by Linda Holmes
Authors whose books I have read and liked: Janet Evanovich. Jennifer Weiner. Emily Giffin. Sophie Kinsella. As mentioned previously, Susan Elizabeth Phillips. So when I talk about "commercial women's fiction," or "chick lit," I am not talking down to it or up to it or through it: I'm in it. I've read it. I confess.
So when you headline an article "The Death Of Chick Lit," as Slate's "Double X" online magazine recently did for a piece by author Sarah Bilston, it at least piques my curiosity — which I guess is the point, right?
Let's put aside the following objections: (1) That the piece reads like a long advertisement for Sarah Bilston's next book. (2) That the piece does not announce, discuss or in any way imply the death of chick lit, but instead simply suggests that authors have to adjust their "commercial women's fiction" to fit the recessionary times — as Sarah Bilston did in her new book, which you should consider purchasing! (3) That the piece spends a lot more time on an author talking about her process than most people want to hear.
We will put these aside and move on to the thesis, which makes absolutely no sense to me.
I was always irritated by Carrie Bradshaw, after the jump...
The basic problem with Bilston's notion — which is, remember, that the recession is fundamentally altering the landscape of women's fiction — is that her starting point is an incredibly tiny slice of what that genre ever included in the first place.
By which I mean that when she talks about Confessions Of A Shopaholic and the Plum Sykes books, she's not talking about women's fiction. She's talking about what I call "shoe fiction."
"Shoe fiction," as you will undoubtedly conclude, is fiction about women dumping most of their money on shoes. Or handbags. It's generally full of brand names, scenes set at cocktail parties, and often at least one major storyline — in Shopaholic, it's the entire premise — dealing with profound regret about overspending.
Now, not only did shoe fiction produce the Sophie Kinsella books and The Devil Wears Prada, it produced Sex And The City, which is the single greatest success shoe fiction has ever known.
So of course the recession has changed, at least somewhat, the way most women read this kind of book. Even more than before, Shopaholic's Rebecca Bloomwood seems like a ninny for being unable to manage her credit cards.
But here's the thing: She always was a ninny, and I say this despite having read all the books about her.
See, shoe fiction has never required the women who read it to clasp to their bosoms the notion that they, too, would one day own a closet full of Jimmy Choos. The overspending is supposed to be a flaw. You're not meant to admire it. This little subgenre has always been selfishness fiction, narcissism fiction ... it has always been twit fiction, to a degree.
Readers haven't just now concluded, because of the recession, that Carrie Bradshaw's clothing budget is a touch unrealistic. Most readers have never been able to relate to anything about Carrie Bradshaw's clothing budget. If Sex And The City had only sold books or movie tickets to fans who believed that it showcased an appropriate way to spend money, it would have struggled to make a dime.
Most women have jobs and pay bills; they have always considered this kind of profligacy to be foolish. They would never do it themselves. That's what makes it fantasy. That's part of what makes it fiction, for heaven's sake.
But to suggest that all of commercial women's fiction falls into this genre is absurd. None of Jennifer Weiner's books — she wrote Good In Bed and In Her Shoes and some other really good stuff — are about Carrie Bradshaw-style behavior. Neither are the books from lots of other fine writers of bubbly books. Fretting over your credit limit is not the tentpole of commercial women's fiction.
Consider this bit from Bilston's piece, which seems to have a close-quote missing, but no matter:
For example, in the first scene of my novel, my heroine Quinn (or Q) goes to a party held by a partner at her big New York City Law Firm. Originally this scene was about rich young things flaunting their easy lives —"Caroline described her weekend helicoptering around the Azores ... Michael flaunted the giant yacht he was chartering around Hawaii for two thousand dollars a day. And Q, now at home with her new baby, felt horribly left out. But party chatter has changed now; I had to capture anxiety and edginess instead of dizzying wealth.
Here's the thing: For most readers, such party chatter was never about dizzying wealth. This was always completely detached from most of our actual lives, every bit as detached as it is now. It really makes no difference to us whether these incredibly rich people would now be sweating their 401(k)s.
Because speaking solely for myself, as soon as I read, "Caroline described her weekend helicoptering around the Azores," I don't think, "Oh, sure, as one does." I think, "Ah, so these characters are materialistic jerks."
And if they're supposed to be materialistic jerks, how is it instructive to have them suddenly fretting over being laid off? Were the "rich young things flaunting their easy lives" supposed to be sympathetic, in a way that now, mid-recession, will no longer be sympathetic? We think not.
If your book is about the easy lives of rich people, then it isn't chick lit — it's shoe fiction. And when you're writing shoe fiction, it makes absolutely no difference whether the economy is healthy or not. Even in a good economy, people roll their eyes at rich people bragging about their wealth. In a bad economy, they just roll 'em more.
If, on the other hand, you are writing one of the many books out there in which women are assistants or office drones who live with roommates or ride public transportation (in my experience, this is actually far more common than the big spender as a heroine), then not that much has changed.
The books Bilston describes, you see, aren't books that get read because they instruct us on how to live our lives. They don't necessarily have to change to reflect real-world struggles.
Which is why I couldn't help laughing at Bilston's conclusion, which says: "In the next months and years, expect to see plots that turn on overcoming repossession and job-loss, not shopping and sex."
Gracious. That certainly would kill the genre: "Please replace this sex scene with one where the heroine is evicted from her apartment because the building has been foreclosed upon."
They're not going to stop putting sex in romance novels and replace it with stories about cars being repossessed. I promise you, this very moment, that will not happen.
Because shoe fiction was never a reality-based genre, ever. EVER. If you were ever inclined to sit down and read Confessions Of A Shopaholic in the first place, you're not going to turn it down and choose Confessions Of A Costco Bulk Purchaser Of Cheerios instead.