When is "chick lit" actually chick lit? That is, when is it more, or less, than "a lucrative niche in an otherwise struggling fiction industry"? Is it a legitimate "genre" of contemporary literature? Is it an inherently derogatory term? If a book concerns a single and/or educated and/or young-ish woman "worrying about" her status, her love life, her family, does it automatically qualify as belonging to the genre? Can the "lit" part be completely spelled out into "literature"?
These questions occur to me as I finish reading When the Messenger is Hot, a debut collection of stories by Elizabeth Crane. Many of the reviews of the book referenced "chick lit" (at least one referring specifically to Bridget Jones, presumably the Ur-text of chick lit), and the stories, most of them revolving around the kind of urban woman mentioned above, certainly seem directed to readers who would find fiction about unmarried heterosexual women and their travails immediately appealing.
But ultimately the stories do also seem--or at least their cumulative effect seems--more substantive than the term "chick lit" appears designed to allow for. At the same time, their almost obsessive concern with dating and sex, lifestyle and love, makes one hesitate to think of them as "literary" in the fully amplified sense of that word.
Most of the stories are tinged with a melancholy and frustration that certainly elevates them above the Candace Bushnell-level of "women's writing." The best story in the book, "Privacy and Coffee," about a woman who in essence avoids committing suicide by "falling up" to a secluded part of a friend's apartment house rather than "jumping down" from it, is tonally right-on in capturing the protagonist's subdued despair. The second best story, "Something Shiny," is a mordantly funny tale of, literally, a loss of identity.
Formally and stylistically the book displays some imagination and skill as well. Crane is not afraid to break out of the mold of the well-made story, experimenting in many of the stories with structure and character-creation, venturing sometimes, with varying degrees of success, into fantasia and reverie. Crane's style, generally consistent across all the stories, is also unconventional in a pleasingly unwieldy kind of way. (In a profile published in New City Chicago, Crane intimates she wanted to emulate David Foster Wallace, but her style reminds me somewhat of the decidedly non-chick writer Stephen Dixon.)
And yet, my enduring impression is that When the Messenger is Hot to some degree expends the writer's talents and insights on overly flimsy material. Even the recurring motifs of death and grief (in most cases for the protagonist's mother) ultimately lead less to reflection on these unavoidable occurences than to assertions of the characters' sorrow in dealing with them--as if they're just one more obstacle in the way of these characters finding "fulfillment" in a rather hackneyed and familiar way. It would finally be unfair to label Elizabeth Crane a writer of "chick lit," but fans of the genre would still probably find her book more than faintly recognizable.