My Sister Phyllis Pearsall Gross 

And the Meaning of Truth

Mrs P's Journey: 

Biography or Chick Lit...?

I want to devote an entire web page to the question of whether Mrs P's Journey can best be described as a biography or as "Chick Lit," even though this means duplicating some material appearing on other pages. I'm doing so first of all because I am quite certain that it qualifies far better as Chick Lit than as a biography but also because I believe this question is absolutely central to understanding how this book was conceived, created, published, publicized, and marketed.

First I want to state the applicable rules or identifying factors for a biography and then do the same for the more recent phenomenon of Chick Lit. I will then ask the obvious question: which of these rules or identifying factors best describe Mrs P's Journey, which ones does it best satisfy?

In the case of a biography you normally find the following, often in the early pages:

    1. A description of how hard the author worked;

    2. A confession of the author's humility given the enormity of the task;

    3. The names of the scholarly and/or popular sources for the work;

    4. The names of the subject's relatives or close friends consulted during the research;

    5. The names of the experts on the subject's life approached by the author;

    6. A clear description of the methodology followed in writing the book;

    7. An account of authorities sought out abroad, if any of the subjects described was often out of the country;

    8. While the author clearly feels the subject is important enough to write about, unpleasant or negative episodes of the subject's life are not neglected, and there is no sense that the author is merely being a cheer leader for the subject.

    9.  Wherever a controversial episode in the subject's life occurs—a sudden marriage, a divorce, a controversial business decision, a serious misjudgment—the author makes a special effort to present both sides—even all sides—of that episode, even if the author later comes down on one side of the question. 

    10. A copious number of footnotes will be found, clarifying phrases or technical details that need to be spelled out, given the complex nature of the research carried out.

    11. A respectable number of end notes will also be found, explaining further complexities or ambiguities raised by the subject's life;

    12. The titles and authors of all the other works in the field will be present, usually in a bibliography at the back of the book.

This is probably not a perfect list of the rules in this field, and perhaps not all biographies follow them all of the time. But most critics, book reviewers, and even most biographers would agree that it covers the main requirements.

Which leads to the point I am about to raise almost into a shout: how is it then that out of these twelve perfectly reasonable and respectable imperatives followed by most biographers, not a single one of them is observed in the pages of Mrs P's Journey?

Instead the author greets us with the following confession:

    "I have written the truth according to Phyllis. For I am convinced that every story, every memory and every encounter that she described, she believed to be true. Of course, when starting from such a shaky foundation, I have not felt uncomfortable interweaving elements of fiction into fact..."

Now let us look at a somewhat different kind of book description, that category more recently identified as "Chick Lit," which many would regard as not quite respectable as biography or history. Some may suppose it is mainly an American phenomenon, but not only is it  widely produced and consumed in the UK as well but its first and most famous exemplar, Bridget Jones's Diary, is entirely English, based on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. A section at the bottom of this page provides plentiful examples of UK "Chick Lit."

What precisely is Chick Lit? Here is the definition provided by wikipedia:

    "Chick lit typically features a female protagonist whose womanhood is heavily thematized in the plot. Though most often set in a contemporary world, such as in Waiting to Exhale, there is also historical chick lit. The issues dealt with are often more serious than consumerism. Marian Keyes's Watermelon, for instance, features a protagonist who wrestles with how to be a mother in a modern world. There is a growing market for religious chick lit. As with other types of genre fiction, authors and publishers target many niche markets.  Protagonists vary widely in ethnicity, age, social status, marital status, career, and religion... Although it sometimes includes romantic elements, chick lit is generally not considered a direct subcategory of the romance novel genre, because the heroine's relationship with her family or friends is often just as important as her romantic relationships."[Note1]

As we did with biography, it's now time to ask what the rules or identifying factors are for Chick Lit. In this case there are really only three, though they can each subdivide into variant sub-rules depending on the plot and the characters. Here they are:

     1. The heroine must be in a struggle against all odds, with the "odds" frequently portrayed as a man, whether a father, a lover, a boss, or a traditional enemy.

    2. She must come close to losing this struggle, even if it means being totally subjugated, seduced, financially ruined, or killed.

    3. She must rely on her inner feminine strength and at the last possible moment turn the tables on her tormentor(s) by resisting, outdoing, or totally destroying them.

Oddly enough, Mrs P's Journey totally fulfills all three of these rules, if we allow for a few of those variant sub-rules. And while most Chick Lit books are novels, this book also possesses so many fictional elements, both in itself and from the many untruths in my sister's books (on which it is based), that it comes perilously close to being fiction itself.

At its worst even its defenders concede that Chick Lit can become simply horrendous, but that is not the whole story. Let me repeat what I have also pointed out on my page about the book itself: there is of course a legitimate place for Chick Lit, as a new generation of literary critics has made clear. At its best it can provide an amusing but realistic account of the problems faced by working women today and even suggest solutions to those problems. But when Chick Lit passes over unannounced into a biography—and when critics fail to notice its presence—a new situation has clearly arisen.

In this biofiction (perhaps the kindest title we can bestow), there are two main stories. First that of the conflict between Phyllis' mother and a character labeled as our father, where the female protagonist does her best to prevail against the male villain but fails and is finally destroyed. But then comes the tale of the fictional Phyllis, who has learned her lesson from the fate of her mother. The fictional father now does his best to destroy the fictional Phyllis. But the fictional Phyllis has now been able to draw on her powers as a woman and in this way is able to triumph against her evil fictional father.

This is essentially the plot of Mrs P's Journey. On my page about the numerous errors in this book I have provided many further examples demonstrating how perfectly the plot of this biofiction observes the three rules of Chick Lit. Perhaps the most salient is this one occurring on page 204, two-thirds through the book when the author finally gets around to explaining how the A-Z was born:

     "She knew what her father would have done. She also knew that her mother would have laughed and said 'You show your father, darling. Just you show him what you can do, and beat him at his own silly game.'"

Show him you can "beat him at his own silly game." This is the quintessential slogan in many Chick Lit fantasies, and of course the fictional Phyllis is almost supernaturally empowered by its force.

Here's another prototypically Chick Lit passage, Phyllis' mother's decision to break up with Papa:

    " The raised voices rattled the house as Sandor continued pacing to and fro in his study. Bella reclined on the chaise longue in the conservatory, fanning away the flies, her neck mottled red with angry blotches. Then she suddenly got to her feet and screamed up to no one in particular, a hoarse, wild sound that brought Sandor flying out of his room: 'I AM LEAVING THIS MARRIAGE!'" (page 95)

And yes, those are CAPS. Here are three other breathless proclamations, equally shouting Chick Lit:

    "Her stubborn resolve did not falter. Her mouth would have been numb from her teeth chattering. Any tears that did scurry down her cheeks were due solely to the cold south-easterly wind smarting her eyes. Like a hostage kept captive in solitary confinement, her view was monotone. Black sea, night sky. To pass the time, she dredged through her past and selected memories to play back in glorious color." (pp. 106-107)
    "Phyllis never allowed herself to pick through the misery of her circumstances, knowing that it might lead to the same dark mania from which her mother suffered. Instead, she stepped over the bad times and made herself walk in the opposite direction to depression." (page 106)
    "Phyllis never understood the crippling effects of control or of the resentment that dominated her father. Instead she chose to be fearless, like her mother—to embrace a light-hearted acceptance of what Sandor would have called tragedies, disasters, and misfortune." (page 138)

The reviewer for the Observer provides us with another meaningful example:

    Questions about Phyllis's own failings are raised but not examined in depth. Furthermore, the narrative often relies on an annoying tone that is akin to a Victorian melodrama: 'A single wail from Bella [her mother], stranger than any noise they had ever heard, rose out from the depths of her crumpled body.'"

The reviewer for the Sunday Telegraph also came close to catching on:

    ...the result is overwrought and overwritten, florid and slapdash...

    Here is the heroine at school for instance: 'For some the sea acts as a metronome by tempering their restlessness and lulling their subconscious, but even the dragging lure of the waves could not harness the troublesome teenage girl cooped up at Roedean.' And here is a glimpse of Venice in the Twenties, where 'couples draped like sloths across one another kissed in the rocking gondoliers'. (It would have been better if Hartley had written 'gondolas', but only just). [This error was corrected by the time the paperback came out a year later, published by that inveterate fount of Chick Lit,  Pocket Books.]

Here's how four individuals unfortunate enough to purchase the book summed it up, all of them aware that something akin to Chick Lit might be lurking in the background:

"Unfortunately we realised when we read and discussed it that the book focused on a melodramatic fictionised account of Phylis Pearsall's life. "

"A Kid's Review"
Didn't finish this, I found it tedious. Not a lot about how she did the A-Z, more about her weird family.Some stuff did not ring true so I thought half of it was made up."

"This is an unusual book, in as much as the author seems more interested in writing an emotional story of a stressful childhood and eventual triumph rather than a biography."

"It’s also extraordinarily badly written; melodramatic and clumsy. It’s hard to do justice to the cumulative effect, but here’s a sample:
'Pacing back and forth in the darkest pit of her memory, Phyllis was aware that she lacked two vital elements of self-esteem that ought to have been rounded up and handed to her by her father. Respect and recognition. No matter how far she needed to search for the errant pair, no matter how long the journey, Phyllis was prepared to hunt them down.'"

As pointed out before, not a single one of the twelve rules observed by most biographies was followed. Perhaps the one most flagrantly violated was the ninth:

    9.  Wherever a controversial episode in the subject's life occurs—a sudden marriage, a divorce, a controversial business decision, a serious misjudgment—the author makes a special effort to present both sides—even all sides—of that episode, even if the author later comes down on one side of the question. 

But over and over again the author presents only one side of the two most vexatious questions the book poses: why did the marriage between Papa and Bella end in divorce, and who actually devised the A-Z Atlas? In each case the "She Said, He Said" dialogue that could have been presented is scrupulously avoided, and only the "She Said" side is presented: we are assured that Papa was definitely to blame for the breakup, and that Phyllis definitely created the A-Z.

Another of the rules rudely broken was number 7:

    7. An account of authorities sought out abroad, if any of the subjects described was often out of the country;

The author consulted my niece Mary West while preparing her book, and it would have cost her nothing to have asked my niece if any relatives of Phyllis or Papa were still living in the US. If she had done so, Mary would probably have replied: "Well, there's Alex, that's Phyllis' half-brother. We haven't heard too much from him lately."

It seems amazing to me that the author failed to ask this simple question, as I may well be the last person still alive who knew Phyllis truly well, even intimately.

A recent US scandal involving Chick Lit may help throw some light on this matter. In 2006, Kaavya Viswanathan, an Indian junior at Harvard, finished her first novel, a Chick Lit work entitled How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. She had received an advance of $500,000 before a single word was written, so naturally suspense grew concerning what the book would be like. Unfortunately charges of plagiarism were soon brought, and the texts lifted turned out to come from other Chick Lit sources.

At first the author denied the charges but finally conceded that she might have unconsciously "internalized" sections of Chick Lit novels she had been reading. Some blamed her for not coming clean sooner, but others blamed the publishing industry for subjecting her to almost unbelievable marketing pressures related to the soaring salability of Chick Lit. These pressures included competing literary agents, book packaging companies that produce Chick Lit on a factory scale, demands for product placement within the book itself, and possible multi-authorship. More details are available from the link below.[Note]

While this story may seem unrelated to Mrs P's Journey, there are still a few noteworthy similarities. Where Kaavya allegedly landed her contract solely on the basis of a title, we are told that Hartley received hers solely on the basis of a single article in a long-vanished online feminist zine. In both cases a young first-time author has been chosen and assigned an imposing task. Where plagiarism was at issue in the US, in Britain a related problem may have arisen: undue influence by the work of one writer on another, namely my sister vis à vis the author. And here too a process of internalization could have taken place, leading to an excessive identification with Phyllis and a forced or intended mimicking of her style.

As for the marketing pressures in the US case, we have no idea if these were present to any degree leading to the UK book's final form. We do know that the author complained to my niece that she had problems finding qualified informants about Phyllis, whom she had never met. These centered around Phyllis's late-life companion, who was beginning to exhibit signs of Alzheimer's. We do not know whether the author suggested adding fictionalized elements to the publishers, or if it was the publishers who first presented this idea.

At this point let me be completely honest and admit that I have not the slightest idea of what went on at Simon and Schuster while this book was being prepared for publication. And here perhaps lies another similarity to the American case: no one will know until the publishers come forward and reveal this process, though this is precisely what failed to happen in the US.

A slight discrepancy concerning copyright dates between the hardbound and the Pocket paperback editions could  well turn out to be perfectly innocent. The 2001 hardbound of course lists that date alone, and the copyright is fully assigned to the author. But the Pocket edition one year later lists two dates, 2001, but also the year 1997, and the Copyright is assigned both to the author and to Simon and Schuster in two separate lines.

It could well turn out that this second Copyright claim covers the Pocket Books logo, in which case all is explained. But why on earth would the date 1997 be assigned for this? This famous logo, the "reading kangaroo," has been known in the US for decades, possibly since the Forties. But if the UK branch of the publishers turns out to have been using it only since 1997, all is explained again.

In any case it would be useful if the publishers would provide us with an explanation. If the 1997 Copyright did  not cover the logo, this might raise the possibility of a prior manuscript for this book, possibly created for the publishers by a work-for-hire author. In that case there might have been a search for a new author who could impart a Chick Lit spin to an earlier manuscript. As in the US case this would suggest that the final author may have been to some extent a pawn. I emphasize that all of this is mere conjecture on my part, but once again this is something that could be readily settled by the publisher presenting the full facts of the case.

Everything I have presented on this page has been the result of slow, cautious, step-by-step detective work. For instance, let me confess that as recently as September of 2013 the entire Chick Lit scenario had simply not occurred to me, and though I had begun to realize that much of Mrs P's Journey seemed directed towards young people rather than biography buffs, I simply assumed I was dealing with a poorly conceived and executed book. Then in October I began to dimly remember the phrase Chick Lit and something about a scandal a few years earlier.

This led me to the treatment by Rachel Smydra footnoted below, though I still assumed Chick Lit must be mainly a US aberration later followed in the UK. I sent for the Ferriss & Young volume (also footnoted below) only late in December, and this finally opened my eyes to the remarkable truth that Chick Lit had in fact originated in the UK with Bridget Jones's Diary in 1996. Perhaps I'm just a literary snob, but that's how long it took me to catch up with that seminal Chick Lit novel, its sequel, and the two highly publicized films that followed.

But now at last I have truly felt this genre's massive impact. It has washed over my mind like a giant, billowing wave, as only Chick Lit can do. Just as it may have washed over the Gray's Inn Road offices of a world-famous publisher, perhaps sweeping competence and conscience along with it. For who can resist the onslaught of this ineffable sea of stylistics, so powerful is its force that perhaps it has even engulfed me in its wake, instantly and totally transsexualizing me and implanting a woman's mind and body within me. Yes, even now it is true, I clearly feel it. Night and gloom. Hope and despair conjoined. Bastions of a mighty empire swept away by inexorable tsunamis of the soul.

Who can stand firm against the eternal rumblings  resounding within these waves, cascading into mighty inescapable chimes that deafen our paltry range of hearing? Waves and chimes merging effortlessly together, bursting out over heath and heather, even over hither and thither, climaxing in mighty diapasons of muddled emotions and mixed metaphors, perhaps allowing only those whose ears are attuned to these rarified murmurings to sense the shared rhythm and power of two book titles:

Bridget Jones's Diary
Mrs P's Journey

Let me stress again that we cannot of course know any of this for certain, but perhaps we shall find out. It would also be useful to learn whether the mentioning of Daphne's Cafe, Harrods, and Pears soap on pages 227, 228, and 229 in my sister's alleged diary, totally manufactured by the author, constitutes "product placement," actual paid advertisements, as have appeared in some US Chick Lit books.

However any of this may turn out, here's the obvious conclusion I draw from this discussion. Mrs P's Journey certainly does not observe the rules common to most biographies. It definitely does follow the formula of most Chick Lit products. Let the reader decide whether to make the connection.

*   *   *

[Note1]The major scholarly work on this topic is Chick Lit: The New Woman's Fiction, edited by Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. This anthology of critical essays analyses the social and political implications of Chick Lit,  presenting on the whole a positive picture of this new medium, though not neglecting to consider the many criticisms it has encountered in the past. Since almost all Chick Lit takes the form of novels, the remarkable notion that Chick Lit could actually invade and take over a biography, as occurs in Mrs P's Journey, is not discussed. Nor is the possibility that such a conflicted  work could go undetected by the English literary world remotely considered. [back to text]

[Note2]A more complete account of the US Chick Lit  scandal than I have provided, authored by Rachel V. Smydra, can be found here:


[back to text]

Much more about British Chick Lit will be found on these pages:








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