Monday, 11 June 2007

Chewing on Chicklit

On a recent trip to Value Village I came across a copy of Jemima J: a novel about ugly ducklings and swans, by Jane Green. I distinctly remembered a discussion about the book on the old forums. Everyone was united in loathing. So I spent the few dollars to buy it, thinking happily that there would be a lot of scope for ridicule in it and I could have fun trashing it in a review.

And then I read it. It really wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected. I’m not saying it’s good, mind you, just that it’s not completely unreadable and its failings provided me with some food for thought. In review terms this is what’s known as damning with qualified negatives, as in “You know, Madonna didn’t totally suck in Evita.” Am I recommending you read this book? No, go watch Evita instead. What I really want to do here is muse about some of the issues with Jemima J, and with chicklit in general.

I’m not widely read in this genre, but I have read a sampling: Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones duo as well as her earlier (promising if not quite there) Cause Celeb and later (terrible) Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination; the first several books in Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series and Can You Keep a Secret; Kathleen Tessaro’s Elegance, and probably more that I have forgotten because they were forgettable. I suppose I could do a feminist critique of these books and complain about how they reinforce stereotypes and trivialize women’s issues and how no one writes this kind of stupid crap for a male audience and so forth, but I won’t. My main problem with this genre is that I expect it to be fun and involving and that it so seldom is.

Not that such books aren’t enjoyable in spots. Helen Fielding does have a remarkable talent for satire and in the first Bridget Jones book she sends up the dynamics and idiosyncrasies of office, family, friendship, and relationship politics in a way that had me in hysterics more than once. The first Shopaholic book was genuinely fun in a confectionary style, with its pitch perfect comic rendering of behaviour out of control, and the attendant denial, procrastination, magical thinking, and resolutions broken again and again. I couldn’t help liking that in Jemima J Jemima accomplishes exactly what she attempts, and as for Elegance, well… so I'll put up with a lot to read about clothes and style. Bite me.

But as much as I enjoyed the fun parts of these books, I can’t give these writers a free pass for their sloppy literary technique any more than I can condone the life of the party driving drunk. By all means write a fun, frothy book, but don’t get lazy and flout the rules for writing fiction, which are always in force, no matter the genre. The characters must be multi-dimensional, the factual content adequately researched, the conflicts compelling, the plot believable, the prose competent, and so forth.

And I’ll go beyond this standard list of literary requirements and make a special request of chick lit writers: Please, please, PLEASE don’t create any more stupid, vapid heroines who fuck up everything they touch. It’s not cute and it’s not funny and it’s the single biggest failing and irritant of this genre. The second Bridget Jones movie was generally considered not as good as the first, and I believe this to be due at least in part because the second book wasn’t as good as the first. Helen Fielding borrowed the plot of Bridget Jones' Diary from Pride and Prejudice; for Bridget Jones: the Edge of Reason she seems to have flown solo, with the result that both she and Bridget ran amok. I know a lot of women who were almost offended by the second movie. Bridget is supposed to be an ordinary woman, perhaps even an Everywoman (at least for the single, thirty-something crowd), and ordinary women expect an Everywoman to be much like themselves: intelligent, generally competent, and capable of both letting things slide and cleaning up well. We do not at all like the implication that ordinary women don’t know how to do their jobs properly, make basic decisions without the aid of their friends, or dress up becomingly for a special occasion. I spent the entire reading thinking alternately, “Can’t you do anything right?” and "How stupid can you be?" And let’s not even get into the notion that a 5’6” woman who weighs 140 pounds is fat.

But at least the Bridget Jones sequel wasn’t as bad as the Shopaholic sequels. It’s the same gag over again. And over again. Oh, and here it is again. Becky shops, and keeps shopping. And gets in financial trouble again. And pisses off her boyfriend/fiancé/husband again. And learns how wrong this all is. Until the next instalment. Rinse, repeat. Kinsella seems to be suffering from her own form of compulsion and is now up to her fifth book, Shopaholic and Baby. I can only hope she manages to stop herself before she reaches Shopaholic and Great-Grandbaby, in which Becky acquires a raft of designer walkers and false teeth and a bankrupted Luke moves out of their home to go live with their granddaughter, who is a voluntary simplicity guru.

It’s really no fun to read a book when one spends one’s entire time tapping one’s fingers waiting for the heroine to Get It. The premise of Elegance was a good one, but its execution wasn’t. I loved that a reading of a vintage book of fashion advice inspired the heroine to change her life. This is how inspiration works. It can spring from many sources; the simplest thing can galvanize you simply because you are ready to act. But there was something so conscious and mechanical about Louise’s journey. The book’s chapters are so topical, like a self-help book. Louise proceeds too neatly and efficiently from Learning Not To Settle to Learning Not to Spend Time with Toxic People to Learning Not To Be Afraid of Change, and the lessons she learns are just too clear cut and obvious. Her progression should have felt more organic and messy, like real change and growth always does.

In Jemima J, Jemima is at least not completely clueless. Nor is she a chronic mess who cannot develop any sort of self-control, a la Becky Bloomwood Branden or Bridget Jones. Over the course of the book, she loses 100 pounds, makes some new friends who care about her and falls in love with one of them, takes a trip to Los Angeles to meet a gorgeous man she met on the Internet, and sees her career options open up. Her friends assure her she’s a talented writer. She’s not. She’s a hack writer with a basic grasp of editing, but she has the ability and the work ethic required to churn out work to specifications, and in the world of fashion journalism to which she aspires, that will take her far. (Hey, it worked for Bonnie Fuller). And I liked that she has the self-discipline to do what’s necessary.

But… the novel isn’t funny, the characterizations are flat and stereotypical, and the plot twists are contrived. I’m less than enthusiastic about Green’s employment of dual narrative voices. She switches back and forth between Jemima’s first person narrative and an omniscient third person narrator. In the hands of a more skilled writer this could be an interesting way to structure a narrative. In Jemima J, it’s simply clunky, like a driver who can’t figure out what gear to use nor how to shift smoothly between them. The reader, to extend the analogy, winds up feeling like a confused and motion-sick passenger.

I’ve also read a number of criticisms on the net about the unrealistic elements of this book, and definitely agree with some of them. I don’t think Jane Green got the weight loss right. I’m going to hazard a guess and say Green has never been obese and that her research about it was cursory. Her depiction of Jemima’s weight loss project just does not have the ring of authenticity. I’m afraid those of us who have had to struggle with the occasional extra ten or twenty pounds are too prone to think we know all about what it’s like to be overweight. We don’t. Being 20 pounds overweight is nothing like being 100 or more pounds overweight. I struggle with my weight, but I don’t know anything about what it’s like to live with such physical limitations and so many daily humiliations, to not be able to find anything in the stores to fit me, to live with the kind of abject self-loathing some obese people do, to have people avoid eye contact or glare at me because I sat next to them on the bus. This thread on MetaFilter about what it’s like to be obese made this clear to me. I can easily walk four miles in an hour regardless of what I happen to weigh. I don’t know what it would be like to feel as though my knees are full of broken glass after walking a couple of blocks. A blog linked to in that thread, Clemie’s Reasons Why, almost had me in tears because it seemed so tragic that such a young, intelligent, personable woman could be reduced to such abject shame that some days she hides when there is a knock at the door rather than have anyone see her.

Jemima loses 100 pounds in approximately three months, which is surely very unlikely if not completely impossible. Sure, she might have lost 30 pounds that first month, but she would have been VERY lucky to lose three or four pounds a week for those last twenty or thirty pounds – one or two pounds a week would be much more realistic. Dieting plateaus are inevitable no matter how disciplined one is, and her rate of loss would have gotten slower and slower the closer she got to her goal, especially when her goal weight of 120 was very thin for her 5’7” frame There’s also no mention of skin sag or stretch marks – I find it hard to believe that at that rate and amount of weight loss there was none.

Jemima does not buy any sort of a transitional wardrobe as she downsizes, and I don’t see how that could have been avoided, even leaving aside the consideration of how it would have made her look. In my experience 10 pounds (lost or gained) = approximately one clothing size. A hundred pounds lost would mean a drop of 10 clothing sizes. Since Jemima wears a size eight at her goal weight, her original clothing size would have been a 28 or thereabouts. Even if I'm way off in my estimate and her old size was say, an 18 or a 20, her old skirts, pants and underwear would have literally fallen off her before she hit her goal weight.

Then there’s the fact that she met a gorgeous L.A. fitness studio owner named Brad via the net. Some reader reviews I have seen on the net scoff at the idea that such an attractive man would use internet dating. I’m not incredulous. Extremely good-looking people do use internet dating services; I’ve met some of them myself. I don’t find it hard to believe that a man like Brad, who turns out to be very shallow (even more so than everybody else in the book, amazingly), would resort to Internet dating to meet a “perfect” girl who looks the part he wants her to play in his life. What I do find impossible to believe is that Jemima spent months regularly communicating with this man via telephone, internet and fax (the narrator comments that Brad proves during this time “to be the one light of her life”) and never realized how one-dimensional he was until she met him in person. Such a prolonged communication would soon peter out unless there were some serious metaphysical rapport to sustain it, and the two participants would get a very good sense of who the other was. That said, Green does depict the gradual deflation of Jemima and Brad’s relationship fairly well. It wasn’t quite necessary for her to throw in a coup de grâce plot twist that would put a definite end to it, especially one that wasn’t all that believable, but never mind.

Green also does reasonably well with Jemima’s adjustment to her weight loss. I recognized it from my own experience – for awhile you feel streamlined enough to take flight, and are giddily euphoric… and then you get used to it and you realize that weight loss isn’t magic, that it hasn’t essentially changed who you are or made your life complete. Jemima also has the late bloomer’s experience of social life and makes mistakes most women make at a younger age than 27, such as mistaking great sexual chemistry for love.

One of the notable things about this book is that it actually tries to document the experience of a fat woman. It doesn’t succeed at all well, and there are some truly offensive elements in it, such as the idea that it’s a shameful fetish for a man to find large women attractive (why is this any more kinky or weird than having a thing for redheads?) or the idea that Jemima must lose weight to find love and be happy (I know a number of overweight women whose partners adore them). But the book tells a story about a fat woman. And the fact that such a fourth-rate book is the one of the few I can think of that are about an overweight woman is very telling. Something like half the population of North America is overweight, yet in our novels and movies fat people are either completely absent, or relegated to being the sassy best friend, the comic relief, or the pathetic mess who must slim down before she can enter into the world of the people who are loved, who have successful careers and friends, who register with the rest of us. This says something about the disconnect between our collective imagination and our reality, and leaves me pondering the nature of fantasy and its appeal for us.

I may have daydreamed about being a princess as a child, but now my most satisfying day dreams are those that lie in the realm of possibility. Whether creating my own stories or watching or reading someone else’s, I don’t like being the caustic, disinterested observer, thinking, yeah, right, that would never happen. I like being able to enter wholly into a story, feeling both able to relate to the characters and able to experience a new world vicariously through them. And I know it’s difficult to create work of this calibre in any genre, but for some reason writers who write for a largely female audience (those who produce romances, chick lit, and the new and equally horrendous genre of “mom lit”) seem to get a special license to churn out garbage, probably because there’s a market for it. While we don’t necessarily get the fiction we deserve, we do get what we pay for.

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