• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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Dear Betsy:

You went all diatribal on the subject of women’s fiction the other day. What’s up with that? Women’s fiction is just fiction with female main characters. Since men won’t read books about women, unless they’re bimbos, Bond girls, or butt kickers, what else are you going to call books that talk about the lives of the statistical majority of the population?

You called it “Kotex fiction.” So do you hate your own gender?

I’ll go sit in the back now and put on my shit shield. Reading your blog is kinda like going to see Gallagher’s evil twin.

–Name withheld

I always wanted to be someone’s evil twin (Shana? Vivian?), but who is Gallagher?

This is a very serious subject and I do not want to treat it glibly. I’m a feminist. And I love my vag. But I hate the term “women’s fiction” and I hate its evil twin “chick lit.” When my publisher put a pink jacket on my paperback, I wanted to fuckin’ forget the whole thing. It’s not just work with female main characters. There are a million other implications for a book that is called women’s fiction, but the most important one is that it isn’t taken seriously. Toni Morrison doesn’t write women’s fiction. Nor does Lorrie Moore. Or Marilyn Robinson. I know that it’s marketing. I know that it’s publishing. I understand. It’s the air that I breathe. All I’m saying is that I don’t like it. I don’t like query letters that pitch women’s fiction. Or chick lit. I think it’s demeaning. Just say fiction, or literary fiction, or crime fiction in the tradition of Patricia Cornwell, Sue Grafton, and Janet Evanovich. I’ll pick up on the cues.

I love SheWrites. I love Jezebel. I love A Page of One’s own. I love Smith College. And girls’ night out. And Frances McDormand. I love all organizations that help women. But I want to read fiction, and go hear rock and roll, and see art. Not women’s fiction, women’s rock and roll, and women’s art. I have an allergic reaction and I don’t think it’s because I hate myself (and while I do hate myself it’s not for being a slit). I think it’s because I want the nomenclature to reflect parity. You never go to a all male rock show. Male impressionists. Men’s fiction.

I’m sure I haven’t thought deeply enough on all this. And I’m sorry if I went off half cocked (get it?!) the other day. I really want to know what you all think about this “women’s fiction” label. Does it help? Hurt? Matter?

(And if this letter is from the person I offended — I do apologize. I was raised better, though you couldn’t tell from this blog. I’m sorry and thanks for the great question.)

53 Responses

  1. Um. Seriously? A woman must love all things “women” or else she hates herself?

    Just wow.

  2. I don’t think men would be interested in my novel, so I guess it’s women’s fiction, but not it’s not issue-oriented melodramatic fiction. I’m not a big fan of Jodi Picoult-type novels. But I don’t know what to call what I write? Intelligent chick lit? Comedy of manners? Social commentary? Who knows….I keep plugging away regardless. I enjoy writing it and I hope readers (mainly women) will enjoy reading it.

  3. Also HATE the terms “women’s fiction” and “chick lit.” It’s come to mean something … and I despise that sort’ve packaging, it allows for easy dismissal. Ms. Lerner is totally right that marketing & publishing & pushing novels demand that novels be confined term-wise (memoir, chick lit, literary fiction, etc.), but as a writer that’s painful to think about. Being boxed in like that. Plus the whole idea that any form of writing is gendered is sort’ve inherently nauseating to me. Good writing ideally ought to transcend those boundaries. Willa Cather is one of my favorite authors, and I think if someone had branded her novels “women’s fiction,” she might’ve punched them out. As she should have.

  4. I’m sure I’ll have something to say on the actual topic of this post tomorrow, but right now I just want to savor “I love my vag,” and “…while I do hate myself it’s not for being a slit.” Also I’m watching the White Stripes movie and I’m so enamored by Jack White that I can only give you 7% of my attention right now.

  5. >I’m sure I haven’t thought deeply enough on all this.

    No, please. You have thought it through *very* well. No backing off, now!

  6. Confession may be good for the soul, but the greatest works are always those where the most is attempted, including the disappearance of the author’s identity.

    • While reading I want to not identify with the gender of the author, but a bigger, larger more inclusive pov that is ironically harder to market than womens fiction and
      If you are making a play for literature in this era it is hard going

  7. Gallagher was a prop comedian from the late 1980s – early 1990s famous for smashing watermelons and other squishy things with a sledgehammer. He made everyone who sat in the front rows cover themselves with a plastic tarp. People used to kill for those seats.

  8. Sassy: any writing that goes for a tone that’s sassy is chick lit. I hate sassy: Sassy is safe, but thinks it’s ballsy. Sassy is the tone that women take when they want to be naughty, but they also don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings. Sassy is for writers who can’t commit to their own truth (however pale it is and believe me, most people who talk about having too dark a “dark side” have a dark side that is only kind of medium gray) because they still want to be liked, have people think they are nice. God, I hate sassy, except if it has a southern accent.

    My twin sister says I’m her evil twin. You can be the evil twin of an evil twin…but what would that make you?

  9. Last night I dreamed I was booked to go back to my home on a helicopter. I grew up, literally, in the Louisiana Swamp. I was shit-scared. About half-way through the flight, over the place that is called Cancer Alley- because it is now Exxon, BP’s etc. holding station – the helicopter lost power and started flitting like a croc after and coon dog. We we down. I held onto the pilot’s leg- boy was he cute – I squeezed he squeezed. He was so good at landing – as though I were a butterfly fluttering through laced curtains – ( I really like metphors with “fl” in them- it’s kinda sexy).
    So pilot took my hand and off we went, flollowing the setting sun. All around us the sounds of the swamp rose up to me us and so did he. . .

    And THAT IS WOMEN’S FICTION ….have you lost your breakfast? Still you have to have a damsel in distress, a cute guy, but the story has to end because god for bid a torrid and real sex scene should appear in “women’s fiction.” We are so chaste, so timid, we only know passion through our imaginations. Or should I just say “Last night I went back to Mandalay” or some such.

  10. Oh, thank gawd. Can I ever relate.

    This blog is the g-spot of the internet.

  11. Thank you, BL, perfect.

  12. I don’t really care about the labels. If I hear that something is well written, I’ll read it. I love all of the great women writers of literary fiction mentioned above, but I’m not above a little Bridget Jones’ Diary.

  13. Also, why do we as a culture give men a pass on reading work about women? Why do we not consider how our society is set up to norm men, so we should all be able to relate to them, but we can’t expect them to relate to us?

    (This also holds true for race, disability, sexual orientation, and so on.)

    • Well said.

      • This was exactly the point I wanted to comment on. When I, a girl, started reading I simply picked up whatever books were available and put myself into the head and heart of whatever character was on the page. I mostly read fantasy and no one asked WHY I was reading books with boys at the centre.

        We should simply hand boys interesting books with female main characters and not comment on it – it’s normal for us, why won’t we let it be normal for them?

        Of course, we need some books/films written with girls in the lead that aren’t about “girls” issues – which means publishers/producers need to be brave enough and not ask writers to change the gender before they can offer a contract…

  14. Here I am, minding my own business in the loveliness of Finland – you know, the place where women first earned the vote, the place with the woman president, garbage women and more female truckers than male. And what comes on the news? A woman my age touting the wonders of womens fiction and chick lit. In Finnish. She even read a little translated excerpt from Bridget Jones diary and set about telling the younger interviewer that Bridget Jones represents all women and all women should read it. Why is it that the total shit ideas like this get exported? I spent a lot of time advocating for women. For other females to think it’s ok to be segregated into some crummy category really blows my mind. Rates right up there with another genre that always includes a beautiful virgin and a handsome man she hates. But after he rapes her it all turns out ok.

  15. This is the same idea as dubbing all mothers *Mommy Bloggers.* I happen to know a lot of these women. They are intelligent, wonderful human beings who hold advanced degrees. They have important things to say about… everything. *Mommy Blogger* is like getting a pat on the head and someone saying ‘isn’t that cute.’

  16. You hate the -term-? Hate the content if you want; hating the term is like hating section 417 of the Dewey Decimal System. The term is how browsers find the right shelf. You know this shit better than I do, it’s the air you breathe while I’m stuck wheezing, but you don’t like the -term-? It’s in your profile at agentquery. Sure, ‘kotex fiction’ describes the books better–products women use to stop the bleeding–but ‘women’s fiction’ describes a genre more precisely than ‘fiction’ or ‘literary fiction.’

    Hate the genre. Hate the moody introspection and the emotional exploitation and all that suffocating womanly weight. But the -term-?

    “I’m sorry, ma’am, I understand that you love Jodi Picoult, but we stock all our fiction alphabetically. Maybe you’ll like another author whose last name begins with P.”

    Now, what gets up my nose is ‘literary’ fiction. Because other shit isn’t literary, other shit is completely unrelated to literature. You write a thriller or a fantasy novel–or women’s fiction–what you’re doing is producing an elaborate doorstop. It’s not that you’re in the lowest sub-basement of the Tower of Words, it’s that you’re not even in the same fucking building. But fine, let the self-impressed jerkoffs buy serious literature while the rest of us waste money on -books-.

    Maybe woman’s fiction is bullshit on the same level as women’s impressionism or women’s architecture. But I’m not sure I buy that, both for reasons of historical blah blah patriarchy blah and because women’s fiction describes a distinct form, while women’s architecture doesn’t. So yeah, the term is stupid–just like ‘commercial fiction’ and ‘multi-cultural fiction’ and ‘fantasy’ and ‘gay fiction.’

    But you want the ‘nomenclature to reflect parity?’ Sure, and I to wear a bonnet made of human skin. Are you trying to give me an aneurysm?

    If Lorrie Moore doesn’t write women’s fiction, what’s A Gate at the Stairs? Clunky chicklit masquerading as women’s fiction. And she gets ‘treated seriously.’ What the fuck is treated seriously? Really? Treated seriously? Does the check clear? Then they, hidden inside the passive tense, are treating you seriously. What are you looking for, an invitation to the club?

    Because of my fondness for everyone here, I just deleted an incoherent 500-word screed about ‘demeaning.’ But I love (good) chicklit. Fun reads, and nobody gets raped. I’m old-fashioned, but that appeals to me.

    And there -is- men’s fiction. We call him Clive Cussler, and we’re very proud.

    • “But I love (good) chicklit. Fun reads, and nobody gets raped. I’m old-fashioned, but that appeals to me.”

      “Now, what gets up my nose is ‘literary’ fiction. Because other shit isn’t literary, other shit is completely unrelated to literature”

      Amen August.

      Yes there is a certain type of chick lit that I’m sure I would never read and it generally does feature pink somewhere on the book jacket. Equally, I have read books like Bridget Jones’s Diary or the No 1 Ladies Detective series and laughed out loud. That doesn’t mean I don’t read and enjoy more “literary fiction”.
      Sometimes a meal out is a cold beer and dog (well, not so much in England) and sometimes it’s a bit more classy – maybe even some utensils involved.

      Betsy, vag and slit – love it. Reminds me of when I was trying to choose a term for “down there” (as a British GP once described the area to me) for my daughter. Vag is just too North American over here.

      Suggestions included Minnie, Ladybits, Foofoo and probably my all time favorite, Minkleberry. Can we say repressed? (I went with vag)

    • Yes, I hate “the -term-.” It’s interesting you should suggest I “hate the content” instead of “the -term-,” because that is exactly what I want to avoid. The content is unique. Every book, however much of a cookie-cutter plot it has, is unique and deserves a chance. Terms presuppose uniformity. Terms allow things to be swept under the table. When you say the term is like a piece of the Dewey Decimal System, you suggest that the term is somehow benign. Is the term “nigger” benign also? Is it just a way we think about a certain race of people? No. So I think you are having a misunderstanding here. Not all terms are felt to be benign and merely indicative by all peoples. You have your opinion, I have mine. And when I hear the term “women’s fiction,” I am insulted. You aren’t. I am. That’s the bottom line here. A difference of opinions. “Women’s fiction.” To you that means the way something gets shelved, boxed, sold, whatever. To me it means something else. To me it has negative connotations. Therefore … I hate the term.

      • Oh, honey, no.

      • Oh, honey, um, yes? Never call me honey again btw? Seriously … why can’t people accept that to me … it is not terribly hyperbolic to compare a derogatory racial slur to branding a whole section of contemporary literature “chick lit”? That is literally, honestly, seriously insulting to me. As a woman. And as a writer. If you can’t wrap your mind around that idea, wrap your mind around something else. But who are you to tell me how a term should or shouldn’t make me feel? Who are you to tell me I can’t dislike something that insults me and insults my passions? How can you think that would ever wash? It’s a reality for me that the terms “women’s fiction” and “chick lit” are very, very insulting, and when I hear them, I get incredibly angry, and I don’t mind if you want to share why that is or isn’t insulting to you, but where … I mean … where do people get off telling other people how to feel? These are my feelings. They are legitimate. I am not your honey.

      • there’s a fly in the honey

        can’t we stop the hate word?

      • Well said petty,
        I think it’s very interesting that in an age where we’ve supposedly come so far in terms of equality, that we still have so many labels that keep segregation alive. I know “chick lit” is not a sign above a fountain that reads “whites only”. Some will be insensed that I even compare the two. But when we get right down to it isn’t “chick lit” segregation?

        Yes, It has everything to do with the ‘term’. If they used a label to create a genre like “white literature” it would be extremely offensive no matter what the content. So, why is that offensive and not “chick lit”?

    • Does this really all come down to a question of taste? Really? Look, I don’t like big eyed Keane paintings, Elvis on velvet, Kinkade’s uber glowing crap, or pictures of old guys praying over hunks of homemade bread. Whatever the medium, I like less sentimental, cloying, manipulative art, some people still call it Fine and that is fine by me.

    • Oh man this is the best forum thread I’ve read in a long while.

      *”Sure, ‘kotex fiction’ describes the books better–products women use to stop the bleeding–but ‘women’s fiction’ describes a genre more precisely than ‘fiction’ or ‘literary fiction.’ *

      August, you had me at ‘stop the bleeding’. Funny stuff. Worth the time I’ve wasted not editing…

      I can see where all parties are coming from here, but I tend to agree with August. Chick-Lit, Woman’s Fic–as stupid and irritating as it sounds, it’s just a way the publishing industry puts a certain type of story in a box for an easier sell.

      That’s not going to change any more than agent submission guidelines are…

      I don’t like fitting my entire story into a three paragraph query letter, either but I do it because that’s just the game…

      (and let’s not forget that the names ‘woman’s fiction’ and ‘chick lit’ are surely there for marketing reasons. I doubt anybody in a position of publishing cares a good hot toddy if we writers like how they market, classify books.)

      Don’t hate the playa’, hate the game…

      …and Don’t call it ‘chick lit’, but yes I’ll take that royalty check. Thanks…

  17. “Since men won’t read books about women, unless they’re bimbos, Bond girls, or butt kickers…”

    I bet you throw the word ‘sexist’ around a lot while making baseless proclamations like this about the entirety of a gender.

  18. After reading all these female comments on “women’s fiction,” I was getting up to pour myself a drink at 7:30 in the morning, but August saved me. God you women are paranoid. How can you read something pejorative in the term “women’s fiction?”

    Chapter one of every book on the unglorius (a Tarnatino term) ritual of trying to snag an agent reads: research the potential agents to learn the literary genres in which they are interested. (Trans. qualify the buyer.) As I churn through the list of agents, the term “women’s fiction,” “chick lit,” and “romance” are tossed around by agents like the rubber ball on a Fly Back Paddle.

    Do I read something dark and sinister in the term “women’s fiction” like: written for “slits” without those attributes required to enjoy quality fiction? No. I take it as an industry term meaning the content is more likely to be enjoyed by women than men.

    Have it ever found an agent seeking “men’s fiction?” There doesn’t seem to be an industry term for this. God, do I wish there was such a genre? Hell yes! I would jump on it like Keith Olberfucker on GW.

    • It’s not the point of hating a market for women’s fiction – as in women writing fiction. Women’s fiction and chick lit are not a revered market we all strive for. It’s not an all girls in to publishing. You have to understand that. And it’s not just fiction with female protagonists. Every time the term ‘chick lit’ is thrown around it is associated with a light, beach read for women only. It’s like being accused of only liking romantic comedy films. Or Desperate Housewives on tv. And on the contrary, women who speak out against it do not hate their own gender. They believe their gender is capable of so much more.

      • “They believe there gender is capable of so much more.”

        Everything written is not intended to be high art. It does not have to be. Writing a story with the sole aim of entertaining is a completely legitimate and praiseworthy goal. (Maybe I just think that because it is my goal)

        I enjoy my light beach reads intended for women only. If it is shelved as chick lit that just makes it easier for me to find and buy.

        Look, I realize that there is this perception that chick lit is somehow “less”. Maybe the term does not bother me because I do not think that way and my capacity for caring what other people think in this regard is very low. If I love a book I do not care if others do or don’t.

        OK, so all of that speaks to my opinion. However:

        The fact that a lot of people (Some people? How many? Has anyone done a survey?) would dismiss a book merely because of the category under which it is shelved is annoying. While this perception of lessness exists any author who’s work gets labeled as such does has cause for complaint.

        The fact that this perception of lessness is linked to a product that is aimed at and enjoyed by women is a whole different ball of wax and not something I am going to go into although I suspect it is a major component of many people’s complaint.

      • AArgh, typo in my quote: There should be their. You got it right, I got it wrong. Sorry about that.

      • I understand what you’re saying, Christina. I kind off got off topic a bit – it was late here. Question: If your writing is strong then why does it have to be wrapped up in the pink bow and given a cutsey name? Chick is a name we’ve gotten used to but it didn’t come about as a term of endearment or equality of intellilect. It was a name put on the prey or target of men hoping to get laid. I know I can’t sway your mind in the space alloted here. The best advice I can give is to read a book by Miriam Peskowitz called The Truth Behind The Mommy Wars. While the subject matter may seem specific to mothers the message is not. It will make you think differently about media and how the female gender is packaged for marketing. And for the record, real feminism is not a bunch of women swearing off men and children and dressing like dudes in the workplace. It’s about choices and having those choices accepted on an equal level with the rest of society.

  19. Gallagher’s most memorable quip: “You gotta love the handicapped. How else would anybody find a place to park.”

  20. Great question, answer and loads of great comments. I’m not a fan of labels or pigeon holing. Why does ‘Chick lit’ exist and not ‘Dick lit’?… ‘Womens fiction’ and not ‘Mens fiction’? And I would flip if my book were put in a pink jacket too. Do boys get blue covers?

  21. maybe we should start a new genre called vampire vag.

  22. How bout gay gush?

  23. or shit lit (for lovers of the scatological)

  24. or tit lit (for lovers of the titological?)

  25. lit light

  26. or zit lit (hipster for YA)

    or clit lit (for lovers of bodice rippers)

    or pit lit (for lovers of thrillers) (pit as in pit out)

  27. I realize this is new depths of pathetic, but I keep clicking on the deleted post down below, just so I can read, “Sorry, but you are looking for something that isn’t here.”

    • August, I snagged it on my reader before the Great Disappearance, in case you’re interested…

      • Oh, no, thanks. It’s more pathetic than that. I read it; I just -still- get off on the error message.

        “Sorry, but you are looking for something that isn’t here.”

  28. I too hate the marketing aspect of women’s fiction. However, I have to ignore it on occasion because I’ve found I actually like many of the books despite the horrible covers and so on and so on. Not judging, honestly just curious. I really like Meg Wolitzer for instance, and damn if her last book didn’t look pretty girly. I also can’t help but think And Then We Came To The End would have been presented quite differently if the author was a woman. Okay – I guess my point is the entire women’s fiction craze really puts readers in a position that we shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover. And oh, sometimes publishers suck!

  29. When I was a teacher of junior and senior high school English, the kids didn’t care if a story was written by a man or a woman or a 16 year old named S.E. Hinton. They didn’t care if it was called “Children’s Literature” or Women’s Lit. They simply wanted a good story!

  30. This subject never dies. Today, August 11, Jesse Kornbluth posted this: http://bit.ly/9Sc2UW

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