Atlas Is A Woman

October 14th, 2004 · 4 Comments
by Booksquare

We have an exceptionally contrary soul. We like to think it’s what is most charming about us. Today, we came home to find one of our lists buzzing with indignation (we do so love indignation, and jumped right in). There was an article out there that dissed chicklit. The type of dissing that lead some to declare they couldn’t get beyond the initial paragraphs. Pure drivel, we can’t be bothered, that sort of thing.

Okay, we thought, we gotta get us some of that. And so we toddled off to read the article. We discovered an author with a dislike of chicklit (not, actually, a crime) and an agenda not being fulfilled by the genre. Still, no crime being committed as far as we can see, and some valid points were made. The issue, we think, is that the women’s fiction community is so accustomed to disrespect that reactions are knee-jerk. In fact, the article’s author addresses this very point, using the most delicate of language:

…The problem is that when critics (professional or otherwise) rip into Chick Lit, what they’re really scoffing at most of the time isn’t the worn clichés, the puerile plots, or the graceless prosody, it’s women…Sexism has a long and storied history, and part of the game is that certain topics — the domestic, the mundane, the sensual, the emotionally fraught–have for centuries been feminized, associated with women in order to be dismissed. The literary equivalent of “you throw like a girl” is “you write like a girl.”

[Booksquare note for the masses: When trying to make a global point, using incendiary language such as puerile can weaken your argument by making you seem bitter or angry, which is a bummer when you end strong. Just a hint.]

The author’s particular issue with chicklit (and, we admit we found her thesis a bit disjointed, but, given our frequent casting about for cohesive themes, we don’t have room to judge) is that the authors fail their gender, mostly by focusing on the minutiae of their characters’ lives. What is the human condition if not in the details? What is life if not a constant stream of small things? This lack of big picture focus apparently trivializes the issues (whatever that may be, and it changes from person to person), but an over-emphasis on saving the planet from destruction brings home the larger message.

She correctly notes that, from birth, women are given a constant stream of messages. This isn’t a modern phenomenon (nor are men entirely immune from this type of propaganda). It’s impossible to watch television, read books (written by both genders), see movies, listen to music, or pick up magazines without a constant barrage of opinions about what it takes to be a modern female. There is a constant pressure for perfection that can be terrifying if you can take a step back and examine it. Feminism didn’t blunt these messages — in some ways, layering the “you can be anything, do anything” belief on top of the “you must also fulfill a constantly evolving ideal of feminity” crushes the soul.

Women aren’t fighting aliens — they’re fighting the, for lack of a better monster, media. It’s really difficult to turn a bigger picture fight like, oh, the constant prescription to be skinny while covering our mouths and whispering about the scandal of anorexia into a novel. These battles, our eventual move toward self-acceptance, are personal. We suppose the larger theme can be done, but wonder how effective the message would be. Is it possible that the impact would be blunted by what we suspect would end up a morality lecture? It’s hard to say, and we don’t want to suggest trying is a bad idea — just because we think it’s beyond our skill or imagination doesn’t mean it’s beyond yours.

This is, I think, what genuinely should be criticized about these silly novels by lady novelists: not their humor, not their tone, not their tissue-paper plots or their tiresome fixation on looks, but their obliviousness to their own words and what their words indicate. They are, to put it bluntly, not self-aware enough to realize that the constant low-grade misery they depict has larger causes and both larger and smaller cures. Insofar as these novels and their anti-role-model protagonists are nonetheless role models for their readers to some degree, that’s a crying shame.

We have some problems with this theory. First, it assumes knowledge about authorial intention, and assumes the novelist shares the same biases and values as the article’s author. It suggests that “silly” undermines seriousness; this is possibly why Animal Farm has failed to endure as a cautionary tale — pigs are inherently silly. For all of its over-the-top storyline, the original Shopaholic book by Sophie Kinsella highlighted a serious issue: shopping addiction. Yes, we said serious — people self-medicate in many ways; debt is a real problem — like all addiction, it requires acknowledgement and treatment. We wish Kinsella hadn’t copped out with her character, going for a to-be-continued ending. Marrying a millionaire is one way to solve the problem, but, coupled with the lack of real change in Becky Bloomwood, as exhibited in subsequent novels, undercut the character’s growth.

Our second problem is the assumption that the authors are cheating readers out of a bigger message. Is that true? It is almost the anti-feminist statement: chicklit must speak for the gender while male lit can be as non-role model as it wishes. Does women’s fiction have to serve at the altar of the gender (yes, it really is us writing this…see opening paragraph)? Can’t women’s fiction be judged like all other fiction: good, bad, has a message, doesn’t have a message, worth keeping or rereading, don’t bother? While chicklit has often been poorly served by over-zealous marketing departments and silly covers, that doesn’t mean the issues aren’t serious. It means that not every book steps up on a soapbox. We think that’s okay.

Does chicklit (or, by extension, romance) serve its audience ill by creating a false sense of the world? Well, does mystery fiction build impossible-to-achieve expectations in the criminal justice system? Readers are smart enough to know the difference between the fictional world and the real world. They can understand the message or see their world on the page. It isn’t up to characters (or authors) to serve as role models; it’s up to each individual to take responsibility for his or her life. Fiction helps us view the world around us, but if you’re modeling yourself on Holden Caufield, please reconsider.

The author of this article makes some good points, but we got the sense that chicklit fails her personally (if it helps, not all of it works for us either — it’s often about where you are in your life). A glance at her website shows that her core issues (gender and sexual identity) aren’t outside the purview of chicklit. The issue is that each author is telling the story she (or he) needs to tell, what sells is, as the editors always say, a great story, and, as we’ve noted this week, you can’t blame an author for failing to tell the story you want told. This week we read a sentiment that sums it up: if you want to read the story you want to read, write it yourself (with apologies to Ray Bradbury).

File Under: Books/Mags/Blogs

4 responses so far ↓

  • Andrew // Oct 15, 2004 at 2:12 am

    Although the article points out that there are many earlier examples of chicklit, I think many people (including me) trace the modern phenomenon to Bridget Jones’ Diary. There is a supreme irony: thousands of novels have followed, hoping to emulate the success and the quality of BJ’sD but the work itself was not a novel. It was a weekly column in The Independent. The ‘novel’ was in fact the collated columns put into a single volume. I read the column for nearly two years, giggling to myself in the corner of the staffroom (when I was still a teacher) and people would ask what it was, and I would read bits out. When it was put into book form I tried to read it but it was totally wrong – it just wasn’t the same as the newspaper column, and I don’t think it worked at all.

    And yet ten thousand writers jumped on its band wagon…

  • tvk // Oct 15, 2004 at 6:19 am

    And? Dickens’ work was also serialized. I fail to see how this relates to the point of the article, or Booksquare’s commentary on it, unless you’ve never bothered to read any chick lit OTHER than BJ’sD. However it began its existence, BJ’sD made an entertaining read as a novel–if not for YOU, then for millions of other readers–and began a trend that’s grown into its own genre.

    The larger point is that there IS plenty of chick lit out there that’s more meaty than frothy. Time Off For Good Behavior by Lani Diane Rich leaps to mind. So do Jenn Weiner’s Good In Bed, In Her Shoes and Little Earthquakes. Hanne Blank’s convenient exclusion of some of the heavier issues addressed in chick lit–issues like spousal abuse, parental abandonment, eating disorders, sex addiction, drug and alcohol dependency–leaves her wide open to the accusation of sour grapes.

    And I’d hoped we’d finally gotten past the stage in our evolution as feminists when every woman had to be working 24/7 for “the cause”–preferably dressed in a gray smock, sensible shoes and no makeup–to be taken seriously by her sisters.

  • Kate Rothwell // Oct 15, 2004 at 7:50 am

    Forget the analysis [speaking of dull trends: I’m tired of silly old attention-seekers poo-pooing literary trends. . . omigawdwhatistheworldofpublishingcomingto as if it is the WHOLE WORLD reading escapist fun and these books choke out every other form of litterachure like chick-lit is some kind of evil kudzu. Bah. BTDT.]

    ANYWAY– we want to know which lists were buzzing with indignation. We’re suffering from a sad lack of dudgeon in our lives and wish to join a list where high horses gallop freely.

  • Kate Rothwell // Oct 15, 2004 at 7:51 am

    what we mean is, we’re looking for ORIGINAL dudgeon. None of this old hat stuff.