May 20th, 2008

Apples and avocados

The ever-intelligent Kerry Clare has posted a response at Descant blog to my post Chick-lit ruined my life from a while back. Kerry works through a number of interesting examples on the blog, and you should go read her post (the reason I’m responding here rather than there is that Descant blog eats my comments). Towards the end she pinpoints one of her fears about the genre of chick-lit/comic novels for and about women:

… anyone can fall off a chair with aplomb, then, and perhaps I’m just being sensitive. But I’m still troubled a bit: are only losers funny? Is idiot synonymous with clown? As women have had historical difficulties being taken seriously at all, how are such literary characters detrimental to perceptions of women in general?

I think the danger of dismissing women as clumsy, over-eating, under-ambitious, brand-obsessed drunks (not what Kerry said at all, but one of my own secret fears caused my chick-lit) comes not from any one text, but from the *trend* of chick-lit. Bridget Jones *is* a clumsy, over-eating, under-ambitious brand-obsessed person-who-drinks-a-lot, but she’s also sweet and terribly funny and, in many ways, extremely relatable to one such as I, who doesn’t want to be any of those things but, on certain occasions, is (except the drunk thing).

Bridget Jones’ diary is a worst-case scenario, a what-if-everything-I-fear-actually happened fantasy, told by and for people who want to know as much about their worst selves as possible, if only to make it all seem less heinous. It’s a brilliant book, and there are many others that do the same thing. But as my friend J commented once, about why he doesn’t like these books (yes, *he*–he still has a good point), self-consciousness is still self-absorbtion. These books are about women watching their own every move with fascination. Goodness knows, I do it enough (ohmygod, my hair, that zit on my cheek, the way I laughed just now is stupid and I think she hates my shoes!) and it’s good to have a fictional character to empathize with, but like clumsiness, over-eating, and brand-obsession, self-absorbtion is nothing to be proud of. I’m trying to stop, and think about other stuff.

And therein, I think, lies the problem with chick-lit, not with individual books (though some *are* terrible) but with the genre–do we need a whole category of books for women to think more about how we’re viewed from the outside? I’m generalizing broadly (yes, I have read Marian Keyes’ senstive and hilarious books about addiction and other real problems) but as a whole, these books *don’t* protray women in a wonderful light and the protagonists don’t have a lot of characteristics other than those foibles of which they are so agonizingly aware. The problem, I think, is that most humans are goofballs on occasions, but these books required women *only* to be goofy all the way through. Such is genre fiction–no one faults the heroes of westerns for not having a homelife and a sensitive side. It’s when this stuff starts to be taken as the way to go–an occasional instance of goofy/bad behaviour can brighten any book, but, as KC points out, clownishness is becoming the major vehicle for funny women in books. Oh no!

This is perhaps my favourite instance of female physical comedy in literature:

“That morning I had tried to hang myself.

“I had taken the silk cord of my mother’s yellow bathrobe as soon as she left for work, and, in the amber shade of the bedroom, fashioned it into a knot that slipped up and down on itself. It took me a long time to do this, because I was poor at knots and had no idea how to make a proper one.

“Then I hunted around for a place to attach the rope.

“The trouble was, our house had the wrong kind of ceilings. The ceilings were low, white and smoothly plastered, without a light fixture or a wooden beam in sight.

“After a discouraging time of walking about with the slik cord dangling from my neck like a yellow cat’s tail and finding no place to fasten it, I sat on the edge of my mother’s bed and tried pulling the cord tight.

The Bell Jar, pp. 127–129

Esther Greenwood is always a pretty funny girl, even when she’s trying to commit suicide, but the key thing about Esther is that sometimes she’s dumber than everyone else, and sometimes much smarter. Sometimes the joke is on her, sometimes not. She’s not a real person, but she’s an approximation, not a caricature.

Many many titles in the chick-lit cannon are a joy to read, but reading many many chick-lit titles all at once would probably be confusing if you were trying to pin down What Women Are Like. That’s something you can’t really do, and we should always question books that claim to have done so.

Come on and make it a soft one

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