Julianna Baggott is my new idol, at least in the way she approaches the writing life.
I discovered her at AWP, where she led a panel about women’s fiction, the title of which was, I think, something along the lines of "Beyond Chick Lit.: The Branding of Women’s Fiction." The panel was really good, with the panelists discussing how writing about women becomes political.
How? In the way that women’s fiction is constantly branded. For instance, I just wrote "women’s fiction." But when I discuss the latest work of Cormac McCarthy I don’t do it in reference to "men’s fiction." Have you ever even heard the term? Along the same lines, chick lit is always disparaged, just the same way that Oprah books are often dissed.
One of the other panelists, who I believe was a novelist named Anne Ishi, talked about how female authors don’t get the same attention that male authors do, and she had an interesting theory about it that goes like this: although the vast majority of readers of fiction are female, the biggest demographic for film is male, particularly young males. Getting a book made into a book gives a film cachet and buzz, but because of the movie demographic, most of the books getting made into films are by males or male oriented. (Or they are branded as romantic comedies or date movies and again disparaged.)
Emily Franklin, who writes young adult novels, discussed how the need to categorize women’s fiction debases the readership and makes it narrower, and Quinn Dalton talked about how male characters are allowed to be unlikeable–but female characters must always be likable.
So it was a great panel, and I enjoyed it. I really loved that Julianna Baggott is so prolific that she writes adult novels, children’s literature, and poetry, teaches in the Florida State University creative writing program and also edits the Southeast Review. Oh, and she has four small children. Oh, and she is such a prolific novelist and she got tired of being branded a chick lit author so she decided to brand herself and is now going to write chick lit under the name Bridget Asher and continue to write "serious" fiction under her own name. As my sister would say, Gee-Zus.
So with all of this recommending her, I picked up Baggott’s book Girl Talk and read it on the plane to and from LA. I’m a little disaappointed to admit that I am not wildly enthusiastic about the novel. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. Girl Talk is sort of two stories in one–it has a contemporary frame story with the heroine Lissy as a pregnant adult. She looks back on her life, to one particular summer, and that story forms a coming-of-age tale that is by far the most compelling of the two.
The problem I had with the novel is that the adult story really never amounted to much. I didn’t feel that the adult Lissy grew or changed or came to terms with her situation, and I ended up thinking that this adult story was an excuse to pad out the other one. At the end of the novel, I was left with the feeling, wait, I read the whole book just for that?
So I had a mixed reaction to the novel. But its author is still my new idol, at least until someone else comes along to usurp her spot.