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?

final-promo-art-uk
Need I say more?

 

chk_jpg
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

Reviving old manuscripts: 5 things a writer might consider

life without endMany years ago – in a former lifetime even before my academic career – I worked in the field of organ transplantation. I was called an “organ procurement officer.” An odd title, you say? Yes, odd indeed. My responsibilities included overseeing the transplant coordinators who were tasked with ensuring donor organs made it to appropriate recipients (kidneys and livers mostly in those days), and the public education programming for increasing organ donations. This latter responsibility involved developing strategic promotion plans, writing about organ donation and making copious numbers of public presentations. All in a day’s work.

While I was working in the field I became fascinated with the myriad ethical dilemmas posed by the transplantation process itself, but more so by the way the health professionals involved in transplantation demonstrated a kind of fervour, often bordering on the religious, about their chosen medical field. It was this fascination that led me to research and write my very first non-fiction book many years ago.

Life Without End: The Transplant Story was my take on the ethics and politics of organ transplantation in Canada at the time, and I think it’s fair to say that not all of what I wrote made the folks I had worked with happy. Some of them were very unhappy indeed.

That was my last job in the real world before I started my academic career, but stories about organ transplantation never really left my monkey mind. So, not long after that first book was published I started writing a novel about what might happen if that kind of religious fervour about transplantation got out of hand. When I finished the manuscript I shopped it around to agents which resulted in finding one who actually loved the story and decided to take it on. She did her job (or at least I guess she did – we never did meet only talked on the phone), sending me detailed lists of where she had sent the manuscript and what the results were. She never did sell it, so I filed it away in the depths of my electronic writing files and almost, but not quite, forgot about it.

With the advent of electronic publishing the idea of reviving old manuscripts in my files began to take shape. I’m a firm believer, though, that not everything we write needs to be published, or even should it be published. Sometimes our writing is either for our eyes only (or ought to be) or it is our writing practice. I had never thought of this novel as being practice, though; rather I had believed it was ready to make its way out into the world. So I finally decided that The Body Traders would see the light of day.THE Body Traders cover FINAL for print front

First I reread it and found that I still loved the story. Then I spent a lot of time over the past year rewriting and updating it. You can well imagine that a book written more than a decade ago would need a tweak or two: for example, back when I worked in transplantation we carried pagers – no one even had a cell phone! Updating was indeed required!

I considered shopping it again, but in the end decided to self-publish. So, what did I learn from this process? I learned that there are several things you need to consider when deciding to revive an old manuscript.

  1. Ask yourself why you want to publish it now. Do you just want to see it in print (electronic or otherwise)? If the answer is yes, I suggest you need a better reason. There are a lot of books out there these days that no one will ever read. If you really don’t care if anyone else reads it, perhaps you need to put it away. “Publication” and “publish” both refer to “public” meaning that the work should be for the public.
  2. Reread it to see if you still feel as enthusiastic about it now as you did when you finished it. If you don’t, put it back in the electronic drawer and step away.
  3. Analyse it for it currency. Are the ideas still resonant? Will current readers appreciate the themes? If you aren’t sure, ask someone whose opinion you value to read it. Perhaps even consider beta readers.
  4. Edit the manuscript for specifics that will bring the details up to date. For example, if the protagonist still uses payphone, unless it’s part of a quirky character trait, you need to do a bit of updating.
  5. When you have finished the rewrite based on your own analysis, feedback from others’ and your update, read it again to see if you still feel enthusiastic. If the answer is yes, you’re ready to press the publish button!

A writer’s early roots: What we read & what we write

A young Daphne DuMaurier (Source; Wikipedia)
A young Daphne DuMaurier
(Source; Wikipedia)

This morning I had a very odd experience.  I had the privilege of peering in to the mind of a 16-year-old girl – or should I say a 16-year-old writer.  And the most peculiar thing of all is that it was me.

A bit of backstory: when I was in high school (lo these many years ago) I wanted nothing more than to be a novelist – but I also had a very practical side and that practical side won out in the university program selection process.  I had my very best marks in biology, chemistry and analytical trigonometry in my senior year, and you can guess what I studied in university.  And to tell you the truth, that health science degree and the Master of Science have stood me in good stead in my career evolution from health communication, to health & business writer, to creative non-fiction writer, and now into fiction.

But in high school, my English marks weren’t far behind my math and science.  In fact, when given the opportunity in my junior year to complete what was then referred to as a “distinction” project” I didn’t choose to do it in science, rather I chose English.  To be more specific I chose the short story.  This morning I took three magazine boxes off the highest shelf in my office to begin the laborious process of digitalizing all of my publications to rid myself of the glut of paper that threatens to overtake most writers from time to time.  What do you suppose was the first document that I pulled out?  Much to my surprise, it was my Grade 11 “distinction project.”

The framework for the project was aspects of the short story (very apropos since lately I’ve been thinking that I really ought to read some Alice Munro given that she won the Nobel prize for literature recently based on a career writing short stories – and I’ve never read a single sentence she’s written).  The project, painstakingly typed on an old typewriter (with only one or two whited-out typos) was an analysis of the components of the short story.  For each of the traditional components – character, setting, plot etc. – I had written a short story that supposedly showcasing each.  One story’s character took center stage; in the next one setting was the most important part etc.   But it was the themes of each of the stories that told the story of that 15-year-old writer.

The theme that came through again and again, regardless of the actual characters or plot of the story was this: Know who you are, and be true to yourself.

First-edition cover of Rebecca (Source: Wikipedia)
First-edition cover of Rebecca
(Source: Wikipedia)

When I think back through my day-job career, and my writing by moonlight, I think that I have truly tried to do this – but I didn’t realize that it was so deeply embedded in my psyche.  This was kind of a light bulb moment, because I just finished re-reading what I have long considered to be my very favorite novel: Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier.

I first read the book when I was in high school, right around the time that I wrote those short stories.  I had seen the various iterations of the movies based on it in the interim, but it was eye-opening for me to read this book so many decades later to try to see what it was that captivated me and to figure out if the book had, in fact, had any influence on my writing.

This time around, I found myself impatient with the narrator.  A twenty-something woman of the 1930’s, the unnamed protagonist met and married a much older, and much more worldly man who took her back to England to his estate, Manderley.  Haunted by the ghost of his first wife, the young woman concocts in her mind all manner of scenarios, most of which have absolutely no basis in reality – indeed, the reality is much more sinister.  I kept wanting her to get over it, to move on, to ask the question to clear up the uncertainties.  I don’t remember being so impatient with her at the time.  So, I do think I’ve evolved as a woman.  But what about as a writer?

Grace Note Cover PaperbackWritten in 1938, Rebecca was not an historical novel, the genre I found myself drawn to both as a reader and as a writer in the last few decades.  However, I read it near the beginning of the 1970’s, so for me, as a young woman, it was historical indeed, and I remember always thinking about it that way.  Daphne DuMaurier did not need to create the world of the 1930’s: she lived in it.  But for me, the detail was now of historical significance, and I do believe that this influenced my choice of genres.

I enjoyed the book the second time around and hope that some of my own work will stand the test of time as did this ne.  Perhaps in the future some young woman will pick up Grace Note and think about the strength of the Lysanor, the heroine, and recognize that she, too, spent her life trying to be true to herself.