Do These Covers Mean “Chick Lit?” & Week Three of The Tale of Genji


I no longer hear about chick lit.  For several years it was all Bridget Jones and novels with pink and turquoise covers on the tables at the bookstores.  Then the genre disappeared.

I was at the bookstore recently and saw several new books with woman-friendly pastel covers!  Are these chick lit indicators?  Wouldn’t you love that martini or that beach hat?   These cute books look like fun.

And now:  Week Three of My Summer Reading Project, The Tale of Genji.

How am I doing with Genji?

The prose is lush, and I am enthralled by the poems, complete with allusions to Chinese poems, exchanged by the anti-hero, Genji, and his girlfriends, as part of their courtship. The Tale of Genji is one of the first long literary works by a woman.  The author, Murasaki Shikibu, a lady of the Heian Court, entertained the Empress and Emperor with chapters from her long romance.   And this 1,000-plus-page work of art has influenced many Japanese writers.

But I lack a cultural context.

In the introduction to the Knopf edition, translator Edward G. Seidensticker explains the publisher requested minimal notes. So the prose washes over one but I’d like more background.

tale fo genji royall tyler 7042And so I tried  The Summer of Genji website, where a readalong was sponsored in 2010 by The Quarterly Conversation and Open Letters Monthly. The intelligent post-ers were not, alas, Japanese scholars,  and I can’t pretend their witty posts elucidate the text.  Is  Genji really a stalker and rapist, as some of them suggest?   Well,  he is not violent, but on the other hand he is not adverse to slipping into the rooms of bachelorettes, young wives, and randy 60-year-old women, often without permission.   But Genji is, as I understand it, a tale of courtly love!

Shikabu describes Genji early on satirically but affectionately. Here’s a paragraph from the Dennis Washburn translation:

THE RADIANT Prince—a splendid, if somewhat bombastic, title. In fact, his failings were so numerous that such a lofty sobriquet was perhaps misleading. He engaged in all sorts of flings and dalliances, but he sought to keep them secret out of fear that he would become fodder for gossips who delighted in circulating rumors about him and end up leaving to later generations a reputation as a careless, frivolous man. Genji was keen to avoid the censure of the court and, thus constrained, went about feigning a serious and earnest demeanor for a time, abstaining from all elegantly seductive or charming affairs. No doubt the Lesser Captain of Takano, that legendary lover, would have been amused.

He is clearly a flawed hero! But I see no indication (yet) that Shikibu regards his affairs as rape. He is described as stunnngly attractive, both to women and men (who all think he would attract them if he were a woman).

So what did Shikibu think of Genji, and what did eleventh-century readers think?

I did find an excellent essay online by Royal Tyler, “Marriage, Rank and Rape in The Tale of Genji,” in which he talks about this ttopic. Tyler is the translator of the Penguin edition.

He writes,

There are two basic evaluations of Genji’s love relationships. One, established for centuries and still current, accepts the position taken repeatedly by the narrator herself, to the effect that Genji is all but irresistible; that he values character as highly as he values looks; and that he never abandons any woman with whom he has established a bond. These are striking or admirable traits, and Genji has often been praised by both men and women as representing an ideal. However, a reaction against this sort of view has set in recently in Japan, North America, and no doubt elsewhere… T he dissenters charge Genji with crimes against women

The Tale of Genji 9780393047875_300I do wish I had Tyler’s translation! As it is, I have gone back to Dennis Washburn’s scholarly edition, which I bought last summer and found a little heavy-going, but I need his extensive footnotes. And in the excellent introduction he explains that Shikibu “satirizes the foibles and hypocrisies of the nobility,… while at the same time reinforcing or affirming fundamental aesthetic, moral, and religious values in a way that was flattering to the self-regard of court society.”

And about the reception of the text:

The story has been read as a moral and religious guide, as a source for historical data on court society, as a feminist text and post-feminist text, as a marker of cultural literacy and national identity. Whatever we make of these individual interpretations, taken together they serve to remind us that the privileged position of the work is not based entirely on qualities intrinsic to the text, but is instead constructed from a long, complex history of critical reception.

I do believe it is necessary to know something about the context and not think about this simply in modern terms.  Thank God for scholars!

And so I read on…

9 thoughts on “Do These Covers Mean “Chick Lit?” & Week Three of The Tale of Genji

  1. Chick-lit is very much still there. People aren’t talking of it any more. Demoralizing as I at least find it, the talk about chick-lit was part of a concession on the part of the male establishment (males own and manage most public platforms, most major publications, are the overwhelming majority on most boards) to recognize that women have their own genres, interests, subject matters, aesthetic. Of course they chose to talk of one that flattered them by presenting women as hungry for men, as all about chasing men with other women. But now that feminism is going into yet another deeper phase of moribundness, why pay attention to that? Elena Ferrante mainstreams her books to get onto the radar. Hilary Mantel has a male at the center of her trilogy (although highly femininized in all sorts of ways, he is male).

    This is not irrelevant to the the Tale of Genji. The reality is a huge proportion of texts women have written have just disappeared, never got into print or emerge in much censored forms if they at all question the male hegemony. When you’ve done, do try Lady Nijo’s Story. It’s 13th century and available in a good translation. She made the dinner table in Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls.


    • Ellen, I’m wondering if those millennial “marriage plot” books are now categorized as romance. Many were formulaic, but I did like Bridget Jones! What happened to them? This new set of “chick lit” covers seems to belong to a slightly different “chick lit” genre of women’s lit, judging from the fact that Emma Straub’s book was reviewed by Michiko Kakutani. So they’re women’s books, aimed only at women, but perhaps a little less light?
      Marketing is strange. I know many women writers hated being billed as “chick lit.”

      I’ll look for Lady Nijjo’s Story!


  2. There’s still a ton of chick-lit in the bookshops and supermarkets over here, which I find very depressing – the covers may be lovely, but I have seen the insides and they’re just unreadable as far I’m concerned…


    • Oh, I adored Bridget Jones and Emma Tennant’s Confessions of a Sugar Mummy, but they were above the usual standard. I’m discovering that these new women’s books seem not quite to belong to that genre after all. Emma Straub’s comedy was reviewed by Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, and she mentions Foucault and Derrida! So I was wrong about the chick-lit genre, but I still think that these light novels are still being billed for women with those covers!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I have the Tale of Genji but I’ve been reading Lady Marusaki’s diaries, because I read Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book. I’m completely fascinated by these women’s lives in late 10th and early 11th century Japan. Like you, I feel I need to place them in some kind of historic and cultural context, but I haven’t found anything that helps. I looked at the Japanese collection in the V&A when I visited my younger daughter at the weekend, but most of the exhibits are much later, and the information is quite scanty. But while I was trying to understand such a very different way of life, I was surprised at how both women reach out across the centuries – there are moments when they sound quite modern, and many of their thoughts and concerns are not so dissimilar to the way we feel today.


    • Yes, I do think Murasaki sounds very modern, and certainly her women in Genji often quietly avoid him or reject him. The narrative is so quiet but the women are very strong characters.


    • Well, they’re all good! I prefer a lot of footnotes so would go with Royall Tyler (the Penguin) or Dennis Washburn (Norton). But if you’re not a footnote person, go with any of them.

      Liked by 1 person

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