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.
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.
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.