by Susan Josephs
When Laurie Gwen Shapiro published her novel The Matzo Ball Heiress in 2004, she quickly learned the benefits of calling herself a Chick Lit writer. “Sure, I could have said I was a non-Chick Lit writer, but that would have meant selling 20,000 fewer copies,” she says.
During those days early in the millennium, Chick Lit books, including Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada and Jennifer Weiner’s Good in Bed, kept landing on best-seller lists. You could walk into your neighborhood Barnes & Noble and immediately notice the multitude of prominently displayed pastel pink and purple books bearing quirky illustrations of stylishly dressed stiletto-clad women with designer handbags.
The popularity of the genre also undermined its success: Publishers oversaturated the market, leading to a number of unsuccessful books. Today, many book editors “shudder at the words ‘Chick Lit,’” says Stephanie Harzewski, whose book, The New Novel of Manners: Chick Lit and Postfeminism, is forthcoming from University of Virginia Press.
Now “Chick Lit” has been repackaged as “comedic women’s fiction,” and the pink covers have all but disappeared from the shelves. But that doesn’t mean the genre or its audience have vanished. Like its smart and resilient heroines, Chick Lit has reinvented itself, developing new subgenres such as Mommy Lit, Hen Lit (about older women), paranormal and multicultural Chick Lit. And Jewish women are creating their own niche by humorously mining their cultural and religious backgrounds for material.
Writing good Chick Lit requires a sharp sense of humor, and “to me, humor is a Jewish trait and a sign of resilience,” says Lauren Baratz-Logsted, 47, who has published 15 novels, including the 2005 book A Little Change of Face, which told the story of a beautiful Jewish librarian who decides to make herself ugly to see if people will treat her differently.
“I’ve always been able to tell funny stories,” observes Mary Guterson, whose second novel, Gone to the Dogs, published last year, chronicles the misadventures of Rena, a young Jewish woman who steals her ex-boyfriend’s dog. “Is it because of the way we’ve been raised, or does it have to do with being marginalized for centuries? All I know is that a lot of Jews are funny.”
Kyra Davis, whose murder mystery series features a biracial Jewish protagonist, has enjoyed an increase in sales this past year. “The fact that I’m writing a comedic murder mystery series makes my work Jewish,” says Davis, 36, who published her fourth Sophie Katz novel, Lust, Loathing and a Little Lip Gloss, in June 2009. “I think Jews developed a sense of humor throughout the ages as a way to survive. To me, being able to have a sense of humor in a dark or very difficult situation is a Jewish sensibility.”
In her fourth novel, Davis delves further into the family history of her protagonist, Sophie Katz, who, like Davis, has a Jewish mother and an African-American father. “Sophie’s history is definitely different from mine, but my experience growing up as a biracial Jewish woman definitely informs the way Sophie relates to the world,” she says.
Similarly, Guterson, 52, found plenty of literary inspiration within her own family. Raised as a Reform Jew in Seattle, she watched two of her siblings become Orthodox, an experience that helped her model the character of Rena’s ba’al teshuva sister in Gone to the Dogs. Though Rena still calls her formerly-pot-smoking sister Alicia, she now goes by the name Aviva and struggles with the Orthodox Jewish custom of covering her hair.
“I didn’t set out to write a Jewish book, but the characters I came up with were Jewish ones,” says Guterson, noting she had the reputation as “the most Jewish one” in her family while growing up.
Conversely, Laurie Graff had specifically Jewish subject matter on her mind when she started writing her third novel, The Shiksa Syndrome. Published in 2008, the book tells the story of a New York City-based publicist who pretends to be a nice Christian girl in the hope that her Jewish boyfriend won’t break up with her.
Growing up in Queens, N.Y., Graff would observe how “people who said they felt really Jewish could still be consumed by self-loathing.” Later, as a single woman trying to date in both New York and Los Angeles, she met a number of men who told her she “was too Jewish. I was trying to reflect a reality I had experienced,” she says. “People might find this offensive, but a lot of Jewish men have a thing for non-Jewish women.”
The publication of Shapiro’s book The Matzo Ball Heiress helped ignite interest among publishers and readers for Chick Lit featuring explicitly Jewish characters and themes. Raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Shapiro decided to write the book after meeting the woman whose great-grandfather founded Streit’s Matzos. The book features protagonist Heather Greenblotz, who is tasked with the challenge of putting together a Passover Seder to be broadcast by the Food Channel. “When my agent shopped the book around, most of the major publishers were interested but hesitant to take on a lead female Jewish character,” recalls Shapiro. Eventually published by Red Dress Ink, the book “broke a boundary,” she says.
From the beginning of her writing career, Amy Sohn, 36, has never shied away from candid explorations of Jewish female identity. Around the time the term “Chick Lit” seeped into popular consciousness, the novelist had published her first book, Run Catch Kiss, starring protagonist Ariel Steiner, a single Jewish woman who “is very attracted to Jewish men and wants to meet a Jewish guy. If Portnoy’s Complaint is the quintessential exploration of the Jewish man’s attraction to the Other, Ariel’s story is the opposite. She likes guys that feel familiar to her,” says Sohn.
Sohn’s second novel, My Old Man, revolved around the trials and tribulations of a female rabbinical school dropout; her latest book, Prospect Park West, satirizes the parenting culture of Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, where Sohn lives with her husband and daughter. Though not as overtly Jewish as her other novels, Prospect Park West does have a female Jewish main character, who’s “very much an outsider in her own community, which I consider a Jewish theme,” says Sohn.
With an edgy writing style and a penchant for gritty sex scenes, it initially surprised and irritated Sohn to be classified as a Chick Lit writer. “The attempt to demean female writing has been going on for a long time, and it felt very ghettoizing at first, but after a while I learned that any hook is good if it means getting coverage of your novel,” she says.
Guterson, who says she never set out to write a Chick Lit novel, adopted a similarly pragmatic attitude after her publisher “slapped a hot pink cover” on the back of her first novel, We Are All Fine Here. “At first, I felt like the term marginalized women writers in an offensive way, as if the world was trying to say, ‘You women who write these stories are dumb,’?” she recalls. “But at this point, I feel that publishers can call my books whatever they want as long as they sell them.”
Baratz-Logsted has never had a problem with the term Chick Lit and wanted to create her 2006 anthology, This is Chick Lit, to show “the range of the genre, that there’s so much more to it than meeting Mr. Right. Chick Lit has taken a lot of hits over the years and, personally, I have found it sad that people feel the need to devalue things enjoyed by women,” she says. “Whatever you want to label these books, they’ve been around since at least the time of Jane Austen, and I don’t think people are going to get tired of reading them.”
“I think there will always be a place for a pick-yourself-up-and-dust-yourself-off kind of book,” says Debra Eckerling of Los Angeles. A 30-something Jewish writer who completed a Chick Lit novel last November as a participant in the annual National Novel Writing Month, Eckerling believes a good Chick Lit book involves “relating to the main character and feeling good after I read it.”
Davis observes that in other media, such as film, it’s acceptable for people to enjoy both serious and lighthearted movies. “But in the literary world, there’s this sense that if you’re not reading something that’s going to leave you depressed, then you’re not very intelligent,” she says. “But the reality is that a lot of readers need a mix and are not going to want to read Dostoevsky all the time.”
Assuming that writers of Chick Lit have less talent than authors of more serious books is a fallacy, asserts Carolyn Hessel, who directs the New York City-based Jewish Book Council and has promoted the work of more than 1,500 Jewish authors. “You have to be very smart to write books like these, plus they meet a need for the people who read them. These books allow people to live through someone else and they can be even better than going to a psychiatrist, not to mention much cheaper.”
Shoshana Lewin, a 31-year-old Los Angeles-based associate producer of a travel web site, enjoys reading Chick Lit books with Jewish characters and specifically craves “lighter reading, since I have a job that requires me reading a lot of technical material. In some ways, these books are an escape but in other ways, their lives are similar to mine and with the good ones, I become deeply invested in the characters,” she says.
As a single woman, Lewin had wanted to read stories about fellow single women. Now married, she observes she wants to read books within the Chick Lit genre whose characters mirror her own life situation. Fortunately for Lewin, many Chick Lit writers, most notably Jennifer Weiner, have moved on to write about women in different stages of the life cycle. This evolution suggests the genre is far from dead and something that publishers cannot ignore, even if they’ve dropped the term “Chick Lit” from their vocabularies.
“These types of books will definitely be around,” says Adam Wilson, associate editor of Harlequin’s Mira Books imprint. “Chick Lit is a very self-reflexive genre, and people love reading and thinking about themselves.”
Greer Hendricks, vice president and senior editor of Simon & Schuster’s Atria Books imprint, may no longer use the phrase “Chick Lit” with her colleagues, but says, “Am I still buying books with women’s stories? Yes. Women will always want to read about their experiences, and if calling these books Chick Lit would help me sell them, then yes, I’d still call them Chick Lit,” she says.
Davis says the letters she receives from readers gives her all the evidence she needs about the genre’s future. “Women will write me how their husbands are in Afghanistan or their children are autistic and they tell me how helpful my book was to them, that it helped them escape and smile and laugh at a time when they really needed it,” she says. “Personally, I think that’s something to be proud of.”
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