The Source of Discomfort

August 30th, 2004 · No Comments
by Booksquare

We went into this article on the woefully misnamed dick lit (woefully misnamed because, well, we expect it to be about private detectives; plus, we were rooting for lad lit simply because no male we know will pick up a book marketed as such) fairly certain it would be yet another been there, done that story. You know. Where men write books in an attempt to emulate the wild success of books written by women. Because, as Russell Smith helpfully notes, it’s all about fitting Tab A into Slot B — though, as we all know, high jinks will ensue if one tries to fit Tab A into Hole D, especially after a night of heavy drinking.

After Smith has his fun with the genre, though we put more blame on publishers than authors, he backs himself into an interesting argument. One that actually forced us to recognize our discomfort with the current breed of chick, etc. lit. He says:

In all of these books there are smirking allusions to minor television celebrities or pop singers or Hollywood movies — real ones, not fictitious ones — which are mysterious even to me, and I am pretty deeply immersed in this stuff. They can only possibly be meaningful to Americans of a certain age, and for the next five minutes. Imagine how they will read in 10 years.

And that is it. So much of this new type of fiction is written for this moment. It feels disposable. Probably this is a sly commentary on our current state of celebrity — it’s all disposable. We cannot work up enough energy to listen to a Britney Spears song to appreciate the irony of her being mentioned in a book (if irony is intended; we also cannot work up enough of said energy to know if admiration is intended). What results is a book that will not build a reprint history. It will never be a catalog standard. It will be the literary equivalent of that kid who starred on that show on ABC on Friday nights. The one with the glasses. What was his name? Not his character’s name — we recall that — the actor’s name? No, don’t tell us. We have Google, too. It’s not information that will make us a better, smarter person. Plus, if we forgot once, we’ll probably forget again.

We get that pop culture references are shorthand. We appreciate them as such. We live for pop culture. We are shallow and proud of it. But when pop culture has no underlying substance, does it merit repeated mention? Isn’t there a better way to make a point? Recently we discussed an author’s lack of specificity when it came to beer — not naming the beer felt awkward and wrong. If a character buys a particular brand of beer that another character likes and then Character A spends a paragraph musing over the beer, give it a name. Let us have some insight into Character B.

Here, a trendy beer would have been an appropriate mention. An established beer, a Guinness-type beer, would have told us something. The lack of specificity merely felt lazy.

But too much name-dropping takes us in the opposite direction (in fact, this particular book started off with a flurry of shoe brands, far too many for us to recall). We know Prada, we know Manolo Blahnik, we know Seven Jeans. But will we remember them in seven years? Probably not all of them. So what do they represent in fiction? Is such focus on our disposable culture really the best thing for modern fiction? Is is the best thing for an author’s career? Is it a smart move for publishers — after all, it’s catalog sales that remain the industry’s bread and butter. If you can’t sell books past a certain shelf date, does the perceived value suddenly turn sour?

We have been rereading some favorite novels this summer. The House of Mirth.

Skinny Legs and All. We’ve also indulged in two collections of short stories: Pastoralia and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. Next up on our reading list is Decline and Fall (we actually wanted to read Vile Bodies — we read a review of Bright Young Things that made us really want to read the book; we’re still on the fence with the movie — but it remains hidden away in one of the many boxes o’books we’ve been meaning to unpack for the past ten years).

What do all of these have in common? A sense of timelessness. These are books that don’t require steep grounding in the popular culture surrounding the story place. We don’t have to be up on boy bands and that sort of nonsense to appreciate the context of the story. These are books we’ll return to again and again. Books we can recommend this year, next year, ten years from now. Books that will actually be available to purchase ten years from now (very helpful — see previous re: unpacked boxes; sometimes it’s simply easier to buy a new copy).

This is where our niggling disssatisfaction with much chick lit (not all — there are great books, some with extensive pop culture references — out there) and other modern fiction emanates from. The lack of staying power. Much like that guy who won that American Idol show, it’s forgettable. We find this sad for the books and for the authors.

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