« Haunted Honeymoon Revisted | Main | The Sisterhood of Unraveling Rants »

June 08, 2005

Who you calling a slut?

Over the weekend, one writer called another writer a name I will not allow my children to speak. This event wouldn't be such a big deal in today's world if it hadn't happened in a New York Times book review.

What she said: Referring to any book as chick lit is "not unlike calling another woman a slut."  That the chick-lit genre is "entirely unchallenging." That chick-lit readers must  identify with the protagonist because otherwise we're incapable of understanding the deeper meaning of a life different from our own.


In the pre-Ritalin days when I taught English to classrooms full of hormonal 7th graders, this young lady would have been expelled for a few days and plunked into a chair-along with her parents--for a long discussion about name-calling: That it never achieves a good outcome.  That it demeans the person who speaks the word more than the person on the receiving end. That she should do unto others, etc. And that she owes her victim an apology.

And I'd keep that little snot in the same chair until I discovered why she felt the need to throw a word like "slut" at a peer.

For someone clearly determined to prove she's Miss Smarty Pants (she freely lectures what a "good novel" should be) stooping to name calling seems to this old classroom referee like a cry for help.  Or over-compensation for weakness, fear or feelings of intimidation. Or maybe it's a junior high yell for attention. (Aha. Have we been following various online discussions of guerilla marketing lately?)

In any case, I am disappointed in Ms. Sittenfeld.  In an age when male writers still dominate respect of the industry--and collect the lion's share of advances--it's a blow to all women writers to have this kind of adolescent squabble on the pages of the New York Times. It's time to stop bashing books women enjoy reading. It's time to end the practice of elevating your own work by belittling the work of others.

(When "women's lib" hit my college campus--okay, it took a while to reach the most rural parts of my state--I remember girls objecting that they liked having doors opened by their boyfriends--as if that was the crux of the whole movement. Eventually, everybody figured out that solidarity meant better lives for us all. Our daughters will have much different work, family and life experiences thanks to our learning about equality.  But that's probably another post for another day.)

In her review, Ms. Sittenfeld expresses exasperation that the book has too many characters.  She is frustrated by the protagonist's "shallow" personality, seemingly unexplained, erratic behavior and her fleeting relationships with other people, and yet is astonished to discover late in the book the character's background and her reason for acting as she has.  Does Ms. Sittenfeld wish to be told a character's backstory up front so she can more clearly understand the author's intent?  Is she so incapable of identifying with a character unlike herself that she cannot learn something from the character's journey? Can she not see it's possible she just wasn't smart enough to "get it?"

As with all name-calling, the reviewer revealed more about herself--her inadequacies as a reader, her immature prejudice against other women she perceives as competition, or perhaps her own failing as a writer--than the book in question.

The book is THE WONDER SPOT by Melissa Bank.  It sounds like an interesting story to me.  Before I bought it, I read a few pages and liked the author's voice.  I'm willing to give it a shot.  If I don't care for it, I might assume the fault is my own. I don't always "get" what a writer is trying to accomplish.  My daughters and I were all taken with Melissa Bank's earlier book, THE GIRLS' GUIDE TO HUNTING AND FISHING, and we hope THE WONDER SPOT can be just as compelling. We look forward to reading it.

The Wonder Spot

I hope you'll give the book a chance, too.


ps. Sorry, Curtis.  Shouldn't have called you a snot.  Please accept my apology. There is no excuse for my behavior.  I am ashamed of myself because I should know better than to sling around rude words, especially concerning a colleague.  I'm very sorry.


Bravo, Nancy! This, clearly, is the hubris of youth, no? To be celebrated at such a young age for a debut novel that was largely autobiographical and then not to have the humility or maturity to deal with said fame can only portend disaster. (Hence my earlier reference to Jay McInerny.) Curtis should listen to Oprah (who, I'm sure, she considers herself above.) If there is one thing Oprah taught us is that women do not need to cut each other down; we all benefit from supporting each other, creating friendships and bonds.
By the way ... does Oprah know about this blog?
A grateful Sarah.

Here's the link to the NYT review....

you might need a free online subscription.


Ugh, what garbage. No wonder people scorn critics.

If I may speak as a male reader of "chick lit" mysteries (I prefer the term cozies).

It helps to like the main character from the start. But I'm a male, so I don't necessarily identify with the female lead right off the bat. But if there's a good story, I'll keep reading.

And, as a note to Nancy, sometimes an author fails miserably in what they were trying to do. I give them the benefit of the doubt for a book or two that it might be me. But sometimes it really is them. I just don't assume that right off the bat.

Thanks for your note, Mark. I agree that authors sometimes fail. Hard truth, but it does happen. I know I'm struggling to make each book more complex, and I can only hope I'm succeeding. (We'll see.--I haven't heard from my editor yet about the book I just turned in. Chances are, she'll have some bones to pick with me!) Sometimes we must depend on our editors to tell us we've blown it. I have a couple of favored readers, too, who see my work in early stages to make sure I'm not totally off base. (Salute here to my friend Ramona, the smartest person I know.) I hate to think that a New York Times reviewer might be the first person to point out when I don't measure up, so I get lots of input along the journey.

I think the term chick-lit refers to a kind of book that's not a mystery, but a hip, coming-of-age story about a young woman who's dealing with the various aspects all women face--work, family, love life, etc. But a cozy is definitely a gentle mystery--no gore, no graphic violence or sex. The Book Tarts, tho, are all writing a cross-genre kinda book--half chick half cozy. In current parlance,I like to think my Blackbird books have a Desperate Housewives Go To Cabot Cove vibe. We use the literary form of the mystery to explore lots of women's issues. Oh, and entertain, too.

Until somebody comes up with a better name for what we're doing, we're Sorta Chick-Lit-Traditional-Mysteries. (Not truly cozies because, uh...we have sex.) Suggestions are welcome for a new name for the genre.

How nice to hear from people on this blog, huh? Thanks for joining the discussion.

I think this review created a bit of "buzz" for "The Wonder Spot." I admit that I'm more intrigued about it now than I was before. I hardly doubt that was Sittenfeld's intent.

BTW, I have read stuff that others loved but I didn't. That was most likely a case of me "not getting it." I know that happens as well.

Good point, Karen. I'm sure it hurts to get slammed in print, but it helps sales. This piece will definitely raise the profile of the book in question.

When I first started reviewing, Lawrence Block told me, "Better a bad review than no review. And better a long, bad review than a short, good review." So I don't feel so bad when I have to pan a book. (Which I don't do very often anyway.)

she didn't call anyone a slut

i hate everyone

Take a nap, David. You'll feel better.

Sorry, David. I meant readerofdepressingbooks. I still haven't figured out the zen of this commenting stuff. Maybe Prozac is a better answer?

Here's my take on the recent Sittenfeld/Bank brouhaha:


i agree w/readerofdepressingbooks. she didn't call her a slut.

since everyone thinks im a **** what should i do about it? i mean i love being with guys and being all over guys.

The comments to this entry are closed.

The Breast Cancer Site