It’s surely too late to be asking a question like this in 2010, but here goes: what is “chick lit”? I’m serious. What, exactly, does it describe? What can you find in every chick lit book—and what can you only find there?
These questions kept coming to mind while reading Commencement, a debut campus novel that doesn’t seem like chick lit but whose author (J. Courtney Sullivan) seems to be afraid that it will be marketed and read as such. It tells the story of four women—Celia, Bree, Sally, and April—who meet at Massachusetts’s all-female Smith College and become fast friends. Each adopting her own personalized version of third-wave feminism, the women graduate and branch out into the world, eager to see how their particular iron-clad politics mesh with the world beyond their dorm.
Does that premise make the book sound more, or less, like chick lit? Surely it’s reductive to claim that any novel about female friendship must be so ghettoized, especially when some of those friends are outraged at precisely the kind of gender politics that make such a genre possible in the first place. The most militant of the protagonists, April, puts it this way: “All over the planet women were being tormented, yet if you took sexism seriously, you were a bore, an idiot, or a pain in the ass. How the hell could anyone keep quiet? Why did so many women do nothing?”
It’s a fair question—and one that I doubt is given much thought in your average Shopaholic novel.
The other three characters are more accommodating (though perhaps more complacent), tempering their critiques of patriarchy with a love of male company and an understanding that perhaps the best way women can fight sexism is to simply do good work. For Bree, who shocked her friends by continuing a college fling into a full-fledged lesbian relationship, this means climbing the corporate ladder at her law firm while never actively discussing her home life. For Celia, who works in publishing in Manhattan, feminism means something a little different: she instigates a string of one-night stands with whoever happens to be the cutest guy at the bar.
As for Sally, whose impending wedding brings the women back together four years after graduation, she’s happy to lead a more traditional domestic life. In fact, she sees her ability to do so as further proof of feminism’s accomplishments; she describes her and her friends as part of “the first generation of women whose struggle with choice had nothing to do with getting it and everything to do with having too much of it.”
There’s a lot of similarly shrewd observations in Commencement, from the complex and subtle interplay between the four friends’ dueling personalities to the state of life at Smith College (of which Sullivan is herself an alumna) in the 21st century. And while the particular campus experiences described are far from universal, the important lesson—the difficulty of growing older alongside youthful ideologies—rings loud and true. Sullivan ably demonstrates how sworn feminists can still end up pining over skeevy male professors, or marrying “the kind of guy who, when asked to sum up his thoughts on poetry, would probably call it gay.”
Yet the fear of being painted with that most unfortunate of genre brushes persists. Perhaps in an effort to beat critics to the punch, Sullivan calls bullshit on her own plot several times, describing certain conversations or scenes as culled from cheap Harlequin novels, or the product of fairy tale romance. I don’t think it’s a necessary precaution to take, but then again, the hardcover of Commencement does come wrapped in a bright turquoise dust jacket—so maybe Sullivan was right to fear the chick lit marketing teams nipping at her heels. In the publishing world, it’s not far from turquoise to candy pink.
(And while we’re on the subject, what would be the equivalent death knell for a male-centric literary novel? Would Philip Roth be okay with his next 10 books being bathed in army camouflage?)
It’s likely that same fear of being pigeon-holed that pushes much of the book’s second half into more unpleasant territory. Sullivan moves away from the emotional chess game—which I thoroughly enjoyed—and crams in an overreaching B-plot about a missing-persons story in Atlanta and a prostitution documentary that April gets tangled up in.
Oh well. Hopefully next time around Sullivan will be confident enough to leave the flashy plot devices to more pulpy writers; the only thing her characters need to lean on is one another.
Knopf, 336 pp, $29.95, hardcoverJan 11, 2010