Chick Lit

Women make great literary fodder. As Virginia Woolf asked in A Room of One's Own, "Have you any notion how many books are written about women in the course of one year? Have you any notion how many are written by men? Are you aware that you are, perhaps, the most discussed animal in the universe?" While women authors have the advantage of firsthand experience of womanhood, they have never had a lock on creating great women and stories about them. Men gave us the shrewd self-made adventuress Becky Sharp, the ardent sensualist Molly Bloom, the tortured romantic Emma Bovary -- all vibrant, complicated, enduring women. Even today, books about women by men remain broadly acceptable. Yet books by women about women are a tougher sell. When was the last time you heard a guy declare, "Man! I loved that Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe?" A woman sitting on Muni immersed in Stephen King's Rose Madder is a frequent enough sight, but a man toting Waiting to Exhale is something of an anomaly. Is the problem that men don't want to see women the way women see themselves? In her new collection of essays, To Write Like a Woman (Indiana University Press, 181 pages, $27.95 cloth 13.95 paper), Joanna Russ argues that it goes even deeper than that. She suggests that women in male-dominated literature unfortunately often serve as little more than romantic foils, modest maidens, wicked temptresses, pretty schoolmarms, beautiful bitches, faithful wives, and so on.... Look at them carefully, and you will see that they do not really exist at all -- at their best they are depictions of the social roles women are supposed to play and often do play, but they are public roles and not the private women. But perhaps Russ is being too severe. Characters of both sexes play roles; what are they if not archetypes, viewed in the context of their relationships and their careers? Is a character who is a mother less valid or fictionally interesting than one who is a soldier? Or, as a woman in an Alison Baker story puts it, "You think people's fields are all they understand?" The real issue may not be with the characters themselves but with the values placed on them depending on the gender assigned to the name on the book's cover. No one can suggest that women's literature is limited to romances or quaint domestic sagas. Still, all too often in the world of fiction publishing, "by a woman" equals "just for women." Here perfectly good works become, in essence, chick lit. It's a shame, because it limits the appeal of some damn fine fiction. Naturally, we can't narrowly categorize writing by women or the way in which books are marketed for women. Who can speak for the way, as a whole, that half the population sees the world? The coolly mannered Edith Wharton? Angsty Sylvia Plath? Shocking, surreal Kathy Acker? Alice Walker? Amy Tan? Danielle Steel? Nor can we line up all female readers and lump them together. Nevertheless, the way in which books are packaged, as well as the inherent otherness of the female in our culture, makes for a marketing niche known as "women's entertainment." Going no further than the flaps of several new fiction titles, we see that though the ways women write are, not surprisingly, varied, the ways in which they are presented sound suspiciously similar. Both Alice Adams' A Southern Exposure and Elizabeth Berg's Range of Motion feature floral motifs on their covers. The brief bios given for Berg and Julie Schumacher, author of The Body Is Water, are both long enough to mention that the writer lives with her husband and children. Alison Baker is noted for her "delicate observations." Ann Beattie delves into "the workings of the human heart." Myra McLarey writes with "gentle authority." These blurbs may be meant as praise, yet taken together they pretty much suggest that an author throws like a girl. Early this century feminist Crystal Eastman wrote: "The trouble with women is that they have no impersonal interests. The only way to be happy is to have an absorbing interest in life which is not bound up with any particular person. Children can die or grow up, husbands can leave you. No woman who allows husband and children to absorb her whole time and interest is safe from disaster." The heroine of Victoria Glendinning's Electricity (Little, Brown, 250 pages, $22.95) struggles with just these dilemmas. Set in Victorian England, the novel follows young Charlotte Mortimer as she marries a young engineer and becomes caught up in the swirl of new technology. Dazzled and fascinated, she also becomes turned on to all that she desires for herself. Early on Charlotte's suitor explains electricity as "a medium of communication between two objects." It's a word that represents both connection to the future and autonomy from the past. Charlotte lives in a rapidly changing world, where social, moral, and religious conventions are constantly challenged. She longs to reinvent herself, to be sexually, financially, and intellectually liberated. As the story progresses she finds herself behaving at times rashly and manipulatively, but ultimately she discovers how to generate her own power. In Elizabeth Berg's Range of Motion (Random House, 217 pages, $21), the leading lady could not be any more tied to domestic life. Granted, Lainey has a compelling excuse: after a freak accident, her spouse lies in a coma from which he may never emerge. Still it's clear that even before her husband's accident, Lainey had little life outside her kids and her cozy, suburban St. Paul duplex. Though a college graduate in her mid-30s, Lainey works as a girl Friday and admits that the little bit of bookkeeping she does in her job terrifies her. Her world is limited, which makes her tenacious devotion to her family all the more believable. She comes to understand life a little better by watching someone she loves suspended between life and death. A "simple" mom and wife, Lainey stands as an eloquent, impassioned character in and of herself. She doesn't represent the whole of female experience, nor does she need to. Another tale of a woman and her familial bonds is Julie Schumacher's The Body Is Water (Soho, 262 pages, $21). The novel all but bursts with fecundity. It opens with Jane Haus, pregnant, alone, and afraid, returning to her family homestead on the Jersey Shore. Once there, the Atlantic surf crashing around her and the amniotic waves pounding within, she comes to terms with her difficult father and the sister with whom she always competed. Most of all, she confronts the death of her mother as she prepares to become a mother herself. Not exactly a paragon of ambition, Jane has spent her adult life floating from town to town, job to job, man to man. She's on leave from her job as a Philadelphia schoolteacher because "I didn't want to teach in my condition, then waddle off to the hospital with my hand over my stomach at midyear, and there seemed no real reason yet to abandon my father's house." She is, quite frankly, a mess with a capital M, but by the end of the novel she has learned that it is possible to be independent while also being supportive and loving -- all qualities that, with luck, she'll instill in that kid of hers. It all begins in the crib, after all. Many of us were handed our gender role with the pink or blue of a cuddle-toy, before our fingers, let alone our minds, could fully grasp it. Birthdays brought Hot Wheels or Easy-Bake Ovens, depending on the position we assumed while urinating. Likewise, when we learned to read, we took separate paths. Often it was the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew, Jules Verne or Laura Ingalls Wilder. And, if we were girls, we marked our arrival at the teetering cusp of adolescence by reading Judy Blume. Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret turned 25 this year. It remains a poignantly comforting tale of the last days of real childhood -- the vague boy/girl groping at parties, the excited and repulsed anticipation of a first period, the desperate desire to fit in. Its intricate obsessions with families, friends, and female functions make it one of the quintessential young readers' books. For better or worse, it also sets the tone for the interests of women writers and general audiences well beyond junior high: It's about girl things. Why would anyone but a girl read a girl book? The answer, of course, is because there is so much a person can learn from exploring that enigmatic other. The quality of otherness is a theme explored again and again in Myra McLarey's Water From The Well (Atlantic Monthly, 232 pages, $21). If you were to name a place that summed up the mystique of femininity, you might just pick the South. It drips with seductively perfumed and colorful flowers; it's ripe and unpredictable, genteel yet unfathomable. Water From The Well opens with the great masculine pastime of baseball, then throws a curve ball and takes us through an odyssey of love, mysticism, violence, and death. The novel is all about the we and the them -- men and women, blacks and whites, Northerners and Southerners -- and the tensions and mutual fascination among everyone. At the heart of the novel are the women. There are ones who run away, ones who are victims and avengers, and ones who, tellingly, can see the cyclone coming but know they are powerless to stop it. The rhythmic, conversational writing tumbles off the page in a resonant, molasses-thick drawl that carries both the ease and urgency of small-town news and gossip. Alison Baker is another author who creates intricate worlds in the microcosms of Americana. In her collection Loving Wanda Beaver (Chronicle, 213 pages, $16.95), characters face wilderness, dead animals, and ex-spouses with an eager, life- shaking grace. In "Ooh, Baby, Baby," a clogged drain has amazing ramifications. In the funny and sad "Convocation," a woman's emotionally disturbed daughter doesn't like taking her meds because she misses the voices. The title story brims with loaded wordplay. When she must, Oleander works in the Institute for the Study of the American Sexual Appetite's Library of Desire. Her colleague is a failed Ph.D. who "had been unable to face his orals board." Her true joy in life is detasseling corn and, year after year, aching with Galahad-like chasteness for a woman whose name is an epithet for the pudendum. Baker is having great fun with us, dropping words like clues, but for all her cleverness, her stories remain heartfelt. Oleander's sister urges her to "get out into the real world before it's too late." When Oleander does, she seems to understand that we all have different definitions of what the real world is. For some it's where they venture out and make connections. For others it's where they free themselves from connections. A woman's place is a relative thing. When it comes to writing about women and fiction, Virginia Woolf may very well have said it all and said it better than anyone. She didn't plead for any extraordinary attention or undue accolades. For those who write, she merely asked for a room and an income of their own. And she reminds all of us, whether authors or readers, that "Coleridge certainly did not mean, when he said that a great mind is androgynous, that it is a mind that has any special sympathy with women; a mind that takes up their cause or devotes itself to their interpretation.... He meant, perhaps, that the androgynous mind is resonant and porous; that it transmits emotion without impediment; that it is naturally creative, incandescent, and undivided." In the room of a person possessing such a mind, there's space on the bookshelf for all sorts of books, chosen for the quality of their words and the insights they lend to the human experience -- regardless of the sex of either their authors or their protagonists.Great writing doesn't have a gender.

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