Sunday, February 08, 2009

Chick lit as a career move

As the post-holiday bad film season settles around us, I notice a couple of big-budget films based on chick lit books: Confessions of a Shopaholic and He's Just Not That Into You. I'm blogging about this because one of the biggest surprises of this job was the interestingly high number of full-time academics who would like to write and publish chick lit. I see at least one every season or so in my office who imagines this would be a fun, quirky career move.

In an act of full disclosure, I confess that I develp a rash whenever near the chick lit genre in any of its forms, and even though I pride myself on trying to read a bit of everything in the name of research, I have not been able to force myself to dip into a single one of those pink-covered literary confections that celebrate shoes, shopping, and sex. But then, I haven't read a word of Harry Potter, either, and the globe still seems to spin. But perhaps my allergy to the genre means I'm not the best judge of any of this. In fact, I'm probably the worst.

Still, the phenomenon is remarkable, whether you share my distaste for all things shopping, or whether you're a girlier type who enjoys that sort of book as an escape now and again. Why do so many academic authors also want to publish chick lit? What makes an otherwise intelligent and arguably over-educated faculty member think "Hey, in addition to my teaching, committee work and scholarly publishing, I think I'll type up a frothy little romance about an American doctoral student in London, no, make that Paris, who has an ooh-la-la affair with a sexy Middle Eastern scholar, only to return to the States and realize that he's the new head of her department. Along the way she goes shopping in the world's most famous venues (all on her teaching assistant's salary, but this is fiction), and she finds herself fending off advances from a surly, sexy biker who turns out to be an English movie star in deep disguise, and . . ."

My usual advice to someone contemplating this is to ask what will happen if you become famous for the book. What if it's a hit? The authors usually pooh-pooh this ("It's just for fun," "I'm doing this on the side," "I really want to be known for my research"), and I say that's great, but we can't control the world once we launch a book into it. We've conditioned ourselves for marginality and irrelevance, but what happens if you become a chick lit star? Do you want that reality for yourself? Is that your choice and goal?

If yes, then type away. I'm sure Sophie Kinsella or Greg Behrendt are easy enough to knock from their pedestals... and I will be happy for you if you succeed. I'll even bring pink champagne to your book party! But if your interest in writing the book is contingent on it remaining hidden from the world, then think twice. Go out there with something you will be proud of whether in its obscurity, or in the brilliant glare of its international fame.

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