Saturday, July 09, 2005

It is all right to go ahead and cry.

About the precipitous decline of intellectual fortitude in literature, that is.

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Literary bonbons

LAURIE MUCHNICK

June 26, 2005

Do you read chick lit? It's become such a bookstore staple that it's hard to believe it didn't even exist a decade ago. British journalist Helen Fielding is widely credited with having invented the genre with "Bridget Jones' Diary," which was published in 1996. That book was such a sensation that women writers stopped trying to emulate Jackie Collins' and Judith Krantz's over-the-top romantic confections and started writing stories about neurotic single women trying to have a cool career, lose a few pounds and find a man.

(By the way, what's Judith Krantz up to? She hasn't made an appearance on bookstore shelves since her memoir, "Sex and Shopping: The Confessions of a Nice Jewish Girl," came out in 2000, and her most recent novel, "The Jewels of Tessa Kent," was published in 1998. I think it's time for a comeback - especially since she's being used as a role model again. One of the most hotly anticipated books of this summer is an ultra-glamorous Hollywood novel called "Adored," by Tilly Bagshawe, who says she was trying to recapture the dishy, escapist fun of a Krantz novel. When "Adored" is published in July, we'll see if that's what people want to read these days; if it sells, I sure hope Judith Krantz has her computer warmed up.)

Getting back to the history of chick lit: After "Bridget Jones" hit it big, American publishers began looking for their own version of the "neurotic single woman looking for love" novel. Candace Bushnell's "Sex and the City" came out in 1996, about the same time as "Bridget Jones," but it didn't become a cultural phenomenon until the TV series started two years later. Since it takes a long time to write and publish a book, trends can take a while to blossom, and it wasn't until 1998 that American chick-lit novels began to appear. There was "Animal Husbandry" by Laura Zigman, and then, in 1999, there was "The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing," by Melissa Bank. I can't remember if the term "chick lit" was in use by then, but I do remember Bank being promoted as the more literary version of Helen Fielding.

Why worry about all this now? Because Melissa Bank has just published her second book, "The Wonder Spot," and it's kicking up a storm of name-calling among women writers who do and do not embrace the chick-lit label. Curtis Sittenfeld, author of "Prep," wrote a scathing review in The New York Times Book Review which started off: "To suggest that another woman's ostensibly literary novel is chick lit feels catty, not unlike calling another woman a slut - doesn't the term basically bring down all of us?" But she doesn't let that stop her, going on to say that "The Wonder Spot" is, indeed, chick lit, because "its appeal relies so much on how closely readers relate to its protagonist," Sophie Applebaum, an upper-middle-class Everywoman who spends her time looking for love or even a job that she likes (and is good at).

I didn't disagree with Sittenfeld's negative assessment of "The Wonder Spot" - I didn't like it either, and even though I could certainly identify with Sophie I found the book incredibly boring - but I was troubled by her harping on the chick-lit theme. Novelist Jennifer Weiner, author of fun, unabashedly commercial novels including "Good in Bed" and "In Her Shoes" (soon to be a movie starring Cameron Diaz), brilliantly analyzed Sittenfeld's entire review on her blog, Snarkspot (jenniferweiner .blogspot.com). Weiner thinks (and I agree) that book reviews are at least as much about the reviewer as about the book being reviewed, and in this case, she thinks Sittenfeld is worried about her own place in the literary pantheon. Her book bears blurbs from Dave Eggers, Thisbe Nissen, Matthew Klam and other well-respected young writers, but as Weiner points out, if you look at her entry on Amazon.com, you'll see that one of the other books bought by the same people who bought "Prep" was "Bergdorf Blondes" - not exactly high culture.

So what's the moral of the story? There's good chick lit and bad chick lit, just as there's good literary fiction and bad literary fiction - and maybe these labels are useless, anyway. I can hardly count the number of times I've read reviews that say, basically, "This book is chick lit, but never mind, read it anyway, it's great!" I wrote something like that myself, last summer, when I raved about Sarah Dunn's first novel, "The Big Love," which has just come out in paperback and which I would recommend in a heartbeat. The plot is nothing unusual - girl loses boy, girl has fling with cute boss, girl gets boy back and has to decide what to do with him - but the narrator's voice is so engaging that it lifts the book right out of the run-of-the-mill and into the perfect-reads category.

I think there's been a brilliant by-product of the chick-lit tidal wave, and it's that smart, well-educated young writers who probably read Jonathan Franzen and Alice Munro in their spare time have embraced the idea that books can be enjoyable and intelligent at the same time. (Not that Franzen and Munro aren't enjoyable, but you know what I mean. They're not exactly light reading.) And this realization hasn't been limited to women writers, either. Think of Nick Hornby or Tom Perrotta, who write books that might have been called "lad lit" if that spinoff label hadn't been such a dud with the reading public. Other chick-lit spin-offs now include "mommy lit," including "I Don't Know How She Does It" by Allison Pearson and "Little Earthquakes" by Jennifer Weiner; and "worker lit," which began with "The Nanny Diaries" and continues with this summer's sharp "Twins of Tribeca," by former Miramax publicist Rachel Pine. There are even chick-lit mysteries; I've devoured the Bailey Weggins books by Cosmopolitan editor in chief Kate White, and am currently enjoying "Fashion Victim," by Sam Baker, the editor of Cosmo's U.K. edition. (Though it seems kind of weird to have the top editors of sister magazines writing such similar books, I say the more the merrier.)

Of course there are bad chick-lit novels, just as there are bad literary novels - I won't mention names. But as far as I'm concerned, every balanced reading diet requires a few bonbons, and I'm glad there are plenty of literary chocolates on the shelves to choose from.

Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.

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