In the new Atlantic, a male author lampoons Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, “Two writers whose work is often referred to as chick lit,” for tweeting and commenting that white male literary darlings (like Jonathan Franzen) get all the good ink. Yet the only thing less fun than not being taken seriously by the big boys is not being taken anywhere at all. I know since I tried to sell out for decades when nobody was buying.
So I was wildly psyched when The San Francisco Chronicle’s critique of my first novel started: “It is the shuddering fear of every serious female novelist that some reviewer will toss her novel onto the sludge pile known as chick lit.” After the reviewer proclaimed my book would “satisfy any chick worth her lit,” I forwarded it to every Facebook friend I never met. Yes, we need an equal-opportunity term for pages about male passion — “ick lit,” “dick lit” or “prick lit”? Yet I harbored a secret goal: I was a raging feminist pseudo-intellectual dying to join the Chickliterati.
I didn’t always aim to be a sellout. At 20, to my Midwest family’s dismay, I fled to the big city to be a Sylvia Plath quoting wannabe, earning my Masters in creative writing at NYU. Though I failed as a poetess, I was a great typist, which led to a peon job at The New Yorker, where for four years, at a $13,000 annual salary, I typed articles onto file cards. I broke into the journal Poetry East with a poem about “a hot woman in the tropics.” It took two years to come out, for “no monetary payment.” The most I earned for a poem was $200 from Cosmopolitan for purple lines on old lovers. Eventually I found a tiny publisher for the poetry thesis I’d spent a decade on — who paid in copies.
I gravitated to paperback book critic, Off Off Broadway theater reviewer, part-time adjunct teacher, freelance journalist. Luckily, a nice Penthouse editor offered a $1,000 for monthly book columns (plus galleys of the latest macho-fests by Roth, Updike and Rushdie). My father — sick of subsidizing my rent — heard Penthouse paid a dollar a word and asked, “Why don’t you pose for them too?”
I angrily penned, “A Femi-Nazi in Smutland,” rationalizing getting bylines in a skin rag. I questioned why liberal establishments and literary rags barely compensated while male sexist pigs understood that a struggling business woman needed to pay her own bills or they’d revoke her feminist credentials.
A journalist by day and teacher by night, I couldn’t make a living or sell a novel. At 43, I sold a sex-drugs-and-marriage memoir, imagining myself as the inventor of nonfiction chicklit. Older poet pals deemed it kosher. Maybe I didn’t have to suffer for my art. If it wasn’t art, that was OK too, since I could finally make a living.
Alas, reading my next manuscript, Speed Shrinking (chronicling my shrink and eating craziness), my editor said it wasn’t “dramatic.” It seemed several food addiction exposés were by authors who’d gained 100 pounds whereas I had only gained 12, so it was rejected. In therapy, I pondered how to be a smart female writer who doesn’t stick her head in the oven. I thought of the “30 Rock” episode where Tina Fey ate ice cream while reading a hot pink book with a stiletto heel on the cover called Novel for Women, hoping a not-bestselling middle-aged memoirist could relaunch herself as a novelist.
Jealous of the advances, sales and job security of the clever chick club, I reread Helen Fielding—the funny British babe whose work launched the craze. I pondered why fair sex authors who were popular, engaging and made people laugh were undervalued by intellectuals. Indeed the high-brow Washington Post Book World called my memoir, “Bridget Jones for the Married Set.” I quoted that blurb on my paperback cover, pretending I didn’t know it was meant as an insult.
Unable to sell Speed Shrinking as a true story, I fattened and crazied up my neurotic narrator, turned it into a comic novel and had a fictional triumph. My publishers’ art department’s cover showed a young woman amid tiny sofas. I feared nobody would know it was about her quest for a therapist. I requested a mini Freud on there, complaining that a friend described it as: “Honey, I shrunk the furniture.”
“Little girls in Peoria like pretty couches,” my PR person insisted. “A male shrink might scare them. Once they buy the book you’ll shove therapy down their throat anyway.” Aha! Now I got it. The girl and cute couches remained, with no Freudian interloper to frighten potential young female buyers. Happily, the book wound up on TV and received three-and-a-half stars from People magazine—boosting my Amazon.com numbers (not that I’m webstalking myself again), but didn’t make the charts either.
My new novel, Overexposed, about two women who switch lives, waited 13 years to see print. It took me until age 48 to pen a happy, successful 26-year-old heroine that my 26-year-old editor liked. On the book tour, I mentioned to my brother in Chicago I was desperate to “play in Peoria.” “That’s an hour from here,” he said. Here’s praying they’ll have me.
Susan Shapiro is the author of the nonfiction books Only as Good as Your Word, Lighting Up, Secrets of a Fix-Up Fanatic and Five Men Who Broke My Heart, which was optioned for a feature film. She recently sold two novels, Overexposed and Speed Shrinking.