Thursday, July 22, 2004

JA, chicklit, and Bitch. I couldn't think of a witty title.

Over at Austenblog they've got a post about Jane Austen and chicklit. Which made me think of the latest issue of Bitch magazine (Run out to your nearest bookstore and buy a copy right now; you'll thank me later), which had an article dissecting the chicklit phenomenon: the good, the bad, the whys and wherefores. It came to the same conclusions as the Austenblog article:

Jane Austen, of course, is consistently identified as the great-grandmother of chick lit, and most examples conform (some more successfully than others) to the comedy-of-manners romance she honed to perfection. Indeed, the ways in which chick lit deviates from Austen's model are telling. Austen limned the cotours of a world in which women had little choice but to marry, and the presssure to do so early and well delineates her typical plot just as it defines her heroines. Austen's women are constricted by a narrowly defined  set of roles. Chick lit heroines, on the other hand, are generally baffled by a lack of definition. Faced with a confusing barrage of conflicting messages--build a career, start a family, find a man, be independent--they dither and stumble toward their happy ending. The nature of that happy ending--a monogamous, heterosexual relationship--may be preordained, but the author has a great deal of freedom in determining how her protagonist gets there.

So I've been thinking about JA and chicklit for the past few days. I don't read chicklit. I've read and enjoyed Bridget Jones, but that's about it. Frankly, I have issues with chicklit. On the one hand, I don't want to be an intellectual snob and dismiss out of hand popular genre fiction that I've never read (I went through a nasty phase of that in high school); but on the other, chicklit is not that interesting to me. I'm not interested in men, I hate shopping for anything that isn't books, I drink rarely, etc. Besides, I hate pink. But whether a book is relevant to my own experience doesn't have much to do with my interest in or opinion of it; after all, Horatio Hornblower and I live in completely different universes, and I love that series.

(I'm writing all this as it comes to me, by the way. I'm not formulating a structured argument or anything)

So whenever I see "Jane Austen" and "chick-lit" linked, I cringe. It's the implied synonymous relationship I really hate, as if Austen were nothing more than a Regency version of Candace Bushnell. Jane Austen was a creative genius! I want to shout. She was an artist! A pioneer both for writers and for women! She was satirizing the marriage market, for god's sake! It's social commentary, on women's roles and religion and morality and family dynamics and even economics! etc. And then that guy in my Women's Writers class (hereafter referred to as Sexist Dumbass) pops into my head and replies that, after all, she only wrote about women talking alot and getting married. Not anything important.

Jeez, that still makes me mad. I really hate that guy.

So I'm looking at the Bitch article again, which says that chicklit can be great fun, well-written and satirical; but a lot of it fails to live up to its potential. Maybe it's the word "chicklit" that I hate; it's got a diminutive, condescending, derogatory ring to it, just like "chick flick" (things get ugly round here when people start talking about "that chick flick" they saw).  It's all sugar and sweet and wrapped up in pink! And I get the feeling that alot of media/marketers/what-have-you don't realize that this is fluff reading for a lot of women. It's fun, that's the whole point. A gal's gotta have her Georgette Heyer, you know? And why does it have to have its own category? Why does fiction that focuses on single women dealing with work and relationships and just living have to be segregated off into a genre, plastered with ribbons and bows (to make sure no guys accidently read it and damage their masculinity, perhaps)?  Bitch also has a side bar on "Lad Lit", the male answer to chick lit. Not surprisingly, nobody's reading it. It's like Spike TV, the self-proclaimed "First Network for Men!" Give me a break. All television is for men. Likewise, you don't need your own genre of fiction when the vast majority of literature has been written by men for men.
Chicklit's a fairly new genre, as a concept anyway. I think it's a potentially rich field that's fallen prey to publishing marketers. Bridget Jones was a hit, and people realized they could make money off this thing, and turned it into a product. Water it down, play to the lowest-common denominator, sell shitloads. Or it's just a case of So-and-So's Law (I forget which), the one that says that 98% of anything is crap.

So is Jane Austen the great-grandmother of chicklit? Yes and no, I guess. Same basic parts, same themes, different treatments. BJ is a pastiche of Pride and Prejudice, of course; but in some bizarre way it seems like every other chicklit author has decided to take Lydia Bennet or Isabella Thorpe as their heroine, instead of Elizabeth or Anne Eliot or even Emma.  I don't know; maybe I should read more chicklit before I draw any real conclusions.

God I love having a blog! I can get on my soapbox for as long as I want and can't nobody stop me! What do chicklit fans think? Am I full of shit?


At 9:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Heh. I was hoping to start something with that post. I thought the article was full of crap, myself, but I decided on AustenBlog I'm gonna be good and keep my opinions to myself. Mostly. Ha ha.

I don't like chick lit much either, though I'm not well-read in it. I love love love the Bridget Jones books and have tried others in the genre but haven't found anything that comes close. They tend to have very sloppy, juvenile writing styles. My fic writing prof would have had an aneurysm over it. "Don't! Reference! Pop! Culture! Dammit!" And the plots are beyond convoluted. They're more Ann Radcliffe than Jane Austen; interesting in their own way if you like that sort of thing but not worthy of real comparison.

Jane Austen's books are so much more than mere chick lit, and anyone who compares them needs to be beat about the head with an unabridged hardback copy of The Mysteries of Udolpho, and then read them again. No, better yet, they should never be allowed to read Jane Austen again, because they don't deserve her!

There, how's THAT for literary snobbery? ;-)

And, on weblogs as soapbox: as Martha used to say, like a hot stock tip, it's a Good Thing.

Mags 8-}

At 8:17 AM, Blogger Andygrrl said...

Well if it's one thing I hate it's people who treat JA like some glorified romance novelist. I think I find chicklit interesting from a theoretical perspective (hm, there's a topic for my thesis next semester...); but not enough to actually read the crap. I guess a dose of literary snobbery from time to time isn't such a bad thing ;-)

At 7:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, Thank you, Thank you for your bit on Miss Austen and Chick-lit. I also hate it when people compare modern chick-lit-shit to Jane Austen. Bridget Jones worked and only because Helen Fielding was smart about it. She was playing off the success that the P&P mini series enjoyed. She was original. Most other "chick-lit-shit" is massed produced and is probably written in a matter of days.

I haven't read the BITCH article yet but now I will pick it up. Thanks for your rant because I couldn't agree with you more!


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