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The Undomestic Goddess, or Why Chick Lit Will Destroy Itself (or us)

March 19, 2007

Something I’ve been into lately–although not in a serious way–is rereading the books that got me started.  For example, my birthday gift to myself was to track down the first Harlequin romance I remember reading: Anne Stuart’s Catspaw II.  I don’t know if this is true, but it seemed to me to be the first Harlequin with a sequel.  You were always seeing a funny, sexy excerpt from it in the back of other Harlequins (so this negates the idea that it was the first one I ever read; it was just the first one that made a real impression on me).  The girl who lived about eight townhouses down had it, and she let me borrow it.  It was funny, it was breezy, it was written like an old movie.  This is why I’m into Jenny Crusie.  This is what I love.

I also picked up the first Catspaw because I never could find it until the internet came along.  It too was very good, maybe better than the sequel.

So then I wanted to find all the Harlequins I’ve had and donated over the years, but I can’t remember names or authors.  This sucks.  Harlequin should be cool and have a database where you can look up books by key words.

Uh…hold on, I had a point here.

So when I joined at Curves, I found a copy of an later (in terms of when I read them, so like early- to mid-’90s) Harlequin on their take-a-book shelf.  Yay, I thought!  Something I’ve read!  I didn’t remember loving it or anything, but I wanted that nostalgic feeling.  Maybe it would have other titles inside it that I’d forgotten.  I used to get them in batches from ladies at sidewalk sales.  $1/bag.

So this book is called Too Many Husbands.  It sets up the main character: a businesswoman, a perfectionist.  Someone to be feared, to be admired.  The perfect ’90s woman, before it was all single moms, before the ’50s retro thing set in.

Except by the second chapter, she’s practically naked in front of her conservative Japanese houseguests, with her bathtub overflowing.  She’s totally oblivious.  SHE’S A FUCKING BIMBO.

This is why I threw The Undomestic Goddess across my bedroom in disgust.  This is why Bridget Jones makes me want to vomit.  Why is it that women writers–“chick lit” writers–believe that a woman cannot rise up without being broken down to a level of stupidity never seen in nature?  Is it because Emma was clueless?  Emma never was a high-powered lawyer.  She wasn’t a businesswoman.  The most important thing she had to do was get her father a cup of tea.  She was also very, very young.  These over-30s don’t have that excuse.  They’re in the workplace.  They’re stumbling over themselves, desperate for love.  They’re unlovable.  So why should we care?

A word that I see thrown around a bit is “subversive.”  All the good things in the world–people have called them subversive at one point.  Jane Austen?  SUBVERSIVE.  Feminism?  SUBVERSIVE.  Punk music?  SUBVERSIVE.  Your favorite aunt? SUBVERSIVE.

I’m still trying to figure out what the word really means.  It’s like “smirk”–what the hell does smirk really mean?  Even the m-w.com definition is confusing: “smug,” “simper,” and “affected” aren’t words I consider to be synonyms, and I thought a smirk was something sarcastic?  Does that fit under smug?  Confusing.

Maybe Backpack is subversive.  Now there’s a good book.  It hurts to get through at first.  You want to treat it like the crap you think it is.  You hate the main character–hate her so much, you want her dead.  Then somehow you’re so invested in her becoming a human being–because she never was before.  She’s the uberbitch from every movie that sort of existed in the heart of that girl in high school.  She’s the Entitlement Queen in front of you in line at Wegman’s.  She’s the Blonde Bitch who dies in the horror movies because we need her to.  But I think we begin to realize that we are better people than that.  We want her saved.  We don’t want her on her knees, we want her standing tall but WITH US, understanding us, knowing why she was wrong.  That’s what Barr gives us in this book…sort of.

What’s wrong with chick lit like that?  Why must we have the bimbo heroines who STAY bimbos, who care more about shoes than kittens and need utter humiliation before getting true love?  What is it about humiliation that makes us a better person?  I don’t remember Barr’s Tansy getting humiliated–at least, not in a way she’d understand.  And that’s the point, isn’t it?  These self-absorbed bimbos wouldn’t understand it anyway.  They wouldn’t get why anything was wrong.  They’re more appalled at dressing in the dark and realizing their stockings don’t match their shoes than the plight of the world.  They’re real, and they don’t stop.  They’ll be horrible, bitchy 55-year-old grandmas.  How can you possibly find a way to bring them down, realistically?  Barr did it, but Kinsella?  No.  I don’t CARE, it’s STUPID, who has a mental breakdown (not that Kinsella gets us involved to CARE, thanks for that worthless set-up) and ends up a MAID even though she’s never BEEN a maid before and…book across the room, okay?  BOOK. ACROSS. THE. ROOM.  You are wasting my time.  You are wasting the rain forest.  Get talent.  Get an idea.  Find something I can care about.  It isn’t this chick’s Blackberry and it isn’t her fake-maidness.  If I want bad situation comedy, I’ll watch Three’s Company.  At least they had souls.

Back to school for me.

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