Sarahbeth Purcell on MoDo’s Time Warp

Maureen Dowd wrote a particularly silly column about chick lit for the New York Times over the weekend, and though Sarahbeth Purcell doesn’t consider herself a chick lit writer, she knows there are plenty of people in the publishing and bookselling worlds who think of her novels, Love Is the Drug and This Is Not a Love Song, that way, so she’s not going to let Dowd’s attack pass unremarked. “The reason I felt compelled to comment on her most recent attempt at staying current,” Purcell commented, “is, honestly, its lack of being ‘current,’ its complete lack of modern observation. She might as well have written a few thousand words about how she’s just noticed that young people seem to be wearing strange padded beans in their ears everywhere they go, touching tiny, space age-looking pods that light up and seem to respond to their touch, oblivious to the daily noises of life around them; that she’s heard these devices contain digital music, and how shocked, appalled and saddened she is that these young fools are not at home cranking the Victrola, doing the jitterbug and listening to real music.”

sarahbeth-purcell.jpgWelcome to 1997, Maureen Dowd! It’s good to have you! For the next ten years, I’m going to lead you through what struggling young authors (who happen to be female), have endured, regardless of their merit, their talent, their stories, their publishing house or the books they’ve written.

You see, Maureen, chick-lit is not a niche, and hasn’t been a “niche” market, as you call it since… Well, since its inception. Long before you noticed a bevy of pink books in your local Borders. Is the new generation of books geared toward women of a particular lifestyle, with an empathic slant, a marketing ploy developed by the major publishing houses based on the success of fantastic books about strong female protagonists such as The Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing, which was written far ahead of its time? Well, sort of. That was the idea, I gather.

Real chick-lit, as you are describing it, the less than ingenious, more soap-opera quality, non-challenging material I’ve always referred to as “beach books,” started long before I was a writer, and long before 1997. And it found massive success far before the bookshelves oozed martini from their pages.

“Chick-lit”, undoubtedly called something else equally as benign and silly, was quite the “thing” probably when you were a young writer yourself. I mean, you couldn’t have been so taken with Hemingway and “The Classics” to have been completely immune to at least noticing the release of Valley of the Dolls in 1967, released to equal uproar and delight, right? Chick-lit did not begin with the last ten years of pink, martini-laced, high heeled fashionista covers, Maureen, and if we look at the history of books, we should gather that it will certainly not end with them, either.

Does Danielle Steel ring any bells for you, Maureen? She’s been at it for decades. No, the covers are not as “cutesy” and fresh as modern-day packaging of chick-lit, but then, I suspect, neither is Danielle Steel’s own personal “packaging”. She writes about characters (usually spoiled women of varying ages and stations) with everything a normal, everyday “modern” woman thinks she wants, but characters who are so obsessed with chasing fame, fortune, adventure, love, etc. that they lose everything, or, on the flip side, find what they really need. If that’s not chick-lit, I don’t know what is.

So, yes, you’re correct. It’s the same thing. And it’s what a large population of the public buys, whether it’s wrapped in Danielle Steel’s or Candace Bushnell’s clothing. Very good.

But Maureen, I have a problem: Who ever said chick-lit was high brow anyway? Certainly not the readers. If readers want high brow literature, they would almost certainly look for it. I highly doubt that’s a chick-lit package’s promise.

And, in defense of some authors, in fact, many authors I am personal friends with, some of us don’t choose to be placed in the “chick” section of a bookstore. We don’t make our sex an issue one way or the other. It’s all done for us, usually, against our wishes. And if you didn’t already know this, most of us don’t choose the covers of our books, either. Pink might not be our first choice. It certainly isn’t mine. High heels might be something we have nothing to do with in our writing or personal life. In fact, I can quite proudly claim that I wouldn’t know a Milano Blahnik from a Christian Laboutin if it stomped me right on the toe of my clearance box store shoed foot.

If readers look further than the cover of some of these supposed “chick-lit” offerings, they might be quite displeased to find a portion of these books full of three-dimensional characters with life-altering issues that have nothing to do with whether Saks is having a sale of epic proportions or if the millionaire they met at the charity function to save the quickly disappearing rent-controlled apartment might call.

I speak from experience as an author who has been deeply affected by this not-so-new trend of categorizing book. I am an author of two modern fiction novels—yes, I call them modern fiction, and refuse to call them anything else—both published by Simon and Schuster, and since the release of Love Is the Drug in 2004 and This Is Not a Love Song in 2006, I have been fighting to stay out of the death trap of any classification, whether it be chick-lit, feminist, or any other. To grab on to a trend is to date oneself, and to date oneself is to glimpse and possibly even cause one’s own early expiration.

Sadly, my books have often been thrown into the heap of “chick-lit” just like the rest of them. And it’s frustrated me continually. But I also know my work, and I know enough about myself to be certain that the readers I have affected, whom I receive touching letters from on a weekly basis, do not feel that what I stand for or what I write is pat or pointless or shallow. And if it were, I wouldn’t be the first writer to succeed with the formula. That, Maureen, has been going on far longer than the last ten years.

Ms. Dowd, are you really trying to propose that you only read—that the only worthy fiction to enjoy nowadays is written by men who, by now, are dead, and when they were alive, would have put you in your place in the kitchen, shaking their martinis? Hmm. Now that makes me far more uneasy than any group of pink, fluffy books ever could.

11 February 2007 | guest authors |