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.
by the Hon Ticky Dogge-Hare
It all started, you see, when my lovely but terribly serious old school chum Charlie invited me to one of her awful dinner parties.
Now, as a rule, I avoid Charlie’s dinner parties like the bubonic plague. She’s a dear friend, of course, but she and her husband (he’s a sociology lecturer) do have the most appalling friends. They are always asking these horribly intrusive questions, like “what exactly do you do?” and “what do you think of the Middle Eastern situation?” and once, memorably, “do you use commercial sanitary towels or have you considered making and laundering your own?” So you can see why I am generally busy on the evenings Charlie has her little soirées. But on this particular occasion I didn’t have an excuse, although I’d been rather hoping to wake up with something brilliantly contagious. So I pitched up at around eight, annoyingly healthy and carrying a bottle of Sancerre.
Of course, it was the usual shower: a couple of blond-dreadlocked trustafarians called Zeke and Honoria, three Amazonian trades unionists and a brilliant young novelist called Sebastian Alphonse St. John de la Tour Motte-Bailey, who had just written a searing indictment of our consumerist society from the point of view of a slice of processed cheese.
Now, the Dogge-Hares have a famously strong sense of self-preservation, dating back to my ancestor Gilles du Chien-Poilu, who famously broke the standing land speed record while retreating from Agincourt. So I concentrated on my tagine while the three Amazonian trades unionists had a bitter falling-out in Portuguese; and I kept my nose in my glass while Sebastian Alphonse St. John de la Tour Motte-Bailey went on and on about the tragedy of the pre-sliced loaf and the inexorable alienation of the consumer from the thing consumed. But then I’m afraid I rather lost it.
Sebastian A St. J de la T M-B, you see, had just pitched this terrific book about, oh God, I don’t know, the loneliness of the long-distance muesli-knitter to his publisher; and his publisher had said no, we need something a little more commercial. And of course that was it: everyone started moaning on about how stupid people are these days, and how nobody would know really good literature if it bit them in the arse, and you only have to look at popular fiction. And I said, hang on, having a go at the publishers is one thing — but what on earth is wrong with popular fiction?
“Oh, yes,” said Charlie, who’d had most of the Sancerre by now, “the great Jilly Cooper specialist speaks. Ticky the chicklit queen.” Everyone looked at me scornfully, except the two trustafarians, who looked quite interested for the first time that evening.
“Do you… actually read that stuff?” Sebastian A de la etc. piped up.
“Of course I do,” I said. “It’s jolly good fun. You should try it.” He gave me a look that could strip paint. “There’s nothing wrong with chicklit,” I added, feeling a little miffed by now.
“But there is!” burst out Charlie. “My God, Ticky, the values!”
“What about them?” I asked innocently, although I had a pretty strong idea. Charlie then went on for some time about consumerism, superficiality, retrograde gender attitudes and “the complete and utter toxic individualism of the self-absorbed love story, not to mention the false consciousness inherent in the very idea that a woman can become truly fulfilled only when she meets the right kind of man, and while we’re at it, they’re almost always capitalist alpha-males, aren’t they?” By this point, Honoria and Zeke had lost interest and sloped off into the garden, Sebastian Thing was utterly transfixed and staring raptly at Charlie, and the three Amazonian trades unionists had started arguing again – probably reckoning, quite rightly, that they had bigger fish to fry.
“But it’s supposed to be entertaining, Charlie,” I said. “Light reading. You know, fun.”
Charlie went a bit puce and took a good swig of her Sancerre. “I think,” cut in Sebastian smoothly, with an ingratiating grin at Charlie, “that Charlotte is concerned because these awful books are spreading these values to such a wide audience. That’s the problem with this kind of commercial fiction, and that’s exactly why it has to be rooted out, isn’t that right, Charlotte?”
“Look,” I said, getting a bit indignant now, “I read chicklit all the time, don’t I? And would you call me shallow and self-obsessed?” Charlie opened her mouth to reply, and I quickly carried on, aware I hadn’t actually helped my case there. “Anyway, these books are marketed at grown women, aren’t they? I mean, just because you read something and enjoy it doesn’t mean you’re going to automatically agree with everything it says. What about that book you were raving about last week, that dreary-sounding volume all about the two brothers during the Russian Civil War. Are you going to start bayonetting people who piss you off? Of course not. So why would you throw over all your beliefs just because you read a novel about a girl who likes to go shopping?” Like a normal person, I added silently.
“That’s not the point,” Charlie shot back. “The problem with women’s commercial fiction,” and here she paused in a pointed sort of way, “is that it’s symptomatic of the degree to which we, as a society, have become alienated from our communal values. And as long as it continues to sell, it will keep propagating that same alienation.”
“Bollocks,” I said blithely. “Chicklit is brilliant. Hooray for chicklit!” And I toasted everyone with the remains of my wine.
There was a bit of a silence, except for the trades unionists arguing. I could hear Charlie’s husband Tim in the kitchen, singing the Internationale as he did the washing-up. Finally, Charlie sighed.
“Look, Ticky,” she began, “what you really don’t get is that –” And here she got no further, because the lovestruck Sebastian Thing finally gave in to his urges and tried to pounce on her, and dear Tim came flying out of the kitchen like an avenging angel and floored him with a good right hook to the jaw. Quite an impressive punch, really, from a weedy academic. And then of course the party rather broke up, what with the ambulance arriving and there being blood all over Charlie’s artisanal Bolivian eco-tablecloth. So the great chicklit question was never resolved, and most likely won’t be until the next time I attend one of Charlie’s parties, which may be never. But, do you know, I think I was winning.