the lawyer writer

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Thursday, March 17, 2005

Adventures in Chick Lit

Well, I have taken my agent's advice and decided to look into writing some chick lit. For those of you who do not know about chick lit (or are men), it is not gum, but actually a genre of literature (the word is used loosely) that came about after Bridget Jones Diary. It is fast replacing the romance genre, but even though its women are modern and career-oriented, it's pretty much the same: women looking for love, well, find it. I liked BJD, but the stuff that it's spawned is pretty...hellacious. In a bad way.

I picked up a brand-new chick lit book off of the table in the bookstore. To be get your book on a table you must be selected by the bookstore, and your publisher must pay a hefty price. Any book on the table has an exponentially greater chance of selling. Obviously, they have to believe that you're going to make them lots of money. Which is my way of telling you that this book is supposed to be one of the good ones.

Anyway, I picked up the book and read it thoroughly in the space of half an hour. It was atrocious, and confirmed what I have known all along--that chick lit that sells because it is utterly formulaic and the characters are as fixed as those in medieval morality plays. (Think Everyman and Sex and the City have nothing in common? Think again). Witness the following, which is true of EVERY chick-lit book I have ever read.

The Heroine: Is pretty but does not know it. Is quirky, and has a quirky job. The definition of "quirky" varies greatly, but rest assured, she is never a nuclear scientist. She never has enough money. She has egregious taste in men.

Her Gay Male Buddy: this guy either never gets laid, or is a monogamous relationship with the love of his life by the end of the book. He is around for fashion advice, to talk the Heroine out of her bad decisions, and to convince the Heroine that she is fabulous. There is ALWAYS a Gay Male Buddy. For variety, he may be a different race than the Heroine.

Her Best Friend: Her Best Friend has the perfect marriage, to Best Friend's Husband. Every attempt is made on the part of the author to convince you that Best Friend's Husband is not boring. But he is. Best Friend is played by a supporting actress and encourages the Heroine's crazy schemes and tries to build up her self-esteem. If Best Friend is not married, she is fat, but funny and may be even more "quirky" than Heroine.

The Boss: The Boss does not appreciate the Heroine, unless he is doubling as the Gay Male Buddy, in which case he is her best friend. Even if the Heroine and Boss get along, she will change jobs at least once during the course of her book. Any episode taking place at work will be played purely for laughs, rather than for actual achievement. In many cases, the Heroine will just generally be incompentant.

On occasion, as in BJD, The Boss may also be---

Mr. Wrong: Mr. Wrong is an amalgamation of all things that make up a bad boy. At the start of the novel, Heroine adores Mr. Wrong, even though he does not call, he will not commmit and may be married. He may be emotionally needy, but he is Bad for the Heroine. He may already have broken up with Heroine, in which case, he will come crawling back to her halfway through the novel. Everybody except for Heroine immediately realizes that Mr. Wrong is a scumbag. Despite his flaws, he is, however Good in Bed.

Mr. Right: Mr. Right is always handsome, intelligent and charming. He gets along with Gay Male Buddy, Best Friend and Best Friend's husband. However, Heroine is unable to see this for herself. She will ignore Mr. Right for most of the book, even though he secretly has a crush on her. If they do get together before the book's end, she will leave him temporarily and regret it immediately. This will devastate him and he may turn to--

The Other Woman: The Other Woman is usually played by a young Catherine Deneuve. She is sophisticated, successful, elegant and utterly beautiful. She will have that je ne sais quoi that Heroine longs for. Heroine will think that Mr. Right is involved with The Other Woman. Usually, this is a mistake on her part. However, if Mr. Right is actually involved with The Other Woman, he will leave her for Heroine at the end of the book.

The Gratuitous Fuck: If there is a gratuituous fuck for Heroine, it will be some charming playboy type who, in the real world, she would fall for, but mysteriously, in the pages of chick lit, she manages to merely have pleasurable sex with him. The Gratuitous Fuck will wine and dine her, but his chief accomplishment will be giving her mind-bending orgasms. In some cases Mr. Wrong may double as the Gratuitous Fuck, but in most cases, GF is there as a rebound guy. Therefore, when Mr. Right comes along, she will be able to recognize exactly how special the orgasms she's having with Mr. Right are. Of course, it goes without saying that while GF will find Heroine attractive (and will apparently be the first man to really see her Inner Supermodel), GF will never fall for Heroine. He will simply fade away to work his magic on other unappreciated women.

None of this would be possible without:

The Gimmick:
All chick-lit must have a Gimmick. This gimmick will spur the heroine into a Transformation. The Gimmick may be a how-to book that Heroine discovers, or an elegant older woman who gives her advice, or cooking lessons (recipes included at the end of each chapter), an exotic location, a new job that Heroine spends no time at (fashion is particularly popular), a shopping fetish, or something similarly, well, gimmicky. The Gimmick is what inspires the title of the book. In many cases, the Gimmick will actually reveal to Heroine that she doesn't need anyone but herself. As she realizes this, Mr. Right magically appears so Heroine does not have to test the theory.

In short, chick-lit is dangerous. It is formulaic. It is, fundamentally, relationship porn. Give me a good, honest dirty essay anyday.

(That said, if I can find a way to write it without simultaneously gagging as I type, chick lit, here I come).

25 Comments:

Blogger Dwayne said...

I think the positive thing to take away from a depressing subject like "chick lit", which I only just discovered the existence of, is that originality is most often not in the idea but in the way it is expressed. I am not going to expound on the greatness of BJD, but I will say that it's an example of a classic formula treated with originality and flair. that is the type of book or film that will always succeed. people require the familiarity that an established genre ('boy meets girl', for example) brings and, to be truthful, a book can often survive with just that - but even the casual reader can tell between a book that merely follows a formula and one that does something original and worthwhile.

also, i like cheese.

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Blogger Dwayne said...

Oh, yeah, and the reason I am not going to expound on the greatness of BJD is that I don't think it's that great. But I'm a guy. That said, I can see why people like it.

5:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You mentioned elsewhere--or maybe in this post--that you are being asked or would like to write "Indian chick lit." Forgive the presumptuousness of the below.

I've read enough Indian and Indian-American lit (and seen enough Indian art flims) to form the opinion that the world can do without another piece of narrative art that commodifies the typical, cliche, problems with Indian culture and society. So, I'm voting for less arranged marriages (or for that matter NO marriages since they're ubiquitous in Indian narratives), less "girl or boy tries to break free from overbearing parents," less emphasis on the culture shock of being a first generation Indian. I notice I'm not leaving room for a whole lot.

My favorite Indian stories are the films and novels of Satyajit Ray. Other writers (Vikram Seth, Jhumpa Lahiri, Rohinton Mistry) highlight the sociocultural problems with India to the point where they can almost be seen as major characters. Ray does that as well in some of his works but in others typical Indian society and culture (and their ups and downs) are more the backdrop that his characters play off of. The Feluda novels and films for example. In those works, Indian culture is presented as a given, or not as an antagonist but as an environment or setting that the characters are comfortable in and flow through more effortlessly. These are stories that few people, including Indians, seem to see as valid Indian narratives because they don’t include Dalits, forced marriages, etc. I think Oscar Hijuelos' books are other good examples of what I’m trying to say. I also liked Mississippi Masala for that reason. I didn’t see Mina as rebelling against an oppressive Indian culture in that movie but as engaging in a U.S. tradition of living freely and romantically and standing up for herself as a woman. It seemed to me that up until she met her lover she was comfortable in her heritage.

I don't want to give the impression that I think India's many problems aren't worth writing about. But I do think they become the raison d'etre for far too many Indian narratives. The interesting parts of Lahiri's “The Namesake” weren't the antagonism between the protagonist and his Indian heritage (his experiences as a young boy in the Indian community, his father) but his exploration of his heritage later in the book with Mohusumi. I think that there’s a big market out there for stories about one-armed beggars, cruel landlords, young Indian-American women being forced into loveless marriages, young Indian-American boys being forced into medical degrees, etc. Indian culture cliché porn. There’s a lot more that can be said about Indian culture that isn’t because people can’t get beyond Bollywood, the Kama Sutra, arranged marriages, saris and bindis.

Anyway, that's my rant on Indian narratives. Don't mind. I hope I articulated my sketchy viewpoint well enough.

Nice blog!

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