Franzen’s newest offering of chick-lit
Working at a bookstore, I discovered feminism, but not the way you’d think. At 17, the notion of working at a Chapters or Indigo shimmered with romance. The sheer scale of the big box bookstore is enough to dazzle, often equipped with multiple floors, a built-in café, and thousands of titles on seemingly any topic or genre. It’s a veritable smörgåsbord of delights reserved not only for the literati but for booklovers of every stripe. Pop culture tells us bookstores—all bookstores—are open, progressive spaces brimming with ideas and possibility. So it can come as a shock to realize that big box bookstores, consuming so much physical and mental real estate, can be so culturally shallow.
The word ‘culture’ is routinely dropped in to any conversation about bookstores, whether lamenting their demise or reaffirming their relevance. I worked for Indigo Books and Music for five years, long enough to experience the full spectrum of CEO Heather Reisman’s plan to transform her company into the “world’s first cultural department store.” As the bookstore transformed into an affluent, candle-scented oasis selling, alongside books, various decorative housewares, artisanal jams, fashion accessories, iPads, and toys, the shift in focus was off-putting, but not unique. Reisman’s vision may treat books as conversation pieces or status objects that pair nicely with a fancy lamp, but so do a lot of other stores. It is the gendered curation of Indigo as a so-called cultural department store that is alarmingly problematic.
Let me be clear: there is no one as enthusiastic about the publishing industry’s reliance on visual clichés as the big box bookstore. Consumerist superstores haven’t created the problem of sexism in the publishing world, but they coexist in happy symbiosis. Publishers are all too eager to relegate women’s writing of every subject and genre to the junk food aisle, while bookstores provide the appropriate pink signage and stock hand-stitched napkins and designer stationery nearby to appeal to the sensibilities of the delicate female reader. Books and accessories marketed to the varied male consumer, often under headings like “For the Man in Your Life” or “What a Man Should Have,” are full of books on science, business, politics, and literary (if we can trust this category) fiction. Curated alongside a biography of an athlete or American president, you will find a beer making kit, whiskey tumblers, fancy barbeque sauce, and the latest tech gadget. When big box bookstores masquerade as the gatekeepers of enlightenment, champions of the written word, and defenders against a digital takeover, they are conveniently harder to critique. After the perfume of bookstore nostalgia wears off, we must recognize that Indigo is pedalling shoppable stereotypes as part of a recession-era capitalist venture.
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Still, purchasing at a large, monopolistic bookstore can often seem like the lesser of two evils for shoppers hesitant to turn to the Internet. Lamenting the closure of Book City, bestselling fantasy writer Guy Gavriel Kay told Metro News, “A lot of our culture today narrows us to our own online community of shared tastes and views. A bookstore is wide open and that helps make us wider and more open.” While the sentiment may hold true for independent stores like Book City, there is not much difference between a computer algorithm spitting out a ‘personalized’ suggestion based on previous views and purchases and the aggressive promotional tactics at work in the highly controlled environment at your local big box chain. One cannot simply walk into an Indigo and expect to browse with idle pleasure. There is nothing haphazard about the rigorously planogrammed store. Every gift card and mass-market must be in exactly the place the visual marketing team has preordained, with directives that change monthly. There is a greeter at the door urgently handing out coupons for a sale inevitably ‘ending soon,’ there’s the visual prominence of new hardcover releases that publishers have paid hefty sums to have displayed at high traffic locations, and there’s the table of “Heather’s Picks,” complete with a large photograph of Heather Reisman looming overhead like TJ Eckleburg, as we’re supposed to believe Indigo’s self-proclaimed ‘chief booklover’ has personally read and recommended every single hot topic title. A rack of scarves and Great Gatsby tote bags cannot be too far away.
But the icing on the proverbial pink cake is the store’s sexist visual curation, often laughably misinformed. Author Jodi Picoult, feeling the effects of gender-based marketing her entire career, still struggles to be taken seriously despite having eight of her 23 novels on the New York Times bestseller list. Picoult writes from the perspective of both men and women on a broad range of topics including the effects of religious fanaticism, assisted suicide, and school shootings. Yet you’d never suspect such varied themes by looking at Picoult’s catalogue, since no matter what’s contained between the curvy fonts and pastel colours of her book jackets, Picoult is almost exclusively hawked as a ‘chick lit’ author. Picoult says she actually giggled when people called The Storyteller, a novel about the Holocaust, chick-lit.
Male authors can fall victim to false advertising, too: I’ve seen Indigo prominently feature Nabokov’s Lolita on a Valentine’s Day table due to one particular edition’s frilly cover design. Books do not have to be purely utilitarian. They can and do exist as beautiful objects—there is nothing I love more than gorgeous book designs—but the anxiety associated with books as gendered accessories and markers of status has me reluctantly coming around to the advantages of e-reading.
I discovered feminism after experiencing how an arbitrary epithet like ‘chick-lit’ can eliminate male readership. I have experienced firsthand both the difficulty in selling books authored by women and the casual erasure of female literary achievement. I will never forget how shaken I felt one night at Indigo when a middle-aged man let out an aggravated sigh on his way out of the store. Confused, I asked him if everything was alright, and with an exasperated “no,” he pointed at a New Releases table nearby and complained that it was mostly women. Though I can guarantee this was not the case, I asked what the problem with that was. He looked at me like an idiot and replied, “There is obviously a reason why there was never a female James Joyce or T.S. Eliot!” Uninterested in my response, he breezed out the door. Talking to my colleagues later, red in the face, the interaction was mostly brushed off. “What a crazy,” they said, as if this sort of attitude or behaviour was a one-off anomaly. It was the shocking, painful moment I first understood how the male perspective is internalized as universal; women read books by men and men read books by men, but books authored by women are highly contentious. As Roxane Gay puts it in her essay “Beyond the Measure of Men,” it is time to shift the focus and discuss “how men (as readers, critics, and editors) can start to bear the responsibility for becoming better, broader readers,” instead of denying a problem exists. If you want to see the problem existing, thriving, and growing legs, go to your local Indigo or Chapters and look around.
Bookstores are not sacrosanct; though they may occasionally house it, a store does not create culture. The world is not black and white, and it’s definitely not pink and blue. It’s about time we learn to appreciate culture—and books—without the arbitrary decorative framing that so often accompanies it.