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.

29 thoughts on “Me and Chick-Lit

  1. Love anybody who loves to read. Your comments are true, but consider: Most folks writing are compelled to pen what a relatively small group (agents & publishers) annoint as “what the public wants.” To a degree its like watching a herd of buffalo follow the alpha leader over a cliff. The sterotypes are built in when the “market” says that’s what it takes to make print. One of these days they might actually think…but that’s asking to much.

  2. FANTASTIC post! I agree completely. I also dislike chick lit for the reasons you mention above. It is amazingly great, though, when compared to that horrible Courteney Cox show on TV now, Cougar Town. I saw the pilot for that show and it was so derogatory to women. And just dirty, too…

  3. Entertaining entry which touches on some of my pet peeves with chick lit (though, like you, I have still enjoyed some chick lit fare). The cliche I find hard to tolerate is how much chick lit heroines are ‘compelled’ to lie and deceive on a large scale – pretending to be who they’re not, making up boyfriends and jobs. And it’s usually taken to ridiculous, embarrassing extremes. That lack of common sense thing again as you point out.

  4. Maybe someday an author will write…

    It’s been done, it’s been done! Take a look sometime at any of the three novels of Paula Marantz Cohen (e.g., Jane Austen in Boca). Cohen avoids every pitfall on your list. She’s an English prof in real life, and probably has at one point made a similar list.

  5. Oh, so well said, and so true.
    I’ve recently been reading Mary Stewart’s romances, and while her work isn’t perfect, her heroines are such resolute, intelligent, level-headed women. And these books were written in the fifties and sixties–I don’t understand why contemporary chick-lit equates likability with silliness.

  6. Very nice, and too true–particularly on the obtuseness angle! But you’ve left out my biggest pet peeve: The Reward of a Rescuer. When a chick lit heroine starts to get her life together, she will always, *always* be rewarded with the love of a perfect man who actually loved her all along but couldn’t figure out how to say it and who also renders unnecessary all her hard work at establishing a career or developing a self-esteem that does not depend on having a man. Alas, in life, it rarely works out that way. Plenty of women who have their lives together haven’t found men worth marrying. And such stories lead them to think there’s something wrong with them because they haven’t gotten that promised perfect relationship.

    But even though chick lit drives me crazy, I still, like you, enjoy it now and then. It’s just a matter of finding the good stuff, as in any genre.

  7. I hear you, LL. I have groaned long and aloud reading some chick lit titles, but I’ve enjoyed them on occasions too. I just don’t understand why they have to play at being stupid, lie (as Christy says, and they really are awful fibbers), and keep ghastly friends (you nailed that one, LL, it’s one of the things that really gets my goat). Irritating. And some of the ways they get to flex that saving-grace rapier wit are ultimately deeply unlikable because they’re often just plain bitchy about it, and mean humour wears so frightfully thin, thin as our svelte raven-haired cerulean-eyed heroine.

  8. Reading this post I was saying to myself, “yes, these are all the things I dislike about chick lit too…but…” — the thing I dislike most is having to read all those d— happy endings! Ah, so your life is even crazier than mine and you have even less self-esteem, but you do end up with Colin Firth at the end of it all? I see…if only I could master that formula.

  9. I went through a chicklit phase (no doubt brought on by Bridget Jones at just the right time of my life), though like you I’m pretty much past this part of my life so I can’t really relate anymore. Your descriptions made me laugh (especially the superwoman tendencies one) as that pretty much sums up Lifetime movies–of which I think I watched a few too many of over the weekend. I never really thought about it, but I guess chicklit books translate well into made for TV movies. I wonder if anyone has written criticism on chicklit as they have on say Victorian Lit–I mean it’s probably not a serious study (and there isn’t really a comparison–it’s just what came to mind off hand), but there has to be a reason there is so much of it–is it really just publishers pushing it? If people weren’t buying it, would they bother?

  10. I will read anything at all (including horror, science fiction, westerns, and you-name-it) EXCEPT chick lit. It annoys me too much. And I haven’t found any I think is well-written enough to make up for the annoyance. But I really liked your post!

  11. I’m glad you liked ‘The Little Lady Agency’ (finding out it’s rather nervewracking when people go off and get books based on your recommendation). At the back of the last book there’s an author interview where the auhtor is asked to respond to American readers who felt Melissa and her family should go into therapy, so you’re not alone in thinking chicklit families shoudl deal a bit more.

    The wig/transformation is problematic isn’t it, because it kind of smacks of the Trinny and Susannah style of ‘all your problems can be solved by a makeover’ psychology, but I think that because this is part of a trilogy the really good personal realisations and overcoming low self esteem stuff comes in later books. In the first book Melissa starts making steps towards feeling worthwhile by building her business, meeting a guy who says he doesn’t care about her sexy alter ego, but true acceptance and knowledge of herself is a way off.

    Oh and maybe the reason they’re all quite obtuse is that being in a chick-lit novel themselves they never read chick-lit, or seen a chick-flick and so don’t come to recognise the signals like the rest of us? Still some of them are monumentally dense, but then the heros aren’t much better some times. Have you read the Shopaholic series? In my opinion these books contain the most clueless successful businessman hero in existence.

  12. This is so funny and you nail the genre so perfectly! I’m just trying to imagine that chick-lit novel written by your alter ego, Chick-litlove. I also don’t think I could stomach a whole novel like this but I’m still smiling at how preposterous those imaginative leaps are.

  13. John Wyndham is fantastic (ignore the sci-fi tag) – suggest you start with The Kraken Wakes, I plan on rereading this very soon. His novels are fantastic: the women and men are gutsy and brave but far from perfect and he also ‘writes’ great children. And he was writing in the mid 20th century of things that are affecting us now – climate change (The Kraken Wakes), GM crops (The Day of the Triffids), genetic engineering (Midwich Cuckoos and possibly Chocky). The Chrysalids could be seen as a commentary on genocide. But aside from drawing parallels with today’s society these are well written, exciting, well paced thrillers that grip you right to the end. He also wrote an novel called The Secret People under the name John Benyon Harris about a plane crash and the subsequent discovery of pygmies living underground. Seriously good!

  14. You are so, so right. I, too, enjoy a good chick lit read every so often (dessert after reading too much meat and potatoes), but I often get annoyed at the oh-so-successful-woman-with-the-dream-job-who-is-dissatisfied-because-she-is-an-old-maid-of-31-with-no-marriage-prospect-in-sight. Meanwhile, her best friends are all having babies and trying to fix her up with what she considers losers while she is busy hopping into bed with quite-obviously Mr. Wrong. You forgot one other aspect of these women: they seem to be able to drink copious amounts of alcohol with no ill effects whatsoever unless they are doing so with Mr. Wrong, in which case, one glass causes them to lose all self-restraint so that they wind up in bed with him, yet again, even when they swore they wouldn’t, and they wake up alone the next morning, nursing a horrible hangover and regrets. Luckily, unrecognized Mr. Right, comes knocking at the door with coffee and muffins and aspirin. I just read Jane Green’s Swapping Lives, though, which was quite fun, taking place in both CT and London, two places with which I am familiar. Unrealistic, yes, and with many of the traits you describe, but no “girl-gets-the-boy-and-lives-happily-ever-after” ending.

  15. I’ve only managed a couple chick lit books and now avoid anything that has any whiff of it so I admire your willingness to give them a chance. Can’t stand them for all the reasons you outline, plus they also tend to get gushy about shoes and shopping and designer labels three things that, if Dante were alive and writing today, would appear in one of his circles of Hell. As to how the heroines in the books have so much energy, don’t forget they are all likely in their 20s. I used to be able to go all day, stay up all night and look fresh as a daisy afterwards too. After 30 long nights start to wear on you and after 40, well, I’m usually in bed by 9:30!

  16. Trenchant and hilarious.

    When I was in high school, I worked at a bookstore for a couple of years, and one of my jobs was to tear the covers off of the paperback books that didn’t sell — we were ostensibly “sending them back” to the publisher under the retail returns agreement, but the truth was that the publisher didn’t want them back, so we sent the covers back to prove that we weren’t going to sell them, and then the books themselves went into the recycling bin. Sometimes, though, I took the coverless books home, which was immoral and illegal, but I didn’t care. A lot of these books were chick-lit of the type you describe, and I read them with the sickened fascination of an armchair anthropologist reading about cannibals.

    I didn’t for a moment think that these books represented real life, but what sobered and appalled me was the fact that they *did* represent the archetypal fantasies of the Average Jane. Those novels are the female equivalent of pornography, and they are, in my opinion, destructive for the same reasons. No man should receive his sexual education from porn; and no woman should receive her emotional education from chick-lit or chick-flicks. And yet … I know plenty of men who will never be satisfied with a normal loving woman because they are still looking for the unrealistic ideal woman who is a combined contortionist/exhibitionist and who exists only to satisfy him; and plenty of women who are unsatisfied with decent normal guys because they are waiting for the perfect scene, the perfect romance, the perfect gesture, the perfect rescuer. While working for the bookseller, I became very judgmental about these books, and my boss never really understood why.

  17. I think my problem with “chick-lit” is that I’m simply too old for it. All the machinations of these feisty young things seem so ridiculous to old, stodgy, married me. I get the same feeling when I overhear the conversations of my young co-workers, talking about dating and the “clubbing” scene. In fact, I wouldn’t at all mind reading a good novel about “a perfectly ordinary woman with a sensible assessment of herself” – in short, someone like me!

  18. I haven’t read much chick lit (just Bridget Jones’s Diary, although perhaps there have been others that are borderline in the genre), and I’m not sure if your post makes me want to or not! I can see that the books might be fun, but the qualities you describe might irritate me too much. Your post was very funny — I love that description of Tiffany looking in the mirror!

  19. I lost my patience with chick-lit after laughing through Bridget Jones Diary when it first came out. It was a funny, clever book and I enjoyed it until I realized how many stereotypes it promoted. So I have no other experience with the genre. I love your comment about the perfectly ordinary woman having romance troubles…I do think these stories exist, they just fall into a different genre 🙂

  20. Sandysays – I quite agree! Romance is one of the genres that’s most constrained by audience demands, as filtered through publishers. Mills and Boon/Harlequin make their authors write to a very distinct, very regulated formula in which only certain possibilities and outcomes are allowed. I can understand the comfort in knowing for sure what you are getting, but you’ve got to hope that authors are allowed a little wriggle room eventually.

    Aarti – I suppose it’s kind of comforting to think there is always something worse out there – and there always is! I haven’t seen the show (I live in the UK) but it will undoubtedly turn up on my screen eventually and I will remember what you said! Thank you for your kind words – it was fun to write.

    Christy – that’s a good one, and I hadn’t thought of it at all. But you’re right, there is an awful lot of pretending. Yes, lack of common sense, but also the effects of low self-esteem – the conviction of the heroine that she is insufficient and must pretend to be more or better than she is.

    Amateur reader – well thank you for that recommendation (and for the link to your great post). I will most certainly check her out!

    Niranjana – wow you took me right back there! When I was a teenager I had a run of reading Mary Stewart novels. I began with her brilliant Arthurian rewrites and then read lots of her normal mysteries. I will have to pick something up by her again as I can’t remember her too well, and your remarks have stirred my interest.

    Teresa – that’s a very good point. I hadn’t thought of that one at all, but yes, there is a sort of process the heroines go through to become lovable, and it is generally linked to the move from chaos to order. And they start with the ‘bad’ boyfriend who represents the chaos and finally find Mister Right who represents growth and resolution. Ah, as you say, if only.

    Doctordi – yes, it doesn’t show women in the greatest light, if their wittiness has to be at the expense of others. It’s a shame because there is no reason to belittle romance, either its power or its effects. And women are often at their best in love, generous, charitable, charming, engaging. I always get interested in what we are supposed to learn from a narrative, or if indeed there IS anything to learn, and sometimes the lessons from chick-lit can be confusing.

    nicole – lol! Oh yes, if there is a formula by which I end up with Colin Firth, I am MOST interested in hearing about it! 🙂

    Danielle – it really DOES sell. Harlequin/Mills and Boon used to do incredibly well. I did in fact write a paper on this myself, but many many years ago and my information is probably out of date. There are some really good books of criticism about love and desire and romance. An academic I really respect (Di Holmes) published a book about French romantic novels last year, but I’m not sure if anyone’s done it on UK or American romance novels – you’d think someone might!

  21. Jenny – I’m glad you liked the post! 🙂 Everyone has their genres they don’t go near, don’t they? And it would be a really dull world if we only liked the same things. Have you ever read Anna Maxted? Her first novel, Getting Over It, was very good, I thought. But no, perhaps not – sometimes it’s best just to give up and read other things!

    Jodie – I was hoping you would focus on all the positive things I say in this post and not the negative! I really did enjoy the Hester Brown and it was exactly what I wanted when I read it. I didn’t mind the disguise thing because it was so openly considered by the novel. The only bit that did worry me was when, at the beginning, she destroys a t-shirt she’s spent ages embroidering out of sheer rage, and this is sort of glossed over. But it makes sense if the trilogy is about her gradually sorting herself out. It’s the bits of narrative where the commentary goes quiet that I find myself peering very closely at! Bad habit, I guess. 🙂 I haven’t read the Shopaholic series – I had thought I might start with the film and see if I enjoyed that! (but I’m tempted now just to check out that businessman…)

    Pete – oh thank you for chick-litlove. That’s beautiful and I will carry that through the day with me! 🙂

    Fiona – thank you for that! I had hoped to read John Wyndham before the year was out (he’s been on my list for ages) and you are certainly giving me some excellent reasons to make sure I do!

    Emily – you are right! I had not thought of the tolerance for alcohol. And the way these women are portrayed as eating is often very weird. Sometimes they sink about 4,500 calories a day, and on others they manage on no food at all. I’m all for encouraging women not to flirt with anorexia and not to obsess about what they eat and when, but still. Perhaps as Stefanie says, it is just about being 20 again when these things really did not matter! I have heard of Jane Green but never read her – perhaps I should!

    Stefanie – lol! I have a dim and distant memory of being twenty and these things did seem to matter less. I am right with you about going to bed at 9.30 nowadays! 🙂 And you made me laugh with your Dante comment. I doubt he ever bothered about designer labels. 🙂

    David – just between you and me, I have a cupboard full of jacketless books that are waiting for me to bind one fine day… I went for the Sara Paretsky, mostly. That’s a very interesting idea to think of romance as girl’s porn. It IS unrealistic and yet the stuff of many a fantasy. I would love to take a poll to see how readers react to it. Do they believe it? Do they think it’s plausible? I would love to know how women are affected by it in detail. That would be so very interesting.

    Lilian – good! 🙂 Then I’m happy!

    Becca – well I feel exactly the same! There’s mummy-lit for new mothers and then there was the awfully named ‘old-bag-lit’ that was put out there by Transita publishers, only I thought I heard they’d closed down (I say this with a lot of uncertainty – maybe they are doing fine!). But I am most interested in books that fall between all these stools – that’s where he greatest interest often is for me, as I always feel in-between any distinct category! 🙂

    Dorothy – thank you! I very much enjoyed Bridget Jones because it’s quite a satire on the genre at the same time that it takes up a position within it. That was a clever thing to do! Helen Fielding tried to do something similar with spy stories and her female spy, Olivia Joules, but whilst that was a fun book, too, it wasn’t as good. I love books that work on the margins of genres – it gives them licence to be playful. 🙂

    Verbivore – yes, I was just writing to Dorothy to say that I enjoyed Bridget Jones as a spoof of the genre as well as taking part in it. But it’s true that it doesn’t challenge the conventions it plays with. You are quite right that stories about ‘ordinary’ women fall into other categories – one day it would be fun to put an ‘alternative romance’ list together!

  22. Have you ever tried Jennifer Crusie? The men tend to be as weird, witty yet ditzy as the women and are both accompanied with the oddest families but Crusie somehow manages to come across as a cleverer writer than most in the chick lit/romance genre. But I’ve also lost all desire to read her books for some time now so maybe I’m just trying to hoodwink you. 😉 Glad to be back and reading your still very very excellent site!

  23. No not a bad habit at all, in depth analysis is always interesting to read and I know exactly what you mean about enjoying chick-lit, but at the same time wanting it to cut out it’s sillyness. I am all about ripping into chick-lit and keep getting told I’m thinking about it too much for the genre. It’s a bad habit of mine to fix on the negative.

    I’ve been pondering this idea that there’s this new generation of chick-lit emerging, written by smart women who want to portray smart women who can function without falling down all the time and that’s why we get these almost too good to be true heroines, because they’re partly archetypes for all women/role models that act as an antidote to the chick-lit heroines of the past/written by less thoughtful authors. Like some chick-lit authors are trying to use the genre as a stealth form of feminism (although they’re still creating heroines who are self concious etc so I’m not sure how that fits my theory). And at one time this seeme dlike a good thing, but now I’m not so sure because it does seem to come at the expense of as you say ‘a perfectly ordinary woman’ who is a characetr, rather than a rallying gender war heroine crying ‘we can have it all’.

  24. Regarding academic criticism about (American) romance novels and the women who read them, there’s Janice Radway’s very fine Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature.

  25. I’ve only ever read one chick-lit book and it was exactly as you described. Maybe there is a template that the publishers hand out to the chick-lit manufacturers and they just add names, locations and a few bits of dialogue & scenery.

  26. A very interesting post and some fascinating comments too.

    I too am an omnivorous reader – anything from literary prize winners and classics to crime novels and paranormal thrillers- but ‘chick-lit’ is something that I rarely read because it irritates the life out of me for all the reasons you cite.
    I have to confess to rather liking Jane Green though – I read ‘The Beach House’ simply because it is set in Nantucket which is one of my favourite places, and was very pleasantly suprised indeed. I’ve since read a couple of others and enjoyed them too so I have to make an honourable exception for her.
    I agree about Mary Stewart too and read her at the same age as you by the sound of it. Haven’t read her for years although I know that somewhere in my overstuffed loft is a box containing all her books so I must find them and see if I am right in thinking that her heroines were a great deal more impressive than most of the modern lot even if they were written in the 50’s and 60’s!

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