Maureen Dowd Makes Me Cranky

I am cranky. Two main things are contributing to this state.

1. As some of you may have noticed my site has been down on and off today. Grrr. Also for the last two days my email has been mostly down. Double Grr.

2. Maureen Dowd.

To try and uncranky myself I sat down to read today’s New York Times. I carefully skipped the newsy parts cause they often cause crankiness to multiply. Unfortunately, the first thing I read was Maureen Dowd’s breathtakingly stupid column about chicklit.

Bloody hell! What a morass of ignorance and misinformation. On the one hand, she’s trying to say that all chick lit sucks. On the other, she talks about books like Sylvia Plath’s The Belljar and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet being rebranded in pink. Presumably, she does not think those texts are worthless.

As it happens many books are billed as chicklit that are not, and some that are, well, they’re very bloody good (Love Walked In for instance).

Dowd starts by talking about chicklit’s invasion of the serious adult literature shelves (Heels over Hemingway! Run for the hills!). But the only text she quotes is a young adult title, Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging. Of course it sounds young! Its protag is a teenager! It was written for the twelve years old and up market. It’s also bloody funny. But Dowd is too pure of mind to have noticed. Sloppy journalism much?

And then there’s this:

Giving the books an even more interchangeable feeling is the bacholerette party of log-rolling blurbs by chick-lit authors. Jennifer Good in Bed Weiner blurbs Sarah Mlynowski’s Me vs Me and Karen McCullah Lutz’s The Bachelorette Party. Lauren Weisberger blurbs Emily Something Borrowed Giffin.

Stop the bleeding presses. Someone in the same genre is blurbing someone else in the same genre? Oh. My. God. It must be stopped.

But wait! Here is the back of a Peter Carey book. He is blurbed by Salman Rushdie. They both write mainstream literature that gets reviewed and lauded by the NYT. They know each other! Another freaking conspiracy.

Hmm, I wonder why the publishing industry would do something so bizarre as have people in the same genre blurb each other? Could it be because folks who’ve read Jennifer Weiner are the folks likely to enjoy Sarah Mlynowski? And those who love Salman Rushdie may well get into Peter Carey? No, that can’t be it.

Here are my questions:

Why the endless deriding of this genre? Why aren’t there people getting het up about the pernicious influence of techno thrillers? Some of those are shockingly written, but I’ve never seen a columnist lose any sleep over how well those books sell, or the fact that they’re mostly written and read by men. In all genres there are many badly written books. Including mainstream literature. What makes chicklit so evil?

Also how come it counts as journalism to walk around a bookshop mouthing off ignorantly about a genre you know nothing about, grabbing three dozen of them to take home, flip through, and then mock in your newspaper column?

Why did it not occur to Dowd to interview some of the writers, editors, publishers and consumers of the genre? Or to ask them what their faves are and why? Too much hard work for you, Ms Dowd?

Why does Dowd not explain exactly what’s wrong with the existence of chicklit? I mean, seriously, what is the point of her column? Why is she so threatened by the colour pink?

Okay, that didn’t help. I’m still cranky.

I’ll be stomping off out of your way now.


  1. Elle on #

    Hear Hear! Although unfortunately she’s just another one in a long line.
    Beggars belief. (And I totally agree about Angus, Thongs etc… had me in tears.)
    You go Justine.

  2. Justine on #

    The ironic thing is that part of what’s so funny about Angus is the way it takes the piss out of certain other chicklit books. Not that La Dowd knows how to detect irony for all her bringing up the ghost of Jane Austen.


    Too right about her being “another one in a long line”. They’ve been attacking women’s novels since the 1600s. When will it end?

  3. Justine on #

    Liz: I know what you mean! I do like some of the chicklit I’ve had recommended to me. I never go into genres I don’t know a lot about blind. I always get recs from friends who know my tastes and are obsessed with the genre. That’s how I came across Love Walked In.

    The genre I can’t stand is cosies. The whole genre that comes out of Agatha Christie. But I’ve read very few cosies. I’m quite sure there are totally brilliant examples of the genre. It just doesn’t ring my bells. However, I would never condemn the whole genre. I’m not arrogant enough to think that just because I don’t like a genre it’s therefore a dread bad evil genre. (I like my crime dark and messy and not too tidily solved. I lean Patricia Highsmith-wards.)

    unless I’m mistaken in thinking it will have a UK release this year?

    Sadly, you are mistaken. For complicated reasons I cannot go into here (and that make me rant) my books have not been picked up for publication in the UK. You or your fave bookshop’ll have to order them in from the US or Australia.

    Elizabeth: Thank you! Miss Snark is very enjoyable, indeed.

    Kristine: Dowd should stick to politics. Whenever she wanders into anything to do with pop culture/gender/relationships, she goes right off the rails.

    It’s eerie, isn’t it? I truly wonder what goes on in her head to be so very far off base pretty much every time.

  4. Anonymous on #

    you cranky=good!!!

  5. Liz on #

    If I were inclined to cynicism, I’d say that Dowd is doing down chicklit because it’s a market largely for and by women, and of course that couldn’t possibly be deserving of any respect, consideration, or what-have-you. Otherwise… well.

    Okay, so I’m a cynic.

    (Long-time lurker who quite enjoyed Magic or Madness a little while ago. Hi!)

  6. scott w on #

    Liz: I’d never devote a column in a major newspaper to mocking something a hell of a lot of people enjoy. Unless the editors of the NYT think that its readership has no or very little overlap with the demographic that reads and enjoys chicklit?

    Much of the constituency of the NYT enjoys chicklit, but they are ashamed that they enjoy it. There’s a certain kind of fan, generally of popular genres, who needs to feel cleansed of their own fannish enjoyment every once in a while. Chuckling at a mean-spirited, shoddily researched, and incoherent attack on said genre in the paper of record is the bourgeoise-approved way of achieving that sort of cleansing.

    “Yes, I read that sort of stuff. But I know it’s trash, unlike my benighted sistren.”

    And yes, the oddest thing of the whole article is when Dowd defines ANGUS’s genre as “British Chicklit,” with nary a mention of its 12-up age range. Has her brain conflated immaturity and femininity so thoroughly that she thought no one would notice?

  7. Justine on #

    Anonymous: Thanks. Um, I think.

    Liz: Welcome! So pleased you liked MorM

    That’s not cynical. That’s just facts. It’s no coincidence that the most derided genres, romance and chicklit, are primarily for and by women.

  8. Liz on #

    Much of the constituency of the NYT enjoys chicklit, but they are ashamed that they enjoy it. There’s a certain kind of fan, generally of popular genres, who needs to feel cleansed of their own fannish enjoyment every once in a while.

    That mindset boggles me. It makes a twisted kind of sense, from a certain angle, but I don’t think I could ever really understand it.

  9. Liz on #

    Maybe it’s not cynicism but realism, then. But the part of me that wants to be an optimist (secret, foolish) is always disappointed when it’s a woman doing the deriding.

    I don’t like most chicklit myself, but I’d never devote a column in a major newspaper to mocking something a hell of a lot of people enjoy. Unless the editors of the NYT think that its readership has no or very little overlap with the demographic that reads and enjoys chicklit?

    (Most of the romance and chicklit I’ve read is unbearably – nay, unrelentingly – optimistic and upbeat. Maybe that’s why I don’t like it.)

    I’m looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of Magic Lessons at some point soon – unless I’m mistaken in thinking it will have a UK release this year?

  10. Elizabeth LaVelle on #

    Well ranted! (I’ve been lurking for a while, just wanted to say hi! And much thanks for the link to miss snark.)

  11. Kristine Smith on #

    Well ranted!

    Dowd should stick to politics. Whenever she wanders into anything to do with pop culture/gender/relationships, she goes right off the rails.

  12. Liz on #

    I’ve read Christie, but I’d never have gone near her stuff if I hadn’t read Dorothy L Sayers first and wanted to figure out some of her in-jokes. Cosies in general are just a wee bit too tidy.

    Thank you for the info re Magic Lessons. I’ll have to bully one of the local chain bookshops into doing the decent thing. 🙂

  13. TansyRR on #

    I’ve had men (otherwise quite intelligent, educated men) challenge me to defend the existence of chicklit, primarily because it is a gender-defined genre, and they don’t believe that such things should exist.

    {uh, cos we’re equal now, shouldn’t be discriminating on generalised points of gender… gah!)

    I’ve also had women chime in to agree with them, because they personally don’t enjoy reading the genre (and they find any reference to shoes and romance in a book annoying).

    Double gah!

    But yes, whenever there is a category of art dominated by or deeply peopled by female creators or consumers, it will be denigrated by men and (sadly) women alike as being worthless, pointless or just generally “less significant” than one which has substantial male participation. Take it from someone who quilts…

    The response of the (minority) male audience of the Film Marie Antoinette was significant to me – this is basically a woman’s film which has a distinct chick lit flavour, particularly in its visual storytelling – and the male commenters (and many reviewers) simply don’t seem to understand that a historical story can be told legitimately through a female perspective. That is – you can tell a story of a woman associated with the French Revolution without actually showing the storming of the Bastille. Because the story was about a woman who never witnessed that directly, and how sheltered she was from real world politics and violence.

  14. Justine on #

    Liz: Reading Christie gives me actual psychic pain. Blerk. I can cope with Sayers though. I guess she’s a writer of cosies too, isn’t she? So there you go: I do like some cosies.

    Tansy: And, of course, they’ve mostly not even read what they’re ranting against. Or they’ve read a few really egregious examples. It’s like when I’m expected to defend science fiction to someone who’s only read very bad Star Trek novelisations (and not one of the many good Star Trek novelisations).

    And they always bring up Jane Austen as an example of female writing that they quite like. Not realising that there were lots of books written by women when she was writing and publishing. Most of which did not survive. There’s very likely a writer of Austen’s stature writing chicklit right now, but we’re not going to know for another century or two. Stature like Austen’s takes many many many years to percolate into people’s understanding of the literary world.

    Scott: It’s the New York Times that is trash*. Told you I was cranky, didn’t I?

    *Except for Bob Herbert. I really like Bob Herbert. And Paul Krugman. He’s not too foul either. And some of the Arts coverage is pretty good. And there’s always some excellent articles in the sport section, even if they ignore women’s basketball and cricket. And their series on class was most excellent.

  15. lili on #

    pink! pink! pink!


  16. Justine on #

    Lili: Indeed. After hating it when I was a kid, I now embrace the pink. May all my books from now on have pink covers!

    Liz: You and me both. I’d like to think it’s not as common as Scott thinks it is.

  17. scott w on #

    Hey, Dowd’s book Are Men Necessary is a NYT Notable book! Yet another conspiracy?

  18. Veronica on #

    Dowd’s a twit. She’s a twit now, she’s always been a twit, and I imagine she will continue in her twittishness unto eternity. Very little of anything she writes is worth the bother of reading.

    I wonder if she will write a follow-up column about what I like to call ladlit–Tom Clancy and John Grisham novels and all their knock-offs. Of course, because those books are directed at men, and men are considered to be normal, nobody uses gendered signifiers when discussion that genre, but gendered it is.

  19. Little Willow on #

    There are a multitude of books out there. If you don’t like a genre, read something else, instead of putting down the entire genre and its dominant authors. As you can tell, I greatly dislike it when people badmouth an entire genre.

    For example: I am not a fan of westerns at large, but I would never say that the genre is BAD – it simply does not hold a lot of interest for me! But breaking it down further, you can see I like aspects or certain kinds of westerns: I liked Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, I love Anne of Green Gables, I like Hattie Big Sky, I like the Little House books, I like stories of pioneers and turn-of-the-century. I don’t like “shoot-em-up” types and I have never seen a John Wayne film in full.

    One of the authors she mentioned was Sarah Mlynowski. Sarah’s Bras & Broomsticks series is hilarious, sweet, and clean enough to share with kids and early teens as well as older teens the age of the characters. It is totally to-be-loved by fans of BEWITCHED and SABRINA, THE TEENAGE WITCH.

  20. Diana on #

    Trashing chick lit is so very 2006. Haven’t we already been there, what with the whole “This is not chick lit” thing last summer?

    I can’t decide if I’m more amused by how behind she is on her subject matter, the ignorance regarding YA literature, or the idiocy of the idea that Shakespeare is somehow tainted when its cover touches the cover of a fluffy comedy. What, are we three year olds who think that our peas and gravy can’t touch on our plates? It’s a store. It shelves things for ease of locating, the way that they put women’s lingerie next to women’s evening gowns instead of next to baby’s shoes. They aren’t saying lingerie is evening gowns. Is wheat bran sullied by being shelves in the cereal aisle next to fruit loops?

  21. Rebecca on #

    *cheers* you killed her! ha! this totally goes for a lot of genres. i got it for sci-fi when i was younger, and ya now. i know people who are embarrassed to admit that they read ya.

    and angus is awesome. people who take it too seriously are obviously going to miss the whole point of the books. but most people with half a brain will figure out that those books are not meant to be read literally anymore than…. er, certain other texts i could mention. anyway. it disturbs me that dowd is able to get an article like that out at all, but we all know she’s full of crap.

  22. veejane on #

    Considering it is Dowd, let us have a moment of thankfulness that she did not give every author she mentioned an execrably cute nickname.

    I should say, although I do not tend to read chick lit myself, I am all for heels over Hemingway — dancing on his grave by moonlight, perhaps.

  23. Colleen on #

    I just posted about this over at Chasing Ray and then came by and saw you were as annoyed as me!

    The thing that really killed me about this piece was that Dowd and her little buddy Leon suggest the following:

    “These books do not seem particularly demanding in the manner of real novels… And when we’re at war and the country is under threat, they seem a little insular. America’s reading women could do a lot worse than to put down Will Francine Get Her Guy? and pick up The Red Badge of Courage.”

    Apparently they don’t see the irony of using column inches in a national newspaper to write about how people who read Chick Lit should be reading serious books on war….am I missing something or are they wasting space by pointing the finger at fans of the genre when they should have been using that same valuable NTY real estate to – I don’t know – WRITE ABOUT THE FREAKING WAR!!!!!!!!!!

    Maureen Dowd has jumped the shark, period.

  24. the other sean on #

    i will use the word “dowdy” today in honor of this magnificent rant. kudos, justine!

  25. Yaffa on #

    Karen McCullah Lutz’s The Bachelorette Party is a really fun read—she is one of the co-screenwriters for Legally Blonde (the first).

  26. lee on #

    All genres are created equal, but some are more equal than others. Frankly, it’s most of chick lit which makes me cranky.

    Scott has made an astute point about guilt. As to the rest, well, it’s awfully easy to take potshots at Dowd.

  27. jenny d on #

    yes, magnificent rant.

    everyone should read “love walked in” btw!

  28. Diana on #

    lee, why would chick lit make you cranky? That’s so contrary to its nature! It’s supposed to make you laugh and feel good.

  29. Kevin Wignall on #

    Two hundred years ago, Dowd would have been damning Jane Austen with exactly the same nonsense.

    And as you mention him, two hundreds years from now the only thing people will remember about Salman Rushdie is that he was a hopelessly bad writer who the Ayatollah tried to kill. On the other hand, there will be a handful of chick-lit (and YA, and crime) writers still being read.

  30. Lauren Baratz-Logsted on #

    I think Dowd’s just jealous. She wrote a book with a chicky title (Are Men Necessary?), a chicky cover (retro Nancy Drew), with an author pic on the back that looks like she’s trying to seduce someone, anyone, and she still can’t sell as well as the real article. Sad. Sad. Sad. But funny too!

  31. marrije on #

    i am very dense today. i thought ‘cranky? cranky? why does maureen johnson make justine cranky?’ and it was only halfway into the (excellent!) rant that i realised i had my maureens crossed. i blame the meg cabot book i’m reading and enjoying very much.

    it is odd that ‘women’s’ lit is always such an easy target, isn’t it? i have a special fondness for spy thrillers, and some of them are, indeed, atrociously written.

    david baldacci, for instance, made me want to beat myself over the head when I (mistake! mistake!) borrowed one of his books from the library. and i never read sniggery columns about him. Or that Clancy guy, who I used to love as light reading, but can’t stomach any more. god, i hope he’s not one of scott’s ghost writing gigs…

  32. lee on #

    Kevin, you’re very brave to predict what people will be reading 200 years from now. My crystal ball has only a 20-year manufacturer’s warranty (limited).

  33. Kevin Wignall on #

    lee, I’m kind of banking on none of you being around to say I was wrong!

  34. Susan on #

    Hey, Justine. I wish this kind of piece would go away, but I’m afraid it is with us for good. I see essays like this over and over on the op-ed pages. The subtext is always, “I am smarter than you are.” In Maureen’s case, she is so much smarter than we are that she even has friends who are smarter than we are, and thus these friends can accompany her to the bookstore where it is a revelation to them both that chick lit exists. False premise, dumb article.

  35. Mark Shulgasser on #

    maureen dowd has sharp political elbows and she has time and again made laughing stock of some very powerful and evil men. BUT: she has nothing of value to say on any other topic. the real significance of her writing about chick lit is that it shows that the war in Iraq is no longer interesting. the press has tired of it, the bushies have won, they can and will now do whatever they want and we will now natter on about chick lit or any other nonsense that the times dreams up to pass under our noses, anna nicole smith maybe or judith regan. it’s like the word is, Maureen, let up on the war. mention it if you must, but don’t like FOCUS on it or anything heavy.

    i’m just here by accident, one click leading to another, but i dutifully read the rules and yet i see your dowd entry is full of CAPS. so I dare to introduce some myself but i’m confuSed, disOrientED.
    Cordially, Mark ShulgAsser

  36. Justine on #

    Wow, that was a lot of comments and trackbacks to return to. Ta!

    I’d just like to make it clear that I don’t think Maureen Dowd is satan. Or even stupid. She has a weekly column and I’m thinking sometimes she just can’t think of anything, you know, what with how quiet the world is at the moment. And when she’s got nothing she churns out nothing.

    Mark Shulgasser:

    i’m just here by accident, one click leading to another, but i dutifully read the rules and yet i see your dowd entry is full of CAPS. so I dare to introduce some myself but i’m confuSed, disOrientED.

    Well, ya know, it’s my blog. I can use caps when I feel like and not when I don’t. If you look closely at the blog rules there are cunning instructions on how you, too, can have caps if you want them. CAPS are yours for the coding.

  37. Rebecca on #

    hmm. i must find that caps code. mwahahahaha!

  38. Robert Legault on #

    Thanks, Justine. I read that column and it bugged me but I was too comatose to really put my finger on why, and you’ve nailed it better than I could. I’ve never read a piece of chick lit that I wasn’t paid to read, but I have in fact read a bunch of it. Like most genres, it varies from awful to pretty good.

    I prefer hard-boiled crime stories (Westlake, Ellroy, Crumley, Pelecanos, that sort of thing), as well as classic noir (Hammett, Chandler, Thompson, Goodis, Woolrich, etc.), but I actually like Christie, or at least the Hercule Poirot books anyway. I can’t take them too seriously, but they go down easy. Not as easy as Erle Stanley Gardner, though.

    The old Spy magazine used to have a great little monthly feature called “Logrolling in Our Time” where they dug up actual instances of authors praising each other’s books. I’m sure they could still dig up plenty of material if they wanted, in chick lit, literary fiction, sf, or just about anywhere else.

  39. Ysabeau Wilce on #

    Justine, I totally agree with you about Jane Austen. Today she’s idolized as a great writer, but how many of her female contemporaries have made the cut? So many 19th century female authors have long been considered “minor” when weighed against their male peers–I’m thinking of Elizabeth Gaskell, Sarah Orne Jewett, Christina Rossetti and Harriet Beecher Stowe (other than Uncle Tom’s Cabin) among many others. And popular women writers such as Ouida, Mrs. Brandon, Marie Corelli, and Fanny Fern have been pretty much forgotten completely. Were these ladies really that inferior or are domestic dramas just not as important as quests for white whales? I think we all know the answer to that! Thanks for the great rebuttal…I’m certainly not sorry that Ms. Dowd had disappeared behind the wall of TimesSelect. May she long stay there…

  40. jmnlman on #

    Speaking as someone who is a science-fiction fan this whole thing ties into the “anything popular can’t be anything good” argument. Remember Dickens was garbage because he was popular!

  41. giovanna alighieri on #

    it relly saddens me to see such a waste of time, money and writing space on such a ridiculous topic. My GOD.So what if chick lit or watever sucks? so what if it actuallly rocks>?? who CARES? do you not see that there are more important issues at hand to discuss? justine, no offense but out of ALL the topics discused in the new york times , you just HAPPENED to read only Dowd’s and found yourself so enraged that you had to start a blog? i mean, im not defending the woman, shes actually rather ignorant (but then again, arnt we all?). However, must we really condemn her for this? Its just the women’s opinion !! you dodnt have to agree with her ! ….just as noone is forced to read chick lit. IT IS A MOSTLY FREE COUNTRY PEOPLE!!Be thankful that you can actually state your opinions and not forced to read communist or nazi propaganda in books. Let’s try and ignore the minor bluffs of people and try to discuss the larger issues at hand like global warming and the wars going on. Perhaps then we could have a better world. by the way, i am curious to knoe how old these bloggers, and YOU justine really are? i am a teenager in HS and I am shocked that adults of this generation or so arrogant , ignorant and just not UNDERSTANDING enough…..and then you criticize us kids!!Times are changing ., literature is changing and there is nothing else to do but go with the flow and embrace the change…..

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