The definition of what qualifies as “chick lit” (an unpleasant term, besides which, I’ve personally always thought if you were going to coin a sexist word for women’s books, chicktion has more pizzazz, but I digress) is, in its purest form, a stupid tautology. A book is marketed as chick lit if it broadly appeals to women; books broadly appeal to women if they’re marketed as chick lit. Of course, this definition doesn’t hold up under much scrutiny. For one thing, the category of “fiction that appeals more to women than men” is, as we know, “fiction.” Accordingly, most books are marketed toward women. The Corrections was infamously, and briefly, featured in Oprah’s book club and marketed as a family drama, which it is. In this sense, all fiction—and this has been roughly true since the early nineteenth century, when the burgeoningly popular, still somewhat novel novel form, was declaimed as a woman’s art—is chick lit.
What, then, are the real criteria for membership in this dubious category? Is it books written by women or books that have female leads? Books about the domestic sphere? Clearly not, or not just, as that category would include, for example, Alice Munro and Marilynne Robinson. It would seem, then, to mostly come down to an amorphous sense of middlebrow quality or ambition and an accompanying sense that certain popular women writers belong, almost as a function of their popularity, in a kind of gilded literary ghetto. (As Jennifer Weiner noted, male writers of popular fiction like Nick Hornby or Jess Walter are not consigned to “dick lit.”)
In the last few years, however, certain woman writers have come along who thankfully challenge this tiresome paradigm. They are both popular and literary and seem to have no problem standing with a foot in each category. Chief among them is Curtis Sittenfeld, whose story collection, You Think It, I’ll Say It, arrives on April 24.
Sittenfeld has written several bestsellers, among them Eligible, an update of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Austen seems the perfect muse for Sittenfeld’s art, as she (posthumously) managed the trick of simultaneously being an enormously popular conventional storyteller and an accepted master of the literary novel. Romance, Austen’s genre, prefigures chick lit. Despite the general speciousness of chick lit as a genre, books categorized as such do often share features with the classic romance form, chief among them an insistence on unambiguity in relationships and relationship outcomes. The reader can reasonably expect to find out if the couple in question gets married in the end, if the separated siblings are reunited, if the family unit weathers the storm.
It is perhaps an indicator of the excesses of ambiguity in modern fiction that to describe writing as unambiguous feels pejorative. But Shakespeare’s canon features precious little ambiguity when it comes to plot. Ambiguity in terms of motivation, yes—in terms of, at times, a harrowingly modern understanding of character psychology—but not in terms of the marriage (or murder) at the end. A reader of Shakespeare’s era—or Austen’s or Thackeray’s, for that matter—would find a text in which the ending is withheld from the reader to be fundamentally unsatisfying, incomplete in terms of plot, of course, but also moral clarity. An author was expected to make sense of the world—this was the social contract of fiction writing.
Modernism and postmodernism innovated in part by eliminating the constraints and demands of concrete storytelling; these forms progressively dispensed not only with clear endings and moral frameworks but with sense making in general. The reader’s responsibility when she encountered a text was expanded to include interpretation of actual events, of reality itself. While Modernism is long gone and postmodernism in its pure form survives in only a few grottoes of the literary ecosystem, the impulse toward ambiguity in storytelling remains one of the strongest felt markers of “literary” quality. In a sense, I would argue, many if not most readers harbor a received and not entirely examined sense of this prejudice: that an ambiguous text is almost by nature more sophisticated than a nonambiguous text.
This is, of course, nonsense. Plenty of books with discrete boundaries and relationship outcomes are very sophisticated (Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend comes to mind), and plenty of ambiguous texts are not sophisticated but merely vague. No specific names are necessary here, but work for a month at a literary magazine and report back about how sophisticated you find endings where car taillights recede in a fog.
It has been bracing, in this sense, to find Sittenfeld’s work canonized in the pages of The New Yorker and elsewhere. Her stories are sturdy and well-constructed, narratively comprehensive, and, by modern storytelling standards, disarmingly uncoy. In “Gender Studies,” a professor whose husband left her for a younger woman has a brief liaison with a young Trump supporter, then remarries a man who is much like her first husband while still thinking wistfully about MAGA Luke. The plot and narrative tension of “Show, Don’t Tell” (not included in this collection) is premised largely on the question of whether the narrator, a Sittenfeld stand-in, will receive a prestigious writing fellowship and accompanying stipend at the University of Iowa. It would be characteristic of most modern literary short stories, if they even bothered to tell a story about something as wonderfully mundane as grad-school funding, to end the story with the hand on the mailbox, a letter opener cutting into the envelope. We have been conditioned to accept that what happens doesn’t matter and that to want to know the answer is a philistine hunger better satisfied by less rarified media like TV and film. As Joy Williams put it in her speech at this year’s Paris Review Spring Revel, “The work of the writer is to keep the story from becoming what it is about.”
Sittenfeld’s narrator cuts into the envelope and wins the award. The story ends with a scene, years later, in which she runs into another student from her cohort. He is a literary darling and smarmy misogynist; she is successful, the author of seven popular books. (“My novels,” she says, “are considered ‘women’s fiction.’ This is an actual term used by both publishers and bookstores, and means something only slightly different from ‘gives off the vibe of ten-year-old girls at a slumber party.’ ”) They are the only two from their class who published. This telescoping in time is characteristic in Sittenfeld’s work—you don’t merely find out what happens in the story, you find out what happens throughout the character’s life. She goes all the way.
As do her characters. “Vox Clamantis in Deserto” is narrated by Dana, a likably awkward Midwesterner at Dartmouth. (Many of Sittenfeld’s narrators or leads are likably awkward Midwestern transplants). Over the course of a semester, she develops an intense friendship with a difficult, self-centered girl from New Hampshire, Rae, and a third friend, an ostensibly gay boy named Isaac. On a disastrous trip with Rae to visit Rae’s high school boyfriend, Dana is left behind with said boyfriend, with whom she loses her virginity in a gym locker room. She returns to school, drifts apart from Rae, and a decade later reencounters Isaac, who, it turns out, is not only not gay but also in love with her. They get married and have kids, and she idly wonders what happened to Rae, her former friend who was effectively erased from her life not only by time and circumstance but by five minutes on a locker-room floor.
Sex in Sittenfeld’s fiction is remorselessly depicted and rightfully accorded the power to alter the course of lives. Whom you sleep with and whom you marry not only speak to who you are—your priorities, your sexual currency—but shape you, determine the trajectory of your existence. Modern literary fiction tends to feature relationships that happen and unhappen for no particular reason and often to no great consequence. Ambiguity again manifests as sophistication—to marry for practical reasons like money seems unbearably old-fashioned. Sittenfeld’s romantic pragmatism—not to say cynicism—is a throwback to the likes of Thackeray, whose calculating antihero Becky Sharp is sympathetic for her clear-eyed calculation amid a bevy of fools and self-deceivers.
In “The Prairie Wife,” the protagonist, Kirsten, obsesses about a Martha Stewart–esque celebrity with a wholesome public persona, a woman with whom she had an intense lesbian experience at camp twenty years earlier. This experience determined Kirsten’s life, exposing her sexuality to her, and it grates on her that the so-called Prairie Wife seems to have moved on, frictionlessly recasting herself as hetero. It makes sense, viewing Sittenfeld’s corpus as a whole, that this would grate. Though her pragmatism may be admirable, the Prairie Wife seems to have paid no price for her romantic choices. While the characters in Sittenfeld’s stories are not powerless before their desires—they often choose not to act on their desires, in fact—those choices have consequences that ripple out into their lives in very real ways. The idea of a person blithely moving through their sex life—moving on in a kind of ambiguous space, as it were—is unsettling in this moral universe.
It is true that at times this desire for narrative and moral definition can bring Sittenfeld’s stories close to predictable, if not pat. This is the risk writers run when they write unambiguous stories: moral clarity is never very far from—is, in fact, sometimes perilously close to—moralizing, presenting the reader with a tidy, gift-wrapped lesson. A truly surprising and successful ending reaches back through a story and restructures a reader’s sense of what they just read, on several simultaneous levels: plot, character, and moral. The difficulty of doing this well may be part of the appeal of ambiguous endings. When a writer like Sittenfeld succeeds, it is a triumph.
It has been noted ad nauseam that Modernism (and postmodernism) arose at least in part as responses to the unprecedented chaos of the twentieth century. The only proper response to destabilizing horrors like the Holocaust and Vietnam was appropriating that destabilization into narrative, in an act of authorial humility. In our own difficult and confusing era (and what era is not those things?), fictional ambiguity continues to represent a virtue if it adds to the complexity and richness of the text. But it seems worth investigating the extent to which we have accepted narrative ambiguity as a merit on its own terms—how this attitude has been absorbed into our cultural notion of “high” and “low” art and how it informs our sense of, maybe even our desire for, genre categorizations like chick lit. Just as we need art that captures the often formless churn of existence, we also need art with the nerve to follow a story to its end.
Adam O’Fallon Price is a writer and teacher living in Carrboro, North Carolina. His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, Vice, The Iowa Review, and many other places. His new novel, The Hotel Neversink, will be published in 2019 by Tin House Books.