Chick Lit

by Maria on November 25, 2003

Hmm, Henry’s post about genre fiction greats has sparked an interesting aside which I think deserves a thread of its own. Laura says (scroll right down to the end of the comments) that romance novels account for more popular literature sales than just about anything else. They certainly deserve our attention. I think romance, or its sub-genre – chick lit – can show some interesting things about just what it means to ‘transcend the genre’.

I’ll pick up where Laura left off and recommend a ‘chick lit’ book that I think transcends the genre; Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes.

Rachel’s Holiday starts with the familiar 20-something woman getting into all sorts of alcohol-induced flaps, failing to recognize the Prince Charming in her life, and stuck in/about to be kicked out of a job that is rapidly going nowhere. It’s full of stalwarts in the Bridget Jones mode; pushy mother, long-suffering father, brand names, late nights, and living beyond one’s means. And then Rachel goes to rehab.

I won’t spoil the book, because I really do recommend reading it. But I will try to suggest how this book transcends the genre and what I think it actually means to do so.

Rachel’s Holiday takes that hackneyed madcap girl-woman who’s rampaging through her 20s, and shows what’s underneath; alcoholism, depression and self-loathing. Dysfunctional relationships with her real family, and superficial, utilitarian ones with the pseudo-family/gaggle of mates so beloved of the genre. The career that’s going nowhere isn’t a precursor to an unlikely, deus ex machina type transformation into a successful tv producer / PR guru / best-selling author. It’s just a crap job that grinds away precisely because it bears no relation to Rachel’s real desire. And the hilarious drinking stories that follow too many mojitos? Well, they’re actually pretty funny. But the cold light of day in this novel is pretty damn cold.

I wouldn’t say Marian Keyes tries to subvert this genre so much as dig a lot deeper than most, and prise out what it might actually mean to be one of these characters. Maybe she’s able to do so because aspects of the book are autobiographical, and Marian Keyes’ life has a had a bit more colour and bouts of enforced self-awareness than your average hack with a publishing contract. Or maybe, just maybe, she’s a terrific writer who’s more concerned with telling the story, describing the characters, and bringing you along with her, than so many writers who just want their sentences admired. I found it as profound and telling a character study as anything I’ve read in ‘high’ literature.

Transcending the genre doesn’t mean simply taking the tropes and holding them up in the light in some early 90s, po-mo way. To do it, you have to dig back down through the layers of cyphers, types, characters and familiars to uncover the kind of people who gave rise to them in the first place. If I was a theorist, I might call this ‘interrogating’. In Rachel’s Holiday or, say, in Mystic River, it means uncovering the truths in characters that make them act in a way that is consistent with both their inner lives and the structures of the genre. And that is a deceptively difficult thing to do.

What else does Marian Keyes do to transcend her genre? Inversely to much literary fiction, she sticks to a quite strict plot structure but lets rip unself-consciously with literary devices like flashbacks and interior monologues. Maybe it’s the rigidity of the form that sets genre writers free to rip, mix and burn everything else. But Marian Keyes is no fluke. She has a mastery of her bag of literary tricks that allows her to whip them out with neither flourish nor apology.

Which is not to say that Keyes is a genius. But she’s a very, very good writer. She writes home truths but deep ones, and many people read her. She may not make her readers better people, but she probably does make us just a little bit more insightful and aware.

Which is why the arbitrary distinction between literary and ‘genre’ writing baffles me. (Why did the magic realists get invited to the party while the M. John Harrison’s are waiting at the gate?) Isn’t all writing about, or supposed to be about, the discovery or application of universal truths in a highly structured form? Surely the thing is not how it’s done, but that it’s done well?

A few after-thoughts:

The term ‘execrable crap’ is used and over-used, but is still applicable to most of the shoddy, shallow, assembly-line junk that women are thought to read going home on the Tube. It’s the adult equivalent of putting a three year old in a boob tube.

I like Harold Bloom’s line that we read because we can’t know enough people, or know them intimately enough. I’m just not as fussy as he is about where I run into them.

By the way, I have tried Gene Wolfe a few times, but I can never seem to get past the bits about flaying.



Doug 11.25.03 at 12:45 pm

Just as a brief aside, Free Live Free, Storeys from the Old Hotel and Strange Travelers are all good, no-flaying books by Wolfe.


Maria 11.25.03 at 1:13 pm

True, true! I loved Free Live Free & should really try the others.


laura 11.25.03 at 4:14 pm

Clearly I need to read this Marian Keyes book.

Another author of romantic-but-literary fiction, that is, with romance plots but not genre romance, I’d recommend is Elinor Lipman. Her books are light, in a sparkling sort of way, and she’s a very sharp observer of families and smallish towns. I’d particularly recommend The Way Men Act or The Inn at Lake Devine, but really any of her books other than Isabel’s Bed are worth reading.


Ophelia Benson 11.25.03 at 6:32 pm

I’m still baffled by all this – in fact I only get more baffled as the discussion proceeds. What’s all the heavy breathing about? A good novel is good, and a bad one is bad, is what it seems to boil down to. Well who disagrees with that?

The trouble with what King said (well, part of it) was that he picked such horrible examples to make his point. There is *every reason* not to want to read Grisham, Clancy and Clark, so claiming that it’s mere snobbery not to want to is just – well is just yet more of the obnoxious anti-intellectual coercive pseudo-populism that is such a feature of US culture these days. If it’s good it’s good, if it’s bad it’s bad, and both popularity and genre are irrelevant to quality. What else is there to say?


drapetomaniac 11.25.03 at 9:30 pm

I was sure that this was going to be about Jane Austen.


bryan 11.25.03 at 10:40 pm

the M. John Harrison’s are probably left at the gate cause they suck, at least M. John Harrison himself does, I have Viriconium Nights, when I tried reading it I had visions of a poe-faced genius at interpretive dance distending their body into an expression of an absolute twat at interpretive dance distending their body into an expression of either beauty or stomach pains, it was hard to tell.

but I remember there were all the qualities of the horribly seventh rate fantasist that le Guin identified some years ago in Languages of the Night, so that’s cool.


Matt Weiner 11.25.03 at 11:41 pm

I must confess–I don’t like Rachel’s Holiday as much as some other Keyeses I’ve read, precisely because of the way it transcends the genre. A lot of the pleasure I get from, say, Sushi for Beginners, is in seeing how Keyes brings her characters home to their rightful destinations–Rachel’s Holiday isn’t as rich in that particular pleasure. (I hope this isn’t a spoiler, but Maria, would you agree with me that the last page of RH seems tacked on to conform to generic expectations?)
I guess on the days that I think “transcending the genre” makes any sense, I think of it in terms of particular generic pleasures. The generic pleasure of a mystery is often in seeing how the puzzle is solved (or in the suspense of the plot); something like a good Inspector Wexford novel can provide that pleasure, and also the more art-novelly pleasures of, well, emotional weight; and then there are mysteries that transcend the genre so much they break its rules, like some Nicolas Freelings where he never bothers to make clear who did it. I suppose I ought to allow that some art-novels transcend their genre by providing the good old thrills you get from genre fiction, too.


dbuhmann 11.26.03 at 6:03 am

I had a student,long ago when I was teaching sex ed, ask about the difference in preference of each sex in their choice of popular novels. As a hetero male, I could barely read through a romance novel without wanting to toss of to the side (to use the polite words). I did come to the reakization that this genre is just another form of fantasy and that these books portrayed various idealizations of what and how romance could be. Most of the women in my classes saw that these books were an escape from the everyday problems of relationships. For another view see: Thurston, Carol ‘The romance revolution:erotic novels for womeen and the quest for a new sexual identity’ University of Illinois Press 1987. It one of the few books that I have seen on the genre.


Doug 11.26.03 at 10:22 am

Ophelia, the heavy breathing, insofar as I am doing any of it, is about the way that a hierarchy of genres presumes to stand in for a hierarchy of quality.

The hierarchy of genres:

Contemporary, realistic
Science Fiction

The thesis of King’s speech (it’s not yet on the NBA site) was that the judges should look beyond the first genre when they are looking for winners of what the sponsoring foundation calls “the nation’s preeminent literary prizes.” Hazzard’s retort: fuhgeddaboudit. King is right.


Maria 11.26.03 at 2:18 pm

Thanks for that recommendation Laura – I’ll definitely look Lipman up.

Ophelia – lighten up! Deep breaths. We’re stopping it now. But remember, the topic might be all talked out for you (though I still don’t think it we’ve exhausted it), but those of us in different time zones didn’t get to chime in last night. Plus, I thought Laura raised an interesting and worthwhile angle. But yeah, what Doug said.

Drapeto – don’t get me started!!!

Bryan – I found viriconium hard going but worthwhile, but I also think Harrison’s vaguely crossover stuff is definitely worth your time; try Signs of Life. I still haven’t read Light, butit’s said to re-define (transcend? ;-) ) space opera.

Matt – wow, everything else AND you read Marian Keyes too? what a guy. I take your point about the end of rachel’s wedding. she didn’t really seem the caring profession type to me. My out and out favourite is Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married. Though on titles alone, Watermelon carries it. Ouch.

Tks Doug. What you said. And Henry. Of course.


Maria 11.26.03 at 2:19 pm

Christian over romance though? really? that’s just wrong.


Doug 11.26.03 at 3:12 pm

Kudos to Laura for the suggestions. New directions everywhere. Does Mike Gayle qualify as chick-lit? Or does being a he automatically exclude him?

My little list was just how I think the publishing world sees the genres. I could well be wrong about the details; I’m wrong on a regular basis. (There was also supposed to be a return between Historical and Espionage, though I originally had Espionage ranked higher.)


Matt Weiner 11.26.03 at 3:49 pm

Happened on Sushi for Beginners when visiting a friend in Montreal, read half of it, and to my great chagrin discovered that it wasn’t out in the States yet (though it is now). I didn’t mind Rachel’s entering the caring profession–it seemed like a natural thing after her rehab experience. But I thought that just before the epilogue (SPOILER) I could hear MK say, “Oh shit, I didn’t get Rachel and Luke back together.” Which is the one thing that’s really required by the rules of the genre.

I’m not really sure about the parameters of this genre, anyway. Is Keyes generic in a way that Nick Hornby or Laurie Colwin isn’t? All of the above seem to write romantic comedies, where the pleasure is in seeing how the characters are going to attain bliss if they deserve it.

(As for my reading habits–when I need to procrastinate, which is always, I like to go for genres that require you to turn the pages quick. I love Hazzard, but she’s not the best person to read while you’re taking an hour off from banging your head against the wall because you just discovered a decisive objection to your own argument.)


Ophelia Benson 11.26.03 at 5:47 pm

Lighten up? Do I have to? Really? I so much prefer to be humorless and earnest. And do I have to take deep breaths? I’d so much rather pant shallowly until I pass out.

Anyway, I don’t want anyone to *stop*, I’m just registering incomprehension of the basic premises. I don’t think King is right, I think he’s entirely wrong – and obnoxious with it. I think what he said at the NBA is classic Tyranny of the Majority, among other things. (Some of the other things would be amateur psychologizing and imputation of unworthy motives and failure to acknowledge or notice non-unworthy motives.)


Ophelia Benson 11.26.03 at 6:29 pm

A couple of further thoughts. (Someone mentioned procrastination. I have *all kinds* of work I ought to be doing, including a review I have to write. So naturally it’s urgent that I do this instead.) (Then again, it really is an interesting subject, and one that raises a lot of interesting issues – I think.)

“My little list was just how I think the publishing world sees the genres.”

Wull that was part of my point in the heavy breathing comment. All this is just what people *think* about how the publishing world sees things. It’s all a bit squishy, frankly. Which would be okay, except there is quite a lot of righteous indignation simmering underneath. In other words there’s a lot of railing, beginning with King, at people for thinking things that no one really knows they do think. “You horrible snobs! You think you’re so special! You think you’re smarter than everyone else because you don’t read genre fiction! And the only reason you don’t read genre fiction is so that you can feel smart and special! So there nyah!” It surprises me somewhat how much of that there is even here. It always repels me to see intellectuals joining in anti-intellectual crusades. I submit that no one knows that that is in fact why some people don’t read genre fiction, and that given that they don’t know that, it’s an obnoxious accusation.

“I’m not really sure about the parameters of this genre, anyway. Is Keyes generic in a way that Nick Hornby or Laurie Colwin isn’t?”

Yeah. That’s what I’m saying. What is all this genre talk? If the category is so baggy that Elinor Lipman fits, then I’m lost at sea.


Keith M Ellis 11.26.03 at 8:10 pm

I submit that no one knows that that is in fact why some people don’t read genre fiction, and that given that they don’t know that, it’s an obnoxious accusation.

I know in fact that some people don’t read genre fiction for this reason.

When you write things like this:

I look within, I seek for any trace of a bad conscience about not reading romance novels. Whaddya know – it’s not there.

…it’s hard not to read that as sneering and to believe you when you claim to discriminate purely on the basis of quality with no bias against genre fiction whatsoever.

I suppose the test would be if you took some of the recommendations that other people—”intellectuals”, you’ve granted and obviously many erudite—have made in these two threads as an opportunity to discover some new good books.

I’m curious to know if you’ve done so.


Doug 11.27.03 at 12:58 pm

All this is just what people think about how the publishing world sees things. It?s all a bit squishy, frankly.

Well, I did work at the largest independent bookseller in the Southeast for three years, the second half of that in an advertising and promotions section that, some years, did more author events than any other store in the United States. So I’ve seen a fair amount of the inside of the sausage factory – decisions about shelf space, what sales reps get excited about, who gets co-op ad money, what kinds of authors get a publisher’s backing for touring, what buyers like and what they hold their nose and buy because they know it’ll sell like ice cream. And when I think about the prestige and resources assigned to different genres of fiction, contemporary lit’rary rules the roost.

Now I’ll grant it’s been about ten years since my time at Oxford Books, so maybe there’s been a cultural transplant in the publishing business. There are some regular readers here more currently involved in the business end of bookmaking, so if they’ve made it this deep into the comments, anything recent is certainly welcome.

So maybe my list is a little soft around the edges because it’s been out in the rain a little longer than the manufacturer recommends. But it didn’t come out of nowhere.

Y’know we could also go after this question like the social scientists that populate this blog. Agree that contemporary is a genre and not some meta-thing (or debate that position), come up with metrics for measuring prestige (I’ve tossed out a slew of them in my comments), and see if we get a list very different from mine. Then pool our knowledge and see if there’s a correlation between quality in the several genres and their position on the list. Contemporary lit’rary will show up again as a sink of prestige and resources all out of proportion to its quality.


Ophelia Benson 11.27.03 at 7:06 pm

Oh I see! Beg pardon, Doug. I just noticed the ‘think’ bit, I didn’t realize you had all that evidence.

And I do agree (as I said somewhere, early in this discussion) about the excessive prestige given to ‘literary’ fiction. In fact that’s something I’ve been droning about for years. Only I tend to want to see it demoted by good non-fiction more than by genre fiction. I think fiction in general has too much prestige, really.

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