Monday, February 12, 2007

Para Porn, Chick Lit, and the whole world going to hell in a handbasket...

I’m one of those people who hates unsubstantiated book snobbishness.* You want to hate something and tell everyone around you that it is part of the ever growing corruption of Literature or the female mind or the male mind or a child’s mind. Great. But the biology major in me says prove it. Back it up with facts, figures or something beyond your subjective thoughts and conclusions drawn from a complete lack of scientific evidence. If you can’t do that, then stick with what you can back up: why you did or did not like it. Which means, of course, you would have to actually read something that represents what you claim is corrupting.

It’s like writing a high school book report:

“I did not care for the use of Melville’s Billy Budd in this A.P. English curriculum because the heavy reliance on the reader to grasp Melville’s Christ allusions, which requires the reader to be of, or have a passing familiarity with, the Christian faith. In a country that houses a multitude of different religions and many non-practicing people, I feel that this is a novel’s narrow focus…yadda…yadda…yadda…spend the next two pages supporting argument.”

Notice the paper starts with an “I,” singular, and proceeds to outline the thesis (which, if it’s a good essay, will also address counter arguments), and does not attack the whole of English Literature. The essay is not calling for the removal of Budd, simply supplying the thoughts of the reader on its suitability for high school classroom use after having read the whole damn thing. And I’m cool with that, just as I’m cool with reader reviewers. I like hearing readers’ thoughts and opinions on novels. I’m interested in reading what different people liked and disliked, what allusions are obvious to some and not to others, etc. That’s interesting. We’re all going to take something different away from a reading experience—some of it universal and some of it not—and not all of it is going to be everyone’s cuppa, which is why an informed reader may seek out many different reviews on the same subject to form their own opinion about whether or not to give this book or that one a try.

Denigrating an entire genre, sub-genre, or type of book when you’ve barely read any of the titles housed there-in? Not interesting, just sloppy. Very, very sloppy.

So when I first read the Independent’s article on Horror that I outlined in my last column, I was more than a little taken back on the bit (and yes, I mean that with all British connotations) tacked on to the bottom addressing the popularity of “Para Porn.” This would be Urban Fantasy or Paranormal Romance for those who might be wondering. Two different sub-genres (actually three as they throw Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight into the mix) all smashed together in a derogatory way because, according to the experts, this does not deserve to be mentioned within the same breath as Horror.

How derogatory? Well let’s see:

“Horror expert Steve Jones says that "Para Porn" represents a new genre, though he regards it disdainfully as women's fiction rather than horror. "It's aimed at a different audience to traditional horror," he says, with the hint of a sneer.”

Wow, it’s not Horror because it’s Women’s fiction, not because it doesn’t contain traditional Horror elements, but because it is aimed at women or has female protagonists who have sex. Gotcha. I see the light! You have converted me to your higher purpose! And, gee, thanks for clearing that up for me. If I still worked at a bookstore I would put up a sign warning all my male customers away from buying the Kim Harrison or Kelley Armstrong novels (because men did indeed buy them), and instead direct them to the more Manly novels of King and others. Because women surely do not read Horror! Gads, no, nor do they make up a large percentage of the book buying population. Obviously these books need to be placed all together and quarantined away from serious Horror.

Sarcasm aside, I’m slightly amused by the fact that even as it’s considered porn, the publishers admit that “they are starting to sell really well over here.” And that even as they denigrate the influence that Buffy that Vampire Slayer may have had on this growing trend of kick-ass heroines, they praise it for resurrecting the Horror genre (see the first part of the article). I think this is truly the definition of a back-handed compliment, or maybe they’ve been reading The Game and this is really a come on. Hiding a compliment in an insult will really capture a girl’s attention, you know.

But I’m willing to give the British publishers a bit of a pass in that they recognize what people are reading and that it is a boon to what had previously been a dead genre. Maureen Dowd does not get the same kind of treatment. She had to go and resurrect the old “Is Chick Lit sucking the brains out of the female population? Why yes it is” argument and then proceed to make mistakes all over the place, which are addressed here, here and here. I wouldn’t even mention Dowd (and why she chose to discuss a four year old argument now since other writers have done a much better job of covering the fiasco) except for the fact that her argument echoes that of the British pubs in the whole “it’s focused towards women and therefore has no redeeming value” opinion, which saddens me.

It’s 2007, folks. I realize that I’ll never be able to wrestle the classics from the cold, dead hands of a bunch of old white guys, but can’t we open our eyes a little? Can’t we begin to realize that everyone brings something to the table? The people read for a myriad of reasons and therefore will be attracted to a myriad of different genres and reading levels? That we cannot command the reading public to like one thing and dislike another just because we feel that it is not up to our superior standards?

And why, WHY!, does the fall back insult/argument still have to be about women? Oh, you know, only women read that. It’s Women’s fiction, and not worth my time. This will only appeal to women.

Well, guess what, buckos. Readers change. The reading environment has changed. And while it is still hard to get men to pick up a book written by a woman, I wonder how much of that is a negative feedback loop we, as a society, have created by telling them they won’t be interested because it’s “Women’s fiction.” If I, as a woman, can identify with a male spy/playboy is it really that hard for a man to read a story told from the point of view of a female lawyer or cop?

I’m not asking them to walk a mile in a Chick Lit heroine’s Manolos (if that heroine even owned Manolos, a shoe stereotype that owes more to Sex and the City than any Chick Lit novel I’ve ever read), nor do I think it’s necessary for me to shove my size eights into one of Don Pendleton’s character’s army boots to understand what some men see in his novels. Some books will play out better to a more masculine audience and some to a more feminine, which is something I accept.

That doesn’t mean, however, that one book is better than the other or that you can even compare apples and oranges. Had Maureen Dowd sat down with those thirty-odd Chick Lit novels and discussed why she, and solely she, couldn’t get into them, then maybe I would have understood where she was coming from. Maybe. But she seems to be missing the point that the Horror publisher’s at least got that any fiction genre and its popularity hinges on the public’s need for escapism of some sort (whether it is escapism with a side of trying to understand the world around them or simply to fully escape the world around them). Chick Lit at its best fulfills that same need by taking the pressures many women suffer under (trying to do well at a high-pressure job, find someone to spend their life with, and achieve some type of economic stability even if it can only be measured in shoes) and discussing it a fun, one-on-one manner.

Telling someone that their time would be better spent reading The Red Badge of Courage misses the point. My time, and what I do with it, is my time and until it affects the great and judgmental you in some detrimental way you don’t have a right to infringe upon it. Maybe my time would be better spent writing my own memoirs, or cooking up enough dinners to freeze for the next few weeks, or helping the homeless, or (in my personal case) finding a job. And maybe most of my time, or your time is spent doing this, and worrying about that, and dealing with that other thing.

But maybe we need to channel that tension of all the things we should be doing or having to do into some sort of release, find something to open that pressure valve and let it all out so that we can continue to function as proper members of society. And maybe we find that in books that let us relax, escape our world for another or teach us in some funny, distant way to handle it. If it educates us at the same time, great, but what stands for education is subjective as well.

If it expands my vocabulary, does it count?

If it educates me in pop culture, something that our world trades upon as heavily these days as solid facts, have I wasted brain space or increased my knowledge in other areas more accessible to those around me?

If it gives me a breather, takes me away from this world for 400 pages, and allows me the distance I need to later revisit what is going on around me and perhaps deal with it critically, is it not performing the greatest public service of all?

There is a reason fiction—of all kinds—exists, and it is up to the reader whether they choose to read to learn, to think, to escape or all three. And beyond introducing new titles and authors to try, there is nothing you or I can do about it. So stop trying to tell someone what they shouldn’t read, and pick up a new book.

You might be pleasantly surprised when something that constitutes Para Porn or Chick Lit appeals to you. And if they don’t, well then, you have something slightly more empirical to back up your arguments when someone asks you why not.






*I’ve been doing pretty well with my own snobbishness when it comes to role-playing books and game, thanks to some wonderful customers I had that were very open but their thoughts and opinions on the subject.

17 comments:

CMonster said...

The first person I ever saw reading Laurell K Hamilton was my best friend's dad, and I was in 6th grade. (I hadn't read her, so noticing the book wasn't awkward until several years later... when I was just old enough to disolve into histerical giggles instead of screaming "eeeeew!") So yeah, I had never thought of it as "women's fiction."

Robin Brande said...

My time, and what I do with it, is my time and until it affects the great and judgmental you in some detrimental way you don’t have a right to infringe upon it.

Yes, yes, and yes. Book snobbery is just another form of bullying. It's nobody's business what you or I find entertaining in a book. I totally agree that people can state their opinions in the "I don't like" vein without having to take it to the next, bullying, level by saying, "You're stupid if you like."

Thanks for your rant. I'm right with you.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. I know a LOT of talented women writers who complain that they can't get contracts for serious fiction because so many major publisher slots are taken up by escapist books about shopping, shoes, and Finding Mr. Right. And it IS alarming to see The Bell Jar looking like chick lit, with pink lettering and a prominent pair of shoes. If the next Donna Tarte, Edwidge Danticat or Jhumpa Lahiri book comes out with a pink cover and a picture of pumps, you'll have to believe there's a conspiracy...

Jen Robinson said...

Thanks for sharing these thoughts. The part about "My time, and what I do with it, is my time and until it affects the great and judgmental you in some detrimental way you don’t have a right to infringe upon it" resonated with me, too. I couldn't agree more! I personally like to read children's books, at 39. That's my business, I think. Thanks!

C2 said...

My time, my choice of reading material. Yup.

So very well said, I can think of nothing to add. *sound of applause* :o)

Anonymous said...

I remember when Professor Marks suggested that TV viewing be mandatory because we could all be educated by it as long as we watched the "right" things. Ever the antagonist, I said (with my grade on the line) that that was a bunch of bull because I watch TV to relax and I choose to get my education elsewhere. I feel the same way about most books - maybe that's why I hate textbooks so much. I read what I like when I like to. End of story. And as far as separating out women's fiction goes, that's a crappy idea! Men could learn a lot from reading books written by, or maybe even for, women. I am still saddened by bookstores that separate out "urban fiction" because in the past I picked up a few books that I really enjoyed that now would be shelved in a section that I would feel a little awkward visiting. Sub-genres are nice to an extent, but they do limit how much people stumble across a new find.
~The Druggie

Chris said...

It sounds like female authors have to resort to what the Brontes did, oh so long ago: give themselves a male pen name. They wouldn't have been published otherwise, but for different reasons. It's a shame.

Most of my favorite authors are women, but I'm a woman. I don't think I'd call them all "Chick Lit" writers. I think it's just the point of view I prefer.

Maybe we should just drop the categories. Afterall, my library only has a "Fiction" section, not chick-lit, para-porn or whatever.

julia said...

It does seem as though women are standing in the sand as far as having the word 'serious' appear next to much that concerns us. The tide of snobbishness rolls in, and though we've kept our feet, we've somehow sunk a few inches. I can only entreat women to continue enjoying whatever fiction tickles their fancy, and patiently await a wave that washes us onto solid rock. If people remember how shocking and sordid Lady Chatterly's Lover was only two generations back, we can enjoy the freedom of today. Even if that freedom is wasted on raining all over someone else's literary parade.

Anonymous said...

It amazes me how so many supposed writers have contempt for any book that requires effort on the part of the reader. When did it become "snobbish" to want a book that's about something besides dating?

Diana Peterfreund said...

Hmm. I know a LOT of talented women writers who complain that they can't get contracts for serious fiction because so many major publisher slots are taken up by escapist books about shopping, shoes, and Finding Mr. Right.

Does it follow, though, that those books are somehow wrong? If I apply for a job, but the employer chooses to hire someone who meets its needs better, does it follow that the new hire is evil and detrimental to the world at large?

I have never read a chick lit about shoes, and the only ones I've read about shopping (Kinsella) are actually searing social satires about addiction and the consumer credit culture. Hardly fluff. Every time I open one of her books I'm inspired to redo my budget and check my investments.

And I'm sorry, but pink lettering and prominent shoes on Plath's cover? Frumpy Mary Jane flats? hardly the Devil Wears Prada. And as for the pink, I must laugh. How color conscious people are! Are there any other wavelengths of light to which you have irrational prejudices?

The idea that a book can be categorized by color is as infantile as Dowd's assertion that Shakespeare is somehow tainted by being SHELVED NEXT TO a fluffy novel.

It amazes me how so many supposed writers have contempt for any book that requires effort on the part of the reader. When did it become "snobbish" to want a book that's about something besides dating?

I'm not sure how someone could be a "supposed writer." I'm an actual writer. So is Robin. I have no contempt for any type of book. It's to my taste or not. It's not snobbish to want any type of book. It IS snobbish to say that people who want other types of books are stupid, or that choosing to read a different kind of book is bringing about the downfall of civilization. And it's incredibly condescending to assume that adult readers are incapable of making their own reading choices, and worse, that the very act of choosing to relax with an entertaining read somehow precludes you from reading anything "of value" (someone else's definition of value).

Heather Harper said...

I'm so mad right now I could spit. I would prefer to spit on a book snob, but the bs's are not allowed in my home. My home is BS free. ;)

Patrick said...

I don't know that men WON'T buy a female writer. I think that is a little of a strange statistic if so.

PEOPLE make their purchases based on genre, for the most part. And GENRE is set up for reader expectations. I read female fantasy writers all the time, as do many of my male reader friends. Never once have we said "She's good for a woman."

Now, if I tried to get one of them to walk down the romance aisle this is what they'd say--
"The hardest part of reading a Romance novel is telling your Dad that you're gay."

So, traditional Horror readers read for setting and style. ParaRomance is still Romance and therefore very character driven. So, when a traditional Horror reader encounters PR they will be upset by what they view as lack of setting or style.

It's all about reader expectations.

Disclaimer: I'm not much of a Horror or Romance reader, but I certainly try and am willing to take corrections to my assement.

Patrick said...

If I apply for a job, but the employer chooses to hire someone who meets its needs better, does it follow that the new hire is evil and detrimental to the world at large?

Yes! DUH! Where have you been Diana? Logic does not apply when EVIL is at large. :)

Amanda Brice said...

Well said.

I'm a reader, period. True, I have my personal preferences as to what I tend to read, but I don't denigrate other people for their preferences. I think everything brings something to the table.

That being said, I read enough brain-taxing material in my day-job. I'd much prefer true escapism at night.

Seriously, to each her own.

Kalen Hughes said...

I know a LOT of talented women writers who complain that they can't get contracts for serious fiction because so many major publisher slots are taken up by escapist books about shopping, shoes, and Finding Mr. Right.

Since "serious fiction" doesn't seem to sell all that well, the “talented women” (and men) who are getting published ought to be thanking all of us “hacks” who write “fluff fiction” for keeping their publishing houses solvent and allowing them the opportunity to be published at all. And they should be thanking our readers too!

And for the record, the “slots” that genre romance books and chicklit books take up are from totally different imprints than the ones for literary fiction. So our books are not taking up slots that could/would go to “serious fiction”. If these supposedly talented writers of serious fiction were actually serious about understanding the industry they claim to want to be a part of they’d already know this.

Lisa said...

I dunno. When I pick up fiction, I don't want anything that's remotely like my daily life. I'm looking for an experience I can't possibly imagine myself. But that's just my own taste.

I do have to defend Moby Dick from you, though, Bookseller Chick. It's actually an amazing book. I read it reluctantly, and only because I thought I ought to -- sort of like eating brocolli. And now I find myself going back to it every month or so because I want to revisit some passage or other. I'm not a whaling captain (thank goodness), but MD captures my imagination the way few books do. Give it another try.

Jana DeLeon said...

OMG - This was so beautifully said!!! Fantastic! Thank you!