I turned in the final draft of THE NEXT BEST THING on Wednesday, and planned a girlie "treat yo'self" day on Thursday -- a trip to New York, lunch with my editor, shopping for some pretty new dresses for my spring tour dates, and Ricki Lake's reading on the Upper East Side.
So there I was, happily ensconced in the quiet car (aka "heaven" to moms of small children), clicking through my Twitter feed, when I came across an interview with Lena Dunham, creator of the film "Tiny Furniture," and the new HBO show "Girls."
The interview was all about Dunham’s reading habits. In it, she in which she praised the movie "Clueless" and the adventures of Eloise, admitted to never having finished THE GREAT GATSBY…and, sigh, took a shot at chick lit.
Asked "Have you ever read a book about girls or women that made you angry or disappointed or just extremely annoyed?" (a looking-for-trouble question if I've ever heard one), Dunham replied, "I don’t have a taste for airport chick-lit, even in a guilty-pleasure way. Any book that is motored by the search for a husband and/or a good pair of heels makes me want to move to the outback. If there is a cartoon woman’s torso on the front or a stroller with a diamond on it, I just can’t."
Cue my sigh.
Here’s the thing: those books Dunham is railing against? They're pretty hard, if not impossible, to find. They’re not for sale in airports, they’re not available in bookstores; they’re not around any more now they were last summer, when Brooklynite-of-the-moment Thessaly La Salle bitched about "mind-numbing titles boast(ing) pink covers with stick figure women swinging purses and walking little dogs; in The Paris Review.
You can read all about it in whatever gloating “Chick Lit: She is Dead! And We're All Pissing On Her Grave!” story’s been published in the ten minutes since I started writing this blog post. Start with this one, or this one here!
Here is what happened: back in the day, Bridget Jones and her sisters were a huge success. Publishers, like the let's-make-some-money business-runners that they are, saw those books selling and began demanding more, more, more! More funny stories of single girls fretting over their hips! More tales of twentysomethings with meddling moms and gay BFFs trying to make it in the big city!
New imprints were born. Shelves overflowed with tomes with pink covers decorated with handbags and high heels. Business was booming. For a while, it felt like any young woman with a laptop and a bad breakup had a book deal.
Then, the marketplace got saturated with those single-in-the-city stories, some of which were fantastic, some of which were not great. Readers demonstrated that they could discern between the good and the copycats. Publishers pulled back. The strong survived. Candace Bushnell, Jane Green, Emily Giffin, along with newer voices like Sarah Pekkanen and Amy Hatvany and Liza Palmer and Caprice Crane, continue to have their work printed. Meanwhile, publishers started screaming for more sparkly vampires and dystopian YA, because that’s what’s selling right now.
So those shoes ‘n’ husband-hunting books Dunham’s railing against? They are a straw (wo)man.
Maybe Dunham took a glance at the cover of Shopaholic book, or, eek, the circa-2002 cover of IN HER SHOES, thought, “Ugh,” and then, when the Times reporter asked her “what books don’t you read,” instead of demurring with a ladylike (and infinitely kinder), “I’d rather talk about the books I DO like,” she went after the tired target of chick lit – specifically, a brand of chick lit that isn’t even around to bug her any more.
When I tweeted my disappointment with what Dunham had to say, a few ladies (including some magazine critics) tweeted back with the argument familiar to anyone who followed the hoo-hah last spring when Jennifer Egan used the occasion of her Pulitzer win to….bash chick-lit writers (is anyone sensing a theme here?)
People are allowed to not like things! Just having a vagina does not mean cheering for anything another vagina-haver does! That way lies madness, and votes for Sarah Palin, and “likes” on Katie Roiphe’s Facebook page! (I am assuming that Katie Roiphe has a Facebook page).
I agree. Of course Dunham’s entitled to her opinion. Of course we’re all allowed to not like things. Of course being female does not involve supporting every single thing that any other woman does.
But. But. But but but.
We know that it’s harder for women to get their books published and reviewed. We know it’s harder for them to get their shows on the air, their voices in the op-ed sections, their work in the pages of important magazines.
No matter how much we wish it were otherwise, in terms of prestige, and prizes, and who gets on the shelves and on the air and reviewed in the New York Times, it is – still -- a man’s world.
Given all of that – given the struggles that women writers face to get published, to get watched, to be heard – isn’t it better for the ladies who've made it to celebrate the women they can support, instead of slamming those they do not?
I’m not saying critics need to go easy on female writers or show-runners in the name of sisterhood. There is such a thing as the soft bigotry of low expectations. I don't want female critics to hold back because they happen to share the same chromosomes as the author/comedian/show-runner. That’s not helping anyone.
But for me, personally, there’s a third path, one that involves neither handing out meaningless blandishments for all things female nor cheerily chucking women whose work I don’t like under the bus, and it is this: saying nothing.
Years ago, Amy Bloom, a writer I adore (seriously, if you haven’t read A BLIND MAN CAN SEE HOW MUCH I LOVE YOU, go treat yourself right this minute), did an interview in which she said she was no longer writing negative reviews. If she was given a book she didn’t like, she’d just say, “Thanks, but no thanks. Find someone else.” Being a writer, putting her work out into the world, she knew how much a bad review could sting, and decided she'd rather not be the one causing another writer pain.
That’s kind of where I am right now. Get me alone, give me some wine (or, better yet, come to one of my readings this spring), pull me into a corner and I’ll gladly tell you what I really think about whatever you want to discuss. But in print? In public? If I don’t have anything nice to say about another woman’s work, I’m not saying anything at all.
Lena Dunham is only twenty-five. Nobody was interviewing me when I was that young, and I shudder to think what might have come out of my mouth if anyone had.
Maybe by the time Dunham's my age, and maybe seen her work dismissed as being too girlie or too frivolous for daring to deal with things like dating and roommates and sex and clothes, she’ll think twice before trashing other ladies’ work in public.
Maybe she’ll learn not to judge books by their covers…because some of those books with shoes and purses, arrayed so prettily on the airport bookstore tables, were not as silly or frivolous as they looked (seriously, even Joyce Carol Oates has had her paperbacks repackaged with bridesmaids’ dresses and flowers on the cover).
Maybe the New York Times, which snarkily dismissed Jodi Kantor’s book on the Obamas’ marriage as “chick non-fiction,” where a Q and A with Whitney Cummings began with the question “people say you slept your way to the top. So, did you?” and which reviews many more men than women, will quit asking questions that seem designed to provoke girl-on-girl violence.
Maybe it’ll all get better…and we can go back to talking about “The Bachelorette” again.
A girl -- a woman -- can dream.