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Friday, March 31

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« Chicago Women in Publishing Fall Reception Elizabeth Berg: An All-Too-Brief Interview »

Books Sat Sep 17 2011

Elizabeth Berg and Jacquelyn Mitchard: Truth and "Chick Lit"

On Thursday evening, bibliophiles had an opportunity to attend an informal meet & greet with two authors, both with Chicago roots: Elizabeth Berg (Once Upon a Time, There Was You), now an Oak Park denizen, and Jacquelyn Mitchard (Second Nature, a Love Story), a Chicago-to-Wisconsin transplant, dished with Tribune literary editor Elizabeth Taylor to a room full of women (and perhaps two men, give or take).

The tone of this installment of the Tribune's Author Talks, part of an effort to "extend journalism to a live format," was set from the start. In her introduction, Taylor relayed an anecdote about her husband, who apparently responded to learning who the chosen authors for this particular event were by saying, "why don't you just sit around drinking wine and talking in your pajamas?"

Although she was quick to add her husband's respect for these authors, there's much to be said for the comfort and intimacy (not to mention, honesty) of pjs and a bottle of wine. Throughout the evening, the audience (myself included) was so comfortable that I'm not sure we weren't dressed more informally than we actually were. If the Trib's goal was to hold these events as intimate "salons", where the conversation on stage feels personal, then they succeeded.

Berg and Mitchard began, obligingly, by sharing their "Oprah Stories" - both have had books chosen for the infamous book club, with Mitchard's The Deep End of the Ocean being the first ever. Mitchard, who got a testy, fourth phone message from Oprah asking her to please have the courtesy to return her call, initially thought the whole thing was a joke.

To justify juxtaposing these two stories together, they obviously need more in common than Lady O - which they most certainly do. Both books explore what happens after tragedy, and how people cope - be it the personal tragedy of a divorce and worrying about your child, or the medical risk of transplant rejection. Both, said Berg, "acknowledge sorrow, but offer comfort."

That gift of comfort, perhaps, has gotten them some stern reviews, most of which focus on writing and themes that are allegedly overly sincere and sentimental. Unsurprisingly, this sort of criticism tends to follow women authors who write about the lives of women. It is a testament to the organizers of this event that they don't succumb to the erroneous conviction that "women's literature" (aka, "chick lit") is thereby relatively uninteresting and unimportant (check out this interview with author Augusten Burroughs, who sees truthfulness and honesty where others see maudlin).

While many writers may be "deeply insecure" about bad reviews, Berg and Mitchard seem to take it in stride. "Good criticism finds places [I've] been dishonest," Mitchard admitted. Operative word being "good" - some detractors may well be railing against anything resembling a happy ending.

"Not every book ends like a Cormac McCarthy book," Mitchard continued, "with a guy eating an egg and thinking about the end of the world."

Maybe McCarthy should write in his pajamas more often.

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