A response to Lisa Yaszek and writing postfeminism

A response to Lisa Yaszek and writing postfeminism

2005-01-30

Cris Mazza on hijacking the terms of postfeminism.

At the time I wrote the introductions for the Chick-Lit anthologies, I had no idea they would take their place in a discussion such as this, or in larger discussions involving the new commercial “Chick-Lit” and the status of feminism in general. [ link to Cris Mazza in ebr on the Chick-Lit Anthologies -eds.] In fact, in one of the introductions, I think I mentioned that I’d had no idea the word “postfeminist” would be used in the title of the first anthology until I saw the cover. I had borrowed the term from a flier I saw on our department bulletin board, and I admitted I didn’t know the history of the term, but just thought it interesting that every new school of inquiry marks itself as different from its predecessors by attaching the prefix “post.” So I used it ironically in a call-for-manuscripts, in the same spirit that the title Chick-Lit was meant ironically. Interestingly, aside from how the anthologies have contributed to this kind of intellectual discussion of feminism, our ironic use of the title Chick-Lit contributed to something decidedly un-intellectual: that is, the new breed of light, commercial urban-working-girl-looking-for-love novels the industry calls “Chick-Lit.” In my Chick-Lit anthology introduction, I referred to my use of “postfeminism” in the call-for-mss as a joke, and I thought the title Chick-Lit carried obvious satire. Thus my new essay, “Who’s Laughing Now / A Short History of Chick-Lit and the Perversion of a Genre,” which should appear in the winter 05 issue of Poets & Writers. (And I must thank my co-editor Elisabeth Sheffield for the first three words of this title, as it is the essence of her comments about what has happened to “Chick-Lit” in the last 10 years). In Lisa Yaszek’s ebr essay, a quote from Tania Modleski says that “New Traditionalist postfeminism is far more insidious than the backlash against feminism precisely because it ‘has been carried out not against feminism, but in its very name.’” This is similar to how I view the hijacking of the term “Chick-Lit” by the commercial book industry to represent these shallow formula (and new traditionalist) novels. The website “WordSpy” ( http://www.wordspy.com/words/chicklit.asp) provides an excerpt from what it says is the earliest use of “Chick-Lit” in print, but the quote (as well as all its other “Chick-Lit” quotes) appeared in print after our anthologies were published. In fact, WordSpy’s “Earliest Citation” actually refers to an essay by James Wolcott that contained the term “Chick-Lit,” and in his essay, Wolcott directly referenced our anthology, Chick-Lit: Postfeminist Fiction. So, in this instance being a better spy than WordSpy, I have “proven” that Jeffrey DeShell and I were the first to put the term “Chick-Lit” into print. But what does that proof accomplish in the face of the mainstream press attention these girly books are receiving?

But I digress…thanks to ebr and Lisa Yaszek’s essay, I am now given another opportunity to see my work on this stage.

In much of what Yaszek writes, I found myself saying yesyesyes to many of her assertions. “Women artists often resist feminism ‘as an imposition or confinement of their creative processes.’” Yes. “Mazza’s postfeminism is grounded in a specific critique of second-wave feminism as limiting the narrative options available to women writers.” Yes. However, when Yaszek’s essay maintains that postfeminist writers dealing with “the disappointments of second-wave feminism run the risk of simply repeating the rhetoric of the popular press…” etc., up through, “I found this to be particularly apparent in Cris Mazza’s writing,” I am both perplexed and a little taken aback. First of all the “Apparent in Cris Mazza’s writing…” Which of my novels and collections of stories could this be referring to? I cringe to think that “Mazza’s writing” will only mean an introduction written 10 years ago. This is not the only reference to “Mazza’s writing” and “Mazza’s work,” but it becomes apparent none of my books are being referred to in any of these instances. [Note: for an essay that discusses postfeminist literature as it specifically relates to one of my novels, with asides from some of the original Chick-Lit authors, go to ( http://www.flashpointmag.com/ctatham.htm, a criticfiction by Cam Tatham.] And, the designation of “Mazza’s writing” aside, the conclusion being drawn in this above-referenced selection of Yaszek’s essay was startling, especially combined with the rest: “In essence, Mazza casts the struggle to create the Chick-Lit anthologies as one in which she…must struggle out from under the oppressive dictates…” etc., through, “Although Mazza insists that she and her cohorts are not antifeminists, then, at best literary postfeminism seems to be apolitical and afeminist. At worst, it places creative writers in an adversarial relation to the entire history of feminism itself.” I’m not sure which of “my work” is leading to this conclusion, but Yaszek’s essay does include in its bibliography an essay I wrote for Symploke about the experience of editing the two Chick-Lit anthologies. Yaszek doesn’t quote what I said in that piece, but I will: “If the media and publishing industry only seek or will only give attention to women when they are victimized,…then that becomes our only status. It’s starting to seem like our only importance to society is that our experiences as victims exemplifies how fucked-up society is,” (see Yaszek’s bibliography for full citation info). What I didn’t say then, but I will add now, is: If the feminist movement had likewise used (and fore-fronted) this victim status for pursuing its agenda, then it had agreed with - rather than attempted to dispute - this limited view of women only as victims. But are feminist theorists suggesting that it would be anti-feminist or destructive for postfeminist literature to look critically at where traditional, or second-wave feminism may have faltered? If so, isn’t this the same as certain Republicans claiming anyone who disagrees with President Bush is anti-American? Doesn’t it show more passion for a cause (or a nation) to want to expose and remove its faults than to recite its virtues?

Perhaps Yaszek would’ve been interested to see a well-known short story of mine called “Is It Sexual Harassment Yet?” (from Is It Sexual Harassment Yet? FC2, 1991 and 1998). Used in many college classes, including graduate feminist theory seminars, this story, which appeared 6 months before the Clarence Thomas hearings, is noted and used for its ambiguity concerning victimhood, its questioning of who exactly is victimizing whom, and how. Most importantly for Yaszek’s purposes, the story has been anthologized many times, and one of those times was a book called Feminism³: The Third Generation in Fiction, edited by Irene Zahava, which came out in 1996. This anthology of fiction containing stories by Sandra Cisneros, Dorothy Allison, Pam Huston, and others should probably be included when Yaszek makes her interesting evaluation of the use of “third wave of feminism” over “postfeminist.” Plus this anthology contains another introduction to plumb, in which Zahava says:

So once again, we must be devilish, brilliant, destructive, rash, thrashing, subtle and sweet. We have to forge new subjects of inquiry. At the same time [that] there is an enormous amount left to be said about our favorite territorial subjects (motherhood, daughterhood, coming out, all forms of love and romance), there are thematic mountain ranges and topical deep seats that have not articulated. We have to challenge ourselves not to run over the same, staked-out property.

This is what I was trying, admittedly so clumsily, to say in my introductions to the Chick-Lit anthologies.

Cris Mazza