What We Call What Women Write

April 25, 2011 | 3 books mentioned 71 5 min read

coverLast week, when it was announced that Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, I’m guessing I felt something like a football fan does when his team wins the Superbowl. I loved the book, pushing it hard on my bookish friends and even harder on the unbookish ones, certain that this was one of the most broadly appealing works of fiction to have come out in a long time. After the announcement, I wanted nothing more than to high-five all my Egan-loving friends posting the link on Facebook. It was heartening to see that the sentiment seemed widespread and magnanimous. Surely the celebration had to do with the brilliance of the book, but also the fact that a woman won in a year of several lively discussions regarding gender inequality in publishing (see the VIDA report on publication statistics and the backlash to Jonathan Franzen in general.)

Alas, the feeling of deserved recognition was short-lived. In a Wall Street Journal interview that Egan gave shortly after receiving the news, her advice to young writers ruffled some feathers:

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. Look at The Tiger’s Wife. There was that scandal with the Harvard student who was found to have plagiarized. But she had plagiarized very derivative, banal stuff. This is your big first move? These are your models?…My advice for young female writers would be to shoot high and not cower.

The Harvard student Egan is referring to is Kaavya Viswanathan, whose novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life was much lauded until it was discovered that large sections had been lifted from other books; among the plagiarized authors were Meg Cabot (The Princess Diaries), Sophie Kinsella (Confessions of a Shopaholic) and Megan McCafferty (the Jessica Darling series), all of whom are best-selling authors of the “chick-lit” genre.

Chief among the offended was the oft-outspoken author Jennifer Weiner (In Her Shoes), who was also a prominent voice of the aforementioned Franzen backlash. A tweet from Weiner shortly after the WSJ piece ran: “And there goes my chance to be happy that a lady won the big prize. Thanks, Jenny Egan. You’re a model of graciousness.” Following Weiner’s lead, devout fans of chick-lit sounded off; over at The Frisky, in an essay titled “In Defense of Chick Lit,” Jamie Beckman, who opens her essay declaring that Egan was “one of her favorite authors of all time,” expresses doubt that she’ll ever recommend Egan’s work to a friend again.

It’s not hard to see how Egan’s statements offended—“very derivative and banal” isn’t exactly timid diction, and it’s a real downer to have someone you respect make you feel like you’ve got bad taste. But before anyone accuses anyone of “step[ping] on other women as [she] makes [her] way to the podium,” as Beckman puts it, we should consider a couple of things.

First: the offended parties lay claim to a genre ubiquitously referred to as “chick-lit”, a term used to describe fiction that relays, as Beckman puts it, “thoughtful, funny, relatable voices for the everywoman who’s looking for her personal pieces of life’s pie, including the career, the apartment, and the guy.” I don’t aim to scrutinize the content of the genre so much as the fact that the chick lit demographic has fully embraced the term. Ladies, it’s 2011. Who refers to women as “chicks” aside from Ed Hardy-wearing man-children? Uninspired as it may be, detractors calling the work “fluffy” can’t really be blamed—it’s built into the name, for god’s sake. It’s difficult to move forward in an argument about the sexist climate in publishing when a group that is supposedly trying to push for more equality has accepted and even defended a derogatory label. Granted, the term was probably coined by some marketing department somewhere, but authors of the genre stand by it unflinchingly (see Michele Gorman’s article in The Guardian). It’s no secret that the chick lit authors are outselling their literary fiction counterparts by far. What’s alarming is that the tremendous success of the genre is largely because it’s marketed to women who identify themselves “chicks.”

Perhaps the bigger issue at hand, though, is the severity of the backlash to Egan’s comments and the reasoning behind it. Bloggers at the The Signature Thing declared it “majorly ugly girl-on-girl crime,” and numerous commenters declared a boycott of everything Egan from this point forward. Another blogger at NerdGirlTalking was utterly perplexed: “Jennifer Egan, have you even MET Meg?.. Because how could you meet Meg and then call her work banal or derivative? I don’t care if you think those things, Meg is so nice that saying those things are almost like kicking a puppy.”

These former Egan fans are uniting under the notion that in addition to being a meanie, Egan is setting feminists back 50 years. How could she? In the male hegemony of publishing, us gals are supposed to stick together. Which is all well and good, in theory. But to suggest that a woman writer should not be critical of other women writers is counter to progress. It reminds me a little bit of the 2008 election. There was a certain kind of Hillary supporter that believed all women should be in support of our potential first woman president mostly on the basis that this could be our first woman president! Which is all well and good, in theory. But to express any sort of dissent guaranteed you a look of pity mingled with disgust: Poor thing. She must secretly hate her vagina.

This kind of mindless unity is counterintuitive. What kind of feminist movement condones a suppression of opinion on the basis that we should all be nice and stick together, because we’re girls? What Egan said wasn’t nice. It was honest. It reflected her opinion of a certain type of fiction. Publishing should strive to be a meritocracy (though whether it succeeds is a whole other issue,) and Egan’s comments are an acknowledgment of that. On the other hand, in the chick lit realm, amid the outrage and demand for more respect, there is, in fact cowering: observe Weiner selling herself short (and acknowledging a literary hierarchy) in an interview she gave to the Huffington Post: “Do I think I should be getting all of the attention that Jonathan “Genius” Franzen gets? Nope. Would I like to be taken at least as seriously as a Jonathan Tropper or a Nick Hornby? Absolutely.”

In 1971, Gore Vidal compared Norman Mailer’s The Prisoner of Sex to “three days of menstrual flow.” Mailer then proceeded to head-butt Vidal before they appeared on the Dick Cavett Show, and six years later at a party, he threw his drink in Vidal’s face and started a fistfight. While I’m not suggesting that this is admirable behavior (though it is pretty funny,) it does nothing for leveling the playing field if every time a woman author remarks on the quality of a work of fiction, hysteria ensues, she’s thought of as a catty bitch, and there’s a concerted effort to rally the troops against her.

In a year when a male author (Franzen), appeared on the cover of Time for the first time since the last male author (Stephen King,) appeared on the cover ten years ago, the significant success of Goon Squad shouldn’t be drowned out by bitterness because Egan encouraged young writers to aim higher than a genre whose very name degrades its creators. What we should be concerned about is that glaring inequities exist in publishing. So, ladies, one more time, in case you didn’t hear Egan over Weiner’s whining: shoot high and don’t cower. We can’t very well get much done with the kid gloves on.

is the founding editor of Nouvella and the former senior editor of Flatmancrooked Publishing.


  1. Honestly, I read Egan’s remarks without really noticing (or at least being bothered by) the put-down. To an extent, Egan has a point. I agree that labeling something “chick lit” is both counter-intuitive and demeaning–but I also think that that it’s wrong to assume the authors of those works (or the next generation of writers who emulates them) are somehow not creating something as worthy as are women who produce literary fiction. I’m not an avid chick-lit reader or anything (I have read some of Megan McCafferty’s books, though, and enjoyed them in a guilt-free way)–and I’m not saying that to distance myself from this apparently second-rate genre. It’s just a fact that I mostly read literary fiction. That’s just where my tastes lie.

    But I don’t see anything inherently wrong with writing something that might be seen as derivative–particularly in the world of commercial fiction, which is meant to be fast-paced and widely appealing and somewhat formulaic. Adhering to a certain formula–which, as Egan has made clear in a number of interviews, is not her thing–is not necessarily bad. Stephen King has a formula of sorts, as do other male writers of genre fiction. It’s not my style to blame readers for the lousy state of contemporary fiction, where genre fiction wins the day, but you can’t deny popularity. Women writers who appear to pander to a certain demographic aren’t cheapening their art; they’re just adapting it to appeal to a particular, eager-to-buy audience. It’s a shrewd business strategy, and I can’t fault other women for wanting to get ahead–or even just stay afloat–in the rough-and-tumble world of publishing.

    And, of course, there’s the sorry fact that most fiction written by women–be it genre or literary–is marketed to women specifically. Most of the cover art for books by female writers LOOKS feminine; it probably drives a lot of male readers away. To me, how a book is marketed matters more for the feminist cause than what’s written between the covers. Do I think most men are going to appreciate a work of chick-lit? Nope. But then I suppose that’s partly a matter of the troublesome nomenclature.

  2. Excellent piece. I love the political analogy; it not only addresses the kind of media-perpetuated gang-up backlash that seems to manipulate political opinion on a bipolar level, but the ridiculous emphasis on “sides.” You’re red or blue. For or against. Black or white. Talk about losing focus on the big picture and pinpointing the minutiae.

    Jess- I’m interested by your cover art comment. Don’t you think that “chick-lit” publishers serve their best interests by having feminine cover designs on their books? And in general, what do you consider to be a feminine book cover?

  3. Jess: I agree, as a male reader I am often driven away by covers that don’t seem to want me as a reader. And it’s not merely chick-lit. The real issue is that “feminine” covers (as an indication of what I mean, compare the covers of the Corrections and Intuition in this earlier post: https://www.themillions.com/2011/02/the-big-show-franzen-goodman-and-the-great-american-novel.html) tend to be applied to novels that are distinctly *not* chick-lit, novels that are ambitious but that don’t find readers because of these fluffy covers that makes you instinctually move along. It took great reviews to pick up Marisha Pessl’s flower-covered tome, or Janice Galloway’s stellar The Trick is to Keep Breathing or Mary Gaitskill’s Because they Wanted to, otherwise I would never have bothered. And that’s not fair on female authors.

  4. “As a white reader I am often driven away by covers that feature black people on the cover. I prefer drinking water from fountains that haven’t been touched by the niggers.”

    Agri: Do you truly not see how prejudicial and superficial your statement is when presented in historical context?

    I’ve seen these wars over and over again: in chick lit, in speculative fiction, in comic books, and in mystery.

    The chief reason that people are up in arms about Jennifer Egan’s elitist remarks is that they came from her mouth not long after she was handed yet another major literary prize. If Egan wants to rail against chick lit, she can and she should. But when chick lit readers already feel marginalized by the literary community (much as speculative fiction and mystery do), especially when they must endure the Jim Crow-like sentiments of such snobs as Agri, it’s a tremendously insensitive move. Especially when you’ve just been anointed the It Girl of Lit.

    I also don’t see how you can call Jennifer Weiner “oft-outspoken” (and thus more courageous than the authors who stay mum because they don’t sell enough books and/or they fear repercussions) while simultaneously claiming that she’s “cowering.” Granted, Weiner is a bestselling author and prone to making outrageous statements. (I thought she was out of line when she needlessly tore down Marcy Dermansky’s excellent book, BAD MARIE, during the Tournament of Books.) But if Egan is allowed to make these comments, then so is the other Jennifer. Let’s be clear here. Weiner’s quoted remarks from the Huffington Post aren’t “cowering.” They promulgate a chief question that none of you seem to want to broach: how does an author who is shit on by the literary elite stay humble (unlike much of the literary elite) while also addressing the needless gulf between chick lit and other lit?

    As a man who reads chick lit and regular lit, I take profound objection to the idea that my reading choices would be considered a “mindless unity.” I’m interested in multiple perspectives, whether they are contained within a literary cover, a hand-drawn cover, or a pink cover. (Actually, I pretty much disregard the cover entirely.) Maybe the time has come for someone to address why Egan’s book, which deals with such superficial topics as the celebrity interview and the music world, is “derivative and banal” in subject matter. Because as far as I’m concerned, GOON SQUAD isn’t terribly different in story from many chick lit titles.

    Also, can we declare a moratorium on bringing up the Vidal/Mailer/Cavett appearance? These asinine essays are now starting to resemble a drinking game.

  5. Thanks for this rousing response to all the mean-spiritedness circling the web around Egan’s comments. I do see something very gender-biased in the reaction: male writers are frequently competitive and tell us very frankly who are lesser writers, and we always admire this forthrightness. Women writers, on the other hand, are expected to be fawning and cooperative, apologizing for their successes.

  6. Edward,

    That comparison is absurdly faulty and if you don’t already know that, then something’s wrong. I’m trying to figure out where to start to break it apart. First, he said nothing about people, and that’s important. I’m sure Agri will buy books that have a woman on the cover, but that are in the style of “serious” literature (see Murakami’s 19Q4). It has to do with the stylized image of covers and what they mean. If he doesn’t want to read chick-lit, and all chick-lit covers have things in common that clearly identify themselves as chick-lit, then if a “serious” literature book has a cover in the style of chick-lit, and he doesn’t already know about the book, then for all intents and purposes, that book is chick-lit to him. it is labled as such.

    If someone doesn’t like Fantasy, but they do like SF, and the cover of a book is more in line with Fantasy, they aren’t a racist if they pass it over.

    If someone is shopping at a grocery store, and they prefer healthy foods, which are packaged in a very different style, they are going to pass over foods that are packaged as otherwise. This doesn’t make them a racist.

  7. Edward: Of course the statement is superficial: we’re talking about book covers. You can’t conflate criticism of a cover – chosen by editors in the most cynical manner to appeal to their target market, with criticism of the written work. I enjoy some of the chick-lit that I’ve read, I hated some of it too, but I admit in all of the books that I’ve read that the so-called target market is comprised of women. It’s not that men are not supposed to like it, it’s just that’s not who the books are “for”, again from a marketing perspective.

    To use your race-driven analogy, instead of it being “as a white person I don’t want to read books with black people on the cover”, it’s “why is it every time a middle eastern woman writes a book, there has to be a woman on the cover with a burka” (as explored here: http://en.qantara.de/A-Dalek-in-a-Burqa/15936c16127i1p169/index.html). I find it limiting because there are non-genre books that should be marketed for all readers that are still being marketed by their publishers as “for women only” (or “for people interested in muslim misery-lit only”). It’s not that smiling women on the cover of books with colorful fonts etc are intrinsically bad, its that the publishing industry uses covers as a sort of shorthand of what to expect from the contents, its the same in all genres. But to apply this shorthand for books that lie outside of the genre, in this case chick-lit, just because the authors are women is unfair to the authors.

  8. I’m certainly not in favor of women lauding the derivative and banal in each other based simply on shared gender, but neither do I think that an author of Egan’s caliber should feel she needs to make such comments about such work just because of shared gender. Would Franzen feel the need to comment on the banality of Dan Brown?

    Quite frankly, I think authors, in general, should write where they feel comfortable, at the best of their ability, whatever their chosen genre. All stories are valid, so let them find their audiences and leave the sexism out of it.

  9. Great post! Great discussion.

    Although I agree that Egan did not have to be so cutting in her criticism, it is, nevertheless important that she said it, and that she be allowed to say it. Congratulations to Drewis for backing her up. The idea that the value of a book should be decided on any other basis than the power, beauty and truth of the writing, is of course ludicrous. Once again, the fuzzy confusion between truth and entertainment has emerged. Ms. Weiner’s somewhat self-contradictory statements about wanting to be taking as seriously as Franzen, but not believing she deserves the same amount of attention, echo this confusion.

    Reducing the conversation to an us-versus-them power struggle based on personal preferences (and perceived arenas of power) is reminiscent of turf wars perpetrated by the teenage queen bees in high school (I’m a high school teacher, I see a lot of it!) The rapidity with which the chick-lit genre supporters were willing to turn the issue into a popularity/political power battle sheds light on where they feel their power lies — i.e. not in the written word, but in the ability to manipulate followers. So, just to be clear, Egan could be a ogre and still write immensely valuable books (it’s happened before) and the chick-lit queen bees could shut her down completely, without proving a thing about the value of either’s writing.

    There is, I think, more than one argument going on here. The big one is not who can say what to whom, or if it’s possible to write good chick lit, but what it means for something to be LITERATURE and, most importantly, who gets to decide — and on what basis — sales, the cult of author personality, the reach of the writing, or gender politics. Again, we are vastly confused about this.

    In my humble opinion, there is a significant gulf between “chick lit” and LITERATURE. Why is a whole other discussion but in a nutshell — chick lit operates within confines of a more limited world view (one which Drewis, shrewdly, and correctly in my opinion, identifies with its name). If it’s well-written, funny, entertaining — then, of course, it’s good chick-lit. It would, however, have to transcend its origins to be considered literature — not, I might add, an impossible task. And, I might also add, if the literati could manage to curb some of their glib snideness (which also has its origins in a limited world view) then chances of a genuine piece of chick-LITERATURE being overlooked by the world would be much reduced.

    always an enthusiastic reader of the M!


  10. If someone is shopping at a grocery store, and they prefer healthy foods, which are packaged in a very different style, they are going to pass over foods that are packaged as otherwise. This doesn’t make them a racist.

    No, but it does confirm that you’re a Veblenian turd who views a book as something akin to an easily forgotten box of muesli at Whole Foods. If you want to see books as superficial products, be my guest. As we know, most Americans do. But you’re part of the problem. As far as I’m concerned, you really have no business remarking upon their artistic quality if you’re going to wear this materialistic uniform. See, I view books as something more than that. They ARE closer to people than mass-produced trinkets available for your purchasing pleasure on the display table. I don’t think I have to explain why.

    Agri: Thanks for returning to the spirited discussion after my aggressive remarks. You’re okay in my book. I’m relieved to learn that you’re a chick lit reader too. I agree with you that shorthand of any sort is useless when we talk about books. And I suspect we both feel similarly about books as living, breathing individuals, which is why one must take care when making statements about them. Still, if this is how you feel, then why judge books by their pink covers? Why fall into line with the crass materialism that our bourgie booster PT Smith seems fond of? It is most certainly judging the books by the color of their skin, which is why I made the flamboyant analogy. In fact, now that Fawn has expanded upon Egan’s need to judge authors because of shared gender, I’m MORE troubled by Egan’s remarks than I was before.

    Elle: DFW wasn’t on the cover of Time. That was J__________ F___________ (unnamed so as not to hijack the thread).

  11. I thought Egan was spot-on with her comments.

    What we’re seeing here with Weiner and her ilk (seriously, this woman is just digging herself into a trench; already I think she’s gone, in her weird proto-feministic attacks, that have actually set back both feminism and literary ambition, from entertaining absurdism to merely annoying — the future holds unbearably annoying for her) is the same thing that science-fiction/fantasy/mystery/thriller writers have been battling for a good part of the 20th century. However, instead of trying to blend genres or push ambitions, Weiner seems to want literature to be this one thing, this breezy, easy, comfortable, unchallenging, forgettable reading experience, where a protagonist, normally female, overcomes all these obstacles that are put in front of her. It’s the Book of Job again and again in this genre of books and many don’t want to be anything more. And Weiner doesn’t seem to want women writers to write anything more than that. She demands these clear distinctions between girl-books and boy-books that I thought most people outgrew when they were in, I don’t know, elementary school. James Woods has a more diverse taste than Weiner.

    Ambition in fiction seems always on the low side anyway. Sure, you see it pop up at the end of the year, when people are lauding the best books of said year, but unless you’re paying attention to the right sources, most write-ups seem to favor easy reading.

    I think Egan could have been more disparaging, but I think she is right. If we’re continually putting ourselves in the same rut of banal and arbitrary fiction, if we’re not challenging our reading or writers are challenging their abilities, if we as readers or writers aren’t striving for more, what’s the point of it all anyway?

  12. Matthew: I do think that, because chick-lit is intended for a specific audience, it makes sense that most covers in the genre would conform to certain, feminine, standards. Most successful chick-lit writers have carved out a niche and have a loyal fan base, so I would understand if they weren’t interested in attracting male readers. I don’t mean to generalize here–and I applaud Agri for his open-mindedness–but I do think the ornate, flowery covers repel male readers. Hell, I’m a woman, and the cover art still turns me off. It’s not the deciding factor in whether or not I’ll read a book (I recently bought the paperback version of Aryn Kyle’s short story collection, even though it looks like the poster for a ’70s hygiene movie).

    As far as what I define as feminine goes, it varies. But certain colors (pinks, purples, yellows–mostly pastels) and images (those somewhat disturbing torso-shots of beautiful women; my copy of McCafferty’s “Sloppy Firsts” shows a teenage girl’s legs outstretched on a couch) scream chick-lit to me. (Again, that’s not a BAD thing; I just don’t read a lot of chick-lit.)

    But the same is true of certain works of literary fiction (or at least fiction by women that is not specifically “chick-lit”). My copy of “Prep” by Curtis Sittenfeld has the requisite bright colors, but I don’t think of that book as chick lit. By the same token, my copy of Daniel Handler’s “The Basic Eight” has one of those spooky disembodied legs covers–but it is most decidedly not chick-lit. I wonder–and this is just idle speculation–if the girly cover problem affects not only female writers, but also male writers writing from a female perspective (as is the case with Handler’s book).

  13. Oh, Edward, Edward, Edward. Nothing has been confirmed except, well, that I could spend a long time insulting both your personality and your comprehension ability and feel perfectly comfortable with my opinion.

    “Someone” is not necessarily me. I made no “I” statements in my comment. So to believe you can draw out my purchasing or judging habits from anything I said is just poor thinking. Marketing exists. Marketing dominates. And to claim that because I’m willing to acknowledge that is ludicrous. From there it follows that Dalkey, New Directions, Melville House, Vintage, Modern Library, any press that in any way uses marketing in the stylization of their covers has no business remarking on their books’ artistic quality. Covers signify, and sure, relying only on that is shallow, but the thing is, so often they do actually signify enough to matter. Following your thinking, it shouldn’t actually matter if on the cover of a young adult novel is a white person whereas in the book the hero is black.

    Also, can you really not follow your own use of people? You mentioned people on a book cover. I pointed out that there is a difference between a person on a cover and an overall stylization of a cover — font, color, objects. And then you make a romantic claim that books are more akin to people. Logic!

  14. I liked Goon Squad. Egan has a right to her opinions, but I guess people have a right to boycott her work if they don’t like them, and to like the work of other authors simply because they are “nice.” Is it silly? Sure. People can be that way. It’s Egan’s decision not to hold back, and the decision of the “girls” to punish her for it. As Gloria Steinem pointed out, women often punish the successful one. Male authors criticize other male authors all the time, and get into fistfights, but I don’t remember the men’s fans boycotting the offender. Btw, Vidal’s response to Mailer’s violence was the classic put-down, “Words fail Norman Mailer yet again.”

  15. Wow, just when ThreeCupsofTeaGate was winding down, we get DerivativeandBanalGate. The literary world is having such a Gawker-US-Weekly month. Fingers crossed we can get one more scandal in before May. Maybe a scandal and a half?

  16. And speaking of turds, Edward, let’s use a comparison that makes more sense. If a see a turd, odds are, inside, turd also. It doesn’t matter if someone marketing this turd is one the who added the outside layer of turd, inside is likely turd. So, sure, there may be gold inside that turd, and some marketing jerk just put the turd on the outside because he thought it would sell, but if I’m the type of person who simply goes into a turd store to browse, and not the type of person who spends time on sites like The Millions, where I read that some marketing jerk put turd over gold, well, why would I risk buying the turd just sitting on the shelf, looking exactly like so much other turd?

  17. Ann M, watch out, didn’t you read above? You’re not supposed to mention the Vidal/Mailer gig; you’re being asinine and making poor Edward drink.

  18. P.T Smith: hilarity, and you make your point perfectly! Many, many book buyers simply walk into a store to browse (with no idea in mind what they are after) for them, the covers VERY MUCH do matter! Actually I think that book covers matter for most people, even for elitists who insist that they are above their influence!

    Another thing to consider for those that don’t think book covers influence; consider books that get multiple printings – my guess is that the worthy pieces of writing have covers that evolve more towards literature and not the other way around. So what does that say? You’re never going to see a book evolve in it’s second or third printing with a cover that looks like a Harlequin novel, unless said book is a Harelquin novel (and chances are those don’t get multiple printings). Why, b/c most books with covers like that are trash and everyone knows it. Nothing wrong if you like that kind of read, but for me personally, I like for a book to make me think and most books with covers like that are not the “thinking” kind of book! I am making generalizations of course, but overall I do not think that I am wrong!

    Just for the record, I am female and steer clear of books with pinks, purples, pastels, etc. not necessarily b/c I’m anti-chick lit but b/c I feel that if a book has been out long enough, is getting praise, is selling well, no publisher in their right mind would give it a cover like that regardless of who the target audience is.

  19. ‎”What kind of feminist movement condones a suppression of opinion on the basis that we should all be nice and stick together, because we’re girls? What Egan said wasn’t nice. It was honest. It reflected her opinion of a certain type of fiction.”

  20. First off, excellent piece, Drewis. I am with you and Egan on this one. A writer should feel free to discuss writing regardless of gender or race or sexual orientation. Should male writers be fearful to disparage pulp fiction in the hope that Mickey Spillane’s ghost isn’t feeling his oats? Egan’s point is a fine one, don’t aim for genre fiction, don’t be marginalized, don’t let a fearful publishing industry corner you into writing something they know will sell. Aim higher.

    Also, one thing that seems missing in a lot of the commentary in this thread (and probably elsewhere) is that the interview in question occurred literally minutes after Egan learned she’d won a Pulitzer. That’s even part of the lede over at the WSJ. Sometimes RTFA can help provide some context, though of course discussions of the novel as granola and the notion that claiming Chick Lit covers are off putting equates to blatant racism are certainly illuminating in a special way.

    Perhaps if given the opportunity, Egan might have been more diplomatic. And perhaps not. I can only one day hope to imagine what she was feeling at that moment, but I have no problem with her talking a little shit. Hell, I wouldn’t be shocked if she’d been told to write books that would sell and abandon the literary stuff herself. Let the woman have a moment to soak it in. She’s no Mailer in her disparagement of Chick-Lit.

  21. 1) I liked Egan’s book to recommend it, but am still surprised it won such a big award.

    2) Whatever you think of Egan and her writing, she does not owe anyone or any group anything just because she was born with a vagina.

    3) Weiner continues to come off as a self-promoting loud-mouth who seems to equate popular success with somehow being made a statesperson for a constituency.

    4) ‘Chick-lit’ is really just a pair of syllables, harmless really. Let’s not burn too many calories on that, please. I mean, the 90’s are LONG over. If people need a catch-phrase to pigeon-hole a perceived genre of book, just let it be and move on for fuck’s sake.

    5) Am I allowed to drop an F-Bomb on here? I guess we’ll see.

    6) Everyone start worrying now about what Tea Obreht says next year, because she’s gonna win some stuff.

  22. After certain terrible people shamed me into reading The Corrections and Freedom in a hurry because they were supposed to be great literature (rather than what they were: overpraised journeyman work followed up by an embarrassing pretend masterpiece), I was very grateful to Jennifer Egan for writing A Visit to the Goon Squad, which was the smartest book I read last year. Nobody’s gender has anything to do with any of that.

  23. It absolutely pisses me off that, as women writers, we have to be nicey-nice all the time, and that any discussion at all of literary merit is impossible because it immediately leads to charges of elitism.

    This is the same world that wants to give every kid on every team a trophy. But some kids are playing for fun, and just having a good time; some kids are Olympic-level, and watching them will take your breath away. They’re not the same, and if you care about the sport, you will care about the difference.

    I was inspired by Jenny Egan’s comments. I didn’t notice the diss at all. Instead, I was cheering that a woman was advocating ambition. Clearly, though, it’s still not allowed.

  24. Well, Edward Champion has a reputation as something of a buffoon who burst angrily into discussions without actually thinking about what he is saying. No surprises here.

    Although I don’t defend judging books by their covers, covers and marketing ARE a real issue for minority and female authors. There is a world of difference between saying you don’t want to buy a book with women on the cover, and saying you are more likely to pass over a book that is marketed in a specific, superficial way to a demographic you don’t occupy. Lots of women authors have complained about this, as they rightly should. How marketers will take a dark book of death and force an unrelated cover of flowers and goofy typeface designed to appeal to young adult girls.

    Similarly, black authors are often forced to market their books as a certain type of “urban fiction” regardless of the actual content.

    smart readers should avoid buying books based on covers, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t racist and sexist for book publishers to force these kinds of narrow marketing on all authors of a certain demographic. That’s where the real problem lies.

  25. PT Smith: You don’t have to use an indefinite pronoun to demonstrate, as you have here, that you stand for nothing less than the contents inside a flaccid balloon (and that you possess the detumescent shrinkage to match).

    Just as one doesn’t need to explain why books are hardly comparable with a food, one also doesn’t need to grasp that marketing is ubiquitous. If books can be likened to people, then your position on covers is akin to judging a person by his skin. That you use language like “someone” only transforms you into the argumentative equivalent to a Tea Party member who insists that he’s not racist while using oblique language.

    If he doesn’t want to read chick-lit, and all chick-lit covers have things in common that clearly identify themselves as chick-lit, then if a “serious” literature book has a cover in the style of chick-lit, and he doesn’t already know about the book, then for all intents and purposes, that book is chick-lit to him. it is labled as such.

    And that is the blinkered problem at issue here, which Agri has already cleared up (in a way that generates further discourse) and which you merely wish to posture about. And you repeat the terms with your turd analogy. Let’s use another one.

    If I want to sodomize your mother, and some jerk produces a birth certificate that reveals that the person I am about to sodomize isn’t in fact your mother, I’m still going to have the desire to sodomize your mother. But because I still want to sodomize someone, I’m not necessarily going to complain that the person isn’t your mother. In fact, I may even like sodomizing the ersatz mother more than your real mother. And the range of my sodomy expands. (In fact, I’m likely to try other orifices over time.)

    In other words, you clearly underestimate the reading public and the range of your possibilities is limited, especially because you cannot put yourself on the line in this thread. Let me ask you something: What have you ever done to expand a reader’s horizons?

    I think the difference between our respective philosophies can be settled if Jennifer Egan starts talking about sodomy to the press.

  26. In reply to Fawn’s question: “Would Franzen feel the need to comment on the banality of Dan Brown?”

    No, he probably wouldn’t. But Franzen and Brown are never lumped together as “male writers” in the way Eagen and Weiner are as “women writers.” We also live in a society that sees competition between men as natural and competition between women as “cat fights.”

    What I find especially interesting is that Weiner herself acknowledges she sees a a hierarchy in literary merit, with her comments about Franzen vs. Hornby and Tropper. But it also apparently pissed when Eagen comments on it. It’s not enough that a woman won a prestigious award, because it’s not Weiner’s type of woman.

    I did agree with much of Weiner’s points and opinions during the Franzen-mania, but I think this time it’s about her feelings being hurt more than it is about gender and the literary landscape as a whole.

  27. Two things: first, I think Egan’s comments rubbed many people – myself included – the wrong way not just because they came off as needlessly elitist, but because there is more than a whiff of the “doth protesteth too much” about them. To whit, when I read THE KEEP, I realized early on, “oh, this is SHUTTER ISLAND, except Dennis Lehane didn’t have to try to pretend it’s something it isn’t.” LOOK AT ME, which was better, trods much the same territory as many books fairly (or unfairly) tagged with chick lit, what with explorations of identity, celebrity, body image, and the like. In other words, if you’re going to call a group of writers “derivative and banal” look hard, hard in the mirror to make sure you’re not altogether different.

    As for the other thing: it’s just not a Monday morning without dick wars. So (and I’m telling this to myself, too) it’s a beautiful late afternoon in New York City. the sun is shining. It’s perfect ice cream weather. It’s almost 4:20! Those things are a hell of a lot more important than rehashing tired, attention-getting, repetitive genre wars.

    Oh, and a third thing: isn’t it time for Elizabeth Merrick to reappear on the literary scene?

  28. Sigh. That’s fine if you don’t like Egan’s comments. *What about the book*? Or if you think Weiner is a dip. *What about her writing?* So often on Twitter and elsewhere I see editors and agents saying they won’t take on a writer if they get a whiff of “crazy” or I see a regular person saying they won’t buy a book if they see a blog post from a writer that turns them off. I think that’s *weird.* Think of all the prickly writers out there who were totally hard to work with or who said pissy things and yet wrote beautiful, luminous, or at least provocative stuff. Why would you miss the chance to publish something great because you thought someone was an a-hole, or miss the chance to read something terrific because you didn’t like what someone said, once? Jeez. Why is it relevant if Jennifer Egan had *met* the people whose *writing* she was talking about? Why is relevant if they are nice?

  29. Claudia: An agent not wanting to deal with a crazy client seems like a vastly different issue than a reader not wanting to buy a book from someone they don’t like. An agent has to work with closely with a writer. it is like hiring an awful employee.

  30. M., Champion is only something of a buffoon? Anyone whose style of argument consists entirely of ad hom attacks plus shifting goal posts from one argument to an “analogy” that doesn’t actually follow, but is something that is so offensive that of course you have to agree, or be racist or support sodomy, is a lot more than something of a buffoon in my book.

    Oh, and add absurd, rhetorical questions that seem like maybe a valid argument, but considering the disingenuous jackassery at hand, are little more than sleights of hand made to make the Champ sound like someone who cares about something besides his own rantings.

  31. Turds and Sodomy! This is fun.
    I’m curious for Ed Champion to discuss the merits and “genre” issues. of Egan’s book, or anyone else for that matter. I haven’t read it.
    I have no problem with Egan’s comments. I know nothing of the other writers she mentioned. I read Egan’s short story collection years ago- two of the stories,I think, were very good.
    I recently was very annoyed not just at the marketing/covers of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, but also the “good” reviews. “Comfy couch of a book”? This four book series is brilliant literature, detailing England during the time before the war and during world war 2 and after- it’s nearly as brilliant as War and Peace in its complexity of character and time. And it gets marketed to women and called a “comfy couch.” Just- baffling. I want to get her in the canon. Seriously.
    So-I guess I won’t NOT buy a book because of the cover, but certain flap copy that makes it sound,well, dumb- will turn me off. I’m just glad that I knew enough about Howard to make it past all the bad marketing, or bad to me, maybe good for others.

  32. M.,

    I know. He’s reached the point of outright making things up, and, shouting “i know she is but what am I?”

    It slipped past being aggravating and well into amusing, which is where I have to give up on any discussion, even if I’m wicked tempted to point out how a book cover is much more akin to clothing than to skin color (and to continue to point out that Eddy is insisting on arguing on the terms that books are made of people, as if we’ve all agreed to those terms), because somewhere along the line it was a choice, not a matter of birth and biology. I mean, you wouldn’t show up for a job interview for an accounting position wearing paint-splattered Carharrt and a dirty t-shirt, unless of course you’re a fantastic accountant and some jackhole in marketing made you wear those clothes to the interview, in which case, you’re rightfully pissed off about it.

  33. M.: When are you going to write a book?

    I know who both of you are. Can you stop contaminating classy places like The Millions (and other sites) with your virulent hatred for me because you don’t grasp the game? (Sorry for this, Max. This is my last comment in the thread.)

  34. Who am I Ed? And how do you know who I am, ’cause I sure as heck don’t know who you are, so I can’t have virulent hatred for you. Sorry if that would make you feel better. I’m not even going to touch the whole “contamination” bit…

  35. Please, people, stop responding to Ed Champion. He is smarter, funnier, and feels the pain of the wronged more than you ever will. He is the Borges of Sad Older Men Who Could Not Make It Doing and So Therefore Make it Pointing and Commenting. He likes to write things that make you feel uncomfortable because you are all sad, intellectually-deprived plebs stuck in your quotidian worlds with your significant others and your pathetic jobs. He has the time to produce a website that hundreds of people have read AND comment on all the literary blogs AND get his picture taken on a carousel, because carousels are so uncool and it makes him look like a predator, and it’s all one big joke on all of us morons so let’s just let him alone atop his throne to throw around his shock.

    Hope you enjoyed the three extra page views you got today, Ed!

  36. Maybe I’m showing my age here, but to me a chick is either a trendy young woman or the token female character in an ensemble tv show. Who the heck is Ed Hardy? And how come it’s okay for a woman to call herself a bitch but not a chick. I thought that was a part of reclaiming words.

    Also, I don’t get where this stuff about women punishing the “successful” one came from or why anyone bothered to bring out the women are communal, sharey-sharey creatures stereotype. I’m pretty sure if a man said chick-lit was banal and derivative, fans of the genre would be be up in his face as well.

    Egan threw the first punch – in a question that touched on gender norms she veered out and brought up a 10 year old scandal and insulted a genre (it’s pretty obvious the mental processes went Franzen –> Franzenfreud –> Weiner –> CHICKLIT) and said something snide but not entirely untrue. And you know, that’s fine, she’s entitled to her own opinion. But what do you expect the insulted fans to do? Roll over and take it? Write treatises and invite Egan to a public forum for a spirited debate? Give me a break. They’re going to hop on the internet and say they don’t think too highly of her and refuse to buy her books. It’s got nothing to do with her being a woman or their being women. Someone said something that some other people took offense to.

    And did I really just see “hysterical” and “bitterness” in this article? Oh boy.

  37. Great piece. Thanks for writing it.

    I can’t believe how hard everyone is being on Jennifer Egan. Sometimes I love reading banal and derivative stuff–there’s a place for that–but I read it to be entertained, not to experience the catharsis/genuine life-changing experience that I get from truly great works of literature. Jennifer Egan is challenging female writers to aim extremely high, and as a young female writer, I’m extremely encouraged by her comments.

  38. Obviously this is written by a superfan of Egan so is entirely biased. I do not see any reason Chic-Lit is an offensive term or should be considered banal. Men and Women are different—this is why I say feminists are the ones that hate women the most. We enjoy different sorts or books, some topics are more appealing to one over the other. For example I prefer pride and prejudice over call of the wild. A book featuring all-male characters playing basketball probably will be more popular with guys. Women do not have to pretend to be men in order to be successful. We have books that appeal to certain demographics, ages, and sexes—some categories have narrower scopes than others. Some are more universal, some are more specific. There is really no need to squabble about it—both can exist together!!

  39. I first saw Egan’s comment about shooting high and not cowering reposted on the blog of one of my students – a young female writer with a lot of talent, who reads voraciously and “shoots high” as she can every time. This is who Egan’s talking to – a young girl with big aspirations… not other grown, women writers (no matter what they write). Frankly, I’m glad to know that’s gotten through.

    As for the rest of what she said, I think the whole thing is absurd. First, she’s talking about the bad literary tastes of a teenaged plagiarist. Certainly, the girl ought to have had better taste in reading material, but this is also a writer who was naive enough to think she could copy passages of bestselling novels without anyone noticing. If she’d cribbed Flannery O’Connor would that be any better? What she did was certainly cowardly, and it has nothing to do with who she stole from.

    Second, if Franzen had gotten the Pulitzer (shudder) and he’d said something similar, I doubt we’d spend much time debating if he’d dissed the hardboiled detective fiction writers of the world. There’s some writing in that genre that achieves great literary heights and a lot that doesn’t. The same goes for Science Fiction and for “Chick-Lit” (a classification which certainly does not encompass all writing being written by and about women.) A lot of it IS banal and derivative. So are a lot of supposed “literary novels” written by both men and women. Genre or non, male or female, really original writing is difficult to find. I think Egan’s done it, and I think it more than earns her the right to tell girls to shoot high and not cower. Maybe someone should tell the boys as well.

  40. ZK,

    Thanks for pointing me to Ed’s website.

    However multilayered Ed’s pic on the carousel is, I found the photo of Sarah Weinman much more captivating.

  41. Wow. All this over an off-the-cuff comment in which Egan criticized an author for bothering to plagarize material that was in her mind “derivative and banal “. When I read the quote, I understood her to say ” Aim as high as possible – strive for imortality rather than best selling formulaic Chic-Lit… you can do better, but not if you don’t aim high.” And in my mind, I say “Yes. Why not!” If I could write – would I rather be remembered for having penned a Great American Novel, or would I want to be a successful writer, who made a lot of money, but somehow fell short of the apellation “Great”. I’d desire Greatness. Is it elitist? Yes. Is it wrong? Not necessarily. It’s Egan’s opinion (and mine). There’s certainly nothing wrong with writing popular best-sellers. Jennifer Weiner has nothing to be ashamed of and will easily outsell Jennifer Egan, but give me a break, I never heard Dannielle Steele complaining that she wasn’t respected….

    So, Jennifer Egan’s novel has been critically lauded, and she encouraged others to match her high standards…. what’s wrong with that? This backlash is simply sour grapes from those who’ve chosen to write novels that appeal to readers whose tastes are somewhat uncomplicated. Apparently, they’d have prefered that Egan would have said something like ” Just write something… it’s all good”.

  42. The fact that there are still issues about Egan making that sort of comment shows how biased the literary world is against women. If any male author had made a similar statement no one would bat an eye. This isn’t Egan making an attack on “chick lit”, the label of which IS demeaning all on its own. But that genre is not a serious one, it’s not great literature in the literary sense of the word. And that’s not as if to say one of those books can’t be good or have merit, and certainly they’re enjoyable, but in ten years, who’ll remember? And that’s the main difference between what Egan is writing and what, say, Meg Cabot puts out. (I point her out because she’s the only one mentioned that I’ve actually read, albiet many years ago.)

    Egan isn’t saying anything against that genre that isn’t already clear: it’s not a serious literary genre. Make of that what you will. What Egan is saying is that more women should be aspiring to that higher tier, to go beyond the will-sell and target-demographic nonsense. Mind you, that’s the category for Tropper and Hornby too. It’s not a gender matter.

    Now what in the hell is so wrong with telling young women to work for more than a one-shot bestseller? Why not aim high? Why not be truly great? Egan has done this, and it’s a message that shouldn’t be met with offense and outrage.

  43. Hugh Walpole, anyone? A once popular and well-respected English author. Even got himself a knighthood.

    If you’ve heard his name in the last 40 years its probably because you heard it in a Monty Python sketch (‘Rogue Herries’ by Hugh Walpole.)

    Jennifer Weiner is our generation’s Hugh Walpole, if that.

  44. My problem with the whole “chick lit” thing is the tendency to categorize family/relational fiction written by women about women as such and then dismiss it as prada shoe stories (whether there are any shoes involved or not), while family/relationship fiction by men is seen as “literary” and lauded, whether it is written about men or women. It’s enough to make one consider throwing a male protagonist into the mix.

  45. Meg, you bring up a point that I wish I could have fit into the article. I actually don’t think subject matter is the issue with chick lit, although it’s often the point of contention on behalf of both its detractors and defenders. As several commenters have pointed out, Egan’s subjects–supermodels, high-powered PR women, stylists, and generally glamorous women–are often the same subjects of chick lit authors. The difference is the brilliance of Egan’s execution, which is in large part why it’s so great to see her winning the Pulitzer.

    It would indeed be ludicrous to say that families and relationships are an unworthy topic, because the thing is, there are many women writing well about these topics. I’d be hard pressed to think of someone who wrote about being a housewife and mother in a more hilarious and heartbreaking way than Grace Paley did. More recently, Danielle Evans wrote a beautiful short story collection largely revolving around the experience of being a teenage girl, and she got a lot of recognition this year. I remember reading Lorrie Moore in college and being absolutely astounded at the way she was portraying the lives of everyday women, and she’s pretty well respected across gender lines. My issue with the chick lit debate is that the conversation is misdirected: the lack of credit has very little to do with subject matter so much as the way it’s being portrayed.

    Thanks for the comment.

  46. I think it’s interesting that you mention the Vidal-Mailer squabble, Deena. It would be interesting in and of itself but I find it even more meaningful because the insult that Vidal used is specific to women. Would Mailer have been as offended – and as inclined to violence – if Vidal had compared his work to something male-specific? Probably not.

  47. I don’t think Egan was being mean. Her point was that a Harvard student’s literary models were all popular fiction instead of, say, classic humorists like Rabelais or Jane Austen or Voltaire or Shakespeare or Moliere or Swift.

  48. For the record, not everyone in the publishing industry is satisfied with the term “chick lit” and many refer to it as “women’s fiction” (fiction of interest to women’s issues) — it’s practically a movement because editors who love women’s fiction don’t think that fiction is dumbed-down and don’t like that “chick lit” connotes that it is.

  49. I agree with Sarah – Egan was being patronising and elitist about certain types of fiction. Egan may also think she’s original and literary, but I for one found Goon Squad banal, pretentious and derlivative (of the likes of David Foster Wallace, whose footnote style she attempts to copy, but without any of Wallace’s wit or originality). All her characters, male and female, in the novel were horribly self-obsessed, ego-inflated, narcissistic bores. As a portrait of the American zeitgeist vis-a-vis the microcosm of the music scene – there was nothing of insight or intelligence that she offered.

    What astonishes me and frankly confuses me, is how on earth Goon Squad ever managed to be popular, and how it managed to garner two major awards. I think it was a perfect example of the Emperor’s New Clothes of modern fiction, and one of the most boring novels I’ve ever read.

  50. Oops – sorry for the typo – obviously i meant ‘derivative’, not ‘derlivative’!

  51. Thank you, I couldn’t agree more.

    I say that as someone who reads both “chick lit” (dread word) and literary fiction.

    I loved Goon Squad, I bought it in a tiny bookshop in Paris recommended by the bookseller, I had heard nothing of the hype and didn’t know she had won the Pulitzer until later. I will remember the disjointed slightly dystopic effect created for a long time, it gave me plenty to think about.

    Obviously I will also remember the last “chick lit” I read, because the stories are all the same, the characters are all very similar. It’s the book equivalent of a soap opera or a warm bath. Easy to read and comforting.

  52. I often say I don’t read a book unless I think it will change my life. I do not go into bookstores because they feel phony and I am a non-shopaholic. I am beginning to realize that I haven’t read much “contemporary” lit because I am alienated from so much of modern life. I should say the parts of modern life that are bureaucratic, fascistic, destroying the planet and humanity. Maybe I don’t get out enough. I was a “chick” at one point in my life, and I count as my heroines Gracie Allen, Lucille Ball, Lily Tomlin, etc–were they chicks? I am a feminist. I believe in freedom of speech and think “famous” people should be able to say what they think. I also tend to be very tolerant and believe that EVERYONE’s contribution is valuable.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.