Sunday, February 28, 2010

Lad Lit & Traveling Pants

Day 19 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project.

Julie, who tried to comment yesterday, informs me that the Brits have a more polite term than "dick lit," and one it might be easier to click on at Google--"lad lit." (Julie, I checked email and junk mail, and, alas, your comment is lost in cyberspace.) She also sends us to Jennifer Weiner, a writer of this so-called "chick lit" for illumination on that topic. (I am sending you to the Wikipedia article on her, which summarizes the debate, and offers links to various follow-up articles. Weiner has a blog, where you can seek out more of her opinions on the "chick lit" debate. I am fascinated by the "pecking order" issues here, and also think of Mean Girls and Tina Fey and comic justice, etc.)

NobleSavage sends us to a wonderful article by Katie Roiphe in the New York Times, "The Naked and the Conflicted." And this reminded me why I was reading all that Updike, Bellow, Roth, and then Irving, etc.--because my parents were. Updike was their man, their generation, and I was reading to learn how to live in their world, how to grow up, etc., and there was a heck of a lot I didn't understand in life and, of course, in those books!

This relates to aka Simone's comment, too, about having a better reading experience with writers or main characters of her own generation. My niece enjoyed the Traveling Pants books, but I, no doubt, would not read very far into one of those my age.

Roife quotes Philip Roth in a scene from The Counterlife that came all too vividly back to me: “The sight of the Zipper King’s daughter sitting on the edge of the bathtub with her legs flung apart, wantonly surrendering all 5 feet 9 inches of herself to a vegetable, was as mysterious and compelling a vision as any Zuckerman had ever seen.” Whatever I thought at the time, I am old enough now to find this hilarious, and to connect it to all sorts of things I have seen or read since--which includes the "scary" bathtub scene from the movie The 40-Year-Old Virgin* and, oddly enough, that completely woman-centered book, Our Bodies, Ourselves, which I confess to owning in two editions, the first (in paperback) and the recently re-issued (purchased via my phone bill from Working Assets Long Distance a few years back). That also advocates vegetables as a route to female pleasure. Sigh... Is there such a thing as zucchini lit yet?

*And while we are at it, I may as well confess to having been a virgin till my wedding night, thanks to reading way too much "literary" fiction in which young girls were "ruined" by having sex before marriage. (Perhaps there were other reasons as well. But I'm 53 and looking back, and this seems likely to me. I find it both poignant and funny. And it was not sex but marriage that "ruined" me. I'm OK now.) I confess to this because this is the kind of personal writing that makes it so easy for women who say such things to be dismissed! And yet if male writers say such things or have their characters confess to such things, or act from odd inner compulsions, it's still OK. (Or maybe it isn't. See the death of lad lit below.)

And here I will further pause and say that please understand I am not dismissing any writers or readers in exploring these or other labels that turn up in the world of reading. People read a variety of things for a variety of reasons, and I want to hear more about what these reasons are. If SarahJane chooses, as she says in her comment, not to read Jonathan Safran Foer because some guy at Amazon put him on a "dick lit" list, and I repeated it here, that's her choice, and OK by me, but also a shame, and I'm sorry. I don't want to lose a reader for Foer, and I loved Everything Is Illuminated. It's funny around a heartbroken core, and you've got to do something with that kind of heartbreak. Foer makes history live again in ways that break my own heart, as I read, and teach me how to live with greater compassion and greater conviction to do no harm, moment by moment.

And that, I continue to find, is why I read. It helps me live, it gives me the courage to be as kind as I can possibly be, and I am not always kind, and not always thoughtful, so I keep reading, and, sometimes, it gives me the courage to say no to some things that must not happen in this world because they do terrible harm, and to do what I can about that. My life is small, my reading is larger than I am. Maybe I will grow large enough to do a little kindness in the world.

(That's my annoying confession. I have friends who, dismissively, call me Pollyanna. And others who, kindly, see me as a sort of Amelie! Dix-cinq!)

OK, but it turns out that Lad Lit, the politer name for Dick Lit, actually refers to a more confessional sort of literature written by men, about men, but probably for readers of any kind. Nick Hornby is indeed on the "lad lit" list, and is also credited, in the link above, as its "daddy." (By the way, the only Hornby I've read is How to be Good, which has a female main character. And I'm not sure I learned how to be good from it! I learned that the phrase is laden, and our human motives complicated, etc., which rings true to me.) So Lad Lit may well be different from Dick Lit, and, getting back to the Roiphe article, which I recommend, it explores issues of male identity. Roiphe's selected quotations emphasize the ambivalence men may feel these days about "male identity," if there is such a thing, and about sex. Roiphe quotes a Benjamin Kunkel character saying, “Feeling extremely uncouth, I put my penis away. I might have thrown it away if I could.”

Roiphe is contrasting this with the vigor and joy of the penis in novels by a previous generation of men writers, men that some feminists have tossed away, and there is a pertinent trashcan in her essay, and I am saddened to think than some men have to feel this way about that body part or about what they might write. I don't want the writers of dick lit or lad lit dismissed, or to dismiss themselves, just as I don't want women writers, of "chick lit," or "literary" fiction, or "confessional" lit, or whatever we happen to call any of it, to be dismissed, simply because they are female or write about women and their personal matters. Where did I recently read a woman writer saying, "Women know that the personal is the political," as if that argument was long done, and this was fully accepted? I'm not sure it is, and I don't think this chick lit vs. lad lit conversation is done, either.

Even though some articles tell me that "lad lit" is dead, that it died in 2004, etc.

Lad lit might not be dead, if people are still writing it and reading it. But David Foster Wallace is dead. People are still reading him. And to acknowledge the icky marketing aspect of all this--that "chick lit" and "dick lit" and "lad lit" are labels for the convenience of book marketing, book reviewing, and bookstore organization. etc.--I will confess that our first editions of Wallace suddenly became hot commodities upon his death.

But our weekend manager, Tim, put a notice on the door as soon as he got the news. A passerby took a picture of it with his phone, and within the hour a reporter from Chicago called the store to interview Tim, who had been one of Wallace's students at ISU. Babbitt's was Wallace's favorite bookstore, which he apparently said somewhere once in print, according to my boss, the owner. My niece (a different niece, not the Traveling Pants niece) was saddened both by Wallace's death, in itself, but also because she was registered for his course the following semester at her college in California, and now she wouldn't learn what he had to say about writing. And that's my little Amelie moment of rest-in-peace.

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