February 23, 2005

Why Chick-Lit Matters

Some chick-lit books are better than others. I thought Bridget Jones was quite a howl. There's good, bad and mediocre in everything. If you really wanted to, you could say the original chick-lit book is Pride and Prejudice. So what is it, if it's about young women we're not supposed to take it seriously? It should be judged on its merits like everything else. A lot of the books we regard as classics were thought of as cheap junk when they came out. Dracula by Bram Stoker is one; so is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. There's a long list.
Margaret Atwood in an interview from Writer's Digest, April 2004

There was a time during the 1800's when reading novels was considered a dangerous pasttime. Those who considered themselves to have 'high morals' and
'status' looked down their noses at those who were avid readers of novels.
Young women were most often the target of moral indignation, and a campaign of fear was waged, asserting that novel reading would lead to questionable behavior, hysteria, and even illness.(The idea was to scare the young ladies towards
loftier pursuits.)

The work will probably become a favourite with all those who seek for harmless amusement, rather than deep pathos...in works of fiction.
- An 1816 review of Jane Austen's Emma

I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.
- Jane Austen

I recently exchanged emails with the proud-to-call-herself a chick-lit author, Jennifer O'Connell and put the question to her...

Why does chick-lit matter?

I picked up my first "chick lit" in 2000 (although at that time, the genre didn't have a name yet). I raced through it and went on to devour every British chick lit book I could get my hands on - at the time there were very few American writers in the genre. I loved chick lit because I saw myself and my friends in the characters and stories I was reading. I think there'd been a gap in the market between the Judy Blume books I read as a kid and "adult" women's fiction, which tended to be either more romance along the lines of Danielle Steele or aspirational/celebrity stories like those by Jackie Collins. Where were the books about women working, making their way in the world and dealing with everything that came along? Chick lit matters because it fills that gap and gives women the opportunity to read about what's really going on in their lives today.

What does the popularity of chick-lit say about women today?

The popularity of chick lit shows that women want to read about real life, the day-to-day reality of being a woman with a job, friends and family. I think it also shows that we have a sense of humor about ourselves. In chick lit we can laugh at ourselves and gain a little perspective.

Last, but not least...I leave you with another bit of wisdom from my dear Miss Austen. Her novel, Northanger Abbey included several conversations between characters about the merits vs. the perceived ill effects of novel reading (and writing). Here, the main character has her say about female novelists.

— there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. “I am no novel–reader — I seldom look into novels — Do not imagine that I often read novels — It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant. “And what are you reading, Miss — ?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language. Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.
- Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

February 22, 2005

Freedom to Read

Margaret Atwood - The Handmaid's Tale

John Ball - In the Heat of the Night

Harper Lee - To Kill a Mockingbird

Anthony Burgess - A Clockwork Orange

Timothy Findley - The Wars

William Golding - Lord of the Flies

Alice Munro - Lives of Girls and Women

Mordecai Richler -
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz

J.K. Rowling -
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

John Steinbeck - Of Mice and Men

Laura Ingalls Wilder -
On the Banks of Plum Creek

These are just a few of the books that are part of the Challenged Books List. The list, compiled for Canada'a Freedom to Read Week is a
selective list providing information on more than 100 books that have been challenged in the past 21 years. Each challenge sought to limit public access to the books in schools, libraries or bookstores.

Thanks to Freedom to Read, we are reminded how precious our 'right to write' and read truly is.

February 19, 2005

Why Book Clubs Matter

After writing the post, "Snarky Over Bookclubs...", I decided to ask a few people what they've gained from the book club experience. Here's what one woman had to say...

As a SAHM (stay at home mom) it is important for me because I get support
from other mothers. Not only do we discuss the novels
but we discuss current events, our family, our lives.
It's almost like a quilting bee for us except we don't
quilt [laughing] I like to read the novels that others
have chosen and go outside of my comfort zone. When I
say that, I mean that some of the selections I would
have never bothered to read... but when I do I feel like a
secret has been shared with me.

This book clubber is not alone in her feelings of wanting to connect with others over a good read. People all over the world are getting together, in their homes, libraries, coffee shops, local pubs, and on the net to talk about books. Charlotte Higgins' recent article in The Guardian, Why the Book Club is More Than a Fad, states...
Reading groups have been around for a long time. But there is clearly something about our current social and cultural circumstances that has made this book club explosion happen now.

It is partly, perhaps, about the desire to forge personal links in a fractured world. It is also partly to do with people feeling the need to actively make the time to read: book clubbers talk of being readers anyway, but liking the extra incentive.

In many instances, it is that once thought endangered and ever wonderful creature, the town librarian, who has been at the front of the book club movement.

libraries have seen something of a renaissance via book clubs - frequently via the efforts of individual librarians rather than the institution.

According to Tom Palmer, who works on a joint libraries-publishers project called Reading Partners, innumerable groups ("hundreds in Yorkshire") have sprung up, librarians "overcoming a lot of hurdles that councils put in their way."

I think the following statements from a thirty-something female book clubber sum up much of what can be gained through joining a book club. Yet her final thoughts point a finger at the old on our backs myth that 'cool girls don't read, they just go see the movie when it comes out.'

My book group is through the public library. The
library has several groups, all of which meet in the
library conference room. I am a member of a group with
mostly older women, only one woman my age. Most of the
time reading a book is a solitary activity-- you read
it and that is it. With book group, I enjoy being able
to discuss the characters and plot. I can see things
in a way that I didn't see them before, or see other
perspectives even if I don't necessarily agree with
them. It is also interesting to see how ours lives
have shaped how we see things. Because of my age, I am
often the one with a divergent opinion because I am of
a different generation. No one criticizes me for my
opinions, and they often appreciate my insight. I also
appreciate their insight since I don't have the life
experience all of the wonderful ladies have had.

Still...I am interested in forming a group where we rotate
homes. I thought it would lead to forming friendships,
which I would really like. I am just not sure how to
go about forming one. And, sadly, so many women my age
(30) don't read much, or they don't admit that they
do. I am sure there are women just like me who are
starving to find avid readers to talk about books

February 03, 2005

Snarky Over Book Clubs...

In a recent CBC Arts online rant, Book Club Virgin, (And Proud Of It: The Scorn of the Solitary Reader, Li Robbins takes aim at book clubs and the publishers who love them.

I’ve been invited to join book clubs, and while outwardly I might
politely smile, inwardly I heave. It’s a prospect I find about as appealing as
attending the Canadian Academic Accounting Association’s annual Christmas party. (Although, come to think of it, the CAAA might at least have decent booze. I’m willing to bet the majority of book clubs are strictly President’s Choice Chai (decaf) or at best, white wine – from a large-sized bottle.)

Why so snarky, Li?

I support and applaud your desire to have a book all to yourself. (I certainly wouldn't want a dozen or so book clubbies crashing in on my daily ritual of reading while soaking in the tub.) That said, I wonder if you truly understand the power and meaning that a book club can bring to a person's life.

History speaks for itself. In the mid to late 1800's women's "literary clubs" started popping up all over the place. England, Canada, the U.S. and so on. Some of these savvy, thinking women were not only discussing literature, they were secretly laying the groundwork for the suffragist movement. (These women also knew that husbands would be more willing to support their wives attending a 'literary club' than a suffragist meeting.)

In 1876, physician and suffragist Emily Jennings Stowe founded The Toronto Women's Literary Club. Women in Newfoundland started the Ladies Reading Room and Current Events Club. Nellie McClung, suffragist and politician, founder of the Winnipeg Political Equality League and the Federated Women's Institutes of Canada was also an active member of The Calgary Women's Literary Club (which was founded by by Mrs. Annie Davidson).

Here are just a few of the activities of The Toronto Women's Literary Club...
Members prepared papers on women's professional achievements, education, and the vote. The Literary Club campaigned successfully to improve women's working conditions. Stowe lectured on "Women's Sphere" and "Women in the Professions." She said that a woman "ought to understand the laws governing her own being." Because of pressure by the Literary Club, some higher education in Toronto was made available to women—though Stowe protested that the medical course first planned for women was substandard. Stowe campaigned for better medical education for women and influenced several eminent physicians. In 1883 a public meeting of the Toronto Women's Suffrage Association led to the creation of the Ontario Medical College for Women.
from an article by Irene Baros-Johnson

And if you need a more contemporary account of the power of the book club, may I recommend, Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran.
Reading Lolita in Tehran, a memoir by Azar Nafisi, the daughter of a former charismatic mayor of pre-revolutionary Tehran and of a woman who won a seat in Parliament in 1963, chronicles the personal and intellectual unfoldings of a private literature class she started in Tehran after she left her last teaching post.
from Book Group in Chadors A Review by Mona Simpson

As far as your take on the publishing industry goes...
Nonetheless, your cute little ol’ book club is not necessarily exempt from the canny wiles of the publishing industry. Book club consultants and
books telling you how to run a book club are just a small sign of this greater force at work. Another, those annoying “reader’s guides” that began popping up in trade paperback editions of “women’s fiction” about five years ago. These guides cost publishers more money to produce – but they lead to greater sales, since book clubs tend to choose them over a guide-less edition. Most publishers target book clubs on their websites for the same reason. Book clubs are being gently led to the well for a
long drink of whatever publishers want them to swallow.

Do you mean to make every book club member out to be some sort of bleary-eyed zombie who comes to every meeting - reading guide clutched to her chest, bleating out key phrases like- "I related to the protagonist in this novel because..." or "If I had been in the protagonist's shoes I would have..."?
Those wicked, scheming publishers are running a business. They are trying desperately to meet the consumer's desires in order to stay afloat. Shame on them for catering to their customers. Shame on them for trying to turn people's heads away from T.V., the X-box, the latest DVD rental from Blockbuster.

Indigo recently reported that their sales were up due to higher online sales...
Indigo said the online improvement in part relates to the introduction of products for IPod, a popular handheld electronic device for music and other entertainment, on its website.
from The Canadian Press

What's a publisher to do?

You don't like book clubs. You're not a 'joiner'. That's fine. I get it.
But don't go waggling your finger at those who are 'getting it' and a whole lot more from attending a book club. There's a lot more to it than you might think.

Oh, and if you don't like having a reading guide in the back of your trade paperback...just take your trusty ruler, lay it along the crease between the pages, and let it rip! Rip, rip, rip. (I learned that little trick from The Dead Poet's Society.)

February 02, 2005

Honest Words

When I was a teenager I had a friend who always said just the right thing to make me laugh (the almost-pee-my-pants variety). And just when I thought I'd caught my breath, he'd turn the conversation on its head and say something really profound.

Once, while sitting in the bleachers at a high school football game, he was goofing around, adding adjectives to the word wombat... "hairy wombat", "mercenary wombat", prodigious wombat"...then he said, "What do you think happens after we die?"

I spilled half my hot chocolate down my marching band uniform. "Geez, I don't know...do you?"
He just looked at me and said, "Nothing."


He stared off at the game. "Yeah, Nothing."

Neither one of us said anything for a bit. I started to go on with it, but he cut me off..."Resurrected Wombat".

That night when I went to bed, I cried myself to sleep. Not for any weighty spiritual or religious reasons, but because the honesty of his words had forced me to consider myself in a way I didn't know how to handle.

This is exactly what I long for when I write. To not only tell a good story, but to tell it with such honesty that the words will bring the reader to some new part of themselves.

Jonathan Franzen gets it.
A friend recently asked me if I had read Franzen's piece in The New Yorker, The Comfort Zone: Growing up With Charlie Brown. I hadn't. "You really should, it's outstanding." He was right.

It's an honest, everlastinggobstopper of a story about Franzen's need for the imagined world of Charlie Brown to act as his touchstone while the relationship between his older brother and his parents fell apart. Brilliant. By the end, I was rummaging through the bottom of my desk drawers, searching for a long-lost envelope of yellowed comic strips my mother had sent to me when I was away at University. Peanuts, The Chocolate Chip Cookies series. When your boyfriend has dumped you, there's nothing more comforting than looking at Snoopy, piously saying to Woodstock, All the Chocolate Chip Cookies are gone...

If you haven't read Franzen's marvelous ode to Alice Munro's Runaway, you should. I defy anyone who hasn't already picked up Munro's latest short story collection to resist the temptation to run to the nearset bookstore after reading his review.
Evidently, John Eklund thinks so too.

I’m not moved by advertising, though I’m obsessive about reading reviews. (The recent Jonathan Franzen piece on the Alice Munro short story collection in the Times Book Review had me desperate to own a copy.)

Yup, Franzen's got it...and I hope he continues to bring it to the page, straight and true, for a long time to come. I hope he continues to use his powers for good.
With great power, comes great responsibility...
from Spiderman

Writer's Website of the week:
I choose John Eklund's Piece, Don't Point That Ad at Me, The Business of Books is Bad for Reading.. Eklund, a book rep from Milwaulkee, wrote the article for Inversion Magazine. He tackles what he feels is the current commercialized state of the publishing industry and goes on to talk about how he finds new books to love.