A while back, I mentioned on Twitter that I did not like chick lit. This is causing me a wee bit of stress as a large portion of the submissions we receive can fall into the realm of “chick lit”, meaning I am more reluctant to read them in favor of other submissions.
One of the great things about Cap’n Sweet Valley and me as a team is that we tend to balance each other out in terms of taste. Cap’n Sweet Valley tends to like more pop and/or commercial fiction where I like more “upmarket” literary-ish, quirky things, as well as genre and historical. (I am a big advocate of genre, especially fantasy and science fiction.)
Where we cannot see eye-to-eye, however, is this niche of fiction called “chick lit”. I try to be open-minded, I really do, and I especially try not to be pejorative or contemptuous of those who like it because I know what it’s like to wholeheartedly love a genre (fantasy) that literary snobs tend to look down on. Also, as Emily Giffin (a St. Martin’s Press author) and Sophie Kinsella would attest, it sells pretty well, and we’re in the business of selling a lot of books.
It took me a while, but I think I’ve at last pinpointed the reason why I don’t like chick lit: I’m not a fan of the contemporary setting. In any type of fiction: from middle grade to young adult to adult to even a lot of urban fantasy. Don’t ask me why; I don’t know. Even as a child I had a propensity for what my mother referred to as “grandma things”: Victorian fashion, Art Deco jewelry, Civil War re-enactments (…what?), etc. I loved history. Or more to the point, I loved history up through the Second World War. Once history moved from “modern” into “post-modern”, I was vastly less interested.
I blame Frances Hodgson Burnett, Louisa May Alcott, and Lucy Maud Montgomery. My favourite books as a child were THE SECRET GARDEN and ANNE OF GREEN GABLES. (I blame those authors for many other things, but that’s another post.) I liked LITTLE WOMEN until Jo refuses Laurie’s suit and then I never forgave Alcott for it. To this day I have only read LITTLE WOMEN in its entirety twice. I can’t bear it. I still love the first half of it though, and I reread it constantly. (The second time I read LITTLE WOMEN all the way through, I, uh, ripped the slighted proposal pages out in a fit of rage. People, book violence is never the answer.)
The Here and Now is less interesting to me than What Was and What If. (Hence the genre and historical leanings.) I think What Was and What If can illuminate the Here and Now in subtle and indirect ways, which stimulates me more than directness. Not that there’s anything wrong with being direct, of course. But because we are living the Here and Now, it’s often difficult for contemporary work to have either an objective or insightful stance on the times we live in. Not that I require my fiction to be so “pretentious” (because honestly, a lot of that sort of fiction can be painfully self-conscious), but quite frankly, I’m bored by contemporary novels, chick lit or otherwise.
There are exceptions. As you’ve probably noticed, I posted an image of what I like to call the Ur-Chick Lit, BRIDGET JONES’S DIARY. I love this book. LOVE. I picked it up for a reread last week and it was just as funny (if not funnier) as when I first read it in the 10th grade. BRIDGET JONES was my first introduction into chick lit when I was 15 and after I devoured those books, I went on to search for others like it. I went through GIRL’S POKER NIGHT by Jill A. Davis, Meg Cabot’s PRINCESS DIARIES (as well as her adult stuff), Sophie Kinsella, Emily Giffin, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, and countless others, but for some reason, I didn’t enjoy them.
They didn’t make me laugh. Instead, they made me annoyed. If there was one thing Bridget could do without fail, was make me laugh out loud. Why? I don’t know. Bridget wasn’t afraid to write about the silly ways she felt she failed to live up to expectations. One of my favourite scenes in that novel is Bridget trying to figure out how to programme her VCR. The specificity in which she failed slayed me. “Tape won’t go in. Ah, Thelma and Louise in there. Thelma and Louise won’t come out. Frenziedly pressed all buttons. Tape went out, then went back in.”
Of course, the lit nerd in me was tickled by the PRIDE AND PREJUDICE plot. Bridget’s mum is Lydia Bennet, Daniel Cleaver is Wickham, and the most obvious one of all, Mark Darcy is Mr Darcy. (The movie takes a pretty serious wink at this by mostly casting actors who have appeared in at least one Austen adaptation, e.g. Colin Firth as Mark Darcy.) But it wasn’t the only reason I loved this book: Bridget, of all the chick lit heroines I’ve read, has been the only one with whom I’ve sympathized.
It wasn’t that she was struggling with her weight, or that she was awkward when she wanted to be suave, less intellectual in conversation than her peers, etc. Many chick lit heroines are like this. It was that she tries and fails (and sometimes fails spectacularly), but gets up and tries again and maintains the best sense of humor about it. Bridget isn’t afraid to have a laugh at her own expense, and that is why I love her so.
So those are my thoughts. Can anyone recommend chick lit novels I might like? Of note: I have read Emily Giffin and all of Sophie Kinsella (my best friend Sofa is a huge chick lit fan), as well as a good deal of Meg Cabot and some Cecilia Ahern. I have not liked a single one of their books. I didn’t think they were bad; I just didn’t like them. (I do love Maureen Johnson’s stuff, though. I think it’s her sense of humor.) So…based on the criteria I’ve established, recommend me stuff!