Tuesday, December 20, 2005

One Reader at a Time

I recently came across this article in the Boston Globe: Taboo-breaking novel stirs passion, debate in Saudi Arabia.

In a nutshell, the article is about a book called The Girls of Riyadh, which the articles likens to a Saudi Sex in the City. Published in Lebanon in September, the book tells the story of four Saudi women looking for Mr. Right and having mixed success. The book is currently in its third printing, and though it has not been formally approved for publication in Saudi Arabia, bootleg copies of it abound. Reaction in Riyadh is mixed, largely because the book’s characters go against the prevailing attitudes about what is proper for unmarried women. But the author is undeterred, and the book is only getting more popular. After reading the article, I experienced a surge of triumph—followed by an attack of giggles. It’s fabulous: chick lit is changing the world.

If you read “serious” literary journals or have a Google Alert for the term “chick lit”—as I do—you know that the term and the genre are both subject to much scorn from the traditional literary world. A few months ago, I read an article by writer Chris Mazza, who claims to have coined the term as the title of a feminist literary journal. She whined argued that she and her fellow female writers had meant it to be a sarcastic nod to what the stereotypical male chauvinist would think of the journal, and moaned lamented that the term had been co-opted by a genre that she believes plays into the stereotype of fashion-obsessed, boy crazy women.

Mazza isn’t the only woman offended by the term “chick lit.” A quick perusal of recent articles shows the author and performer of a one-woman show publicly objecting to her show being lumped into this genre, and a panel discussion on whether chick lit is even a relevant form of literature. Jess Crispin of Bookslut went on record as saying that readers “should be ashamed of chick lit, because it’s bad.” I admit, that one stung because I am an avid reader of Bookslut and often agree with Ms. Crispin’s reviews. Chris Mazza, also a panelist, objected to the idea that chick lit could one day be compared to female authors like Jane Austen because chick lit is formulaic and only deals with a portion of the world as it is, whereas Austen “gave her women the entire world that was available to them at the time.”

To put it bluntly, I disagree.

For liberated women, Crispin and Mazza certainly have narrow views of what women writers can legitimately write. I’m not sure when Ms. Mazza last picked up Jane Austen, but I reread Persuasion just a few weeks ago and I don’t remember any of the characters discussing the plight of London prostitutes, or domestic violence. If Ms. Mazza believes that women in Austen’s day would have been ignorant of these topics, then she’s giving them even less credit than she gives modern day chick lit heroines. It sounds to me like Ms. Mazza doesn’t give much credit to any work of fiction that isn’t written with a specific political or social agenda, and that’s sad because it means that she’s missing out on the greatness of literature.

Jane Austen wasn’t attempting to strike a blow for women’s rights when she penned Pride and Prejudice. She wrote a story meant to be enjoyed—that she also introduced generations of women to strong, independent heroines was a side effect of her writing genius. I’m sure Austen had many contemporaries who did their damnedest to produce relevant, socially conscious literature, and I’m sure that some succeeded. But generations later, Austen continues to inspire us to be great women, while the earnest social crusading writers of her day are forgotten.

Which brings me back to the article I first mentioned. The author of The Girls of Riyadh did what any good writer endeavors to do—she wrote a book with compelling characters who lead compelling lives. I have not read the book, but from the article I gather that none of the main characters are feminist crusaders. They are simply women seeking to live their lives the way they see fit. Unfortunately, that puts them in opposition to the attitudes and values that govern their world. Does the fact that they don’t actively discuss politics and the war on poverty make them unfit feminist heroines? I certainly hope not.

Literature never changes the world overnight. Solzhenitsyn started writing decades before the rest of the world became interested in what actually happened in the Gulag. Jonathan Swift was not an overnight success when he used satire to point out the ridiculous nature of British foreign policy. And despite Ms. Mazza’s contention, the women of Austen's day did not put down their copies of Sense and Sensibility and immediately organize a Take Back the Night march. But slowly, reader by reader, authors like these did change society. They enlightened us, they opened our minds in subtle ways that made us look differently at the world around us.

I contend that popular literature—be it chick lit, young adult, romance, graphic novels—does the same. I can’t vouch for the quality of all chick lit, and I won’t attempt to. Every genre has its highs and lows. But to suggest that any genre that prizes independent, self-sufficient heroines is irrelevant and even embarrassing is ludicrous. I’m proud to read and write chick lit, and I don’t care who knows it.


Blogger Bernita said...

One might argue whether writers are entirely the cause of social change, but very well put.

11:47 AM  
Anonymous Barbara Kremen said...

Yay! Melanie! I am proud that you are writing chick lit. too! Now go shake the world.


1:36 PM  

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