­ane Gay’s Bad Fem­i­nist, Lilly Singh’s How to Be a Bawse, Cat Mar­nell’s How to Mur­der Your Life, Tif­fany Had­dish’s The Last Black Uni­corn, Durga Chew-Bose’s Too Much and Not the Mood and Alana Massey’s All the Lives I Want), where were the di­verse, crowd-pleas­ing fe­male­cen­tric nar­ra­tives? Where was the woke chick lit?

As I chat with Gif­fin, it be­comes clear that per­haps some of the pro­gres­sive and com­plex com­mer­cial women’s fic­tion has been there all along, hid­den un­der pas­tel colours and glossy mar­ket­ing cam­paigns. “It doesn’t of­fend me to be cat­e­go­rized as chick lit, but I think it’s un­for­tu­nate that peo­ple who would con­nect with these char­ac­ters might not read my books be­cause they don’t think they would en­joy chick lit,” she says.

But there are signs that things are chang­ing. This June, cov­er­age of pre­vi­ously un­known 27-year-old writer Fa­tima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us struck a new tone. Her novel is about an In­dian-Amer­i­can fam­ily who strug­gles with her­itage, death, ar­ranged mar­riages and opi­oid ad­dic­tion. Its cover art isn’t dis­sim­i­lar to many of Gif­fin’s ti­tles, and it has the added bur­den of be­ing the first novel from Sarah Jes­sica Parker’s new im­print, SJP for Hog­a­rth. Five years ago, A Place for Us would have suf­fered a fate sim­i­lar to that of Some­thing Bor­rowed. This year, it was pos­i­tively re­viewed in the Books sec­tion of both The New York Times and The Wash­ing­ton Post, with the lat­ter run­ning the head­line “Sarah Jes­sica Parker Thinks She Knows What You Should Read. She’s Right.”

But there’s also an emerg­ing co­hort of au­thors de­ter­mined to em­brace the fun, frothy na­ture of stereo­typ­i­cal chick lit while fea­tur­ing strong fe­male char­ac­ters and themes rang­ing from racism to LGBTQ is­sues. One of the most suc­cess­ful re­cent ex­am­ples comes from Toronto-based de­but nov­el­ist Uzma Jalalud­din. “Read­ers are tired of hear­ing the same sto­ries of of­ten­times wealthy mid­dle-class young sin­gle girls who are nav­i­gat­ing ca­reers and then fall­ing in love with some­one un­ex­pected. And that per­son is al­ways white.”

In her book Aye­sha at Last, Jalalud­din spins Pride and Prej­u­dice into a mod­ern rom­com set in an In­dian Mus­lim com­mu­nity. The book feels like a light beach read while ad­dress­ing work­place dis­crim­i­na­tion, Mus­lim stereo­types and the com­plex­i­ties of be­ing a sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion im­mi­grant. “I want to write di­verse sto­ries that aren’t just about sad im­mi­grants or fol­low the trope of a South­east Asian wo­man who doesn’t have a lot of power un­til she em­braces a Western out­look on life,” says Jalalud­din. “I also wanted to write a re­ally funny ro­man­tic com­edy.”

With women fi­nally start­ing to do away with the idea that they can only be one thing—stylish or smart, sexy or ma­ter­nal, ro­man­tic or log­i­cal—so fol­lows chick lit. Other woke works break­ing through the fold in­clude Painted Hands, the story of a “Mus­lim bad girl” who en­coun­ters “un­likely men” and geopo­lit­i­cal firestorms; Great Bones, about a wo­man who writes wildly suc­cess­ful greet­ing cards but “couldn’t find the right girl if you stuffed her into a Subaru full of les­bians”; and The Reg­u­lars, which is de­scribed as Girls meets Brid­get Jones’s Di­ary and tack­les is­sues of self-es­teem, fem­i­nism, bi­sex­u­al­ity and diver­sity. There’s also a great cameo by a giant black dildo “the size of a child’s arm” named Mor­gan Free­man.

It may take years for to­day’s emerg­ing nov­el­ists to turn into es­tab­lished house­hold names with mul­ti­ple bestsellers. In the mean­time, those look­ing for fun, fem­i­nist reads should take heed of the old cliché and not judge a book by its pos­si­bly pink cover.

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