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…