The dumbing down of ‘chick-lit’

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I already know what ‘serious’ writers are going to say: chicklit is ‘dumb’ by definition. I beg to differ; however, I also think that the derision isn’t entirely without foundation. My own reading and writing habits have led me to this conclusion. But let’s start in broader terms to address the question of whether writing and the literature that is the result has, overall, suffered from the dreaded ‘dumbing down.’ Many believe so.

In a 2015 piece by Stephen Carter, a Blomberg View columnist (he also happens to be both a law professor at Yale and a novelist), he quotes prominent science fiction writer Ursula K. Leguin who refers to what she sees as the twenty-first century formulaic creation of best sellers in this way: “The readability of many best sellers is much like the edibility of junk food…I believe that reading only packaged microwavable fiction ruins the taste, destabilizes the moral blood pressure, and makes the mind obese.”[1]

Of course she refers to the influence of Amazon and its well-pondered algorithm for determining best-seller status. Carter, however, isn’t buying it. He believes that perhaps a more important part of the issue is that readers’ tastes have changed; attention spans are shorter. Perhaps we have done it to ourselves. But others take a different view.

There is much grumbling in the ‘serious’ writers’ communities about the perceived negative impact of self-publishing on current literature; there is a significant sentiment (not held by all self-described serious writers, I might add) that it has been the proliferation of unedited self-published books that has had the most serious effect.

One online writer has suggested that “with self-publishing it seems like the editors have all disappeared. Ten or more books on recent New York Times Best Sellers List are there because the millions of fanboys and fangirls have bought their hero’s book…maybe the bar is set a bit too low.”[2]

So there seem to be two issues that people consider to be characteristics of ‘dumbed-down literature.’ The first one (and a big one for people like me who have taught writing over the years) is the issue of actual command of the language including grammar, syntax, spelling, word choice and all those things that our English teachers tried to inculcate in us over the years. The second one is the substance – or lack thereof – of the books that are popular today.

In my view, the truth is that quality writing can be practiced in any genre from literary fiction to popular erotica and everything in between. The topic seems secondary; if you’re passionate about writing it, you’re good at it, and your readers love it (or at least the first two if your readers haven’t found you yet), then I say write on. Even if what you write is derided by some as merely ‘chick lit.’

In general, the term chick lit means any literature that appeals mostly to women. So, what’s wrong with that? Does that make it dumb? If chick lit is dumb, then women are dumb by extension. Don’t say that to my face. But has even literature aimed at women been dumbed down? I have a personal hate on for many pieces of chick lit and it isn’t for the reasons you might think.

In my view, women are infantilized by their chick lit not so much by the stories or the writing, but byu the covers. Have you looked at any lately? I’ve been examining them as we contemplate the design of my new book which is women’s fiction. Is this really how women see themselves?

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Need I say more?

 

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Okay, just a bit more!

 

 

Well, I’m a smart woman and I write #litforintelligentchicks. In fact, I love to read chick lit, but I can’t get to your really great story if I feel infantilized by the dumb cover – whether it’s an illustration or a stock photo depicting a sweaty clinch and a few bits of a six-pack.

Okay, my rant is over. Back to the drawing board for that new cover.

Sources:

[1] Stephen L. Carter. June 11, 2015. Don’t Blame Amazon For Dumbing Down Literature. Bloomberg View. https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2015-06-11/why-ursula-k-le-guin-s-amazon-pan-is-only-half-right

[2] Self-publishing and the Dumbing Down of Literature. http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/11/21/1452940/-Self-Publishing-And-The-Dumbing-Down-Of-Literature

Writing across genres

So many genres...so little time.

It may come as something of a surprise to students I’ve had over the years – those who have have sat in my classes to learn about communication ethics or strategy – but I began my unexpected academic career as a writing teacher.  I never intended to be a university professor.

I had always been interested in teaching and thought that it was probably one of my strengths.  I had done it for several years in a previous incarnation – I taught anatomy & physiology, ethics and human sexuality (!) to nursing students before my career evolved into health and medical communication, leading eventually to writing books and teaching in the area of communication (public relations to be specific).  But I went to the university initially as a writer who could teach writing.

The first course I taught (before I ever considered teaching full-time) was called “Print Media.”  There is no such course with that title any longer, but its descendent “Text-Based Media” comes close.  I also taught news and feature writing and persuasive writing after the then-chairman of the department talked me into applying for a full-time job.  But I never intended to stay.

That was 23 years ago!  So, what’s the lesson here?

For me, it means that our skill sets can cross many disciplines – and in writing can cross different genres.  But writing across genres has two different meanings.  First, let’s talk about individual writers writing across genres; then we’ll talk about those genres that cross genres themselves.

When I was trying to create copy for my web site, it occurred to me that this was, in fact the hallmark of my writing: I am a bit of a switch-hitter.  As I say on my home page

…Goethe is said to have opined that every author in some way portrays himself [sic] in his works, even if it be against his [sic] will. For someone who writes in a variety of genres, this is either a symptom of some kind of mental confusion – or perhaps the hallmark of an interesting personality. I’d like to think that, in this case, it’s the latter…

The bottom line is that I started my writing career as a medical writer.  Skills honed there took me into medical communication which morphed into communication in general – most of my past work has been writing about health and corporate  communication.  But, I’m a writer.  To me that means that I can use my skills to write anything that takes my fancy.  I decided to move into creative non-fiction and wrote my memoir, then took my research skills into an area that I love to read – historical fiction.

In my view, writers, like everyone else, have individual strengths – and my strengths are probably not the same as yours.  I think it’s important to know what those strengths are and see how you can use them across genres.  For example, my meticulous research skills, honed in the areas of non-fiction, have been enormously useful to me in moving into historical fiction. Story-telling is also a strength that many of us have – it’s a skill that is important both to non-fiction (creative or otherwise) as well as to fiction writers.

The second way that you can think about the concept of “writing across genres” is the notion that there are discrete categories of writing, and to create  a mash-up, to use the current parlance, is to create a cross-genre genre.  Make sense?

Here’s my example: I have a secret – I sometimes read chick lit and I’m not apologizing for it.  Since I like a bit of escapist reading from time to time, and only if it’s well-written like some chick lit is, I am also interested in creating some of my own.  But I don’t want to be formulaic.  So, I’ve taken my interest in travel and travel writing and put it together with my interest in chick lit and I’m writing a travel chick lit book.  Is this a cross-genre?  Maybe, but who’s to say?  Who is the arbiter of what is and is not a genre?  And who says that because my book is funny, with a young, modern woman as the protagonist, that it’s chick lit anyway?  Maybe it’s just women’s literature – ooh, that sounds a lot better for a university prof-type, doesn’t it?

In any case, cheers to coming up with your own genres and writing whatever moves you.