Thursday, August 04, 2005

Lit versus Chick Lit

Melissa Bank, The Wonder Spot (Viking, 2005)

I was keen to read this book for a few reasons:

1. I loved Bank’s first book, The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing. For months after I read it, I kept gifting copies to friends, family members, and even vague acquaintances because I wanted everybody to read it.

2. The early reviews of The Wonder Spot that I read seemed to be divided between those that deemed it an unsuccessful novel, and those that deemed it a successful collection of short stories. Why the genre confusion? I wanted to know which it was and what difference that made to a critical assessment of the book.

3. Finally, there was the frisson emanating from rumours of a literary catfight. I’d heard that Curtis Sittenfeld (author of the novel Prep) had written a scathing review of The Wonder Spot in the New York Times Book Review in which she allegedly called Bank a “slut.”

Let me begin with the least edifying trigger of my interest. It turns out that Sittenfeld didn’t call Bank a slut. Rather, she wrote a very negative review that began with the following ill-advised lines: “To suggest that another woman’s ostensibly literary novel is chick lit feels catty, not unlike calling another woman a slut -- doesn’t the term basically bring down all of us? And yet, with The Wonder Spot, it’s hard to resist.” I say ill-advised because it strikes me as sloppy to use a label to critique a book rather than focussing on the book itself. Sittenfeld did move on to a critique of the book, but the red flag she waved at the beginning ensured that any valid criticisms that she made in the rest of the review were lost in the ensuing controversy. Members of the chick lit community came down hard, not so much in defence of Bank as in defence of their genre. (I have to admit that I was a bit surprised to learn that there is a chick lit community. I had always thought that “chick lit” was simply a marketing label; I had no idea that a group of writers had embraced it as their own.)

In a very funny line-by-line deconstruction of the review, Jennifer Weiner suggests that it says more about Sittenfeld’s anxiety over how her own work is perceived than about Bank’s book. (Sittenfeld’s recent article in the Alantic Monthly may lend some credence to this theory.) Bank herself stayed out of the fray. When asked in an online interview what her thoughts about Sittenfeld were, she simply replied that she tried not to think about her.

For my part, I don’t care if The Wonder Spot is or isn’t labelled chick lit. As with any literary label, “chick lit” envelops good books and bad ones. The question that concerns me is whether The Wonder Spot is a good book. What are its strengths and its weaknesses? How does it hold up as a whole? I’ll take up these questions in my next post.

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