Call it the Great ChickLit Challenge.
On one side, you have literary lionesses like Doris Lessing and Beryl Bainbridge lamenting the boom in ChickLit books. On the other side, you have ChickLit writers like Jenny Colgan and high-art darling Jeanette Winterson, defending women's right to read light novels and be entertained.
Bainbridge, a Booker favourite considered something of a party girl among the London literati, fired the latest shot recently when she dismissed Bridget Jones and similar novels as froth, and suggested that young women should read books that are a "bit deeper, a bit more profound, something with a bit of bite to it."
Of the authors, the great Doris Lessing said, "It would be better, perhaps, if they wrote books about their lives as they really saw them, and not these helpless girls, drunken, worrying about their weight and so on."
If you're not familiar with polite Britspeak, you might think these two statements sound quite reasonable. But my British friends assure me these are firm slaps in the face of girl books and the girls who write them.
I've been of two minds on all this. Of course women have a right to some fun. After a hard day managing accounts, waiting tables or slaving on a term paper, it's Miller Time. We don't have to be dour, sackcloth-wearing party-line feminists to be taken seriously. Life is hard. Let's have some laughs along the way.
Just because it's funny, doesn't mean it's mere froth. As Colgan pointed out, ChickLit books sometimes deal with serious issues, like anorexia, or death in the family. Comedy gets the short stick in cultural appraisal. A point or idea made in a joke or through a funny character may not be taken seriously by the critics, but it will reach a bigger audience that way. Bridget Jones is a good example. It's not just a funny book about a confused single woman. It's a book about the pressures young women feel from the culture, advertising, their friends and families to look a certain way, behave a certain way and snag a man.
No, the problem with ChickLit isn't that it doesn't deal with issues. Some of these books do, and some are just fun. The problem is that there are just so many frothy books, TV shows and magazines, so much emphasis on boys, the right clothes, the right places to go and manic self-obsession to the near exclusion of everything else. And who can blame young women for being shallow and self-obsessed when they are the focus of such monumental attention, particularly from Madison Avenue and Hollywood sharpies?
In one form or another, Bainbridge's complaint about the mass appeal of froth for women has been heard for a while in other areas of the culture. The debates over whether Ally McBeal or Sex and the City represent the death of feminism are notable examples. Both shows sparked a barrage of criticism from older feminists bemoaning that their hard work to give women financial, sexual and political power seems to have degenerated into the right to obsess about men and sex, drink like frat boys, buy $400 shoes and, much worse, the right not to worry our pretty little heads about complex grownup things like health care or the environment.
That makes feminists, even tarty feminists like me, whose books are sometimes grouped with ChickLit, very sad. It's as if we've been blown back through some weird wormhole to 1963 and the Helen Gurley Brown days of Sex and the Single Girl. We hoped the new independence and economic power the frontliners fought for would inspire young women to put on backpacks, have life-altering adventures and bring a tremendous new energy to human rights, politics, science and corporate culture -- in a nutshell, to make a better, more beautiful world in a way more profound than the beauty of Christian Louboutin shoes or M.A.C. cosmetics can bring.
Cheer up, sisters. Things are looking up. Literary novels by young women such as Edwidge Danticat and Zadie Smith do very well on the bestseller lists, as Colgan has noted, saying, "Art can take care of itself." Naomi Klein's No Logo has become a word-of-mouth hit. Meg Cabot, who wrote The Princess Diaries,has a new book coming out about a girl who accidentally saves the life of the President and then goes on to challenge him over a controversial art exhibit. Even Sex and the City has evolved from questions like, "Should I let him lick my rectum" to "Did I make the right decision when I had that abortion?"
If you're hung up on gorgeous shoes and see them as wearable art, that's your thing. If you like boys -- a lot -- I won't throw stones. The right ones make me dizzier than Bridget. I don't want girls to throw their ChickLit books away (particularly mine) or stop having fun. Instead, I'd like to see them throw those ChickLit books in a knapsack on their way to a rally to hear Naomi Klein or Noreena Hertz, two young women who have inspired legions of young men and women to get involved in the bigger world, or Laura Hannant, a 14-year-old who raises money to get children out of bondage in the developing world.
We can't all be heroines like these, but we can support them and learn from them, as we can from Bridget and a few of the more subversive chicks of ChickLit. Young women can resist the cultural pressures, open up to the world, and be truly independent. There's no reason we can't save the world while wearing a pretty dress and stiletto heels, as long as we're not slaves to those things. The sense of fun ChickLit ignited in millions of readers -- male and female -- will make the job that much easier.
By the way, feminism isn't dead. It's just evolving into the centrepiece of a broader human-rights agenda. You may not recognize it now because it dresses better, likes most men and has a sense of humour, not to mention one divine Prada outfit in its closet for those times when we want to take a break from saving the world and go dancing with boys.