Me and Chick-Lit

I consider myself a literary omnivore, consuming just about any kind of book unless it’s horror or science fiction (although I do want to read John Wyndham and Octavia Butler). And chick-lit has made its jaunty entry into my reading stacks, even if it’s a genre I don’t read very often. Mostly this has to do with being past the stage of life those books represent. When I read about some young women working herself up into a tizzy about whether or not a toothsome hunk of muscle-bound manhood might lead her down the aisle, I just want to advise her to pay close attention to the cleanliness or otherwise of his apartment and his relationship to his mother. Because those things really count. But alas the heroines never do, preferring to squeeze every last ambiguous nuance out of a phrase like: ‘Would you ensure that xeroxing gets done by five o’clock tonight, Petunia? I have to leave the office early.’ The thing that bugs me, looking at chick-lit through the eyes of the women unbound challenge, is that it is quite possible that it does bring to life with a certain accuracy some of the less admirable traits of women, but because I don’t want to believe that women behave in these ways, I tend to blame the genre. Here’s a little list of classic chick-lit heroine quirks that irk and annoy me:

Cripplingly low self-esteem, coupled with endless virtues

It seems that all heroines are obliged to live this contradiction. Excessive humility being marked down as a hugely desirable feminine trait, these women spend huge amounts of time fretting and worrying over their personal appearance and their sense of inadequacy, whilst being described as possessing a Jessica Rabbit-style figure and a cornucopia of organizational, creative or unusual talents. The reader is so often forced to read something along the lines of: ‘Tiffany stared in frustrated outrage at the image her antique, gold-frosted chevalier mirror reflected back to her. It was true that she had a tiny nipped-in waist, above which her glorious décolletage billowed in a riot of soft, creamy flesh but oh if only she could lose that stubborn ten pounds off her hips. She was so fat! Her green-flecked eyes, surrounded by ridiculously thick, curling lashes, snapped with impatience.’ I suppose you could read this as an attempt to awaken women to their own assets, but it equally endorses women’s compulsion to put themselves down and consider themselves through a haze of negativity.

Superwoman tendencies
Chronic fatiguers should not, perhaps, judge fictional characters, but where do these women get their energy? To combat the low self-esteem and to feel that they are Doing Something With Their Lives, they all start to run businesses or commit to huge charity projects and all this has to be coupled with saving their friends’ lives as well as chasing after Mister Right. They regularly rise at dawn, throwing off a hangover, survive a series of events of exhausting emotional turmoil, sew, cook, organize or create something utterly spectacular and still have the oomph to go out on the town in the evening. Whatever it is they are taking, I’d like some of it.

They must possess and help horrible friends
Another key set of chick-lit virtues is to be gullible, hopelessly loyal, and endlessly open to be taken advantage of. Hence the need for the Evil Friend, who is always hanging out at the heroine’s flat, eating her food, demanding her emotional support and subjecting the heroine to a steady flow of bitchy put-downs and criticisms. If the heroine were to boot this person out, as is quite obviously the right decision, she would cross a dangerous ideological line into aggressive activity. So the infuriating friend remains, with her hand in the cookie jar and her eyes on the platonic male flatmate who may or may not be The One for our heroine.

Not to mention horrible families also

It’s de rigueur for a heroine to come from a madcap background that is humorously presented but which, if real, would be of clear concern to social services. The old soak of a mother whose persistent phone calls drip with thinly disguised venom or emotional blackmail, the fierce, cold, demanding father who ignores his little girl or berates her lack of ambition. I suppose it makes sense that women from such a background would have a hard time forming and keeping relationships. But I think they would also have real problems and spend a great deal of their time in therapy. You don’t get chick-lit heroines in the consulting room much; they prefer to bake their way out of their troubles, which sounds wonderful but I don’t believe a word of it.

Outstanding obtuseness

Why are women not permitted to be intelligent in these novels? Why? Oh I suppose it’s related to the low self-esteem issue. But I do get grouchy when I have to read the following kind of description: ‘He gazed intently into her eyes in a way that sent a delicious chill down her spine. For what possible reason could he be looking at her in this unusual fashion? ‘I’ve been wanting to tell you something for so long,’ he murmured huskily. ‘I should tell you that someone, someone very close to me right now, has become important to me in a way I never dreamed would happen…’ With those few words he destroyed her every chance of happiness. She had noticed Miranda, the blond bombshell from accounts, standing at the top of the stairs and his unmistakable words shattered her every hope.’

I mean, come on.

Maybe someday an author will write a novel about a perfectly ordinary woman, with a sensible assessment of herself, the intelligence to know when a man likes her, pleasant friends and a good, regular job who STILL has trouble with romance. It can happen, you know.

In the meantime, there’s the usual chick-lit out there, and when I’m in the mood for it, and it doesn’t grate too much for the reasons above, I can find it most enjoyable. The one great redeeming feature of such novels nowadays is that the heroines are permitted to be extremely witty. They wisecrack their way through their disasters and ill-considered romantic interludes, and even if the ideology is a bit dodgy, the comic turn makes it all very palatable and charming. Just the other weekend, I read The Little Lady Agency by Hester Browne, and whilst it sailed pretty close to the wind with a low-self-esteemed heroine, dogged by her unpleasant family but buoyed up by the kind of high-octane energy hardened crack cocaine users can only dream of, I actually enjoyed it tremendously. The heroine, Melissa, is a paragon of organizational talents but can’t quite hold down a temping job. So she ends up starting her own agency which aims to help helpless males with any number of thorny issues, from personal grooming to Christmas shopping to platonic escort services designed to stymie interfering friends and family determined to set a hopeless male up with an unwanted girlfriend. And it all works very well, except that to give herself a bit of a boost, Melissa casts her own imperfect self aside and dons a wig and a persona, running the agency as Honey, a woman with more confidence and chutzpah than she would otherwise naturally possess. And of course the problems start when she falls in love with one of her clients and has to face the consequences of her deception. But don’t let that put you off; it’s a very funny and entertaining romp. I’d love to think women were as amusingly resilient as chick-lit makes them out to be, but I expect they are not quite so witty in reality; but by the same token, not quite so lacking in common sense, either.

The Prisoner’s Return

Waiting is an important element in stories about women. They are often obliged to demonstrate their patience in the way that men in stories are called upon to demonstrate their physical or mental strength. Women must wait until men are finally able to declare themselves romantically, they must wait for the sick to heal, and for children to grow, putting their own cares and concerns in second place. One of the most powerful waiting narratives is the story of the woman who waits for her man to return from war. Penelope in the Greek myths rather sets the bar high on this one. For ten years she waited faithfully for Odysseus to return from his wanderings, each day working on her tapestry, each night unpicking it so that there should be no leverage on her to marry one of the many suitors piling up at court. Penelope’s fate was joined to her husband, and it was unthinkable and unethical that she should move on in his absence; the story frames her as remarkable, admirable, but not as productive for her own sake. It would have got in the way of her genius for waiting.

The story I want to tell you about today is another example of a woman waiting for her man to return, but it is a much more unsettling tale than Penelope’s. It’s 1945 and the French author Marguerite Duras is waiting to hear whether her husband is dead or alive. He has been a prisoner of war in Germany and all she knows is that the camps are finally being liberated as the Allied Forces sweep through the land. Finally a little news is beginning to trickle back home and it is most disquieting. Duras spends most of her days at a government repatriation center in Paris, questioning men as they are deposited from the convoys in the hope of sending news to their families and enacting reunions. It’s a way of keeping in the frontline of information herself, but some of the men who return, emaciated, on the brink of death, only terrify her. To say that she is in a bit of a state is a wild understatement. She can’t eat or sleep and knows not a moment’s peace. Her friend, D., comes to visit her regularly and help pass a few hours. They pool their information, what little it is. It’s a visceral account of the near-madness of waiting, with Duras detailing the half-hallucinations that take over her mind, showing her all the ways her husband, Robert L., might have died.

Finally, she has some ambiguous news. Other prisoners from the same camp have made it back but not Robert L. He broke out of the line he was marching in, in a bid for escape (not realizing that they were headed for freedom at last). No one knows what became of him. It turns out he was returned to the camp and left there, effectively to die. Duras’s friend D, steps in. He and another friend drive over to Germany and find Robert and bring him home. When he gets back, Duras runs away, screaming. To have an outcome after all those dreadful months is almost as bad as not having one. And Robert is so ill and destroyed by his experience that he is almost unrecognizable to her; against all the odds, however, he continues to survive. There follows a remarkable testimony to the extraordinary strength of the human spirit (even if it is gruesome one) as Robert is coaxed from the brink of starvation and back to life.

And then, unobtrusively slid into the narrative, as part of a list of things that Robert gradually regains sufficient strength to hear, Duras tells him their marriage is over. She wants to leave him for D., with whom she desires a child.

This is, as you might have guessed, a story that we often teach as part of the course on twentieth century French literature. My friend, Kathryn, has been teaching it just recently and we discussed it on the phone. ‘That part has the most enormous impact on my students,’ she said. ‘They all loathe Duras from then on in. Never mind the Holocaust, that ceases to be the source of all evil. They simply can’t get over the fact that she wants to leave him.’ The events detailed in the diary have a counterpart in reality, too. Duras was married to Robert Antelme, who was rescued from Dachau by François Mitterand, and she left him for their mutual friend Dionys Mascolo with whom she went on to have her son. It all actually happened.

What are we to make of this most un-Penelope-like behaviour? The shock, I think, comes from the emotional temperature of the narrative, which is mostly hysterical. Duras is lost to Robert’s sufferings, she cannot eat when he cannot eat, almost starves herself in an act of what looks like self-negating loyalty. The reader is in no way prepared for the outcome. Is this, then, an act that we can judge? Has Duras betrayed her husband in the most despicable way, or has she fulfilled every possible duty towards him by being part of his rescue and nursing him back to health? Are we morally obliged to be overjoyed to have our loved ones returned to us, even if they have caused us unimaginable suffering? Are women allowed to move on, make changes, follow their own desires, or is the ability to wait trauma out, to display saintlike patience one of the prime virtues that is far more valuable?

I haven’t told you the name of this because it is only available in French, and if I’d told you that up at the start, chances are you might not have kept reading. But the story is in a volume entitled La Douleur (Pain), and is preceded by another strange yet seemingly authentic statement. Duras writes that she discovered her diary in a cupboard in a house that regularly floods in the springtime, and that she had no recollection of having written it, although it was indeed in her handwriting and recounting events she had lived. It is a text steeped in ambiguity and that challenges the reader on any number of levels, asking us to read what is intolerable, to question what is ethical and to believe what is incredible.  It is a remarkable 80 pages.

A Mini Book Gratitude Meme

In honour of Thanksgiving, which we don’t celebrate in the UK, here is a very short little meme, which you are most welcome to do if it pleases you.

What reasons do you have to be grateful for books?

Without any undue exaggeration, books have been my life so far, and I hope it’ll continue that way. Not only have they comforted and enlightened me, amused and challenged me and been my favourite way to spend my time, I’ve also made a rather fun living out of them. I still can’t quite believe I got to sit around, chatting about books I’d read, and was paid for it.

Is there any author for whose existence you are especially grateful?

There are many, but at the top of the list is Agatha Christie, for having accompanied me so stalwartly through adolescence, and Colette and Marguerite Duras for having provided the research material I needed for my PhD. I still love all three of them with all my heart.

What positive impact does reading have on your day?

Reading forces me to slow down and take stock. It’s relaxation, yes, but it’s also a shift into a different pace of life, one in which I start to reflect and think things through. I’m not rushing around trying to get tasks accomplished any more, lost to the onslaught of the quotidian, and for all that people say it’s escapist, I’m actually more ready to deal with difficult situations, calmer in myself and clearer in my mind, if I’ve taken some time out to read. And if I can’t read, well, then I’m really upset and I have to do something about it.

What good things has reading taught you?

Reading has certainly broadened my mind and deepened my sympathy for others. I’ve become a better listener, after spending so much time listening very carefully to what books are telling me. And stories are places where I can do complicated emotional processing. Not in the event itself – that’s when I need comfort – but afterwards, I can often find solutions and explanations that enlighten me as to my own feelings.

Is there any particular book that’s special to you?

Too many to mention, really. But here’s one example. My first year at university was extremely intimidating and I did not feel that I had accomplished it with any grace at all. And then, during the summer holidays, I was trying to get ahead in my reading and picked up Zola’s Nana, the gripping chunkster of a novel about a fabulous courtesan who brought the men of Paris to their knees. I forgot I was reading in French, I forgot I was reading for a course. I was just reading because I was loving that book. And I thought to myself, that’s what I’ve really forgotten – to have some fun. How could I ever have let it slip my mind that first and foremost, reading is the most wonderful fun? After that, everything became an awful lot better.

What are you most happy to have read recently?

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time to Keep Silence for the beauty of his prose, an interview with Mavis Gallant, which was somehow immensely touching and inspiring, and my friend Jeff’s (as yet) unpublished extracts – one day he’ll be a respected author, I’m sure.


Edit: I keep forgetting to do this! I’ve promised my friend I’ll publicize her online book sale. If you are interested in looking over what she’s got for sale, you can do so here.

Not Ugly Betty

Five years before the Titanic sank, Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote a novel based on the marvelous ease with which one could cross the Atlantic and called it The Shuttle. Being able to hop back and forth across the pond in comfort and luxury (depending on your class) brought England and America closer together once again and – most importantly for this novel – reunited wealthy American gentry with the land of their ancestors. Hodgson Burnett was the perfect person to write this book as she was one of the few, perhaps the only, woman writer to live a properly transatlantic existence, moving regularly between the two countries and knowing them with both the love of the native and the distanced perception of the traveler. Reading this novel, that takes as its cast the cream of society, the people who could and would make a difference to the worlds in which they lived, you can see why the sinking of the Titanic was not just a tragedy, and a sailing disaster, but a terrible metaphorical wound in this confident bond forged between national powers.

But that’s not really what I want to talk about. Fast forward one whole century and Hodgson Burnett’s novel is reprinted by Persephone (in a glorious edition, as ever), where it stands as a time capsule from a very different era, and what a lot has changed in a mere 100 years. In 1907, the year The Shuttle was published, the first national demonstration by the Suffragettes took place in Britain, here and there you could find the occasional woman doctor, and in 1909, Marie Curie was named the first female Nobel laureate. But for most women, emancipation wasn’t even a distant dream. Life was lived under the rule of the father and then the husband, and women were conditioned to be obedient, compliant and dependent. How very intriguing, then, to find in Hodgson Burnett’s novel the confident assertion that American women were being brought up quite differently to their English counterparts at the start of the twentieth century. Women, she insists in her novel, were cherished by their families, and respected as intelligent, spirited beings. People grew according to their own capacities, rather than being squashed into gendered templates, and of course money made just about anything possible.

The Shuttle is the story of the wealthy Vanderpoel sisters, two American beauties called Rosalie and Bettina, whose fortunes become linked to English aristocrats. Rosalie, the elder daughter, takes after her mother and is pretty, charming, sweet and gentle, a composite of all the most feminine of virtues. It is her tremendous misfortune to be married off in the early chapters of the novel to the true villain of the piece, Sir Nigel Anstruthers, or what we might call a Regular Bad Lot. Sir Nigel has taken advantage of the shuttle to find himself a rich American wife in order to prop up his family’s ailing fortunes. Little Rosy is completely unprepared for the life she will find awaiting her in England, isolated in a crumbling, dilapidated manor house, dominated by Sir Nigel’s vile temper and the cruel abetting of her mother-in-law. At first they simply bully her because she hasn’t understood that she needs to hand over her purse strings to them – her American customs dictate that she will give any money asked of her, but no polite request has been forthcoming. Finally the truth comes out in a terrible scene in which she is taunted and reviled and which ends in violence at the hand of her husband. Broken and half-mad with bewilderment and grief, Rosy succumbs to a virtual imprisonment, which we are to see as the fate of the unsuspecting English wife.

Twelve years later and her sister, Bettina, crosses the Atlantic, determined to find Rosy after so many years of unaccountable silence. Betty is a completely different character to her sister. Taking after her father (and wonderfully, intelligently supported by him), she is brave and fearless and firm. As a child she had an instant distrust of Sir Nigel, and her mission is one that she understands to be a rescue. Betty will need all her wits about her when she is reunited with a Rosy she barely recognizes, prematurely aged, permanently terrified and spending all her time with her disabled child. And from here on in, we, the readers, get to cheer Betty on as, wielding the force of her American dollars and her American can-do temperament, she brings the decimated estate to life again and transforms her sister and nephew. And then after that, it’s a question of bringing the ghastly Sir Nigel to heel…

Betty is another marvelous female heroine, but in an entirely different mould to Trollope’s Miss Mackenzie. And this is because, in a word, she acts. It’s extremely important that the action she takes is continually sanctioned by her father, even if she has to enlighten him as to its origins. At one point in the novel he suggests to her that she should have been born a boy: ‘ “You say that,” she once replied to him, “because you see I am inclined to do things, to change them, if they need changing. Well, one is either born like that, or one is not. Sometimes I think that perhaps the people who must act are of a distinct race. A kind of vigorous restlessness drives them.”’ Now it was only beginning to dawn on the consciousness of the Western world that this ‘vigorous restlessness’ could be the province of women, as well as men. And we have to understand the constraints that function even in Hodgson Burnett’s ambitious novel. Betty is permitted to act because she is remarkably beautiful. An Ugly Betty could not have achieved the same results. Furthermore, the only thing that tempers her activity, that nearly breaks her, in fact, is love. The novel becomes as much about Betty’s romance as it does about her rescue, but in love as in domestic warfare, Betty retains her integrity, her pride and her determination.

This is another book that I loved enormously for its admirable heroine and its equally admirable intent – weak, twisted men are trounced by lionhearted women, the sickly inbred power of the British aristocracy is trumped by the fresh moneyed energies of America, and the history and buildings of two nation’s ancestors are restored by the vigorous dollar. It’s true that America comes off much better than England does, but then it’s a new world that Hodgson Burnett is interested in, and one in which vitality ought by rights to belong to those who know how best to use it, regardless of tradition. But one final thought: Betty’s shining brilliance is based in essentially masculine qualities – strength, calculating intelligence, diplomacy, stamina. I wonder to what extent we can say that that has changed, one hundred years later? Is it not the case that masculine virtues are still the ones that we value most highly? That the traditionally feminine virtues of gentleness, restraint and kindness remain unprotected and uncherished, stomped under foot in a world where it’s still okay for dog to eat dog? True equality would mean, to my mind, the acknowledgement and inclusion of both, in equal measure, in a balanced world.