For some smart, young female novelists, having their books branded “chick lit” is the worst imaginable insult. On Friday, author Polly Courtney wrote about her decision to drop her publisher, HarperCollins, after it tried to “shoe-horn” her latest non-chick-lit novel into a “frilly, chick-lit” package. When the pastel-hued cover doesn’t reflect the work inside, she writes, everyone is disappointed: “the author, for seeing his or her work portrayed as such; the readers, for finding there is too much substance in the plot; and the passers-by, who might actually have enjoyed the contents but dismissed the book on the grounds of its frivolous cover.” No surprise, Courtney’s complaints drew ire from those who have more nuanced views on chick-lit, and this debate will undoubtedly pop up again and again.
But isn’t the term “chick-lit” itself a bit passé, very pre-2006? Talk of what constitutes chick-lit and what doesn’t reminds me of the brouhaha surrounding the release of Bridesmaids this summer, how critics were wondering if the crowds would turn up to see a “comedy about women,” as if female-oriented comedies were a) a new thing, and b) created equal. Judging from some recent hardcover releases, it seems that publishers already know how to package “women’s literature” for a discerning set. Courtney, in her piece, identifies “bodily insecurities and the hunt for Mr. Right” as staples of chick-lit. Jennifer Close, J. Courtney Sullivan, and Sloane Crosley have all written well-publicized books within the past two years, and they do tend to cover these supposedly chicky topics to varying degrees. They write about women in their twenties in New York, dealing with bad boyfriends, bad bosses, and bad hangovers. Yet it seems that their books have managed to receive a fair appraisal independent of a perceived genre; they manage to be both substantive and girly.
Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close
Despite the cute title and pretty cover, this novel in stories presents a remarkably relatable, realistic picture of 20-something girls in New York City. Sure, they hang out at dive bars, date douchebags, show up to work hungover, travel in packs of friends they find somewhat embarrassing, and question whether they’ll ever be as mature as their parents, but at the same time, these girls are whip-smart and sharply funny. There’s a clear undercurrent of melancholy to this novel, however, as the girls wonder just how long they can still think of themselves as adolescents. I don’t disagree with the assessment that the stakes at play in this novel are rather low, but Close’s debut novel is an addictive, thoughtful slice of life.
Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan
The first half of this perspective-switching novel takes place within the cozy confines of Smith College. Four very different women come together and become close as sisters, but in a more nuanced, less neatly archetypal way than the Sex and the City foursome. The second half of the novel covers the tumultuous four years post-graduation, as the girls disperse across the country and become freshmen all over again, but this time in the real world. (That sounds corny, but I found the whole first-year-after-graduation-as-freshman-year idea relateable.) The later storyline centering on the feminist character April drags on a bit and becomes a bit didactic, but overall, it’s a highly enjoyable, complex story about deep friendships that change over time.
Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan
With her latest novel, Sullivan proves she’s graduated beyond writing about twenty-somethings. This family saga spans three generations and introduces four very different, maddening, unforgettable characters. Sullivan’s second novel shows more restraint, imagination, and finely attuned observation than her first. It’s a pleasurable, guilt-free read.
I Was Told There’d Be Cake and How Did You Get This Number by Sloane Crosley
Another author to display considerable growth between her first and second books, Crosley writes hilarious, rambling essays about her misadventures with roommates, guys, apartments, and nightmare bosses. Some of the essays in her first collection were a bit precious and indulgent (especially the very first one about horses), but the second book is wonderful from start to finish. The final essay in How Did You Get This Number is so relatable and heartbreaking, I read it again immediately after finishing the first time.
So, Shelf-Lifers, what do you think of the whole chick-lit debate — is it a tempest in a teacup? And do you have any favorites that defy the girly label?
Téa Obreht, author of ‘The Tiger’s Wife,’ on craft, age, and early success