Monday, April 19, 2010
Thrillers. Mysteries. Romance. Sci-Fi. Even with their confusing-to-outsiders-sub-genres (Science Fantasy?), the writers and the readers both know that they're aiming for the same target when they approach the bookstall. But Women's Fiction/Chick-Lit gets a little cloudier.
If we're talking about an easily-digested, pink-iced-confection, designed to amuse and entertain but not to stick to the ribs, I suspect that we can all agree, from Princess Daisy to The Devil Wears Prada, we're looking at a genre that used to be dubbed, the "Beach Book". Like all genres, the writing itself can be good or horrible, but craft is not really the point. If you crave a genre, you're likely to overlook a creaky sentence or a clich if the Jimmy Choos (or who-done-it-butler or the zombie, or the hunky pirate) keeps your heart beating.
I don't doubt their value on the market, or wonder why people like them -- but what about the books that are not intended as genre-lit? Why do we see some books that are about so much more than fluff, reduced to girly covers and Women's-Lit cataloging? Why are Anna Quindlen, Cathleen Schine, Curtis Sittenfeld all skirting the category? And if stories about women who are not grappling with heroin addiction or their status as a sniper, but working through fairly normal contemporary relationships, is fair game for a category called, "Women's-Lit" (as opposed to Fiction, for god's sake - ), then what about Anne Tyler? And --- except that we now see their stories as history, what are we to do with John O'Hara, Henry James? Edith Wharton, Flaubert? It wasn't history then.
When I get reader-reviews that complain that my book is NOT Chick-Lit, what am I to do, except wonder why the reader thought it was?
The smart and savvy, Lizzie Skurnick (turn to her blog http://www.lizzieskurnick.com - for some of the brightest insights on the written word you'll find on this continent) moderated our Empire State Book Festival panel (see my last blog), and mentioned - straight away - that the flowers on the cover of my book almost certainly eliminates its chances for most serious reviews or options of prizes. Really? Flowers? The flip side of this is almost as scary. Readers will be swayed by the flowers --- and either disappointed see above or, and here's the real likelihood, won't take the work or their own taste seriously enough.
As for covers going wrong, I'm reading Cathleen Schine's The Three Weissmanns of Westport right now. I liked her immediately. And I'm loving her book. A considerable feat of wit and whim and satire, so deftly thrown in the air and twirled around, you don't notice the skill. Like those men who twirled plates on Ed Sullivan. They seem more magicians than craftsmen, but they're not. Craft it is.
I would never have bought Cathy's book, given the cover. It hissed, Women's Fiction, Chick-Lit. 'Hen-Lit.' Okay, maybe no flowers, but girly-cheese instead. I would never have read the book had I not sat next to Cathy Schine on the panel. And it would have been my loss.
It's unlikely Amazon has a much more active customer than I and I'm no slouch at our local Independent Book Store either. I'm what the publishers are hoping for: a reader. A buyer. A giver of books. A supporter of the written word. A consumer. I read new work and classic work. I read all the time. And yet, I wouldn't have turned that Three Weissman cover over to have read a bit of information about the book. If Dominique Browning hadn't written a stunning review, I doubt many of the fans of the book would have taken a peek. And their loss. And Cathleen Schine is on the best seller list. Not because her publisher did the right thing but because a reviewer knew well enough how to position the work. And, while the reviewer was an editor of a stylish Woman's Magazine, she has enough gravitas to be taken seriously by us all. Is that what it takes? Someone to fly over the head of the category to make us see that there is a life between the covers someone dressed for the wrong ball?
To be continued...