Commentators and chick lit fans everywhere are taking up (exfoliated and moisturized) arms over her dismissal of the vag-centric books. Novelists and their readers seem to feel that Dowd's column was an opening shot, and taken to the flame war to both intelligently defend their the niche and make juvenile personal attacks against the journalist.
I find all of this to be incredibly ironic. The day before her column appeared, I had just sent off an email saying almost exactly what Maureen Dowd printed. As I read the New York Times piece, I wondered if the journo hadn't truly fallen on hard times and was resorting to stealth email reading programs for her next controversial scoop.
The only exception I take with Dowd's column is that she's, frankly, several years late to the party. Her anchor hub for the chick-lit movement is the ubiquitous The Devil Wears Prada. Anyone who's cruised the endcaps and displays of a bookstore within the past ten years knows that the genre took over those areas like kudzu years earlier, with books such as Bridget Jones's Diary and The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing. (For the record, I'll go ahead and say that I actually enjoyed "The Girls' Guide..." when I read it in 1999.)
With all due respect to chick lit novelists and readers, I have to say that I find their impassioned defense of the genre to be haughty and without merit. By and large, this is not the great literature of our time. This is not the cutting-edge prose of the 'zipless fuck' in Erica Jong’s revolutionary Fear of Flying. This is not the analysis of globalization offered in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. And it's certainly not up to snuff with the lyrical writing of Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winner Toni Morrison, whose novels' opening lines I can still recite verbatim, years after first taking them into my brain.
No, this particular genre is not any of that. What we're now calling chick lit used to be known by another name. The Harlequin Romance Novel. Yes, the seedy-for-its time paperbacks that our mothers and aunties and grandmothers kept hidden under their pillows and in their sewing baskets for a quick read when the men and children weren't in the room. Fabio isn't on the cover anymore, inviting us into a fantasy world. Now we have clever cartoons and pseudo-sophisticated graphic design that allows us to project a lifestyle that we believe we can, should, and might be desperately trying to have.
I truly believe that anyone with the discipline to construct basic noun-verb agreement for 180 pages or more could write a successful chick lit book. For anyone willing to take a stab at it, I'll offer my handy guide.
1. INTRODUCTION: A female protagonist, in her 20's or 30's, living in an urban setting.
2. STATIC CHARACTER: Endless descriptors of name-brands. Particularly shoes. Mention of Manolo Blahnik and/or Jimmy Choo is mandatory.
3. DEVELOPING CHARACTER: Body issues. Must be examined thoroughly and repeatedly throughout the novel.
4. EXTERNAL CONFLICT: By second chapter, protagonist's otherwise perfect world will be upended by relationship or job loss.
5. RISING ACTION: Protagonist goes into a cocoon of self-pity, dragging the reader along with her.
6. INTERNAL CONFLICT: Incessent self-analyzing ensues. This is the body of the novel.
7. INTERNAL CONFLICT BECOMES EXTERNAL CONFLICT: A hundred pages past the point of extreme self-absorption, even the protagonist's closest confidantes become infuriated with her. Insert another several dozen pages of whining in solitude, adding the "no one understands me" complaint.
8. CLIMAX: Peripheral character emerges to give protagonist a moment of clarity. Because there are typically only about 5 characters in a chick-lit novel (7 including the designer labels and body issues) it is not difficult for the reader to identify this hero-on-the-sidelines fairly early in the story.
9. FALLING ACTION: Suddenly, everything in the protagonist's shattered world comes together.
10. DENOUEMENT: Cue happy ending, which means an even better guy or job than the one that initially started the whole crazy chain of events.
One area that chick-lit enthusiasts like to point out in defense of the "lit" element is the overly-analytical 'journey of self-discovery' that they claim occurs over the course of the novel. Personally, this part of the ride really bothers me. It seems to embody the "Oprah-zination" of our society. There are no boundaries. In fiction and real life, incredibly intimate details are doled out like canapes at cocktail parties. Everyone gets their 15 minutes to cart out their old wounds and childhood traumas to display for the world.
Anyone who's gone on a serious self-pity bender knows that point where one suddenly realizes, "Ugh...I'm sick of myself!" Chick lit protagonists do not possess this internal filter. Their capacity for self-analysis is numbing, and as a reader, I often find myself rooting against, rather than for them. After surviving endless pages of introspection that borders on a clinical diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome, I find myself cheering the 'bullies' in the novel, so lacking is the protagonist in redeeming qualities.
Because of this, reading chick-lit often feels like listening in on a series of therapy sessions--most of the content is vapid and dull. In the rare moments of salaciousness, it feels dirty and inappropriate for the main character to suddenly graphically convey sexual content. By the time this happens, I've already read hundreds of pages of the protagonists' inner dialogue, detailing their deepest fears and secrets.
When that character suddenly shifts to genitalia-speak, I find myself wincing, reading through the barely-parted fingers of my hand, much in the same way I watch a scene in a horror movie. It's the same sickly feeling I would have if I were to walk in a room where the older ladies in my family were detailing a particularly hot blow job. It's just too creepy to be either titillating or educational.
On a lesser note of aggravation, I'm sick to death of everyone acting like their lives should or somehow do resemble a season of Sex and the City. I'm sick of cosmo-swilling twentysomethings with $600 highlights. Whether in literature or out at a bar, I'm baffled when I see a $30,000 a year grade-school teacher sporting a $1,500 handbag, $300 sunglasses, and $500 shoes. What is going on in the world that weekly mani-pedi's and Brazilian waxes have become de rigueur for high school girls?
I'm going to make this clear to everyone: Unless you have been approached by a legitimate representative of the entertainment industry who wishes to convey your life story in novel, television or film, you don't possess the lifestyle you're trying so desperately to project.
It is this same cookie-cutter characterization that makes chick lit so bland. Rather than cultivating any kind of unique back-story, attributes, or lifestyle for their protagonists, novelists and publishers continue to crank out the same formula ad nauseum. But until chick lit's popularity wanes, we're going to continue to see more of the same in bookstores and libraries. And judging from the lifespan of the Harlequin series, I doubt we'll see this shift anytime soon.