Archive for August 2009
I think this Jezebel headline says it all: Is “New Chick Lit” Just a Different Kind of Obnoxious?:
These tales of women overcoming obstacles to live independently of men and their bank accounts certainly sound inspiring — except that the obstacles aren’t really that big. In fact, it seems that divorce and financial devastation usually cause the heroines to do something fun and hip that they really wanted to do anyway. When her parents take away her credit cards, Mercury in Retrograde’s Lena “Lipstick” Lippencrass “discovers a talent for fashion design” — that noted path to financial security. The heroine of The Summer Kitchen is “forced to open a bakery,” also usually a capital-intensive and uncertain enterprise, at least in the real world. And Jill Kargman’s The Ex-Mrs. Hedgefund, has its heroine, post-divorce, “picking up the threads of a career built on her first love, rock ‘n’ roll.” These women don’t have to scrimp and save in menial jobs — instead, they embark on glamorous careers, with the implication that their lives are now more fulfilling than they were in the days of easy marital money.
It makes me think of that episode of Sex and the City in which Carrie goes apartment hunting only to find that things in her price range are tiny. The first time I saw it, I thought that it was maybe the first episode of the whole darn series that showed my New York. Carrie looks in a tiny closet and wonders where she’ll keep her shoes. Yeah, welcome to life for the rest of us. You may recall that the episode ends when Charlotte gives Carrie the money she needs to buy her old apartment, thus solving the problem handily in a half hour.
In other words, it’s hard to look at the plots of these books and not think, “Oh, you have slightly less disposable income so you pursue your dream job. Such problems!” This is appealing how?
The chick lit genre doesn’t deserve across-the-board opprobrium — at their best, these novels can be witty and wise, and their popularity supports many a female writer. But chick lit writers may be unconsciously buying into women’s magazine culture, with its idea that reading should inspire desire — for more stuff, or, in the new, recession-era formulation, for a life that is glamorous even in fallback mode. It’s neither realistic nor necessary to ask that writers produce only what Benfer calls “Great and Difficult works of art,” or that all chick lit novels be about unmitigated pain and suffering. But, as author Gigi Levangie Grazer says, “the idea that having the right bag buys you happiness-now that’s dark.” And there’s something dark, too, about the notion that even in a recession, heroines need to be better off than their readers. Do chick lit consumers want to read about working-class families dealing with layoffs, or women who find fulfillment in jobs that aren’t traditionally “cool”? We don’t know, because those books aren’t being written — yet.
There has been some discussion in the romance blogs of late about historical accuracy in romance novels. This is one of those things I always took with a grain of salt. Mostly I read historicals about periods I don’t know much about, so that the details don’t bother me or pull me out of the story.
Romance novels also rather famously ignore things like historical hygiene. Because, as you know, before the 20th century, people didn’t bathe to often. EvilAuntiePeril further points out
The thing is, I’m perpetually intrigued by what is justified in historical romance novels on the grounds of historical “authenticity” (eg. rape, abuse, swordsticks, Fabio in a Viking helmet) and what is extracted on grounds that it would put off the sensitive reader (eg. slavery, blatant racism, poor oral health, body hair). It’s not the removal of all ick. It’s selective historical sanitisation – and it’s not only in ye olde Romancelande that this takes place.
She goes on to say that historical novels are often more reflective of the period in which they are written, and certainly out contemporary obsession with cleanliness and hygiene comes across in novels written today. There are justifications for not describing the dank, dirty conditions of the time periods being written in, too: lack of hygiene would have been normal for all of the characters, so there’s no need to draw attention to it, or romance is fantasy and talking about body odor ruins the illusion.
Candy at Smart Bitches takes it further, point out that cleanliness = good, and lack of hygiene is often shorthand in romance novels for villainy. “If somebody in a romance novel has rotting teeth or smells weird, they’re not just going to bad, they’re going to be naaaaaaasty, and the hero and heroine are going to be distinguished from this nastiness, whatever the actual state of physical hygiene happened to be in Ye Olden Dayes of Yore for gently-bred people.” Candy brings up other examples: weird food as an explanation for Otherness in foreign characters; fat as shorthand for emasculation or even villainy (male obesity especially, since romance writers treat overweight heroines with a softer touch; Candy cites several fat male characters who are either emasculated—one is impotent—or else clearly the Bad Guy).
In the latter case, this is fishy because I can think of several historical figures known as well for their corpulence as their sexual prowess. Candy says this is beside the point, and also reflective more of 2009 than 1809.
What’s happening here has more to do with how contemporary culture desexualizes overweight people, and how overwhelmingly, we associate masculinity with muscularity. I particularly find the leap from emasculation to evil especially interesting, because it’s a theme you see quite a bit in literature in general and romance novels in particular. Oftentimes, I think the villainization is achieved via feminization, because emasculation often brings with it an identification/association with effeminacy, and that almost always leads to villainization of a character. You see it not only with men who are portrayed as fat and sexually impotent and are coded as womanish, but with men who are more explicitly coded as womanish, such as bisexuals, homosexuals or transvestites.
So there’s some food for thought. Um. Probably it’s improper to make a food pun when discussing obesity, eh?
Then there’s the entirely different matter of romance plots that would never have happened. Lynne Connolly at The Good, the Bad, and the Unread lists some things that could not or never happened in the real world:
* A known, famous courtesan marrying a peer of the realm and them being accepted into society with open arms.
* Peers of the realm becoming pirates.
* Regency gentlemen drinking whisky or whiskey from a decanter on the sideboard. [whiskey was illegal until 1823 and not a common drunk until the 1840s]
* A medieval Scottish warrior brandishing his claymore. [“No claymores until the late 16th century.”]
* A medieval Scottish warrior wearing a skirted kilt in his clan’s tartan. [No kilts until the 19th century.]
I agree with Connolly that when you come across a detail that you know not to be true (this is why I don’t read a lot of American historicals, because I would find all of these errors) it takes you right out of the story. She says, “It’s an insult to say “it’s only a romance, so it’s okay, I can write what I like and get away with it” or something else I’ve overheard, “They’ll never notice.” So what? The other person a writer should respect is herself and her art.” Trust me, readers notice. (Actually, The Phoenix takes place in a time period I’ve been studying lately, and I think the portrayal of New York in the 1890s was mostly spot on, if vague in places. Except for the LES, Sims never really specifies neighborhoods. I kind of wanted more detail, actually, though I suspect that if she’d gotten things wrong, I would have gotten pulled out of the story.)
So. Does historical inaccuracy in fiction bother you? Does it matter? Should Regency heroines bathe less often?
I discovered Chick Lit my last year in college, when I read a string of books in a row intended to distract me from my thesis. These were cutesy romances involving flawed heroines living in cities, and most of the ones I read were fluffy nonsense, but I could recognize something there. Before the books became cookie-cutter Bridget Jones clones, these were books about women, most of whom worked in media and lived in big cities like New York, and who were an interesting contrast to the typical superlatively beautiful and perfect romance heroine. And, hey, what did I do after college? I moved to New York and got a job in media.
I hate the label “chick lit” because I think it’s belittling. I went to an Erica Jong reading around the time her autobiography was published, and I chatted with her a little at the end about chick lit. She also hates the label because it necessarily segregates female authors in the book stores. Because, let’s face it, chick lit is looked down upon as being, well, fluffy nonsense.
But I like the idea of books about urban women with flaws. Maybe because I can see myself in a lot of these heroines, but I think there’s something really appealing in that. I’m also a sucker for a book that takes place somewhere I know well.
A new wave of chick lit is deemed more realistic. An example is Amy Sohn’s new novel about Park Slope (Brooklyn) moms. Themes in these novels include finding oneself after divorce and raising children in affluent communities.
I work in Park Slope and spend a fair amount of my play time there, too, so I know from Park Slope moms, trust me. The idea of a novel about 4 Park Slope couples is kind of appealing, and I’d read it jsut to find familiarity. But after reading the summaries of this novel, I came to realize that I do not know these women. Or if I do, but I don’t like them. What I like to call the Park Slope Mom Brigade is something of a joke around these parts because these moms are crazy and overprotective, and conjure images of helicopter parenting and food co-op memberships (see also Fucked in Park Slope). And I’m supposed to find them sympathetic? Novels featuring wealthy divorcees? Um, what? I have some respect for what these writers are doing, but I feel like it’s not that far removed from Candace Bushnell, and maybe it’s “realistic,” but it’s still kind of whiney and elitist.
Title: The Phoenix
Author(s): Ruth Sims
Publisher: Lethe Press, 2008
Genre: Victorian Epic
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Warning: There are some spoilers in this review, mostly because the part of the book I liked the least was the last quarter of it, and I don’t think this would be an adequate review without explaining what I didn’t like. I’ll try not to spoil it too badly, though.
So I picked up this book after reading this review. I thought, okay, midwestern grandma writes a Victorian epic at the center of which is a gay romance? Sign me up!
The Phoenix is a little first-novel-y, in that there are some structural problems, a little bit of head-hopping, and A LOT of plot (although that’s more a genre convention than a flaw). It’s surprisingly well put together, though. I think it falls short of other Victorian epics I’ve read in the same vain (examples: The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber, Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters) but it was still a fun read and full of every Victorian Novel Cliché you can think of.
Jack Rourke is our Oliver Twist, a boy born to poverty with a viciously abusive father and a weak twin brother named Michael. At fourteen, he befriends an actress named Lizbet who helps him get a job as a stagehand at a theater. Lizbet also teaches him to read and speak properly. Jack comes home one night to find that his father has killed Michael, so Jack in turn kills his father, then runs to Lizbet for help. She smuggles him out of London to St. Denys Hill, her family’s home. Jack is taken in by Xavier St. Denys, Lizbet’s brother, who is happy to take in the boy because he knows he will never marry or have a son of his own. You can guess why. Although the house parties he hosts that are attended only by well-dressed men might be a clue. In an effort to disguise his identity, Xavier renames Jack Christopher, then he later adopts him, so he becomes Christopher St. Denys, called Kit. Kit soon becomes the most famous and well-respected actor in London. Read the rest of this entry »