Is it just me, or does it seem like every six months or so the whole debate about the term “chick lit,” what it means and who it offends/dismisses seems to raise its head? And like a game of whack-a-mole, someone takes the bait and tries to bang that head back into place. Looks like I’m the fish on the line this time, so …
What am I referring to? Lots of things, but more specifically, Douglas Brinkley’s recent New York Times review of Jodi Kantor’s book “The Obamas,” that summed up the book as “chick nonfiction,” a genre I personally did not know existed.
Disclosure: I have not read Kantor’s book, so I cannot comment on whether Brinkley’s overall critique of it as something that contains “strange, gossipy moments that hardly hold up as serious journalism, but provide insight nonetheless,” is an accurate portrayal. Regardless, it’s his opinion, and he’s entitled to it.
What I do take issue with is his use of the “chick” moniker, especially when it’s followed –- as way of explanation -- by the phrase “this book is not about politics, it’s about a marriage, or at least one marriage, and a notably successful one at that.”
(As a side note, I wonder how a book about the president and first lady, even if the concentration of it is about their marriage, can be anything other than about politics. This is particularly true here, since the book’s central thesis -– according to Brinkley –- is that Michelle Obama “sets the tone and tempo of the current White House,” particularly where that spouse “performs an advisory role” to the head of state. If that’s not politics, what is?)
So, what am I complaining about besides the mere fact of the use of the word “chick”? It’s this: I assume that Brinkley’s use of the term was meant to put the book into its place -- a genre if you will -- i.e. books written by and for women. (If you meant it another way, Mr. Brinkley, my apologies. But you had to know that people would take it that way, right? And after the whole Picoult/Weiner/Franzen/Eugenides fracas, your editor certainly must have known.)
So, assuming that’s the case, why must the literary establishment, for lack of better terminology, continue to categorize all subjects and books of a personal nature as being of interest only to women, and by extension, something that can be easily dismissed undeserving of serious consideration? Aren’t marriages made up of two people? (and not always two “chicks,” I might add). Do men really have no interest in reading about or discussing personal things? Is this the sole purview of “chicks”?
Clearly not, since, as Brinkley points out, another powerful political duo -– the Clintons –- were “served up scalding in books by Christopher Hitchens, Michael Isikoff and R. Emmettt Tyrell Jr., among others.” Were those books “chick nonfiction”? No. They were written by men, for one thing, thereby being, almost definitionally, not just of interest to “chicks.” But also, those books tore a strip off the Clintons. Ah, now I get it! The personal transcends the sphere of interest occupied by women when it comes in a vicious package.
Ann Coulter doesn’t write “chick nonfiction” because she’s angry and mean, thereby, presumably, canceling out the fact that she’s a woman.
Too bad for Jodi Kantor that she decided to use “breezy prose” in writing her “admiring portrait of Mrs. Obama.” If she hadn’t been so intent on giving the first lady a “hug,” maybe she would have just stayed in the non-fiction genre pure et simple. Silly chick.
Catherine McKenzie practices law in Montreal. Her novels SPIN and ARRANGED are international bestsellers. Visit her website: catherinemckenzie.com