A Reflection: Am I Still “Embracing My Inner Chick?”
Three years ago, on an earlier incarnation of this website, I published a post proudly announcing that I was “Embracing My Inner Chick.” It read, in part:
I have experienced a tectonic shift in thinking about my novel Dirty—from feeling pressure to produce a “literary novel” to embracing that the best form for the story I want to tell actually falls into the category of “women's fiction.” Yep, I’m writing Chick Lit. And I couldn’t be happier to admit that at this point, despite the pejorative perceptions of the genre.
It’s been an interesting journey to arrive at this conclusion. When I started the Stanford program, I suspected Dirty would prove to be more mainstream than what the majority of my cohort were planning to write. After all, the story began life as a romantic comedy screenplay. But when I posted on a class discussion board that I felt what I was trying to achieve was lighter in literary weight, I received a bit of a smackdown. Several fellow students provided suggestions for upping the social significance of my novel (by, for example, taking on the gender issues that underlie my characters’ decision to pedal pornography). Others chimed in that I was selling my abilities short. I experienced a brief, yet deep bout of existential crisis. Then I consciously deferred addressing the issue by settling down to learn the craft of fiction writing through the prescribed coursework and launching into what I called a “proof-of-concept draft.”
That draft succeeded in demonstrating that I have an engaging concept, compelling characters, and a complete plot. But it also raised the genre question again, and this time, I’m confronting it head-on. Is Dirty Chick Lit? It features two strong women at crossroads in their lives. Check. Its overall tone is best described as “comic” (but “self-deprecating” will do in a pinch). Check. And it has a happy ending in which the main character arcs resolve in satisfying growth. Check. Plus, my instructors have graciously compared my style and substance to that of women’s fiction doyenne Jennifer Weiner—an utterly enjoyable and best-selling author who, coincidentally, has made it her mission to remove the stigma from her chosen genre. I’m ready to fight at Jen’s side on this subject, not simply for commercial or critical or political reasons—although those do appeal to me—but also because this is how this particular story wants to be told. That’s why I’m embracing my Inner Chick!
To say that a lot has happened—both in my life and in the world at large—since I wrote this piece seems facile and cliché. As I sit here now, listening to the kick-ass Girlboss playlist on Spotify in an attempt to recapture my former enthusiasm for making Chick Lit mine, trying desperately to soothe the scars created by the 2016 Presidential election and my personal complicity in two of the most public instances of “Me, Too,” I am decidedly less interested in accepting any gender-based label for my writing, regardless of who levies it.
Then, this morning, I read novelist Rachel Howard’s great article on LitHub, What Do We Really Mean by “Women’s Fiction?”, in which she recommends six essays about the gendering of books in light of her experiences in publishing as a female debut author. And boy, did she strike a chord with me. She asserts:
…the label “women’s fiction” itself comes loaded with its own complicated assumption: that “women’s fiction” isn’t literary fiction. The discussion needs to happen, though. It needs to keep happening, if women writers—if all writers—are going to find their ways out of false dilemmas and assumptions.
She goes on to cite Amanda Filipacchi’s observations on how female author photos are posed differently than those of their male counterparts; Catherine Nichols’ experiment in which she sent out queries for the same manuscript as a woman and a man, and received very different responses; and Stacey D’Erasmo’s analysis of what it requires to be taken seriously as a woman writer, from Virginia Woolf’s time to the present day.
But the best of the bunch has to be Meg Wolitzer’s 2012 New York Times Sunday Book Review essay entitled The Second Shelf: On The Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women, which contains this stark truth (emphasis mine):
Exploring Amazon, I came across a category called “Women’s Fiction” where I am listed, along with Jane Austen, Sophie Kinsella, Kathryn Stockett, Toni Morrison, Danielle Steel and Louisa May Alcott. If there is a stylistic or thematic link to be found among us, it’s hard to see. Amazon is clearly trying to help readers find titles they want. But any lumping together of disparate writers by gender or perceived female subject matter separates the women from the men. And it subtly keeps female writers from finding a coed audience, not to mention from entering the larger, more influential playing field.
I am much more sensitive to facts like these today than I was three years ago, at least in part because my new novel-in-progress is a serious rumination on rural gentrification told from both female and male perspectives. I worry that this work of distinctly literary fiction will be “too different” from what I’ve done with Dirty, and that I will thus render myself “unmarketable” by virtue of writing the stories I am driven to write.
I’ve caught myself several times dismissing men’s feedback on Dirty because “they aren’t my audience.” But now I must ask: Why would I limit the reach of my writing that way? And further: Why accept any gendered classification of my work? The answer to both questions is that I don’t want to. If my creative expression is to be a pure form of communication, it serves absolutely no one to shut anyone out of the potential reading community from Word One. I will concede that I wrote Dirty with a firmly Chick-informed sensibility, but I will leave it up to you to decide for yourself if the story is for you.