Saving Face? Or Losing My Mind?
I'm going to try to write a chick-lit novel in real time. In less than a month. And I really need your help.
Read Saving Face as it unfolds.
Next month, I will start covering my 10th Supreme Court term for Slate. That seems an apt time for some very serious reflection. Or maybe not. When we were told to take time off from our everyday beats to do some kind of ambitious, long-form journalism, my first instinct naturally was to do something legal. Then I thought I'd like to do the hardest thing I could imagine. Which is writing a novel and filing it chapter by chapter as I go. And that's what I'm going to do, with you watching and helping. And I'm going to try to finish in less than four weeks.
Some folks think writing fiction is easy. And as I started to describe my fiction-writing project to people, I discovered that at least a quarter of my friends indeed have an unfinished novel someplace on their hard drive. This astounds me because as my kids will tell you, my idea of plotting fiction is to just keep talking until they've fallen asleep.
After much thought, I decided that the best genre for me to attempt is post- Bridget Jones, oops-there's-my-underwear-on-the-outside-again chick lit—because I'm a sucker for it and also because it seems slightly more doable than vampire erotica, about which I could not hope to become an expert in a matter of weeks. (For years, the joke around my house has been that there are two stacks of books on my side of the bed: One pile is about torture, Guantanamo, and military tribunals. The other is bright pink.) I am fully aware of the raging battles between those who take pink books seriously and those who do not. This project seeks to sidestep that entire literary debate by being fun for its own sake.
Of course chick lit is not a single genre. So I aspire to produce a book belonging to the fraught subgenre that's come to be known as "mommy lit." This subgenre is a cross between Bridget Jones and The Bell Jar. At its best, mommy lit is warmhearted escapism with a subtle poke at women who try to "have it all": Allison Pearson's I Don't Know How She Does It and Fiona Neill's Slummy Mummy are classics for good reason.At its worst, mommy lit is just another volley of back-and-forth sniper fire in the mommy wars—a prettily wrapped admonition to quit your job, if you have one, or get back to work, if you don't.
One of the things I want to probe in this month of writing is the question of why we see chick lit as an escape. What is it about women who are overscheduled, underappreciated, and who at some point become invariably compromised by an undergarment, that appeals to us? What does it signify, if anything, that men prefer to read about protagonists who slit terrorist throats from the deck of a yacht anchored off the Maldives while sipping a Makers Mark out of the navel of a pole dancer?
There are some mommy-lit conventions I will try to embrace—the humor, because funny women writers are, I believe, the book world's greatest gift to 21st-century women; the generous girlfriends; the kids; the tilting-at-perfection; the Legos. But there are some others I may try to subvert: the plot arc that holds that women always want too much and always have to settle for less; the cliché that armed with nothing but her grandma's Grand Marnier cheesecake recipe, any woman can start a profitable small business from her own suburban kitchen; and the notion that every woman in America is married to a worn-down and beleaguered 36-year-old male who dedicates what little energy he has left to being a more intuitive parent than his perfectionist wife.
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.
Illustration by Deanna Staffo.