Publishing is one big minstrel show, and it's not just burnt cork and black greasepaint anymore. Writers of every protected class are putting on "Gay- and Lesbianface," "Indianface," or "Womanface" and producing pathetic caricatures that would be condemned were they drawn by white men writing in "Norman Mailerface" or "Philip Rothface."
And by wrapping them in the literary patina of trade-quality binding, publishers have confused reviewers and readers into paying attention and respect to hastily crafted demographic folderol. The product is prestige.
Mass markets have ruled best-seller lists forever, but books that people tear apart a chapter at a time on airplanes don't get prominent reviews in the Sunday New York Times. They don't help the elite feel their elitist.
So-called "chick lit" -- obsessed with the skin-deep -- is especially dominant, which makes sense considering that it has the largest target audience. There was a long interval between Jane Austen's Emma Woodhouse and Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones, but ever since Fielding and Sex and the City's Candace Bushnell got rich and famous scribbling the sad sexual dross of single girls gone urbane, the knockoffs have been never-ending. The works of Lauren Weisberger, Sue Monk Kidd, Jennifer Weiner, and John Steinbeck (Oprah's benediction qualifies anything as chick lit) might not get those reviews, yet they're all on the Times' best-seller lists, neck and neck with romances and mysteries, leaving Alice Sebold with her finger in the dam.
The only woman (and, save Steinbeck, writer) of literary merit on the current Times lists, Sebold has held her ranking for more than a year. Even if the praise for her debut novel was a bit overdone, her success is a boon to unknown and lesser-known female authors who might otherwise have drowned in a flood of pink cosmopolitans, but are now being published and supported just in case they've written this year's The Lovely Bones.
While their authors might pale at the association, two such novels -- a pair of 2003's best -- stand out not just for their exceptional, imaginative storytelling, but also for their full realization of what chick lit can be: smart, funny, challenging novels about women trying to find their places in the world.
The Bride of Catastrophe, Heidi Jon Schmidt's first novel and a retelling of The Divine Comedy, is too refined and perceptive to be a perfect example of the species. It stars the young Beatrice Wolfe in the roles of both Dante and the original Beatrice. Literature, with all of its contrary messages, plays Virgil.
Beatrice is a miracle birth, having survived a car accident while still in the womb. To her hyperdramatic mother, it was no accident, but a "murder attempt" by her father, who didn't want the responsibility of a family. Unable to blame her husband for the wreck, the mother slides into a life of hysterical victimhood. Beatrice is the family's guiding star. When she escapes to college, her family loses its way.
At school, Beatrice finds her own beacon in Philippa, her thesis adviser and a savant of love and literature. Philippa nurtures Beatrice's urge to see the world as a novel, placing her father in Dickens and finding her mother in Poe. "It wasn't just us," Beatrice thinks, "it was a Subject of Literature, so it was alright then."
But literature isn't so helpful with the complications of so-called free love, and Beatrice can't disentangle love from sex. Her sexual identity and its purpose elude her. She decides she's a lesbian and leaves school with an untested and ill-fitting persona, settling in the twin purgatories of Hartford, Connecticut and 1970s feminism. She vows to become a goddess of love, "the most important, most elusive thing there is."
Stuck with a low-end job and an uninspiring new girlfriend named Lee, Beatrice tries desperately to reconcile her love for Fanny Assingham and Portnoy with a feminism that "considers shaving one's underarm as the first misstep on the slippery slope that would eventually land one in the suburbs, barbecuing enormous steaks for some enormous husband, waxing floors, shaking martinis, and probably in the end even voting Republican."
No one cares about her thesis on Oscar Wilde or her paper "Was Borges Kidding?" It makes her miserable that no one seems to feel life as deeply as she does or seek purpose in the abstract.
Old-fashioned though they are, Beatrice likes gender roles. On her first night with Lee, she wonders "what was she doing here if she hadn't come to make love? What was she expecting? ... I knew a man would want me to switch off everything except instinct, lie back, give in, divine all his secrets, and transform myself without even realizing it, to match his dreams. ... It's all so easy."
It's an apt description of J.D., the sick Cheshire Cat stalking young Alice through Lisa Dierbeck's One Pill Makes You Smaller.
"Alice, I'm disappointed in you," he tells her in the midst of taking her virginity with an endearing, practiced force. "You're still young, but already they got to you. ... They taught you to fear it, to hate it. The sheer raw power of your own humanity. Of your desire. Of your sex."
Alice is only 11, but she's 5'7" with a "womanly figure" she considers a deformity but which is taken by everyone around her as an advertisement for her emotional maturity. Take the father of her classmate Felicia:
"THE BREASTS, apparently, operated upon him like two tractor beams, magnetizing his eyes. She felt terrible. ... After a second, he managed to break away from the unholy pull of her deformation. He looked at the rest of Alice.
"'Mr. Mann?' she said.
"But his glance had returned to her chest.
"'Would you like to come inside for a glass of wine?' he said with a leer.
"'Mr. Mann, I'm Alice,' she said. 'Alice. Felicia's friend.'
"'Hello, Alice,' he said. 'Come on in and have some wine with me. '"
Dierbeck moves gracefully from perverse humor to the true ghastliness of her story without once resorting to melodrama, and J.D., one of the most despicable characters of contemporary literature, is never a monster. He just understands that it's not possible to rape or molest someone who looks like Alice. She's ready to be manipulated like any adult.
It's not just men. Alice's absent parents and her guardian, "Aunt Esme" (who is actually her teenage half-sister), assume Alice's breasts will do the parenting. It's only an instructor at Alice's summer camp for young artists who recognizes her as a young girl still developing.
"At this early stage," she tells Alice, "you talented soulful girls are easily distracted. And derailed." The provocation and worth of Dierbeck's story is that Alice is derailed. One Pill isn't a typical coming-of-age tale; it's an assault against the orthodoxy of happy endings. Beatrice wants to be like Alice but will eventually fit in; Alice will have to construct an entire new world, be ruined by her body, fall down one rabbit hole after another, manipulate, take her instructor's advice: "Art is rude. To be an artist one must announce: Screw you. I don't give a fuck. To hell with it. Damn you. Utterly."
And if you don't feel like being told to fuck off, then here's something else: Sylvia Smith's Appleby House is new out in trade paperback and is fluff of the charming and unpretentious kind, maybe the least gripping page-turner ever written. The book is the fortysomething Brit's true account of her year in a boardinghouse for women in London, a rather ordinary place where the dramatics are limited to bathtub cleaning and toilet-paper-replacing rotations. Still, Smith is so unaffected and sincere, so distant from her colleagues who publish books with pink spines, that you might find yourself engrossed in the life of a real human being and won't be able to put this one down until Smith moves out.
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