A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Don’t be fooled by the title. I love chicklit. Some of my favourite fiction authors are of this genre. Well, I do suspect that some of them have been crammed into it with a crowbar: it’s always been a mystery to me why Marian Keyes and Freya North, who both tend to address dark and difficult themes,* should be sold with pretty pastel covers. Some of them, though, are very much in line with the chicklit mission statement, such as I imagine it. Genuinely fun, enjoyable to read, not scared of addressing a real issue or two and yet ultimately optimistic; the kind of book you can safely pick up in the knowledge that the heroine is going to be just fine and all the loose ends will be tied up. The kind of book authors like Katie Fforde, Jill Mansell and Kate Lace specialise in producing. Happy stories. And I don’t believe for a moment that writing that kind of story is in any way an inferior exercise. People need happy stories, and writing one well requires a great deal of skill. In other words, it’s hard to write an easy read.
So yes, I do love chicklit. I am even secretly a little bit grateful for the evil marketing conspiracy that ensures these books are easy to identify. One of the great pleasures in life, for me, is to nip into WH Smith before a train journey and pick out a fat shiny colourful volume. A whole book to read as I travel, with no other demands on my time and no worries that I’m going to arrive at my destination with elevated blood pressure or sudden-onset depression.
Well… in an ideal world. In an ideal world, every book I picked out would be as joyful and uncomplicated and soothing as Restoring Grace. However, this is not an ideal world. And in this world, the act of picking out a chicklit novel is fraught with hazards (at least for me). Because for all I love about the genre, certain odious themes keep cropping up and spoiling my reading pleasure. For the sake of brevity I managed to streamline them all into five short bullet points: the five things I consistently, and heartily, hate about chicklit.
Now, I have no moral or aesthetic issues with sex scenes in literature. But, let’s be realistic here, the majority of sex scenes are crap. It’s no accident there’s an annual prize.
Aside from the fabulous Jilly Cooper – her work may pre-date the chicklit label by some time, but by god, she should be worshipped by all exponents of the genre – very, very few chicklit authors write sex well. Freya North manages it; so does Marian Keyes. But generally, sex -and especially graphic sex – is not something chicklit does well. In fact, many of the books I have most enjoyed in the genre have no sex scenes at all. Kate Lace’s The Trophy Girl is just one example of a novel that conveys all the excitement of a developing romance without even the whisper of a sex scene. No clunky descriptions, no awkward nomenclature. (I mean, what can you call the various… parts that doesn’t classify as clinical, cheesy or sleazy?) If only more authors would realise that it’s not old-fashioned to close the bedroom door.
Now, I would be the first to admit that the issue of class is all-pervasive. But it doesn’t mean that I’m going to laugh at your hilaaaaarious portrayal of a weak-chinned aristocrat, stodgy working class person, vulgar nouveau riche or strident, purple haired ecowarrior. Especially if you recycle that stereotype in more than one novel. I’m looking at you, Ms. Wendy Holden.
Even setting aside the class issue (which is oh so British), it seems that on both sides of the pond the cookie-cutter nature of chicklit marketing has spread and festered and infected vast swathes of the writing and characterisation of said genre. Do we really need more dumb blondes, studious brunettes, virtuous poor girls, feisty forty-somethings, fabulous gay men, nagging mothers, laddish blokes, blokish lads, bored housewives or amoral aspiring actresses? This chick votes no. The old phrase about a cliche being a cliche because it is true can excuse only so much.
Closely related to:
Whether it’s class snobbery, lifestyle snobbery, brand snobbery or aesthetic snobbery, it’s all equally revolting and, unfortunately, all too common in chicklit.
Out of all of these snobberies – all of them irritating in their own way – lifestyle snobbery is perhaps the most common form. Since this is a short piece I will isolate one particular strand here: the issue of children (say: chiiiiiiiiiildrennnnnn). I once read three chicklit novels in one weekend (I had to take a lot of trains), all of which touched on the old trope of the selfish childless woman to varying degrees. By far the worst offender was Jane Green’s Second Chance, which contained precisely one happily single, childless character… who of course had to have a one night stand, conveniently forget all contraception, end up pregnant and then be forced, by a dramatic turn of events, to accept her destiny as a mother. Not that such things don’t happen in real life. But in the context of a novel where the state of motherhood seemed to be prized above all else, it felt contrived; more than contrived, in fact.
I have no objection to motherhood, or the desire for motherhood, being a central theme; after all, it is a very real experience and a defining factor in many women’s lives. Again, it’s all about how it’s done. Jill Mansell’s novels very frequently deal with family themes, and her portrayal of motherhood – planned and unplanned – is overwhelmingly positive… but there is no judgment implicit in her stories. I feel that this is the key thing. This, for me, is what distinguishes natural human bias from snobbery; I have endless patience for the former, but the latter makes me fume.
Other forms of lifestyle snobbery include the corresponding assumption that motherhood always makes you drab and uninteresting and/or crazy and obsessed; the supposed supremacy of New York/London life over the rest of the humble planet; constant harping on body image and personal maintenance (seriously, who in their right mind waxes their nose hair?); fashion snobbery (which is the sole basis for more novels than it ought to be); sexual snobbery (too much? too little? not up with the latest trends?); and that peculiarly chicklittish snobbery that dictates that any girl who is deemed to be plump, dowdy, shy, unfashionable, in need of a haircut or generally slightly odd must be dragged out of her shell and damn well MADE TO CONFORM. (I am sorry to say that one of my favourite authors let me down with this recently: Katie Fforde, who usually specialises in creating charmingly odd characters, dedicated far too much of Wedding Season to a similar transformation sequence complete with extended product placement for Colour Me Beautiful [see: Shopping].)
Unfortunately this section does not deal with slapstick in the Charlie Chaplin/Buster Keaton/Pierre Richard sense of the word. It deals with that inexplicable tendency of chicklit authors to make their heroines into outright idiots, who bluster and blunder and stumble their way through life, bouncing from cringeworthy moment to cringeworthy moment, until some sensible man sets them right. It’s the reason I never really enjoyed Bridget Jones. It’s the reason I outright cannot read Catherine Alliott. It’s the reason I hated The Devil Wears Prada. Stop it.
I like a pretty dress as much as the next girl, but deeply resent the idea that luxury brands (such as Pr*d* and J*mmy Ch**) have come to be shorthand for some kind of aspirational philosophy. For this excellent reason, I never pick up books with shoes on the cover, anything with the word shopaholic in the title, or anything by Candace Bushnell. You would think that this would be enough. No, it is not.
Because it seems that even the most sensible novelists are not immune to the lure of the brand. Product placement is practically inescapable in this weird, diverse genre known as chicklit. In fact, the one thing that marred my enjoyment of the excellent Ms Keyes’ The Other Side of the Story – apart from the daft Russian stereotype, oh Lord – was the constant mention of a certain cosmetics brand. I started to think of this cosmetics brand as a main character after a while.
Perhaps this is the nature of “commercial” fiction, but it makes me sad anyway. For one thing, it feels an awful lot like I, the reader, am supposed to be some easily manipulated, gaping idiot who will run out and buy whatever it is that the author happens to be plugging. And this is very disappointing. After all, the best of chicklit – the best of any genre – presumes that the reader has a mind of his or her own.
Do these five things really and truly hamper my enjoyment of a novel? Yes, they do. Do I come across them often? All too often. But despite having more than enough material for this very ranty soapbox, do I really love chicklit? The answer is yes. The best of chicklit is so enjoyable, you see, that I’m quite prepared to brave the hazards. I’m going to keep on picking up those fat, colourful novels for as long as they are around.
* Ms North, I have a bone to pick with you about prostitution.