Don't Hate Me Because I'm Cute
Baltimore's Expert in Literary Girl Power Puts Her Finger on What's Wrong With Chick Lit
The party, in case you haven't been inside a bookstore in the past five years, is once again in full swing. "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists," as George Eliot so appropriately characterized them in her 1856 Westminster Review essay by that title, are not only back in vogue, popping up on the bookstore shelves and bestseller lists like candy-colored mushrooms in the front lawn of literature, but they are back in the critical eye as well. Now as then, pejoratives fill the air like autumn leaves.
The books are vapid, what Eliot called "a composite order of feminine fatuity," the plots flimsy and formulaic. And if in Eliot's day the characters sang a three-note opera of social-climbing ambition, upper-class accoutrement, and hopeful husband-hunting, today the husband-hunting and conspicuous consumption are intact, the social climbing replaced by a cocktail of magazine-cover yearnings and hapless urban frustration. The things Eliot called "silly" back then have today been deemed "froth" by women like Booker Prize nominee Dame Beryl Bainbridge. Average readers as well, perhaps influenced by the jelly-bean-colored covers, tend to assume that the average Chick Lit book is the prose equivalent of a Happy Meal.
They're not incorrect. The books are cutesy, trite, and in most cases poorly written. But that's not what's really the matter with Chick Lit. The problem is that when critics (professional or otherwise) rip into Chick Lit, what they're really scoffing at most of the time isn't the worn clichés, the puerile plots, or the graceless prosody, it's women. As a writer and editor with five books on the shelves whose work has been featured in magazines from Southwest Art to Penthouse--and specifically as a woman whose work deals in-depth with issues of sexuality and gender--I should know. Sexism has a long and storied history, and part of the game is that certain topics--the domestic, the mundane, the sensual, the emotionally fraught--have for centuries been feminized, associated with women in order to be dismissed. The literary equivalent of "you throw like a girl" is "you write like a girl."
I say all this not to excuse Chick Lit's failings--I personally can't stand 95 percent of what I've read of it--but to point out that most of the people who pooh-pooh it, including most of the feminists I've heard dissing the pastel-colored, shoe-festooned covers and the unthinking heterosexism that pervades every page, are being distracted from getting at what's really wrong with the genre. It isn't the writing, the packaging, or even the genre--it's the way these books deal, and fail to deal, with gender.
Let's not delude ourselves: We're talking about entertainment reading here. Entertainment comes in varying degrees of quality, of course, but our entertainment reading choices, by and large, are not precisely gems of deathless prose, world-changing philosophical tours de force, or breathtakingly unpredictable in their characterizations or narratives. The Chick Lit juggernaut of consumerist husband-hunting femme stereotypes is no less a pastiche (and in many ways no less a parody) of our culture's directives to women than, say, Tom Clancy or Dean Koontz novels are an identical war machine of the cultural directives aimed at men.
The difference? The ideal vs. the real; the golden godlike image of the archetypal man vs. the rumpled, insistently mortal imperfections of the day-to-day woman; the domestic and personal vs. the male "sphere" that is the rest of the world. The spy novel (since I mentioned Clancy), to take one genre directed at men, eschews mundanity in favor of holding up an impossible, unattainable, and often impossibly silly--why do you think Austin Powers worked so well?--fetish of a man in a man's world, idealized through men's eyes.
Chick Lit, on the other hand, tosses the role-modeling of ideal women straight out the window. Instead, the subject becomes the mundane workaday world, the world in which we care about our stupid bosses, self-absorbed boyfriends, still fitting into that pair of jeans, and whether we have a prayer in hell of having the kinds of magazine-cover lives we keep being told we can have if only we can manage to get it all right. That many of the novels are written in the form of diaries (Emma McLaughlin's The Nanny Diaries, Laura Wolf's Diary of a Mad Bride) or are styled as autobiographies (Laurie Notaro's Autobiography of a Fat Bride, Sherrie Krantz's The Autobiography of Vivian) should only make it clearer that these books are defiantly about minutiae, ordinary, and frequently vulgar. In these books idealism lives primarily in the "I shouldn't haves" of Shopaholic Rebecca Bloomwood's obsessive purchasing and in Bridget Jones' repeated catalogues of drinks drunk, cigarettes smoked, and unwanted pounds.
This is the very stuff author Doris Lessing referred to, in a 2001 BBC interview, when she said, "It would be better, perhaps, if [these authors] wrote books about their lives as they really saw them and not these helpless girls, drunken, worrying about their weight and so on," without apparently realizing that, in fact, this is precisely what many women do see. They (or should I say we, as a thirtysomething woman myself) have been carefully schooled since childhood to perform a meticulous and continual self-inventory in which they compare themselves from teeth to tits to toenail polish, salary to sling-backs to cellulite, to a constantly massaged, omnipresent, and unattainable ideal that appears in its myriad versions everywhere from women's history month filmstrips in grade school to the pages of Working Woman. For the workin'-girl twenty- and thirtysomethings that are the primary audience for Chick Lit, the resonance is deafening. Readers may well recognize that the degree to which it's all taken is often quasi-parodic (and many do seem to), but what drives the spiraling Chick Lit industry is empathy: I've had days like that.
It would not be unfair or inaccurate to say that the subject matter of Chick Lit is just one legacy of 20th-century feminism, its failures and triumphs equally intact. Caught between the rock of having our insecurities commodified and sold back to us and the hard place of having just enough autonomy, education, and economic clout to participate in the cycle, it's little wonder that today's Chick Lit is a literature of feminine dissatisfaction. It's also little wonder that the dissatisfactions are cloaked in self-deprecation, in humorously failed attempts to placate the insatiable ideals of perfectible hetero femininity, and, finally, in the characteristically breezy vernacular of the prose and the insufferably twee packaging. We laugh, achieving release through empathy, heartened that all the things we've been taught are so vital to our success as women are as difficult to attain for Andrea Sachs (lumpenprole protagonist of The Devil Wears Prada) and Rebecca Bloomwood (of the Shopaholic books) as they are for us. Our own dissatisfactions seem normal. Any outrage we might feel is mollified by the constant reminder that this is just the way it is, that there's nothing you can do about it, that it's best to just laugh it off.
This is, I think, what genuinely should be criticized about these silly novels by lady novelists: not their humor, not their tone, not their tissue-paper plots or their tiresome fixation on looks, but their obliviousness to their own words and what their words indicate. They are, to put it bluntly, not self-aware enough to realize that the constant low-grade misery they depict has larger causes and both larger and smaller cures. Insofar as these novels and their anti-role-model protagonists are nonetheless role models for their readers to some degree, that's a crying shame.
Faced with bilious criticism about the evils of pornography, sex activist Annie Sprinkle replied that "the solution to bad porn isn't no porn, it's better porn," thus spawning a generation of progressive, politically aware producers of smut and a pornography that is far better, more diverse, and more life-affirming than much of what preceded and surrounds it. Similarly, the solution to bad Chick Lit isn't to get rid of Chick Lit, it's making the effort to produce a Chick Lit that's more nutritious, more interesting, and just plain better.
This doesn't have to mean that realistic depictions of women's lives aren't worthwhile. What it means is depicting women's normal, everyday adaptability and strength. As with Jennifer Weiner's Good in Bed, published in 2001 (which, incidentally, I found nearly unreadable from a writerly standpoint), Chick Lit novels can easily and profitably introduce a bit of no-brainer revolution. In the case of Good in Bed, the laborious saga of self-loathing chunkster Cannie Shapiro and her road to the realization that her own very full life is in fact not such a bad one, the eventual admission is that worth and weight are not inextricably entwined, that one can be worthwhile and not be thin. Would it be so difficult for a Chick Lit novel to hold that premise throughout? Or, say, the idea that there is something to be said for maintaining a reasonably happy and engaging life, and sharing that with a man, rather than looking to a man and a romantic relationship to fix or complete one's life? I don't think so.
The alternative to obliviousness doesn't have to be ball-crushing anarcho-feminism. It can simply be woman-respecting, mildly progressive pragmatism. I, for one, would welcome a Chick Lit that backed up its cute shoes with a bit of clout. I want to see Chick Lit women who are able to overcome (even briefly) their tendency to flail, women whose strength may be imperfect but is nonetheless evident. What's really wrong with Chick Lit now isn't that it trades in floundering frustration, Jimmy Choo sandals, and helplessness over role-modeling, feminism, or, for that matter, proper grammar. What's wrong is that, in this incarnation as in the one George Eliot lambasted well over a century ago, it's too unconscious of itself to care.
ull of someone else's bloated Seventeen magazine girl-on-boy fantasies; fairy-tale situations of evil, rescue, and forever after; or the Carrie Bradshaw-types whispering over Champagne, "This world has nothing to do with you." And yes, the books also contain crank relationships that take too long to end, career ambitions and plateaus, concerns about the 30s that creep up before you've ever picked out and bought your very own new couch, bad boy/good guy deliberations, lunch after shopping, and wondering what exactly your parents did to you to make some things so fucking hard to wrap your head around. As comforting as those familiarities are, these four books all ended in a Sweet Valley High/Bridget Jones/old-romantic-comedy-with-Meg Ryan kind of way. Except for the memoir.
London gal Sylvia Smith's Appleby House (Anchor, September), a tight little memoir of dailiness, opens with her first look at the East London bedsit, shared-bathroom, all-women-renters living situation the book is named for. She's one of the few renters without a live-in boyfriend to split the rent, and devises a system for sharing the hot water (a system that isn't dirty at all, although it may sound that way). The book is Smith's tally of a year's worth of ordinary events--having a color-coded toilet paper rotation, being reminded that Dallas (the year is 1984) is on the telly because your neighbor refuses to keep the volume down, and comparing room, rent, and jobs with housemates--and it has a little something to say. Taking the path of least resistance in telling her story with single-syllable descriptions, and with the sure fact of her own unsentimental relationships, Smith allows the story to be, honestly, the single girl's life. The book closes quietly and makes you feel understood in the way City Paper's own Lulu Eightball does. And, quite frankly, making dinner by yourself most nights and grocery shopping on Saturdays has always been cool, in a That Girl kind of way.
But in Devil May Care (Atria, August) by Sheri McInnis, who could give a shit about Sally, the unsuccessful actress living in New York with her unsatisfying pony-tailed boyfriend when she falls in love with the devil? In case you didn't know, our tall, dark, and handsome/knight in shining armor/best lover ever/only man we ever felt truly loved us happens to be the fucking devil. Yeah, he fatally hurts the people who stand in his way, says he had never fallen in love before falling in love with us, and has exquisite taste. I expected some sort of irony here, but no, that man is Satan himself. As if cigarettes aren't bad enough, Sally must choose between all she has ever wanted for herself and Lucifer. Jesus, girls, it is not as fucking funny as it sounds. To quote one of the most empathetic and sane women on television, Sex in the City's Miranda Hobbes, "These are our choices?"
She gives birth--birth, I tell you--to and baptizes her perfectly agreeable spawn of Hades, and tries to rebuild her once artificially successful career. But near the end, she finally says hell no to the man with horns after he saves her life. The book is sprinkled with references to her alcoholic father, religious mother, and a felony (not hers) as though they were clues to the devil puzzle. Guess what? I wake up and go to bed every day in a damn puzzle, and I think at 33 I should be sleeping in a really comfortable one. I don't, but I sure as hell don't blame my childhood.
Because, darling, here comes Candace Bushnell (Sex in the City), the author who laid the foundation for a million ladies' brunches. Her new book is Trading Up (Hyperion, July), the latest installment about what women in New York whom I've never met do with their lives. The main character is Janey, a 33-year-old Victoria's Secret model (obviously a plea on Bushnell's own behalf to wish that could be; Stephanie Seymour doesn't even show up on the Pink--read "sale"--Pages anymore) with few morals, mile-high ambitions, and platinum tastes. She isn't sympathetic, and is barely interesting, but the story somehow seems to be. Interesting, I mean. In a cracked nutshell, Janey marries a millionaire for the stability, becomes rich as shit and fabulously famous, and falls in love. Good luck.
The truth: Trading Up was an intriguing read. Does settling romantically in order to get what you want materially (and by "materially," I mean lifestyle, living space, marriage, friends, lunch reservations, and comfort and safety levels) equal making a compromise that's doomed to failure? Lunch reservations? Who am I kidding? This book is all about the pain and the Champagne. And who out of my friends has ever said their name to get anything more than checked on the guest list at the Ottobar?
For its part, Cathleen Schine's She Is Me (Little Brown, September) begins with a believable enough plot: The academic Elizabeth lives in New York with her boyfriend and their 3-year-old son. Then her scholastic paper on the modern implications of Flaubert's Madame Bovary gets her hired to write a screenplay in Los Angeles, where her parents and dying-but-feisty grandmother live. She moves to L.A., her mother ends up with cancer and has an affair with Elizabeth's hot female director, and emotional chaos ensues. Elizabeth doesn't want to marry her boyfriend, but she does have an affair with her younger brother's best friend, love her son more than anything else, and watch her sick grandmother die. A lot stickier than even the devil plot, right?
But all She Is Me's stickiness morphs into honey-ranch dressing (sweet but strange-tasting) by the end, when Elizabeth finally marries the father of her son, her now-divorced parents dance with each other at the wedding reception, and everyone dances with the lesbian. Almost as believable as the idea that you and your lover would drive your grandmother home after Thanksgiving dinner, have sex on the beach, and arrive back home for seconds.
So is being a single thirtysomething as self-indulgent, stylish, and confusing as Chick Lit makes it sound? Lil' bit. So I might as well lust after those Blahniks. Although a night with a book isn't the worst way I have spent a Friday night--sorry, but is one really "the loneliest number"?--I'll have to think about that after my date on Thursday. Unless I'm too tired.
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