The devil wears Old Navy

Can chick lit survive the recession?

Published August 13, 2009 6:14PM (EDT)

Those who believe one can be too rich or too thin -- or at least those whose eyes promptly start to bleed when reading about the excessive pursuit of either -- might have more options for reading material in the chick-lit aisle these days. Two articles this week claim that authors working in the genre once known as “shopping and fucking,” in keeping with our more dismal times, are finally swapping the Prada and the private jets for mainstream mall brands and the drama of worried late-night meetings over the grocery budget. (For the sake of their heroine’s morale, we hope they keep up with the fucking.)

“Contrition is the new black in these dark comedies of divorce, scandal and fortunes in free fall,” claims Ruth La Ferla in a feature in today’s New York Times Style section. Earlier this week, author Sarah Bliston, whose 2005 novel “Bed Rest” chronicled the tribulations of a wealthy Manhattan lawyer facing motherhood, wrote in Double X of the ways she revised the sequel to reflect the changing economic times. “Cheery consumerism and aimless career-dithering were clearly out of touch in a world of mortgage defaulting, pink slips, and repossessed homes. And why should readers empathize with heroines who fritter their days away thinking about -- well, not very much?”

Indeed, the cynics among us may wonder: Why the hell did we ever? Both articles deal almost exclusively with the corner of chick lit -- and the even more derisive term “hen lit,” apparently the nomenclature of choice to describe commercial fiction aimed at women 40 and up -- devoted to the preoccupations of those whose wealth might seem to represent .0015 percent of readers. And even the revisions reflect the kinds of decisions that those of us who spent the boom years wondering if we could ever afford a mortgage on an average professional salary before our 65th birthdays might still find a bit out of touch with reality. Bliston replaced one character’s cocktail party chatter about chartering a yacht around Hawaii at $2,000 a day with another character bragging that he had shifted 70 percent of his holdings to cash, which may still seem irrelevant to readers who never had any “holdings” in the first place. And the Times selects a quote from Tatiana Boncompagni’s “Hedge Fund Wives” in which her heroine laments: "‘These things that were once within reach -- the private jet, the home in Aspen or even five-tiered Sylvia Weinstock cakes,’ are suddenly not.”

One can lose the home in Aspen and the five-tiered cakes and still be a good long way from foreclosure on one’s primary residence and clipping coupons for Kraft macaroni and cheese. But it’s a little too easy to sneer at conspicuous consumption in particular and chick lit in general. To come up with a working definition of chick lit is to fall into a vortex all its own -- as Curtis Sittenfeld once wrote, “to suggest that another woman’s ostensibly literary novel is chick lit feels catty, not unlike calling another woman a slut” -- but the women writers profiled in both these pieces are happy to claim the title. Bliston, who is also a professor of English literature at Trinity College, self-identifies as a writer of “women’s commercial fiction or ‘chick lit.’” And while many a woman writer has been dismayed to find her “ostensibly literary novel” seemingly miscategorized as “chick lit” by the New York Times, let’s just assume, for the sake of argument, that those singled out in their piece are equally comfortable with the genre (to those who aren’t, my apologies).

What is it that we were looking for in all these books that chronicled a lifestyle that few of us ever lived? Why did all of these books sell so well, far beyond the audience that one could reasonably expect found themselves reflected in these stories? And what use might they have to us now?

In the Times piece, Mallory Young, co-author of “Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction,” draws a distinction between chick lit and romance novels by saying that the former “recognizes and responds to the world outside.” While the sub-genre of chick lit that dealt with the über-wealthy might not have reflected many women’s actual lives, it did appeal to the aspirational fantasies of some of those women. Whether one is appalled by or in sympathy with this fantasy, merely identifying it is useful. It may even tell us quite a bit about how we got into the fix we are now in: Looking back on Sophie Kinsella’s “Shopaholic” series, Bliston writes, “to read about Kinsella’s 2000 London with hindsight is to see a credit crash waiting to happen” and notes “with wonderful irony, the character is a financial journalist.”

I, personally, find plenty more to like in the alleged turn that chick-lit authors are taking toward what La Ferla claims is a “more feminist stance.” Elizabeth Bier, author of “The Summer Kitchen,” tells the Times that her character Nora learns “she actually has to make money to feed her kids and figure out how they’re going to be educated in a public school system.” (I’m sure many of us who have navigated that territory already can let her in on some tips.) Bliston, channeling her day job as a literature professor, sees parallels with the great literature that came out of financial crises of the 19th century and our current time, and says that she found her novel became better after she revised it. She writes:

In our own boom years, more than a century later, chick-lit turned inward, to relational and emotional crises. Because the external circumstances were steadily sunny, writers looked mostly inside their characters for the energy to drive and motivate plot. But now, those of us who write women’s fiction for mass consumption must inevitably look outward again. We are not about to turn into Gaskell and Eliot. But like the great architects of the novel, we can write stories about heroines who must take on the world, not just themselves.

I like that she is humble enough to avoid making any grandiose claims about her own work. But I also respect the place that popular fiction holds in our culture at any time. Yes, I do happen to prefer the Great and Difficult works of art that dazzle us with their stylistic brilliance, challenge our prejudices and, in the favorite phrase of sophomore comp-lit majors, subvert the dominant paradigm. But it’s also crucial to have some things that simply reflect our culture and our fantasies about who we want to be when we grow up, however bland or noble or villainous those values might seem in retrospect. And actually? I’d wager that future historians might get an awful lot of use from the novels currently sold in our supermarkets and airport lounges. 

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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