The industry is buzzing about chick-lit again. I don't know much about this whole phenomenon, except in a strange way I do, because I was raised on chick-lit. As a kid in the 1970s, the first grownup books I read (and really enjoyed) were the racy, funny and wise novels that my grandmother, my mother and my older sister left lying around the house. These books had a big influence on me, and I wonder if the chick-lit of today could possibly be as good.
1. The first adult book I ever read was Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York, a hilarious but sensitive sex comedy about a single Jewish woman hunting for the love of her life while slumming with some clearly unsuitable replacements. This novel came straight off Grandma Jeannette's shelf in Miami Beach, and I do believe I even smuggled it back home in my little suitcase so I could finish reading it when summer vacation ended too soon. I learned a lot about human sexuality by reading this book (a bestseller at the time), and I distinctly remember asking my sister to explain words like "diaphragm" and "orgasm", which is hilarious in retrospect since my sister probably didn't know what these words meant either.
Sheila Levine's gimmick is that the book is a suicide note, because the narrator has given up on finding a man and has decided to kill herself (she doesn't succeed, and the novel ends with Sheila's epilogue to her suicide note, in which she worries about whether or not her rescuers put her apartment door back on the hinges after they broke it down to save her life). I wonder what happened to Gail Parent? I liked Sheila Levine so much that I bought her follow-up, David Meyer is a Mother, but it wasn't as good. I remember hearing that Gail Parent wrote scripts for the show "Rhoda", which makes a lot of sense since Rhoda Morgenstern and Sheila Levine are basically the same character. I also remember a terrible-looking film version of Sheila Levine coming out with Jeannie Berlin in the title role. It ran for about two days in theatres and has since disappeared from the face of the earth, even though Roy Scheider was in it just before starring in Jaws.
The book is still in print, but I don't like the shiny new cover anywhere near as much as the old one.
2. I think I picked up Sue Kaufman's Diary of a Mad Housewife from my Mom's collection. This is a sharp satire about the miserable, unappreciated wife of a young, obnoxious social-climbing Manhattan lawyer. In the book's best moments, such as the climactic cocktail party that collapses into a faux-pas-ridden disaster, Kaufman's sharp and observant narrative takes on a Dostoevskian intensity. It's not for nothing that the title evokes Nikolai Gogol.
Diary of a Mad Housewife also beat the odds when it was made into an absolutely great film starring Carrie Snodgress as timid Tina Balser, Richard Benjamin as her jerk husband and Frank Langella as a ratty suitor. Here's some surprising Mad Housewife trivia: Neil Young saw this movie and wrote the song "A Man Needs A Maid" about it:
Now I'll go somewhere, I don't know when
I was watching a movie with a friend
I fell in love with the actress
She was playing a part that I could understand
Neil Young then went on to meet, date and marry Carrie Snodgress, which shows that he must have really liked the movie. The strange thing about all this is that the song "A Man Needs A Maid" expresses a man's plaintive desire for a submissive woman, whereas the book and the movie are clearly attempting to skewer the notion that submissive women can be happy in relationships. No wonder Neil and Carrie got divorced a few years later.
Sue Kaufman's novel is still available in a new edition with an introduction by spoken-word poet Maggie Estep (this book's hip credentials are through the roof). Incidentally, Diary of a Mad Housewife should technically be categorized as chick-lit of the 60's, but I didn't read it until the 70's, and I like the way the title "Great Chick-Lit of the 70's" sounds.
3. My sister turned me on to Kin-Flicks, an absolutely wonderful literary bestseller by Lisa Alther that inspired me as both a reader and a writer.
Kin-Flicks is about the phases in the life of a girl from the American South, Ginny Babcock, who we meet as a lusty cheerleader with a jock boyfriend. But she quickly switches gears after the town hoodlum steals her away from the jock, after which she escapes to college and becomes a tweedy intellectual under the guise of a stern and matronly philosophy professor. Ginny then goes on to morph into a sex-crazed vegetarian lesbian, a dutiful country housewife and several other original life forms before she finally exhausts herself from all the changes.
Back in her hometown, where her mother is sick, a mature Ginny peers at cells dividing under a microscope, and begins to understand the cycle of dependency and rejection that has dominated her entire life to this moment. Kin-Flicks is, among other things, the most Taoist book I've read since the Tao Te Ching, but the book is as funny and engaging as it is wise. Kin-Flicks is still in print as well, again in a trashy looking cover that doesn't do the work justice. Here's the the paperback version I read.
Now that I've talked about these three books, I may as well come clean; the whole concept of this article is admittedly offensive, and I don't really think it makes sense to categorize books as varied as Sheila Levine, Diary or Kin-Flicks as prototypes for a commercial genre. These books are not chick-lit ... and yet it seems clear that they were marketed as guilty pleasure reading for largely female audiences (plus one nerdy kid on Long Island who didn't know better).
So, is it possible that among the pink stacks of today's "Women's Category Fiction" shelves there exist writers as timeless as Gail Parent, Sue Kaufman, Lisa Alther? Well, I don't know the answer to that question, because I don't read chick-lit. I haven't since the 70's, anyway.
What about you?