Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Opining: A Purposefully Limited View on Chick Lit

Surprising how expansive my limited view can be, in terms of word count (this post exceeds 1,500).
In this era, a book all about the trials and tribulations of single women trying to get married off as soon as possible would, most likely be classified as ‘chick lit.’ Chick lit is a term that I find both weird and funny, because say it fast and it sounds like the official term for the cooked version of a chick – don’t ask me why, that’s what comes to mind. But it is quite accurate in that it refers to all that concerns a woman, a ‘chick.’
My dictionary defines chick lit as:
a genre of fiction targeted to, and written by or about, young and sophisticated urban women (slang)
Why is my perception that chick lit is all about getting married off (and the often wild and saucy and unbelievably scandalous speed bumps a feisty Chick will encounter on her way to that highest altar)? I guess it can’t be all about that, really, because rare are the novels today which are only about a woman seeking a partner in life.

(Mills & Boon books aren't counted here; they're straight-up romance, whereas chick-lit is all about shucking off the pink cover and donning sharp edges that'll give you a paper-cut as hurtful as that from any other fresh new novel.)

The Chick usually has lots of stuff going on. Today’s woman naturally has so much more going on than one, say, from the 'Austenite era,' at least, the kind of ‘stuff’ that gets put into a book meant to amuse, engage, whatever else. And the books in which these lives feature are always covered with a cutesy cartoon depiction of women with the legs we wish we could have but humanly never will, so there's that to speak for how much of the focus is off men/love and perhaps more on the self, or the self the characters in the book want to be - not a bad thing, I guess. I'm probably reading too much into the cutesy cover pictures.
I would wager that the main deal for women of the past, Marriage, has been replaced with a plain Good Man to spend some quality time with and whom the reader knows will eventually marry the protagonist because such books always end that way, with that light-hearted wink of a happy ending hinting that things are going to be Happily Ever After. Bridget Jones’ Diary is the classic modern example. Pride and Prejudice is the supreme backdrop to it and others in the same mould, the mighty river from which all chick lit has trickled out of in their bubbly, transparent but somehow still dirty streamlets - i.e. today’s chick lit novels.
Another modern example that I like is Louise Bagshawe’s Venus Envy, where the objective is to slap down bitchy women in the office, climb social and business ladders, all while looking fabulous, dominating in high heels, dropping fashion house names printed across the labels of your clothes, and so on, because misguidedly you think that such qualities will attract the Right Man, only who you think is the Right Man at first turns out to be complete utter Sleazy Wrong, and it’s the one who was there, admiring you silently all along, who loves you no matter how much money you have, who is Mr. Right, the Mister to Marry, and marry him you do. In Venus Envy, there’s a heavy-kiss/light-hearted wink of an ending that indicates the protagonist, Alex, is going to say yes to her Right Man who loves her through rich and poor and thick and thin, and they will marry, and be Happily Ever After.
The women followed in P&P are basically the same as Alex, or Bridget, only they are from a time when a woman could expect to marry and give birth at most. Alex and Bridget’s chick lit adventures tail off from P&P in that they are not stuck in quaint country homes awaiting suitors; yet essentially, in these characters’ lives, the driving factor is the same. They’re motivated by men.
Men and Marriage are the same thing in Pride and Prejudice, I’ve gotta say; there’s little satisfactory distinction between a man and the act of getting married to him, even though it’s pointed out that Jane and Elizabeth quite like their respective suitors. Marriage is not the announced motivator for Alex and Bridget, but there are a bunch of side-motivations, branches that add to the whole tree, so to speak, of what drives these women to work so hard, impress men in their lives.
There’s the side-motivation of competing with other women. Looking good. Dressing well and giving the impression of affluence even when there’s a natural lack of it. Pleasing parents and side-stepping the nasty comments of women one must work with who point out rips and tears in your outfit with the glee of a child finding their favourite cartoon character out on the street, some poor sweating man paid to manifest an unreality into reality. And usually the vile comments about your outfit and makeup are unfounded, an unreality, and the men typically find you lovely and this is the acceptable truth, not the truth belonging to the snarky rival women.
This is chick lit. It attracts the sillier molecules radiating off my feminine energy as I read, and siphons them off by amusing me for an hour, until I realise how not-feminist the feminist protagonist keeps claiming herself to be, how hypocritical the whole thing is. This helps me regain balance and return to a state where I may read a heavier story, in other words. This is why I read chick lit in between heavy books, and never varying from the only couple of chick lit novels I am brave enough to keep in my reading sphere. Bridget Jones’ Diary and Venus Envy. Anything from the 2000s onward would be too close to home, and any new scene of chick lit-ness would only be a disaster to pay for. I am sorry to sound like a snob but I really would rather spend the little money I have, when I do ever have it, on books of literary quality.
Chick lit – you read one or two and you’ve read as much as you need to, if not all (as I’m sure there are clever enough authors out there who are coming up with denser, more believable, but almost better-quality plots and character building schemes than I’m aware of; I just don’t need to know about it!). But there’s nothing wrong with making them your one-and-only in terms of books. Whatever works for an individual works.
Anyway, to an aside: what is so laudable about Pride and Prejudice? The reason I never wanted to read it was because I knew it was all about girls waiting around to be married off. Now I’ve read it, it’s love that they’re seeking, but the idea of love is so fragile, like a web, something the story won't touch, for it'll break apart if we have these girls examine the idea of love too closely. Plain and simple, it really is marriage and the security that comes with it that they love, I feel.
Love is not communicated strongly, not for me, between the four central characters, even though the right words are there in some places and they all do overcome stringent rules about class and place to be with whom they please; any passage where love might be sensed, like where Jane and Darcy, towards the end, can finally speak openly of their feelings, and where they defy the witch who insists on their never getting married, just doesn’t feel all that real to me, simply because of a personal sense that I don’t connect with this time, this era, the version of love allowably woven through a journey towards matrimony. Yep, it is due to my personal taste that I can’t connect it.
(In Bridget Jones, I can believe it, which might make me dense for not being able to get into the mindset of ye olde times and understand how love of eras past might legitimately be felt and expressed, for only believing what I know, that it takes time to truly know a person and to know for sure that they are The One who won’t ditch you at the first chance of something prettier, lighter, less verbose, etc.)
Maybe the story doesn’t need to be laudable. I’m not consciously looking for a novel to tell me how to live life; how to feel; the right morals to follow ... a basic spiritual guidance counsellor, for all intents and purposes. I don’t read looking for guidance. I don’t imagine I’d ever write hoping someone would take guidance from me (supposing I’m good enough I could hook anybody into following my advice, intricately paced and sighed through my work of literature. :P).
But anyway, the writer’s purpose isn’t simply to relay the details of a situation and feelings that arise about it, but as Zadie Smith has put it, ‘to tell us how the world works.’ (My understanding: stories are about not the What, but the How.) This is apt when applied to P&P.
The story gets interesting enough in its own way, with the little scandals people today would consider trifling. Yet it reeks of chick lit to me. Wasn’t this Way Back When’s version of today’s Happily Ever After chick lit fodder? What do I know … it seems like the kind of story that would be. Women who get their men in the end. Thereby securing financial freedom. Just like sophisticated urban women in modern chick lit novels, except in the latter the women are claiming they never needed husbands or think of the financial freedom at all.
The obvious fact is that Austen was a superb writer with a great and distinct voice, which is why I suppose that author is listed among the top writers of all time. At the same time I can’t help feeling I’m either still not getting something or have been too ruined by the high school education system which tells me the kind of writing featured in P&P is too straightforward, giving no nuance or layering to plot and storytelling; dull, telling and not showing, lacks metaphor and motifs, so on and so forth …
Still, I’m not actively looking out for stunning use of metaphor, motifs, writing that shows-not-tells when I first read something. If a writer is clever, these things occur to me as they pop up, but they don’t intrude on my individual reading process. All I want first time round is to read thoroughly, make sure I catch every necessary line, hang on to them all, and get to the end understanding at least most of what’s happened.
Some stories can leave you bewildered in a very good way, so that you want to read them over again, go back over for clues or to read especially beautiful passages. I don’t want to go back over Pride and Prejudice. There’s nothing extra, no undertone, no riverbed into which diamonds have fallen, lost under the streaming surface of water, that I want to examine.
And yeah, a book by Austen doesn't need to offer that, for what makes it worth the read is the voice itself, I can recognise that much; and no chick lit novel requires that quality. That isn’t the point of a light-hearted read. I don’t need that quality in everything I read. But it leaves me wondering again, what I’m missing about Austen, as a writer, aside from her voice, that has made her so lauded by men and women of modern times. Was it that she was able to formulate her books and get them out into the hemisphere in her day and age – is that what makes her especially special, buoying her near to the top of our greatest author lists? I have been ruined by 'whole packages' like Jeffrey Eugenides, I suppose, whose work is fulfilling on multiple levels, for multiple reasons, even if there's a point where I'm not getting something, not enjoying a part of the work.
I guess I will try Emma, or something, just to see if something more brilliant in that lauded work by Austen doesn’t knock me on the head and say hello.

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