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The Way We Talk About "Women's Lit"

Half Yellow Sun

Marketing demands and an underlying thread of sexism in the publishing industry work together to trivialize literature written by women, argues WMC Progressive Women’s Voices commentator Courtney Young.

Earlier in the spring, a debate concerning the crop of literature being written by women touched off in Britain. Daisy Goodwin, the current chair for the Orange Prize in women’s fiction, took issue with the topics of the books submitted for review, terming them “misery lit.” “If I read another sensitive account of a woman coming to terms with bereavement,” she said, “I was going to slit my wrists. The misery memoir has transformed into misery literature. There were a large number of books that started with a rape, enough to make me think ‘Enough.’ Call me old fashioned but I like a bit of foreplay in my reading... I turned my face against them.”

Quite soon music journalist Jessica Dutchin rejoined with an opposition piece that offered more nuance, blaming the lucrative chick lit industry. “Most women writers who want to be perceived as tackling themes beyond the buying of high-heeled shoes and the seduction of Mr. Perfect loathe the concept of chick lit—which is a marketing phenomenon more than a literary one—and don't want their work to be mistaken for it,” she wrote. “Therefore we have resorted to the tactic of choosing themes that are as dark and miserable as possible.” As an unapologetic book lover and a woman writer to bat, I wondered during the debate about the ways that we talk about and categorize “women’s lit” and how is this fueled by an underlying thread of sexism in the industry.

The first problem is the term “women’s lit” itself. The categorization immediately establishes literature written by women as different, a sub-category, separate from, specific to a particular audience, catering to a set of ideas/themes absent in, shall we say, “men’s lit”—a term, of course, never used. I’m puzzled and a bit exacerbated when I walk into a local Border’s or Barnes and Nobles to see an “African American literature” section that is segregated from the population of general literature. Similarly, “women’s lit” can be segregated in corresponding ways. “Chick lit” and the now monikered “misery lit” may be analyzed and debated in “serious circles,” but the marketing of literature by women almost always relies on the emotional and situational. The conversation surrounding what we may call “men’s lit,” however, is almost always more cerebral, intellectual and diverse whatever the genres.

For example, in the acclaimed literary journal n+1, writer Marco Roth published a trend piece on the rise of the “neuro-novel.” Writing about authors including Jonathan Lethem, Richard Powers, and Ian McEwan, Roth speaks to the proliferation of male authors who complicate their narratives with male protagonists suffering a neurological disorder (think Lethem’s Lionel Essrog in Motherless Brooklyn who has Tourette’s Syndrome or Mark Schluter who battles with Capgras Syndrome in Powers’ The Echo Maker). Earlier this year, Katie Roiphe published what may be one of the most debated and most read articles in the history of the New York Times entitled “The Naked and the Conflicted—Sex and the American Male Novelist.” In it, Roiphe champions the sex narrative of such literary heavyweights as Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, and John Updike despite the underlying misogyny and violence within those texts. And though such celebrated novelists/short story writers as Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson, and Annie Proulx are lauded individually, where is the deep, nuanced debate surrounding groups of literature written by women outside of chick or misery lit? (And by the way, couldn’t authors such as Cormac McCarthy and Dennis LeHane fall into the category of “misery lit?”)

I believe a strong case could be made in the public sphere to speak collectively about literature written by these women—as well as Zadie Smith, Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. LeGuin, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie—that hinges upon the intellectual, the violent, the spiritual, the quirky, and so forth. But it just isn’t done. It tends to hinge more heavily on the writer as woman—or the writer as woman of color/ethnic writer/bi-racial writer as in the case of Adichie or Smith.

Looking at books optioned into films, it seems clear that the gendered way the critical conversation is structured spills over into popular culture. Consider the variety in this list: Robert Ludlum (The Bourne series), Cormac McCarthy (All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, The Road), Dennis LeHane (Gone Baby Gone, Mystic River, Shutter Island), Nicholas Sparks (The Notebook, Dear John), Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are), and Alan Moore (Watchmen). Now consider the female book to film translations, including Stephanie Myers (The Twilight series), J.K. Rowlings (Harry Potter series), Sophie Kinsella (The Shopaholic series), Candace Bushnell (Sex and the City), Helen Felding (Bridget Jones’s Diary), and Fannie Flagg (Fried Green Tomatoes). While many of the book to film adaptations spawned by male authors span genre—including romance, comedy, action, superhero and drama—female book to film translations are heavily sequestered in fantasy and drama with a large dose of romance.

The choices partly reflect both what houses are willing to publish from female authors and how these books get marketed. The influence of marketing was central to 2009’s highly charged debate over Publisher’s Weekly’s 10 best books list that did not include a single woman writer. As Claire Messud illuminated in February’s Guernica Magazine, “Our cultural prejudices are so deeply engrained that we aren’t even aware of them: arguably, it’s not that we think men are better, it’s that we don’t think of women at all. The absence of women from lists and prizes leads, then, to the future absence of women from lists and prizes. Now, lists and prizes mean nothing, of course; except that they inform curious readers about who and what to read.”

I can’t help but think about what the impact would be if instead of Stephanie Myers’ vampire romance series slaughtering the young adult and film industries, Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series took its place wherein the protagonist does not need to be saved but does the saving. Or if Octavia Butler’s fiction that plays with both conventional gender and race roles within a sci-fi setting was consumed more readily by the masses. Given that 80 percent of all fiction readers are women, shouldn’t we be talking about literature written by women in a different way?

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