The New York Times reviewed Rebecca Hunt's novel, Mr. Chartwell, in the Sunday Book Review on March 13. Since I reviewed the book for BookBrowse not long ago, I was interested to see what the Times thought of it. (My review is only available to BookBrowse members at this time. Here's a PDF of it for those who are not members.)
Tadzio Koelb's review took a snarky tone from the start, and not just in reference to Mr. Chartwell, but to readers in general (who are apparently too stupid to know what good books are). My blood didn't really start to boil, however, until Mr. Koelb condescended to reveal the obvious truth about Rebecca Hunt's novel, the glaring fact that those of us who liked the book sadly missed:
"Now England has seen the rise of 'Mr. Chartwell,' a humorous and amiable novel about which such extravagant claims have been made -- for its prose, psychological insight and emotional depth -- that one might imagine a work to rival Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy instead of what is, in fact, well-packaged chick lit."
There it is, that painful phrase, "chick lit" -- it's a genre tag; it's a marketing category; it's a promise of something fun and light, right? Ha ha ha. We "chicks" - we get it, it's funny, and we can take a joke. We can be empowered, and embrace the tag, and help the authors of said "lit" go laughing all the way to the bank. Or can we?
Mr. Koelb's statement is enlightening, and I think I can imagine how he defines "chick lit" if he sees it in Mr. Chartwell. One: it's written by a woman. Two: it has a "girlie" plot thread related to love, romance, or human connection. Three, it has a positive spin. There is a generative, creative spirit to the writing, and there may even be the glimmer of (gasp) a happy ending. And four: obviously if the first three criteria are met, the book in question can't possibly be considered to be a "literary" work, however well packaged. To like such a novel, or to attempt to learn from it, reveals, as Mr. Koelb might say, "the dirty truth" about the reader's middle-class, uninformed taste.
There was a great follow-up letter in yesterday's Times from a Joseph Duemer, a professor of literature at Clarkson University, taking Tadzio Koelb to task for his condescending bluster:
"The purpose of Koelb's remarks is not to say anything about 'Mr. Chartwell' or the two books mentioned in passing. It is to portray the reviewer as a knowing, world-weary intellectual who is 'anything but middle class' [...] It is meant to demonstrate the reviewer's hip superiority, and to invite the reader to feel superior -- not just to the books mentioned and the book under review, but to this whole tiresome business of books and reading. Certainly, Hunt's novel was ill-served by Koelb's review: I found the first paragraph so distasteful, I didn't read the rest."
Read on, Professor Duemer. Using the phrase "chick lit" as a means to belittle a woman author's literary novel doesn't seem hip in the least. To me it looks very, very old school.
What do you think?
Jennifer G. Wilder is a freelance writer based in upstate New York. She holds an M.A. in Slavic Languages and Literatures from Berkeley and a B.A. from Yale. Her current project is a novel about turning thirty in suburbia.