Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Why I Think Chick Lit Is A Bit Sh... Rubbish

It's Valentine's Day tomorrow - for those of you who somehow haven't noticed that the high street has suddenly turned pink and red - and, in the spirit of the romance of the holiday, I've recently read a book that fits very comfortably into the Chick Lit mould. (Incidentally, how is February a romantic month? It's cold, it's wet, and everyone has a cold, or frizzy hair, or both. It's not a good month for love). Now, as a general rule, I don't read female-orientated romantic comedies (or chick-lit rom-coms as they shall hereon be known). It's not because I'm snobby about it, it's just because I'm not a particularly girly-girl, and most of the time I'd prefer to be reading a classic, or a mystery, or something funny. Every now and then, though, my girly-genes push to the fore and demand to be satiated with something ludicrously female, and usually that leads me to read either Bridget Jones' Diary by Helen Fielding, Ralph's Party by Lisa Jewell or I Heart New York by Lindsay Kelk, depending on how girly I'm feeling (funny-girly, thinking-girly or just-mind-numbing-escapism-girly). This time, however, I'd stumbled across another title which shall remain nameless - because I'm going to give away the ending, and I'm awful with accidentally doing that if I'm not careful - and decided I was going to detract from my usual plan and try something new, and I'm glad it did. This new novel - we shall call it Nameless Drivel - finally revealed to me just what exactly it is about Chick Lit that I don't like.

Before I get stuck in to that though, I would like to point out that Nameless Drivel was, actually, not that drivelly - it made me laugh out loud a few times (well, snort out loud, anyway), the main character was nice in a general kind of way, and the supporting cast were comfortably blank; carbon copies of oh-so-many rom-com casts of the past. In fact, I enjoyed it immensely, and felt that little twinge of sadness that you sometimes get when you finish a book you liked. I'll probably read it again, at some point in the future; it's just that as that twinge hit me, so did the realisations.

Firstly, is an obvious one: they're always the same formula. A girl - usually fairly successful in her line of work, if somewhat a bit unsatisfied - suddenly finds herself at a crossroads, in which her potential new life lies ahead of her, and two hot - though entirely different - fellas to her left and right, vying for her affections and leaving her with a tricky choice of sorts. It's a safe recipe and an effective one; the rom-com industry, particularly at this time of year, must be worth gazillions if you know how to tap it. Yet when you've read the same story, over and over, with the same characters just tweaked to be that little bit extra kooky, or broken, or mad, to differentiate, it's a bit boring. I succumb every now and then to a new title of this ilk, and I always get a guilty pleasure out reading of it, but it's the same thing every time, with a few more obstacles.

Which leads me neatly on to my next point - you always know how it's going to end. And on the rare occasion when it doesn't work out the way you expect it to, you then feel cheated. For example, in Nameless Drivel, the main character is madly in love with her ex-best friend, who was in love with her when they were at school, but couldn't have her then because she had a boyfriend. Now, ten years later, she's broken up with the boyfriend, he's married and - oh my goodness, would you believe it - their paths cross once again, and all the old feelings bubble to the surface. Of course, there's a lot of to-ing and fro-ing but in the end she decides not to go back to the dead-end relationship with her teenage sweetheart - of course - and his marriage turns out to oh-so-conveniently be a bit of a sham because - naturally - he's still in love with his dear old best mate from school. Cue swelling violins in the background, cherubs throwing petals and a fade-out to a heart-shape. But - but - there was a penultimate chapter in which she confesses her love and he emphatically rejects her, reminding her that she's ten years too late and he's happily married, thanks very much. And in the instant I read that, I simultaneously applauded the writer for the curveball, and bellowed "WHAT?!" out loud, much to the consternation of The Boyfriend, who was sat next to me in bed reading Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton and was at a very jumpy bit. See, whilst it would've been a bit different if she'd had the two star-crossed lovers go supernova, I would've felt like she'd not done her job. "What do you mean, you've had these two reminscing inappropriately, glancing meanfully and flirting uncontrollably if they're not going to get together? You mean she has actually lost the so-called love of her life? No no, go back and write it again - I expect a happy, sappy ending and you will give me a happy, sappy ending!"

Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes, a psychotic book fan
This is the problem for me with chick-lit rom-coms; I spend the entire story cynically and smugly thinking, "well, yes, that is a bit of a dilemma and yes, that did seem like a nail in the coffin, but they're obviously going to get together, because that's just what happens." Yet at the mere suggestion that this particular story may turn the other way and defy the whole chick-lit world, I was immediately about to go all Kathy Bates in the film adaptation of Stephen King's Misery on the author. Not because I was disappointed for the characters; because I was outraged that I hadn't got what I paid for. When it ended as expected, I turned off my Kindle with a satisfied resentment at the predictable ending, but if it hadn't gone that way, I would've been left bemused and cheated. I can't win; either way, I finish the book disappointed, and that's the issue I have with chick-lit.

To be fair to the authors, it must be difficult to write a chick-lit book, simply because you have to abide by the happy-ending formula; your main character has to end up with the right man, or no one will buy it. What I'd like from a chick-lit, though, is for one person to break the mould and have a romantically satisfying ending - like, our heroine decides to take that trip-of-a-lifetime instead of choosing between two blokes, jets off to Fiji and opens a beach bar and lives happily ever after. Or, realises that all this angst and sadness is because, really, she's actually gay and been denying it to herself, but now she's got the courage to come out and meet a nice girl and live happily ever after. Or that the guy you think is the red herring is actually the real man of her dreams, and the one who you think she's meant to be with turns out to be a nasty piece of work, so she redeems herself with the red herring and they live happily ever after. See? So many options! I might write one myself.

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