Women's studies

Chick lit is often dissed for being trashy and dumb. Back off! These novels of fashion and family are recording women's history.

Published November 1, 2005 12:03PM (EST)

A harsh media spotlight has been trained on 28-year-old Lauren Weisberger since this month's publication of her second novel, "Everyone Worth Knowing." The $1 million follow-up to the bestselling "The Devil Wears Prada" tells the tale of a 27-year-old New Yorker who quits her finance job to become a publicist, allows her boss to whore her out to a repellent closeted playboy, and falls for the paid consort to a married socialite. (Along the way she learns a lot about luggage, nightclubs and the brand names of jeans.) The complaints that the book's mostly female critics have expressed -- that it is "fatuous" and "lackluster" -- mirror complaints about the literary vogue that produced it: chick lit.

For example: A New York Times joint review of "Everyone Worth Knowing" and Candace Bushnell's "Lipstick Jungle" noted, "It's refreshing, in the pool of chick lit, to float in the Machiavellian head-space of ruthless women for whom 'the rules' have nothing to do with husband-hunting." The New York Observer published a piece calling "Everyone Worth Knowing" "a perfect representative of this dusty, overly familiar and perhaps occasionally appealing genre" and cataloging chick lit's clichis: "A newly engaged best friend? An obsession with the Styles section? Bad takeout dinners and large, sugary drinks? These types of books have affected even the way New Yorkers see New York." (The Observer, where I used to work, played a significant role in creating a market for "these types of books" by publishing a column by Bushnell in the mid-'90s called "Sex and the City.")

Of course, chick-lit beat-downs are nothing new. In the decade or so that the genre has been popular, we have heard a repeated chorus of despair: that chick-lit novels like "Everyone Worth Knowing" are reducing literary heroines to shallow, one-dimensional clichis of urban femininity -- cosmos and clotheshorses and gays. Yet, Weisberger did not invent chick lit, nor is she particularly emblematic of it. "The Devil Wears Prada" was a hit not because of its revelations about single womanhood (the hallmark of the chick-lit genre) but because it dished dirt about Weisberger's former boss, Vogue editor Anna Wintour. Still, once the author had blown her insider wad, she decided to cash in on a hot genre, a decision that worked out well for her: She already has an advance for book No. 3.

Of course, at this point, we shouldn't be surprised by the treatment of Weisberger and her peers. Beating on "women's" fiction -- and dismissing certain literary trends as feminine rubbish -- has a history as long as the popular fiction itself. When the English novel was born in the 18th century, in part to feed a new readership of middle-class women, critics moaned about the intellect-eroding effects of sentimental fiction.

Irish writer Richard Steele, co-founder of the London periodical the Spectator, wrote in that publication in 1711 about someone whose "Brains are a little disordered with Romances and Novels." In 1747, English statesman Lord Chesterfield referred in a letter to "poets, romance, and novel writers" as "sentiment-mongers." Fictional prose was considered lightweight stuff: imaginative, fanciful, fluffy ... feminine.

Many of the earliest English novelists (Defoe, Richardson and Fielding) are held in high literary regard today, but we hear less about some of their popular female contemporaries, whose fiction was regarded with even more skepticism than most. A footnote in T.J. Mathias' 1798 satiric, reactionary poem "The Pursuits of Literature" mocks a batch of popular women writers, including sentimentalists like Charlotte Smith and the soap operatic Elizabeth Inchbald, calling them "ingenious ladies, yet they are too frequently, whining or frisking in novels, till our girls heads turn wild with impossible adventures..."

One early female English novelist to receive critical acclaim was Ann Radcliffe, whose formulaic gothics -- full of hermits, barons and pious women trapped in crumbling castles -- were bestsellers. Radcliffe was paid a then-staggering (Weisberger-esque) 500 pounds for her fourth novel, "The Mysteries of Udolpho," in 1794; 800 for her fifth, "The Italian," which she wrote when she was 33. Radcliffe, whom Walter Scott called "the first poetess of romantic fiction," inspired legions of imitators who were savaged by critics in a way that should be familiar to anyone who remembers the critical annoyance over the repeated aping of Helen Fielding's "Bridget Jones's Diary" in the late 1990s. (A 1999 London Times review of a new chick-lit title began with the sentence, "I blame Helen Fielding.")

But without Mathias' "frisking" women or Radcliffe and her mimics, we would likely not have "Jane Eyre" or "Frankenstein" or Edgar Allan Poe's "The Oval Portrait," which name-checks Radcliffe. We would certainly not have the same body of work by Jane Austen, who was influenced by Smith and Inchbald, and whose "Northanger Abbey" sends up and pays homage to "The Mysteries of Udolpho."

Even as it became clear that the novel was a literary form that was here to stay, critical hand-wringing did not abate. In fact, as more women threw their pens in the ring, it worsened. According to the Ladies Repository in 1845, "It is romance reading, more than everything else put together, that has so universally corrupted the tastes of the present age. If a man writes a book -- a work of profound study and solid merit, no body will read it." "Middlemarch" author George Eliot (nee Marian Evans) performed a merciless evisceration of her Victorian contemporaries in an 1856 essay called "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists," an essay that really has to be read to be appreciated, but which begins with her scorn for "the frothy, the prosy, the pious, [and] the pedantic" qualities of women's fiction that make up the "composite order of feminine fatuity." Mocking the clichi-laden plots of these silly novels, Eliot writes: "feelings are tried by seeing the noble, lovely, and gifted heroine pass through many mauvais moments but we have the satisfaction of knowing that ... her fainting form reclines on the very best upholstery, and that whatever vicissitudes she may undergo, from being dashed out of her carriage to having her head shaved in a fever, she comes out of them all with a complexion more blooming ... than ever."

This kind of criticism sounds a lot like the insults that have been hurled at chick lit. In 1999, Lola Young, judging the Orange Prize for women's fiction, excoriated what was then a mostly British fad, calling it a "cult of big advances going to photogenic young women to write about their own lives, and who they had to dinner, as if that is all there was to life." In 2001, Booker Prize nominee Beryl Bainbridge echoed Eliot in calling chick lit "a froth sort of thing." She was supported by Doris Lessing, who wondered why women felt compelled to write such "instantly forgettable" books.

But how are we to be sure about which books are "instantly forgettable"? The first American bestseller was Susannah Rowson's "Charlotte Temple" (published in England in 1791, the U.S. in 1794), a novel that 20th century critic Leslie Fiedler described as "subliterate myth." A contemporary critic of Rowson's suggested that the author was "evidently unaccustomed to the use of a pen" (a characterization that should give pause to all those Believer acolytes who think that snark is a recent innovation in literary criticism). But "Chartlotte Temple" was, as we say today, critic-proof.

The book was part of a vogue for seduced-and-abandoned narratives, in the tradition of Samuel Richardson's "Clarissa" and William Hill Brown's "The Power of Sympathy," and readers could not get enough of the clichis on which it and its sisters relied: a dim but virtuous heroine, a (sometimes Gallic) rogue, stillborn babies. To read the late 18th century crop of seduced-and-abandoned novels might create the impression, as critic Carl Van Doren wrote in 1921, that "that age [was] one of the most illicit on record, if they did not understand [that Samuel] Richardson's Lovelace [the seducer from "Clarissa"] is merely being repeated in the different colors and proportions." The notion that readers might get the wrong idea about a period based on the oft-mimicked formula of one of its popular genres sounds like the Observer's concern that chick lit's clichis change "the way that even New Yorkers see New York."

Like Jennifer Weiner's blockbuster "In Her Shoes" and "Devil," "Charlotte" was adapted for theatrical production. A gravestone in New York's Trinity churchyard bore the name of the book's doomed heroine, and fans visited the site to pay their tearful respects, sort of like those "Sex and the City" bus tours to Manhattan's Magnolia Bakery. It remained one of the bestselling novels in America until "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in 1852, and according to Van Doren's 1921 introduction, "Charlotte" "was known in every household in the Connecticut Valley," a statement that would likely apply to both "Bridget Jones's Diary" and "The Devil Wears Prada" today.

"Charlotte Temple" has been through more than 200 editions and is read today in colleges and universities -- not simply for the basics about what women wore and what their social season was like, though those things are there. Embedded in its reductive formula is half of our social history, a record of the female religious, economic and political experience that we can't get from political treatises or war stories because women were shut out of public spheres that produced documentation. Charlotte is an immigrant to the States from England, as was Rowson, and the book itself; "Charlotte" provides us with a unique reading of the Revolutionary rupture between Britain and the nascent United States. That books of its kind were denigrated for their cheap sentimentality and frankly feminine shortcomings does not sap them of value; they are women's history, and their popularity only validates that.

Chick lit provides a comparable female historical record today. Women may not be shut out of the public sphere, but the genre is helping to chronicle their journey inside it. There's chick lit about male-dominated politics (Kristin Gore's "Sammy's Hill" and Ana Marie Cox's forthcoming "Dog Days") and Hollywood (Rachel Pine's "The Twins of Tribeca") as well as the more traditionally feminine world of baby-sitting ("The Nanny Diaries"). In fact, most of these books don't differentiate themselves from each other by their subtly distinct romantic plotlines but by their varied professional ones. Thanks to this genre we can read about women zoologists and doctors, Peace Corps volunteers and advertising executives, chemists and elementary school teachers.

At its best, the chick-lit template works like "The Aristocrats": It's the familiar skeleton on which any number of riffs on modern womanhood can hang, allowing a breadth of narrative possibility. There is teen chick lit and lesbian chick lit. Weiner's novels are about overweight heroines. Alisa Valdés-Rodríguez, author of the bestselling "The Dirty Girls Social Club," has said that she "couldn't find in pop culture anywhere people like me and my Latina friends who went to university." Thanks to chick lit, Valdés-Rodríguez could tell the stories she hadn't been able to unearth as a reader. Last year, Red Dress Ink, the division of Harlequin devoted to chick-lit paperbacks, published "Flyover States" by Grace Grant and P.J. MacAllister, about two grad students, one black, one white, at a Midwestern University. "Flyover" is mostly about romantic imbroglios, but it's also about race and alienation; it refers less to Lizzie Grubman than it does to Lacan and Zizek. That doesn't make it a great book; but it does make it an interesting one. Recently published is Tara McCarthy's "Love Will Tear Us Apart," a chick-lit novel about conjoined twins named Flora and Fauna. Seriously.

Most women of the 17th century could not have imagined that one day seduction narratives might sit on their nightstands in place of Bibles. Likewise, our mothers, for whom writing about sex or career was often a necessarily political statement, would not have imagined that books about pink drinks and Prada shoes would one day shoot out of printing plants by the truckload. While there may not be Revolutionary anxiety coded in fictive Jimmy Choo receipts, the material specifics do stand in for larger issues: For the first time in Western history, a population of (privileged, urban) adult women is single by choice; they live alone; they can have sex with whomever they want when they want; they have incomes with which to buy overpriced footwear and stupid cocktails. Sometimes a cosmo is just a cosmo; in chick lit it may be shorthand for an independence and selfishness that is a revolution of its own. Chick lit chronicles exactly what the sensationalist gothics and pious sentimentalists could not: the young female experience of professional, sexual and economic power.

Margaret Atwood has herself claimed to have written the first chick-lit novel, 1969's "The Edible Woman." When pressed by an interviewer about how hers is better than what's out there now, Atwood responded, "Well, some chick-lit books are better than others. I thought Bridget Jones was quite a howl. There's good, bad and mediocre in everything ... So ... if it's about young women we're not supposed to take it seriously?"

It is the fear of not being taken seriously that surely undergirds the urge to blast chick lit. Female critics -- the genre's most frequent, and thus its loudest -- are understandably afraid of having their entire sex tarred with the same "frothy" brush as their chick-lit writing counterparts. When Curtis Sittenfeld wrote this year that calling a book chick lit is akin to calling a woman a slut, she also asked, "Doesn't the term basically bring us all down?" It's the same anxiety that's expressed by Eliot in "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists," when she imagines a man's reaction to these books: "When a woman gets some knowledge, see what use she makes of it! ... look at her writings! She mistakes vagueness for depth, bombast for eloquence, and affectation for originality; she struts on one page, rolls her eyes on another, grimaces in a third, and is hysterical in a fourth."

This fear is valid, especially in a cultural atmosphere in which "women's magazine" is a derogatory term but Esquire routinely wins National Magazine Awards, in which Weisberger and Bushnell merit a combined review but a first novel by a man about a single guy in his 20s looking for love and professional fulfillment gets lauded in a full-cover review on the front of the New York Times Book Review.

But the urge to condemn chick lit is also born of a shame about our own femininity, a desire to distance ourselves not just from bad writing, but from retailed versions of womanhood that might affect the way we are perceived by men and by each other. If chick lit chronicles female desire for sex and companionship, there's nothing dishonest there. We may not all be husband hunting, but would many of us deny that a quest for love is a part of our lives? We may not all be cosmo slurpers, but most of us do enjoy socializing with our friends; many do have ideas about how we'd like to dress if we could afford it; many of us probably even compare our fortunes to those of our contemporaries -- whether or not it's by reading the wedding announcements in the Styles section. Of course we don't want to be reduced to these qualities. But the impulse to reject novels that lay them bare is a form of self-flagellation that suggests that even as we move further into traditionally male spheres, the pressure to pass -- to act like men -- still persists.

So perhaps rather than punishing ourselves for our embarrassing femininity, we should take Jane Austen's advice from "Northanger Abbey." Writing about the many slights against the novel by fellow novelists, she recommends, "Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers."

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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