The Merits of Chick-Lit
Last week, we reported that Jennifer Egan had won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad. We also reported on the kerfuffle prompted by the announcement of the shortlist for the 2011 Miles Franklin Award - a very short shortlist, consisting of three rural, historical stories, all written by men.
Jennifer Egan has prompted more debate about women and letters following comments she made in a Wall Street Journal interview shortly after receiving news of her Pulitzer win. Asked whether women writers tend to understate the importance of their own writing, Egan replied, “Anyone can say anything, that’s easy. My focus is less on the need for women to trumpet their own achievements than to shoot high and achieve a lot. What I want to see is young, ambitious writers. And there are tons of them … I’m not saying you should say you’ve never done anything good, but I don’t go around saying I’ve written the book of the century. My advice for young female writers would be to shoot high and not cower.”
In her response, Egan referred to Kaavya Viswanathan’s novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. Though initially well-received, the novel was subsequently accused of plagiarising widely from chick-lit authors like Meg Cabot, Sophie Kinsella and Megan McCafferty, authors whose work Egan described as “very derivative and banal”.
Egan’s comments drew opprobrium from various bloggers (“Oh, wow am I pissed. I’m so pissed off I don’t even want to use cutesy exclamation marks to illustrate how pissed off I am”) who argue that chick-lit shouldn’t be dismissed as a second-class form of literature. Writes one defender of the genre: “Is there derivative, poorly written chick lit? Sure. But there’s also derivative, poorly written literary fiction. Slamming an entire genre of novels written by women is unsavory, inaccurate, and akin to the kind of girl-on-girl crime that women should be trying to stop, not perpetuate.”
The stoush takes up an exchange in the Guardian last year which began when DJ Connell called the label “chick-lit” offensive: “When you call a woman a chick you diminish her as a human being and dismiss her as something less than intelligent”. Michele Gorman replied with a defense of the genre: “saying that chick-lit can’t be well-written is a little like saying that pretty girls can’t be smart. It’s ludicrous. And it’s wrong.”