I try to have a routine, but it’s sometimes difficult to motivate yourself—especially when Big Brother‘s on.
—Andrea Semple, author of The Ex-Factor (interviewed on ChickLit.co.uk)
... baiting Jon is becoming a habit. And then I remember how he wanted to sleep with me a few months ago, and I go bright red. It’s incredible. I’m a music journalist—I think I can call myself that now—and I live in London, and I share a flat with my boyfriend, and we have serious conversations about politics, and, yes, I still go red.
—Linda in Cool for Cats
When renowned writers Beryl Bainbridge and Doris Lessing recently slammed authors of “chick lit” fiction written for and about the single woman, the claws of many of the genre’s most popular authors came out. One taking offense was Jenny Colgan, who claimed Bainbridge, Lessing and other “hairy-legged” chick lit critics had her style all wrong. Colgan, author of bestsellers Amanda’s Wedding and Looking for Andrew McCarthy, damned the collective label as “insulting”, telling the BBC in March of last year that young women “know the difference between foie gras and Hula Hoops, but, sometimes . . . just want the Hula Hoops”. And so, the debate as to the merits of chick lit continues to rage: Is it just about girls, gossip and getting laid, or is there something deeper to be found inside those rainbow-colored covers? Check out the latest in the genre and the answer sways toward the former, that a woman’s journey ends when she finds the perfect man, the perfect job and moves out of her bedsit. “Young women aren’t stupid,” Colgan said—so why treat them that way?
Colgan is perhaps one of the worst offenders when it comes to misrepresenting young women in her books. Amanda’s Wedding features a couple of whiny, self-obsessed 20-somethings determined to ruin the wedding of a friend, whom they loathe but still hang out with. Colgan’s Looking for Andrew McCarthy, which has a plot that doesn’t know if it’s paying tribute to ‘80s films, taking the piss out of them, or taking place in the reality of them, suffers similar issues with unappealing, stereotypical supporting characters and a self-involved, whiny protagonist.
Jessica Adams’s Cool for Cats is another recent offender with its writer / astrologer author (responsible also for Single White Email and Tom, Dick and Debbie Harry) making no effort whatsoever to steer away from chick lit’s well-worn devices. Set at the height of the punk era, Cool for Cats is a quick read about Linda, a young woman winning the “best job in England” as a reporter for a New Wave rag. Between attending Pretenders gigs and constructing the weekly crossword puzzle, Linda must re-evaluate what she wants out of life when her fiancé walks out on her.
Adams’s writing might be fast and funny, but it’s her dense characterisation and by-the-numbers story that lets her book down. Like Colgan’s work, Cool for Cats is riddled with clichéd characters—the practical boyfriend, cynical best friend, asshole co-worker, charming boss, hunky rebound guy—whom we never get to know beyond their fashion choices and music tastes. Take Cindy the art girl, for example. We’re expected to accept she’s a “stroppy cow” based solely on her efficiency, “cawfee”-stained accent and desire to work uninterrupted.
The protagonist, Linda’s development goes just as poorly with her immature dealings with her boyfriend, her dopiness masqueraded as naiveté (don’t even get me started on her ridiculous mid-book jaunt to Australia via New York) and her all-around rudeness (intended, I guess, to be interpreted as strength). In the end, Linda’s a know-it-all who doesn’t really know a lot, created by a writer who has unsuccessfully attempted to disguise a dissertation on the music of 1979 as a book. Linda’s experiences are apparently based on the author’s own, but one hopes Adams is a little bit more self-aware than Linda, whose biggest decision in life is based on her contempt for Billy Joel.
Is this supposed to be representative of young women in the new millennium? Are we all piss-taking, self-obsessed twats more interested in sassy comebacks and the sharpness of our hips than the state of the world and our places in it? Ask Adams and Colgan and apparently the answer’s yes.
Ask literary agent, Leslie Daniels, and she’ll give you the thumbs up, too. Daniels described chick lit books as “the quest of a young woman who’s lost a bad boyfriend, or is looking for a good boyfriend, or maybe she’s got a lot of good boyfriends and has found a lot of bad boyfriends” (The Philadelphia Enquirer, 25 May 2003). It’s not the label that’s insulting, it’s influential women in the literary community spouting nonsense like this.
And, she’s not the only one. In her recent article, “Why I Heart Chick Lit”, Seattle Weekly writer Kathryn Robinson declared “chick lit should be respected . . . because it respects its readers and their ordinary lives.” However, when illustrating her point, Robinson is embarrassingly off the mark, referring to Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane as “current samples of the genre.” She uses pap smear jokes in Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It to demonstrate that book’s relevance: “What woman hasn’t felt demeaned by the smear test? What woman hasn’t wasted vital time reflecting on the size of her bum?”, she asks. Yes, the speculum is hard and cold—Erica Jong told us that, so did Ben Elton. Isn’t it about time we moved on?
Lessing wanted to know why Adams, Colgan and their fellow chick litters refused to “write about their lives as they really [see] them, and not [about] helpless girls, drunken, worrying about weight, and so on,” but today, I’m convinced Lessing’s the one off the mark. Advice like hers is pointless because for these authors, this is how they see their lives. According to Robinson, a “woman’s search for the right orthotics, her passion for children, and, yes, her anxiety about the size of her bum . . . shine the brightest light on the honest circumstances of her existence.” Observations like this suggest that Robinson and Colgan champion such shallowness because they themselves are as shallow as the characters themselves. It would explain Colgan’s bratty name-calling of her critics at any rate. Its isnt their job to write about women with greater concerns than their love lives and wardrobes, but it instead falls to women who harbour these greater concerns to look elsewhere for their literary fixes.
Ahh, who am I kidding? They already do.