What's Expected of Summer
Reviews in women's magazines seem a lot like homework. Music and movies get lumped together -- with the occasional book -- into pre-approved to-do lists. The reviews are treated like afterthoughts, like footnotes: not particularly interesting but a necessary ingredient, more a way of establishing editorial authority than a means of pointing out anything really new. Movies and music get most of what little space is allotted, but a few choice books do get some attention. That attention is rarely in-depth, made up of about two sentences of what amounts to snappy ad copy. In most magazines, the reviews reinforce what we already know. And this is part of what keeps us coming back to them: we take for granted that there are publications out there that will affirm what we want to believe, whether its that “he’s just not that into you,” or that the new White Stripes record kicks ass (or, you know, doesn’t). This is true whether we’re talking about a relatively non-mainstream magazine like Bust, or the different kind of predictability offered by Marie Claire.
Bust is likely to suggest Annie Sprinkle’s new sex book in the same breath as a social history of motherhood, devoting multiple pages to brief fiction reviews and a range of nonfiction titles. But I had a feeling that the more mainstream women’s magazines would handle these things differently. Between the many recent business articles bemoaning the sad state of publishing, and the mini-controversy over Oprah’s decision to proclaim this a “summer of Faulkner,” I was interested to see how -- and which -- books were being promoted to women who picked up these magazines. The season when summer reading lists compete with bikini ads seemed like a good time to investigate.
Glamour's July issue spotlights what the magazine calls “Insider Reads” as a “New Summer Book Trend,” citing Soapsuds by Finola Hughes and Digby Diehl, Jessica Cutler’s The Washingtonienne, and The Starter Wife by Gigi Levangie Grazer as proof that all the cool girls are writing exposés. For balance, they crown Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love a “Smart Read,” gushing that the book is “completely original, completely dazzling,” apparently in contrast to the others, which are “wildly dishy and full of who-knew trivia.” A small section called “Hot Beach Reads” recommends Rachel Pine’s Twins of Tribeca, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova ("This year's Da Vinci Code, but better") and Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down. Next to this list is a tabloid photo of Britney Spears reading a magazine, with the amazing caption, “Hey Britney, trade up to a book.” This is pretty much like being chided by your one night stand for taking home the bartender instead of the lawyer.
If you’re limited to the selection at the supermarket checkout line, I guess there’s always Oprah’s O Magazine. Endless book club drama aside, reading is a very real part of the lifestyle the magazine promotes, not something that has to be sacrificed to make room for expensive strappy sandals. According to Oprah, you can have great books and hot shoes... and the books don’t even have to be about the shoes!
Chick lit -- the genre much maligned by “serious” readers and writers everywhere -- has given women’s magazines a writing style to advocate without a conflict of interest. Because really, by recommending chick lit they’re just recommending themselves -- the heroines of chick lit have embarrassing moments that seem to have originated in Seventeen’s “Trauma-Rama,” and all of them could benefit from advice on organizing their professional lives, having mind-blowing orgasms, making peace with their mothers, and finding a good facial scrub. The glossy color schemes of the books seem designed to match the magazines, and the women who exist in both are basically synonymous. The faux confessional “Most Romantic Thing He Ever Did” magazine stories ring just about as true as the more drawn out sagas in a chick lit book. If anything, the teary chick lit protagonist seems less like fiction than the idea that the Glamour readers will lay out $5,000 for a cotton sun dress. So, I figured that when women’s magazines bothered with book reviews, they would push The Devil Wears Prada with the same energy they use to shill for lipstick. That would be okay. These magazines are for leisure. Not read so much as absorbed, they’re for thumbing through at the beach and on the toilet, and they have valuable functions in those locations. They don’t need or want to be literary reviews, so why fault them for falling short when it comes to books?
Elle threw me for a loop with two full pages of surprisingly literate, relatively lengthy reviews of books like Freddy and Fredericka by Mark Helprin, Julia Salvin’s Carnivore Diet, Banana Yoshimoto’s Hardboiled and Hard Luck, and Until I Find You by John Irving, going on to briefly recommend The Loss of Leon Meed by Josh Simmons and Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl, among others. Marie Claire followed a more predictable pattern with a “10 Best To Do” list that included Melissa Bank’s Wonder Spot, Rachel Pine’s Twins of Tribeca, and Boy Vey! The Shiksa’s Guide to Dating Jewish Men, by Kristina Girsh, a writer for the magazine (oh, the synergy!).
Next, Cosmopolitan pointed to “The Juiciest Books Around.” Adored by Tilly Bagshawe is supposedly “so good, you'll actually take your eyes off the buff bods on the beach.” Among its partners in crime are Adrienne Brodeur’s Man Camp, Jane Moore’s Love @ First Site ("Cyber cupid's outrageous surprises will have you rolling on the floor"), and of course, the “very scandalous read” Bergdorf Blondes. Determined as always to show off their cool streak, Jane’s June/July issue stumps for Daniel Clowes' new graphic novel Ice Haven and the memoir Everybody Into the Pool by Beth Lisick, founding member of Sister Spit. But they still can’t resist name-checking Soap Suds.
Elle Girl was the token teen magazine in my highly unscientific survey, chosen because it was the only one on the newstand that had any book reviews at all. The bizarre hipster wanna-be publication for tweens calls Surf's Up: The Girl's Guide to Surfing "gnarly," recommends Field Guide to the Apocalypse: Movie Survival Skills for the End of the World by Meghann Marco, and has praise for the token literary fiction girl-book of the season: The History of Love. This minor book content occupies about a sixth of a page under a heading that stands as some editor’s sad, misplaced attempt at self parody: "Reading, like, is totally awesome." A couple of pages away is a typically cursory “Road Test” of six dating books.
The thing is, a dismissal of what women read sounds a lot like a dismissal of women in general. Women’s magazines and chick lit can’t be ignored when it’s clear that so many women find meaning in them. Plenty of smart women read these things, as well as write them, but they also read and write outside these categories. If we’re keeping track, there’s hardly been the same kind of sweeping brush-off of Maxim or Details, or of chick lit's floundering male counterpart. It’s worth noting that attempted forays into the latest pseudo gender genre of dick lit (known in the New York Times Book Review by the much less catchy “lad lit”)- see Kyle Smith’s Love Monkey -- were much less successful than the publishing industry had planned.
Great. This is all very liberating.