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.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Books: Age Inappropriate?

I heard a news story a couple of weeks ago about a judge in Brazil, who ordered that two stores in Rio de Janeiro could only sell the Fifty Shades trilogy by E. L. James if they merchandised them on top shelves only, or at least wrapped them up, so under-18's couldn't leaf through the pages. Since hearing about this, I've been thinking about it a lot - mostly because, after initially scoffing at this over-zealous judge, I had to concede that they kind of had a point, and not just because Brazil has a specific law about preventing under-18's from having access to erotic content - which, let's face it, everyone knows Fifty Shades has in abundance.

I suppose the reason why it stuck with me is because nearly every medium of entertainment is censored with age restrictions; films are rated based on their content, be it violent, sexual or plain-old too-much-swearing; CD's come with parental guidance notices if they, too, contain some of the harsher expletives. Television networks can only air certain programmes after the watershed, and even adverts can sometimes get themselves a time-restriction based on whether there's a chance a child may be watching. Porn is for the top-shelf only - do NOT mix in with The Beano - and bars are strictly for adults. So why is it, when so much entertainment depends on a person being over a certain age, that books seem to slip under the censor radar? I can certainly think of one or two times when I probably would have benefited from being told I wasn't allowed to read something because I was too young - the most obvious example being American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis which I freely admit I was too young to read when I did read it, and so slightly scarred myself with the incredibly explicit, violent content.

The confusion for me comes from the fact that a child could easily access the same content in a book, that is age-restricted elsewhere. An example of this would be the True Blood television series, which is aired way after the watershed and rated as 18 on the DVD - only grown-ups can watch. Yet the books on which the series is based have no such restrictions; in fact, given that they tap into the wildly popular vampire-fantasy market, there's no stopping a teenage girl walking into a shop, picking up a copy thinking it's like Twilight (which it kind of is, I suppose) and taking it home. So even though the content is too explicit for most viewing times on TV, the books are somehow acceptable to all audiences, at any time? This is the conundrum with books: anyone can buy or borrow them, with little more than perhaps a raised eyebrow or disapproving glance from a salesperson or librarian.

However, there is also the 'Classics' question - how can you age restrict a book when it's considered to be essential reading? Lord of the Flies by William Golding is a horrifying tale of children turning savage on an island, yet because it explores the idea of civilisation, survival-of-the-fittest and the human psyche, it is a must-read for all, and often features on a school's curriculum. Despite the awful, climactic scene of the novel, teenagers are encouraged to read it and analyse it for hidden meanings, motifs and allegories - and rightly so. It's a fantastic - if harrowing - piece of writing, and let's face it, not many teenagers are probably going to pick it up themselves. I myself discovered one of my all-time favourites - To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, one of the most frequently-banned books - because I had to read it at school. Would I have eventually found it myself? Probably - but I would have missed out on several more years of joy. It's thanks to the curriculum that I found myself, at fourteen, reading about racism, rape and murder for school.

I suppose the difference is that books are something you have to choose to expose yourself to - songs are played everywhere, so naturally some versions need to be 'cleaned up' in case a child hears. Similarly, nearly every house has a TV - what's to stop your child walking in and glimpsing something on screen they're too young to be watching? These forms of entertainment are everywhere, and so easily seen or heard, that they have to be monitored. Books, however, by their very physical form, are exclusive; you have to open one and actually take the time to immerse yourself in the story to have access to what lies in the pages.  Fifty Shades and it's spin-offs are an exception; you can probably open one of those book at any point and whoop, there it is! The money shot - something raunchy is a-going on. But even then, books require imagination, which requires experience; how can you conjure an image up about something when you're not even sure what's happening? Only with growing up can you really begin to appreciate some of the more adult aspects of certain books. It's like learning the language of the Droogs in A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess; you can't really understand just what Alex is doing in the first few chapters, because you don't know what he's saying. It's not until you've picked up the slang that you realise that actually, what goes on in those first few chapters is pretty damn awful.

I have to say that I do agree in theory with the Brazilian judge - because the Fifty Shades series has now become so famous for it's sexual content that of course teenagers are going to seek it out. But having sat down and thought about it properly for once, I can see how age-restricting books - as the BBC also explored - would be a pointless endeavour. In a way, our age is what restricts our understanding, and so our exposure - for how can a teenager with only a rudimentary knowledge of what-goes-where-and-when fully understand what is going on in a novel with adult themes? I speak from experience - there are so many books I read as a teenager because I thought it made me look smart, even though I only had a vague idea of what had gone on. It wasn't until I re-read them as an adult that I realised just how much I had misunderstood or glossed over; I'm pretty certain the only reason why I understood so much in American Psycho was because I'd seen the film first, and could vaguely attach scenes from there to scenes in the book. So whilst it may be time to start putting the erotica on the topshelf as the market for it grows, the rest of our literature should sit comfortably on any shelf it likes, smugly confident in the knowledge that every person who passes it over has no idea that it's got everything and more within it's pages.