chick lit
September 10, 2003 05:46 PM

I cannot resist commenting on Revo's assessment of the chick lit genre (actually an expansion upon Hanne Blank's equally readable thoughts on same).

To summarize: I disagree.

I disagree with the notion that this form of entertainment literature isn't useful - is, in fact, even potentially harmful. Of course they're not serious literature - but harmful?

The chick lit novel, like the spy novel, the romance novel, the ghost-written sports stars' autobiography, is clearly a form of escapism. It's the hipper, trendier romance novel. It comes in ranges of sillinesses, from literate to after school special to inane. Like any silly brand of entertainment, a huge part of its value is in distraction from the daily grind. In the case of chick lit, that distraction is intriguingly couched in the very minutiae of life that one might presumably be trying to escape. Hmmm.

As a reader, I find that the silliest chick lit, on the rare occasions when it provokes reflection, tends to normalize whatever issues I might be experiencing. I mean, my job may be tough, but at least I'm not directionless like the women in the books. You feel for their stupidity, but they're charicatures of real people. No one is that screwed up over trivialities, ergo you, the reader, are less screwed up than these charicatures. And yet - the books always touch on the experience of being female in a "post-feminist" world - many of them show women balancing what they're "supposed to" want against what they do want (in both directions - some want independence, others want man bootay). The point is - you can relate, but at a safe and comfortable distance.

And yes, it does generally depict women having wacky adventures whilst dealing with the perennial manquest and presumed need for self-improvement. The characters are generally impossibly foolish yet oddly endearing, the situations absurdly farfetched yet trite. And no, almost no character ever suffers a great personal change and becomes less of an idiot through her experiences.

What does happen, though, is that the silly characters, like real women, learn (sometimes again and again) that they don't need to change their whole selves to find something of value. It's the message of Hans Christian Andersen's "Little Mermaid" buried under masses of credit card dept (presumed in some cases, explicit in others): you're alright just as you are. [The whole "he likes her just as she is" bit in Bridget Jones's Diary - the way it's completely, almost satirically belabored - highlights how much being alright as one is isn't the acceptable norm, for women particularly, but it also extends to men and is seen in some of the comparable books I'd call "men lit".] The women may not be people we want to model our lives on, but that's not the point: the point is, we don't need to model our lives on anyone. We're fine just as we are. [Well, the books that parallel the teen fiction concept where a girl loses a ton of weight or gets contact lenses over the summer and is then transformed from geek to chic don't say this, but they're peddling a different message - that you can be anything you like. As long as you like whatever's "normal".]

And, like all romance fiction, things turn out alright in the end. This is a very diverse genre, though - alright in the end can mean starting or ending a relationship, having nothing to do with relationships, overcoming some sort of immense personal trouble, or finding the right nail polish.

Of course, ultimately, I see a sort of sisterhood in these books. They deal with sometimes-trivial-sometimes-dead-serious issues that most straight [though there are chick-lit books that speak more to lesbian experience, the self-esteem agonies involved are much, much different] women encounter in some form or other as part of the mundaneities of life. They also serve as a sort of trading card you can share and giggle over with the real women (and suprisingly, the real women of multiple generations - I share books with my best friend, my mother, and my boss, for instance) in your life. They form a sort of fictional shared experience that can serve as overture to talking about the non-fictional shit we slog through.

And while Revo jokes that I shouldn't "ask her to read any more of them", the truth is that you can't see past the trivialities these books share without really becoming part of a community of readers, and coming to know a variety of these crazed fictional characters. It's rather like a cult that way, chick lit is.

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