The New York Times book review, in the indignant person of Naomi Wolf, is no fan of those slim, glossy series for teenage girls.
"These books look cute," Wolf begins. But don't be fooled, Times readers! "They carry no rating or recommended age range on the cover, but their intended audience — teenage girls — can't be in doubt. They feature sleek, conventionally beautiful girls lounging, getting in or out of limos, laughing and striking poses. Any parent —including me — might put them in the Barnes & Noble basket without a second glance."
(Presumably, those right-minded moms and dads who shop at independent bookstores are filling their baskets with more salubrious stuff. Or not. A quick trip over to the Powells website found a full compliment of the books Wolf so despises.)
What's Wolf's problem with the Gossip Girls and the A List? These are books about mean girls. Mean girls who shop, insult their social underlings and -- worst of all -- have sex. "(N)ot the frank sexual exploration found in a Judy Blume novel, but teenage sexuality via Juicy Couture, blasé and entirely commodified."
"Unfortunately for girls, these novels reproduce the dilemma they experience all the time: they are expected to compete with pornography, but can still be labeled sluts."
But the real problem isn't the "tacky" sex scenes, she says. "The problem is a value system in which meanness rules, parents check out, conformity is everything and stressed-out adult values are presumed to be meaningful to teenagers."
No more Austen, no more Alcott, no more good girls triumphing in the end while their wealthy, pretty tormentors are brought low. In these tales, the rich are right just by virtue of their platinum cards, and the point of reading has shifted from dismantling the corrupt values of your elders to fitting into it more compliantly.
Full disclosure: I haven't read any of these books. I've got a good decade before I have to start worrying about them, and it could well be that I'll crack my first Gossip Girl cover and be every bit as horrified as Wolf was.
But here's what's most striking about her breathless-to-the-point-of-hysteria article: Wolf's not giving tween or teen readers credit for any ability at all to distinguish between what's meant as moral instruction and what's meant as pure entertainment.
In other words: it's Rainbow Party panic 2.0.
You remember The Rainbow Party, right? Dreamed up after an editor caught an Oprah episode about the epidemic of oral sex among junior high-schoolers, the book told the story of a girl throwing a rainbow party, where the female attendees would each wear a different shade of lipstick, so that the boys they serviced would end the event with a rainbow of colors on their willies.
(Of course, as critics were quick to point out, that didn't even make sense from a mechanical standpoint. If a boy got serviced by multiple girls wearing different colored lipstick, he wouldn't wind up with a rainbow as much as a smeary, multicolored mess).
But the Rainbow Party, as Wolf was forced to confess, was more discussed than read. Nor did it seem to spark a rash of kneepad-wearing thirteen-year-olds asking, ever so casually, when their parents would be away for the weekend, any more than the popularity of "The Sopranos" has caused otherwise right-thinking adults to go around whacking their coworkers.
It's possible that the Gossip Girl/A List books are every bit the objectionable trash that Wolf says they are. It's also possible that girls are reading them not because they desire to emulate "bitch-goddess" Massie and her clique of A-listers, but for pure entertainment, for escapism, for a glimpse at a world of platinum-card wielding, Prada-clutch toting, hot-tub-hopping queen bees that they have no hope -- or desire -- of ever inhabiting themselves.
Meanwhile, if there's any place where the NYTBR's distaste for popular fiction is more evident than the "Inside the List" column, I don't want to know about it.
I read the column because I'm hoping for what the title promises: a look at the books and authors actually inhabiting the best-seller list that's printed mere millimeters away.
But at least once a month, columnist Dwight Garner eschews the list as it is for the list as he wishes it would be, skipping blithely past the Dan Browns and Nora Roberts in order to write with a longing more breathless than anything you'd find in the most salacious of teen reads about the Booksense bestseller list, a compilation of the more literary fiction that's selling at those beloved independent bookstores.
This week, he does himself one better, ignoring Jackie Collins, a double dose of James Patterson, and the two books with "Templar" in the title to write about "On Hashish," a memoir, which is going to be published by Harvard University Press two months' hence.
To review: that's an entire "Inside the List" column devoted to a book that isn't on any list, and isn't available anywhere.