“Chick Lit” and Other Horror Stories: My Interview with SpareMin

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First things first: I know.

I know it’s a random Wednesday at the end of October, and I know the air is chilly and the leaves are crunchy, and I know you’re probably halfway through a spreadsheet or a surgery or a stock… broking… maneuver.

I know.

But take a moment—right now if possible—and think back with me to this summer.

Remember June? June was warm, and sunny, and picnicky, depending on your chosen climate/hemisphere. June was pre-split for Brangelina, pre-Ghostbusters for those of us who saw and kind’ve liked it, pre-Olympics for the legendary Simone Biles, and pre-pussy-revelations for Trump. June was innocent, and hopeful, and naïve, like a first shot of tequila—a simpler, if not a better time, followed by an autumn that feels like a hangover.

I spent my June researching and writing an exhausted, exhausting, and (I hope) exhaustive post on Sexism in Classic Literature, something I come across all too frequently on The List. And then, because that was so depressing/distressing/discouraging, I added a post on Bookish Feminism a few weeks later.

Satisfied that I’d said my part, at least for the moment, I moved on with my summer.

So it came as a surprise when, in September, I was contacted by the founder of a new app called SpareMin. He had read my Sexism/Feminism posts and invited me to be part of a “mini-podcast” on the subject. The deal was that the SpareMin team would use the conversation to promote the app’s call-recording features, and I would get to talk about something I am passionate  fanatical maniacal about for 15 whole minutes.

And, last week, we did. Check out my talk with the lovely Abi Wurdeman here.

I’m including a transcript below—tidied up a little for clarity’s sake—to fill in any gaps in the audio, and to include all the appropriate links in all the appropriate places (huzzah!). Abi is in bold, and I am not, because I am incredibly modest and extraordinarily humble (if I do say so myself).

Happy listening!

Hello, this is Abi. Is this Jamie Leigh?

Yes, this is Jamie.

Hi, welcome! How are you?

I’m fine, thanks. I’m glad this worked.

Me too! Me too. Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me today.

No problem. Just to warn you, someone got out a chainsaw in my neighbor’s apartment, like, ten minutes ago. So if you hear a lot of noise, that’s why.

Oh, OK.

I hope they’re doing construction.

Yeah! Yeah, I hope so, right? OK, so, just for listeners—just so they know who I’m speaking to—I’m speaking with Jamie Leigh, who is a reader and writer, and we’re speaking about the representation of women in the literary world. So, let’s start with the first general question: What attitudes do you notice in the literary world towards female authors and books with female protagonists?

Right. Well, we can start off with the fact that there’s a genre called “chick lit,” right, but no genre called, like, “dude lit.” I’m far from being the first person to point this out, but it’s like the industry’s way of saying that books written by and about men represent the sort of universal human experience, but books by and about women represent only the female experience—which, then, reinforces this idea that the male narrative is the default narrative.

And this starts really early on, right? Like, even in children’s books, there are more boys than girls in central roles. And we definitely, as a culture, you know, tolerate young boys’ contempt, I guess, for books about girls—or anything associated with girls, really. So we end up teaching boys from a really young age, without necessarily meaning to, that it’s OK to dismiss us, or to ridicule us.

So I guess the most common pattern I see is one of, you know, neglect, or of belittlement. I think a good example is Jodi Picoult. She writes these really—really, like, sober books, right? She’s written about school shootings, and mercy killings, and cancer, and suicide, and stem cell research. And still critics call her books “chick lit” and “beach reads.”

And then the opposite happens when a man starts writing in an area dominated by female authors. Like, this happened in YA, this happened in romance. You know, romance is one of the most ridiculed genres. But, of course, Nicholas Sparks comes along and he’s able to build a respected career for himself writing romance novels. I, uh, I hope—I hope he and all of his movie deals will be very happy together. But that’s bullshit.

Yeah. It’s true, it’s true. It always makes me think of—I mean, as you said, there are a gazillion examples of this happening. The one that I always think of is—and this is a movie review that I believe was in Variety, about Wild, which you know, of course, was a book first—but the reviewer, a male reviewer, actually said—was letting everyone know—this is a cool movie for guys to watch, too. And the line that he used in it was, “It’s—this isn’t—” it was something like, “This isn’t a woman’s story; this is a human story.” 

Oh, for God’s sake. Thank you for, yes, defining women as human. Yeah.

Right, right. And the title of that was “Wild Is Actually Macho.” He talked about how—his focus was “It’s a macho—it’s something that guys can get, too, because the emotions she expresses aren’t just lady emotions. It’s crazy! It’s nuts!” 

I actually—so, the person who did that screenplay was Nick Hornby, and I saw him speak a couple of years ago in New York. And he—someone asked him about—well, actually I think he was telling a story about someone who’d asked him how he was able to kind of “get inside the mind of a woman.” And he was like, “…She wrote a memoir. I read her book, and I adapted her book to the movie…” Yeah. Not that hard.

Yeah. It’s crazy. So then, I guess you kind of addressed this, the next question, of the differences that you notice between the ways that the publishing industry markets books written by men versus by women. Is there anything else—any other points on that you want to make before we move on?

Yeah, um, a couple things. So, I guess one of the most obvious differences is book covers. You know, women’s book covers have a lot of flowers, and horizons, and makeup, and hearts, and wedding dresses, and pink. Basically anything stereotypically feminine. You know, things that imply that they’re not worth taking seriously, in a lot of cases.

And then men’s book covers are usually darker and edgier. Less cluttered. Less domestic. Less frivolous. And this is important, right? Because a book’s cover contributes to our perception of its quality, along with other things like the blurbs, and the comparisons to other novels, and where we shelve it in a store, and that kind of thing. 

So, yeah, I think book covers are a big one. Oh, I just read this article about a woman who wrote a memoir about the years that she spent working as a war photographer in Afghanistan. And her publisher—I think it was Random House—changed the title, without asking her, to Shutterbabe—

Ew.

I know. Ew, right? And then their initial design for the cover was a naked cartoon torso with the camera covering the crotch, all set against a pink background. Yeah, her war photographer memoir, right?

Wow.

So she had to explain to Random House that it is “usually her eye behind the camera, and not her vagina.”

Isn’t that how they work?

Yeah. Oh, she also said that almost all of the publications that reviewed her book—which wasn’t very many, even though this went on to become a bestseller and has been taught in journalism schools—almost all of those reviews called her a stay-at-home mom. Like, when is the last time a male author was called a stay-at-home dad? That never—that never happens.

Wow. No. 

So book reviews are also a problem. I’ve heard it’s getting better, so that’s good news, but still I think most of the major review publications have mostly male reviewers, and the reviewees are less likely to be women. So, basically, what ends up happening is that men are the kind of “literary gatekeepers,” and then they’re more likely to open the gates to other men.

Which doesn’t actually make a lot of sense if you look at book sales. There was an, I think it was an Atlantic article, out maybe this summer, that pointed out that women buy more books than men, and we read more fiction. And, in the U.S., there are more women than men who have degrees in literature. So, if anything, we should probably be considered the default readers. Like, we are the greater part of the literary audience. Women are not a niche market.

Yeah. So, now, let’s talk about—I guess this actually branches off on what you were saying earlier about children’s books, and what we learn about how to value female stories and male stories and female authors and male authors when we’re young. And you and I had spoken a little bit—I talked about, I mentioned to you how I, as I got older, I realized that I sort of internalized these ideas accidentally, that male literature is insightful and says powerful things, and female literature tends to be more niche. So let’s talk about the classics, and required reading in high school. Of the classics that are frequently assigned to high school students, where are overlooked instances of sexism or misogyny in those stories?

Um, yeah, like—well, everywhere, first of all. Yeah, when we talked about this before—well, on my blog I’ve talked about how rape happens all the time in the classics. I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember ever having classroom discussions about male entitlement, and how that leads to sexual assault. Even though it’s this, like, meta-theme that ties a lot of the classics together. You know, English—English teachers love that shit, right?

I think part of the problem is how rarely we’re willing to call rape rape. Right? Anything to victim-blame, right? The example that shocked me the most, actually, was Lolita. Because it’s hailed as this, like, great love story, even though it’s, you know, it’s about a middle-aged man who kidnaps his twelve-year-old step-daughter and rapes her repeatedly over the next two years. Which is the complete opposite of a love story. And it’s not even ambiguous, even in the book. Nabokov says in the preface to the book that Humbert is a monster. He calls him a—he calls him a “moral leper.” And then I turn my book cover over—my book over to the back cover—and I see a quote from Vanity Fair that says that the book is “the only convincing love story of our century.”

Oh my God.

Isn’t that horrifying?

I just threw up a little bit.

Yeah. So rape is definitely one. But there are broader issues, too. I mean, in my experience, literary curriculum in general overlooks female authors and protagonists. I can—I can only think of three books assigned in my high school that were by or about women. I mean, out of dozens, right? Meaning I spent entire semesters—and even entire years—reading books by men about men. And that was just normal, right? But if I’d wanted to take a class that featured only female writers, I would’ve had to wait until college, and I would’ve had to sign up for some specialized class in the Women’s Studies Department. Again, as if we’re this, like, niche offering.

Yeah. Yeah.

And while—yeah. And it is true that, historically, men have dominated literary culture, but most of the novels that exist today have been written in the last couple of centuries. So there are plenty of women to choose from.

And I’m not sure that being a man has ever been an excuse to dismiss or exclude women. I’ve criticized Tolkien on my blog before for underrepresentation of women, and some guy was like, “Well, what do you expect? He was a conservative Catholic academic born in the 19th century.” And I was like, Tolstoy. Thackeray. Flaubert. Henry James, Lewis Carroll, Samuel Richardson, Thomas Hardy… All men. Some Catholic (probably). Some conservative (probably). All born well before Tolkien, and all of whom thought women were, at least, like, minimally interesting. Interesting enough to write novels about, apparently.

And yeah, the last thing I was going to say is that there are, um, I think there are a lot of missed opportunities for discussion around intersectional feminism in the classics—like, this idea that the various forms of oppression intersect. So, for example, a poor black woman is going to experience oppression differently than a rich white woman. I just finished Native Son in September. It’s this book, set in the ’40s, about this 20-year-old black boy who accidentally kills a white girl—who’s his boss’s daughter—and then deliberately murders his black girlfriend. But when he’s captured and put on trial, it’s only for killing the white girl—and the black girl’s body is brought in as evidence.

Whoa.

Yeah. Evidence of his, like, inclination toward violence. And as he’s sitting there, in court, he thinks to himself that even though she’s dead, and even though he killed her, he knows that she would resent her body being used that way. You know, in a way that essentially erases her personhood.

Yeah. Yeah. So what—yeah, sounds like an intense read. I have not read that one.

Yeah, it is an intense read for sure.

So what women authors or woman-centric books do you think should be added to high school curriculum to help teenagers now get the experiences and perspectives that you and I didn’t get when we were in high school?

Well, I guess in the case of my high school, like, any would be a good start. Because there were so few. I—I looked up a list recently of the most frequently assigned books in U.S. high schools, and it was all Shakespeare and the Greeks and Steinbeck. And, you know, us ladies, we get, like, The Scarlet Letter. Which is so boring we all wish it never existed in the first place, right? And it was written by a man.

But some of my favorites—and this is definitely subjective—but I would say of the books that actually do justice to female characters, probably Jane Eyre or anything by Jane Austen. Margaret Atwood’s books. Toni Morrison’s books. Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf and Zora Neale Hurston all wrote wonderful, complex women. I know some high school curriculum does include some of their books, but mine definitely didn’t. I wasn’t assigned any of those authors, at least not until college. Which is such a shame.

Yeah. My best friend from college, I always really envied. We had a few—we would have, like, maybe two female authors a year when I was in high school, so there was a little bit. But my best friend in college went to an all-girls Catholic school, and the nuns very deliberately made sure that fifty percent of the authors they read were women. And I was so jealous when I first met her—I was like, “I’ve gotta catch up to you!” Cuz there were these books I didn’t even really know existed, or had a vague sense of—but no one was saying, “You need to go out and read these,” so I didn’t prioritize them.

Right. Right. So, like, for example, why did I have to read both 1984 and Brave New World, but didn’t get to read The Handmaid’s Tale in school—you know? And why did I have to read everything Shakespeare ever wrote, but I had to find Jane Austen and Toni Morrison on my own? There’s just such a huge imbalance.

Yeah. Yeah, definitely. Well, thank you so much for speaking with me today. This was a great conversation.

Thank you so much.

Have a good day. 

Thanks, Abi.

Bye.

In listening to this after the fact, I realized I did not reciprocate Abi’s initial “How are you?”—like some kind of mannerless monster—and I did not wish her a good day in parting. Normally both are reflexes, so the evidence of this wanton incivility on my part fills me with shame. My only defense is that I was distracted by setting up the call, preparing my notes, checking the time (the call was set to cut off automatically after 15 minutes), and, of course, tuning out the roar of my neighbor’s chainsaw.

Anyway, there you have it. This probably isn’t the last you’ll hear from me on this topic, but it’s probably the last you’ll hear from me about it today. Feel free to return to your spreadsheet, or your surgery, or your stocks, as the case may be. I’ll be here, as always—reading and writing and banging my head against the wall on behalf of women everywhere.

Literary Lessons for a Scholarly Holiday

Well, I’m Back Home Again in Indiana for the holidays, with very little to do except read my old journals from high school, goof off with my siblings, avoid former acquaintances at the gym, and visit the la-di-da grocery store that just opened up around the corner.

Which, actually, is plenty.

Most of the Christmas gifts I received were books…

 

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…or other literary paraphernalia, including (but not limited to) this Anna Karenina “litograph” poster, created using text from the novel, and these hilarious Pride and Prejudice tree ornaments.

But that wasn’t the end of my readerly Yuletide.

For as long as I can remember, and probably much longer, there has been an orange and an envelope at the bottom of my Christmas stocking. The orange, of course, is just an orange. But the envelope contains a year-end bonus to supplement our usual family wages (unconditional love and the occasional home-cooked meal, that is).

Don’t get the wrong idea, though. There are strings attached to that envelope. We have to earn what’s inside it through a demonstration of knowledge—or, failing that, a brief bout of humiliation. Because on the outside of that envelope, there’s a question.

And the question is never easy.

My question, this year, was: Who were the leading members of the Inklings?

And even though the term meant nothing to me, I gathered up a quick round of clues (“Ink,” from the name itself, and then “mid-century,” “British,” and “fantasy” from my Question Master uncle) to quickly reach Tolkien as an obvious front-runner.

“Yes, Tolkien,” said my uncle. “And his friend…?”

“Oh, C. S. Lewis,” I rattled off like a professional nerd. And then I got to open up my envelope with the dignity that comes with a trivial triumph (PUN INTENDED OBVIOUSLY).

Now that I’ve done the appropriate research, I can tell you that the Inklings were an all-male literary group that met regularly at Oxford during the 1930s and ’40s. At their meetings, members would read and discuss their latest projects, drink beer, and make fun of lesser writers. One of their favorite rendezvous points was the Eagle and Child, a popular Oxford pub.

I’ve been to that pub. I’d even heard that Tolkien and Lewis visited often. But I never knew, until last week, that they called themselves the Inklings. And even for someone like me, who thinks Tolkien is over-hyped to grotesque proportions and finds Lewis just a tad boring, this new information is adorkable and charming enough to evoke fond memories of both beer and Christmas.

The trivia ransom game is far from being our weirdest holiday tradition (sneaking this traumatizing ET doll into each other’s coat pockets and suitcases is closer to the top of that list). But it remains one of our most stressful enlightening. I pass on this knowledge today in the hopes that you, too, look for literary lessons inside your local pub and at the bottom of your Christmas stocking.

Just don’t expect much out of the orange.

Unsurprisingly, Tolkien and I Do Not Share Many Fans

Last night, I saw that my review of The Lord of the Rings on Punchnel’s* had a new-ish comment. A long comment. A MEAN comment (kind of). Since my LOTR review, here and elsewhere, has always provoked more arguments and mean comments than anything else I’ve written, I was not surprised. I went from slightly hurt (how dare he disparage those of us who snark for the sake of it!) to slightly confused (why not go to, say, the New York Times, instead of a rowdy entertainment webzine, if he’s looking for a diplomatic and consensus-driven book review?) and on to slightly amused (I reread my review and rediscovered the LOTR memes. Bless them, oh Lord) as the evening wore on.

I took the time to write out a response today and decided to share it here. I really enjoy discussions over differences in opinion, even if they are mostly pointless. We are, after all, entitled to our thoughts—and no one could ever convince me that those 1000+ pages of Tolkien were anything but miserable.

Here’s his comment:

The past few years, I’ve noticed that young writers on the Internet seem to think snark is a substitute for thoughtful critique. It’s not.

To be fair, Jamie, you did make some valid points. I counted three:

1) Pacing. Yes, it’s a slow-moving tale, especially in the beginning, and a very long book overall. (Note, though, that Tolkien wanted the work split into five books, not three volumes. So blame the publisher for that.)

I especially found the part with Tom Bombadil to be a drag. Was glad they left him out of the movie (except, if I recall, for a possible glimpse toward the end). (In general, whenever the movies left something out, it was a good decision; whenever they added something, it was hackneyed, sometimes ridiculous, and often plain bad writing.)

2) Narrative priority. The long, long descriptive passages could’ve been both more compact, and better integrated into the narrative. Though here, I think Tolkien was just writing the book the way he wanted; it’s as much a descriptive travelogue (in the tradition of great travel stories) about the world he was creating, as it is a narrative of events.

3) The songs and poems. Readers should feel no shame in just skipping over those. Tolkien, although a respected scholar of languages and folklore, wasn’t a great poet.

I’ll address some of the other points here (speaking as someone who’s enjoyed the book but is not a rabid Tolkien fan):

Claim: Gandalf “does precisely nothing”.

Well, he does provide invaluable knowledge, and save the entire party from a Balrog, and save Helm’s Deep, and defeat Saruman, and lead the forces of Gondor to hold the White City. And so on, and so forth.

Claim: Eowyn does nothing but “become a punchline”.

Well, she does kill the Witch King, the most dangerous of those nine undead Nazgul things. And, no, she doesn’t become a punchline. Here you seem to be blaming the novel for one of the many poor artistic choices in the movies.

Claim: Female characters are under-represented and underwritten.

True. But, given that Tolkien (a conservative Catholic academic born in the 19th century) was writing in the 1950s, what do you expect? You could apply the same complaint to the vast majority of literature published before the past few decades (and a lot of current literature, for that matter).

Claim: Long-winded style.

True; but that’s not good or bad; it’s simply a matter of taste. De gustibus non est disputandum. And, again, the style is not atypical of most fiction written before the mid-20th century. I don’t write like that; hardly anyone does anymore. But it has its charms, among them the sense of receiving words from a different time; this works with the presumed gulf of time since the events described. (Tolkien always said he meant Middle Earth to be taken as an ancient age of our own Earth, not as a wholly imaginary world.)

Note that your specific example (“many times half an hour”) is a poor choice. I don’t recall the specifics, but I know the phrase was a deliberate choice, intended to resonate either with an earlier reference in the book, or with the general assumption that half an hour would be a normal conversation, and many times that would therefore be a talk of length and (presumably) import. Once again, this is part of a traditional story-telling style that will of course seem old-fashioned to modern ears.

Well, you see what I’m getting at. Please continue to write reviews; but do put a little more thought into it if you don’t want long-winded, tedious responses from pedantic middle-aged bastards like me.

And here’s my response:

Aww, come on now, where would we be without snark? No Chandler Bing, no Veronica Mars… I wouldn’t want to live in that kind of world.

In all seriousness, I don’t believe snark and thoughtfulness are mutually exclusive—but it seems humor and Tolkien often are. I am always intrigued to see Tolkien fans, both casual (like yourself) and rabid (hehe, I love that word), take up arms against every attack on him, no matter how playful. Every time this review has appeared somewhere new online, and every time I discuss Tolkien with an acquaintance, I get the same response: “We can agree to disagree on every other book… but your opinions and impressions of Tolkien are WRONG.”

Why do we rush to his defense quicker than any other author’s? Why do we treat him with kid gloves—as an idol and a genius instead of what he was: a gifted linguist; a pioneer, perhaps; but an average writer? I have faith that Tolkien’s millions of fans can one day cope with the occasional bout of criticism. He certainly doesn’t seem bothered.

To address a few of your points specifically:

My dispute over the volumes is that Tolkien viewed LOTR not as a series (of 3, 5, or 100 books; I’m not picky) but as a single novel. I think the publisher had the right idea, and I interpret Tolkien’s insistence on viewing the work as one novel as snobbish. What’s wrong with a series, if the material lends itself well to this? The real point, of course, is that IF Tolkien was going to demand that LOTR remain a single work, he needed to edit it. As a series, the length is more acceptable.

You’re right about Gandalf (you’ll have to pardon the embellishment; sometimes I get carried away with my boredom) but not, I think, about Eowyn. The “no living man” line DID appear in the novel and reeks of careful foresight. Based on Tolkien’s general disregard for women, I believe it’s safe to say that he “allowed” Eowyn to kill the Witch-king ONLY because it made for a clever (?) punchline. Otherwise one of his maaaaaaany male characters would have done it, and Eowyn would have officially accomplished squat.

On that note, I’m tired of hearing excuses for writers who “wrote what was typical at the time” (in other words, “were sexist/racist/homophobic/etc.”) as if progressive thought were a 21st century invention. Tolstoy, and Flaubert, and Thackeray all apparently thought the most ordinary of women could make for fascinating protagonists (and, obviously, supporting characters), and they came long before Tolkien. There’s nothing wrong with a cast of predominantly male characters unless, as with Tolkien, it validates an exclusively male-centric perspective. It’s hardly a coincidence that most of Tolkien’s rabid fans are boys and men. And, for the record, I absolutely do make this same complaint of literature both old and new—and it’s because I give authors, most of whom have brains, more credit, and I expect more from them rather than making excuses.

Oops… I’ve now also committed Tolkien’s foremost sin with this long-winded response. In any case, I’ve genuinely enjoyed this discussion and want to thank you for commenting. You’ve given me food for thought (my favorite kind!).

*Update: Unfortunately, when Punchnel’s launched their new website design in 2016, none of the shares/comments from the previous version were carried over. It’s lucky, then, that I copied this conversation here, right? (Except, of course, that it’s not lucky at all, because I am a mature and responsible adult who spends her free time backing up her every keystroke.)

New York Reads and LOTR

I’m working on a couple of series for LitroNY and Punchnel’s, and they just so happen to be book-related—overlapping nicely with my posts here.

First up is Literary New York: A Recommended Reading List, which is exactly what it sounds like. If you’re planning a trip to NYC in the near or distant future, you’ll obviously need a relevant reading list. Now you have one.

Second is the latest Classic Review on Punchnel’s: The Lord of the Rings. If you missed that one the first time around, it’s worth reading now if only for the links to hilarious memes.