Saturday, February 10, 2007

Maureen Dowd is horrified by what America is reading, and Stacy Schiff realizes she will have to give up her privacy for the ability to order groceries from bed. Surprise! It’s “Chick’s Day” at the NYT. (At least Stacy Schiff has something worthwhile to say.) Here’s MoDo on Chick Lit:

I was cruising through Borders, looking for a copy of “Nostromo.”

Suddenly I was swimming in pink. I turned frantically from display table to display table, but I couldn’t find a novel without a pink cover. I was accosted by a sisterhood of cartoon women, sexy string beans in minis and stilettos, fashionably dashing about book covers with the requisite urban props — lattes, books, purses, shopping bags, guns and, most critically, a diamond ring.

Was it a Valentine’s Day special?

No, I realized with growing alarm, chick lit was no longer a niche. It had staged a coup of the literature shelves. Hot babes had shimmied into the grizzled old boys’ club, the land of Conrad, Faulkner and Maugham. The store was possessed with the devil spawn of “The Devil Wears Prada.” The blood-red high heel ending in a devil’s pitchfork on the cover of the Lauren Weisberger best seller might as well be driving a stake through the heart of the classics.

I even found Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” with chick-lit pretty-in-pink lettering.

“Penis lit versus Venus lit,” said my friend Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, who was with me. “An unacceptable choice.”

“Looking for Mr. Goodbunny” by Kathleen O’Reilly sits atop George Orwell’s “1984.” “Mine Are Spectacular!” by Janice Kaplan and Lynn Schnurnberger hovers over “Ulysses.” Sophie Kinsella’s “Shopaholic” series cuddles up to Rudyard Kipling.

Even Will Shakespeare is buffeted by rampaging 30-year-old heroines, each one frantically trying to get their guy or figure out if he’s the right guy, or if he meant what he said, or if he should be with them instead of their BFF or cousin, or if he’ll come back, or if she’ll end up stuck home alone eating Häagen-Dazs and watching “CSI” and “Sex and the City” reruns.

Trying to keep up with soap-opera modernity, “Romeo and Juliet” has been reissued with a perky pink cover.

There are subsections of chick lit: black chick lit (“Diva Diaries”), Bollywood chick lit (“Salaam, Paris”), Jewish chick lit (“The J.A.P. Chronicles” and “The Matzo Ball Heiress”) and assistant lit, which has its own subsection of Hollywood-assistant lit (“The Second Assistant”), mystery lit (“Sex, Murder and a Double Latte”), shopping lit (“Retail Therapy”), the self-loathing genre (“This Is Not Chick Lit”) and Brit chick lit (“Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging”).

The narrator of that last, Georgia, begins with a note to her readers: “Hello, American-type chums! (Perhaps you say ‘Howdy’ in America — I don’t know — but then I’m not really sure where Tibet is either, or my lipstick.) ... I hope you like my diary and don’t hold it against me that my great-great-great-grandparents colonized you. (Not just the two of them. ...).”

Giving the books an even more interchangeable feeling is the bachelorette 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.

I took home three dozen of the working women romances. They can lull you into a hypnotic state with their simple life lessons — one heroine emulated Doris Day, another Audrey Hepburn, one was the spitting image of Carolyn Bessette, another Charlize Theron — but they’re a long way from Becky Sharp and Elizabeth Bennet. They’re all chick and no lit.

Please do not confuse these books with the love-and-marriage of Jane Austen. These are more like multicultural Harlequin romances. They’re Cinderella bodice rippers — Manolo trippers — girls with long legs, long shiny hair and sparkling eyes stumbling through life, eating potato skins loaded with bacon bits and melted swiss, drinking cocktails, looking for the right man and dispensing nuggets of hard-won wisdom, like, “Any guy who can watch you hurl Cheez Doodles is a keeper,” and, “You can’t puke in wicker. It leaks.”

In the 19th century in America, people often linked the reading of novels with women. Women were creatures of sensibility, and men were creatures of action. But now, Leon suggested, American fiction seems to be undergoing a certain re-feminization.

“These books do not seem particularly demanding in the manner of real novels,” Leon said. “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.’ ”

The novel was once said to be a mirror of its times. In my local bookstore, it’s more like a makeup mirror.

Well. That was fun… Now here’s Stacy Schiff:

I wouldn’t be writing this if I hadn’t been cheated.

Last week the makers of Stacy’s Pita Chips — initially a Boston sidewalk operation, now a PepsiCo subsidiary — mailed out free party packages to 133,000 Americans named Stacy. I didn’t get one.

I have been a Stacy longer than most. I have bought Stacy’s pita chips on numerous occasions, at full retail. I am a serious snacker.

So where are my chips?

As names go, Stacy is no cakewalk. It is sketchy about gender and short on history, a sitcom staple rather than a feature film star. Anyone attached to it has spent a childhood pawing in vain through spinner racks of miniature license plates and monogrammed tomahawks. To the best of my knowledge, it has never opened a door
or caused a heart to flutter. It doesn’t mean anything in Latin, Arabic or Hebrew. Nor has it ever translated into a free lunch. Until now.

You could say Stacy’s has perfected vanity marketing; certainly it raises the bar on preaching to the converted. What are the recipients saying? Well, what would you say if you had grown up without a single monogrammed toothbrush and now found yourself in possession of a (free) “I Love Stacy” sticker? Steve Sears, the marketing wizard behind the campaign, has plucked a tribal chord, and granted (some of) us an identity. It turns out, he notes, that there is “a Stacy insecurity factor.” I knew that already.

I called my dear friend Stacy. She had her chips, which was annoying. She was also eyeing them warily, and thinking about alerting the bomb squad. In all fairness, she lives four blocks from ground zero, and had no home for a year. Also in fairness, she watched a lot of “Mission Impossible” as a child. (Other Stacys reacted similarly, but only one actually dialed 911 to report a suspicious package. The police force of Two Rivers, Wis., enjoyed her chips.)

Stacys must also be highly suggestible, because a creepy feeling settled in after that conversation. How difficult had it been to round up (almost) all the Stacys in the U.S.? How difficult would it be to round up all the Muhammads?

Not very, is the answer. The request was a first, Mr. Sears says, but a direct-mail firm easily complied. I began to feel queasy, until I remembered how much time I had spent at in 2004, when I had to figure out who in my building had given precisely what to which political party, so I would know whom to hold the elevator for. The Wall Street Journal revealed yesterday that 9-year-olds are using to compare family property values.

Until now I had thought that site was designed specifically for development officers: you are the square of your charitable donations and property values plus your board seats, divided by your mortgages, sorted by ZIP code. The serial biter in the kindergarten class? A mystery no more.

Mr. Sears may well have granted a disenfranchised demographic an identity, but he has got me worrying about who might take it away. Surely Google knows more about what goes on in my head than I do. Amazon has figured out what I want to read before I do. Privacy may be a luxury, but it’s one I’ve sacrificed to order groceries from bed.

Meanwhile the information piles up, easily collected and increasingly aggregated. By now we should have learned that it leaks, whether anyone deigns to tell us so or not. The fiascos come fast and furious. In 2005 the data broker ChoicePoint sold more than 163,000 consumer records to a crime ring engaged in identity theft. Last year The Boston Globe delivered a morning paper wrapped in printouts of customers’ bank and credit-card information. Last week a New York State Web site was found to have posted Social Security numbers, including Donald Trump’s.

On Tuesday Senator Patrick Leahy introduced a bipartisan bill expanding privacy protection. The Personal Data Privacy and Security Act of 2007 would establish basic oversight and accountability. It would impose penalties on those who concealed data breaches and obligate data brokers to let individuals know what they know; it would also require that government-purchased information be secure and accurate. As the bill’s co-sponsor, Arlen Specter, notes: “The problem is too large to ignore.”

It is dwarfed only by our hunger for community and convenience. On the one hand, I do not want to be reduced to the sum of my cookies. On the other hand, I want my chips.

Stacy Schiff is the author, most recently, of “A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France and the Birth of America.” She is a guest columnist.

Well, she may want her chips but Sen. Leahy and Sen. Specter deserve all the support we can give to their bill. Bear in mind, please, that the latest "great leap forward" is the electronic medical record. You may be okay with having all and sundry being presented with the opportunity to learn what brand of soup you buy, but do you really want them to know about all of your doctor visits? This is not tinfoil hat speculation in the least -- it's a major thrust at the hospital where I work, and even private practice physicians are being pushed to go this way.


Post a Comment

<< Home