In seventh grade, I decided I needed to grow up and stop reading kiddy books and doing kiddy things. So I began to only read “adult” books, which means I started with somewhat legitimate books, like Memoirs of a Geisha, and then I moved into something that I discovered and adored–books from the publisher Red Dress Ink, which I later learned was a bunch of stuff called “chick lit.” I loved it, because I hated being 13 and knew even then that my twenties was when I was really going to come into my own. (I held onto that belief and it turned out to be true; much from third grade to the end of college was a lot of angst, frustration, and unhealthiness that I try not to think about.) There were girls traveling through Europe and waking up in a hostel to see their best friends having sex in the next bed. There were girls who lived alone and loved it, who made their own rules and had jobs and ate ice cream for dinner. And there were a whole lot of girls who worked in publishing, and that was awesome.
Kind of like when my parents reminded me, “Those Baby-sitters Club books are very formulaic,” and prompted me to start viewing children’s literature as a product of consumer culture and as something to be studied (so basically the MA I’m getting has been on my mind since about fifth grade), my sister asked me why I kept reading these books when they were all the same, about white girls who thought they were fat and just needed to find boyfriends so they wouldn’t be alone at weddings or so their mothers would leave them alone. This was long before Twitter and long before I would understand memes or intellectual humor, but my sister was basically explaining #whitegirlproblems to me before I had any idea what sociology was.
Also true. Less awesome. I took that under advisement but went on my merry Red Dress way for awhile longer. But I started to lose interest, because my sister had made me open my eyes a bit. So, once again, thanks, parents and sister, for training me to have a critical eye and yet allowing me to forge my own path and learn to love things while still identifying what makes them problematic. After I gave up most chick lit, I went on to lots of other genres and categories of books that I liked better, leaving my #whitegirlproblems to the occasional Rachel McAdams or Katherine Heigl movie or the new Shopaholic book.
So. The thing about “Sex and the City,” chick flicks, and chick lit is that they are very much the printed personification of #whitegirlproblems, which means that, to an extent, they all deal with the same ridiculous shit like wanting a boyfriend and a bigger apartment while presenting this very problematic and impossible world: New York City; everyone works in publishing but somehow makes way more money than they would in real life; everybody’s biggest problem is gaining a couple extra pounds or getting dumped; somebody turned down law school or marriage and is having a GASPMAJORLIFECRISISOHMYGAWDLIFEISSOHARD; everybody drinks way more than is healthy; everybody is a WASP. Totally unreal, and totally problematic in the sense that it’s yet another influential media machine that ignores the experiences of anyone who is not WASP and middle class. Some girls graduate from college never having been kissed, so their biggest problem is not WHOWILLBEMYDATETOMYTHIRDCOUSIN’SWEDDING. Others grow up in situations where college isn’t on the table at all, but that doesn’t mean they’re not smart or sassy or interesting and that they don’t also have funny stories to tell about female friendships. Some people in New York don’t work in publishing and don’t even want to. Some people don’t live with white privilege and so their difficulties in finding their dream job or being taken seriously by their bosses or being harassed at a bar are compounded by the fact that they are a PoC in a white world. Also, by the way, it is not a universal experience for everyone to “go away to college,” to be expected to (and to afford, even while kvetching) move out of one’s parents’ home, or to go out for drinks (and again, afford them) after work every single day. So that, in a nutshell, is why chick lit is inherently and necessarily a type of book that exists because of, for, and to perpetuate #whitegirlproblems. So when I somewhat identify with them, I feel kind of like a PoC traitor and kind of like I’m not actually invited to the party. Double problem. (See: this post from last summer.)
After watching the now-very-old ABC Family movie “See Jane Date,” based on the Red Dress Ink novel of the same name (which was one of my faaaaaaavorites, to the point that I was able to point out all the plot inconsistencies while watching the movie–evidently I could have been buying it on DVD this whole time.), I decided I needed to bask in chick lit glory, so I requested Ten Girls to Watch by Charity Shumway from NetGalley. Basically, I wanted to torture myself and to have a fresh touchstone text with which to write a post about how all chick lit is awful.
Sadly, I can’t write that post, because Ten Girls to Watch is actually a really good read. Rock on, Charity Shumway. I wouldn’t be surprised if the author agreed with or even thought of a lot of the points I just brought up, because she did a good job of addressing them in her book while still making it thoroughly a #whitegirlproblems chick lit novel.
How did she manage that miracle, you ask? Well. The book is about Dawn, who in 2007 is a college graduate at nearly the worst time ever to be a graduate. She lives in New York and wants to be a writer, and as she writes for a lawn care blog she found on Craigslist to make a few dollars, she happens to meet a magazine editor who offers her an hourly wage job researching the past fifty years of winners for Charm magazine’s Ten Girls to Watch contest, which, like you might guess from a fake but totally plausible American women’s magazine, identified college-aged women who were fashionable, smart, and basically perfect but in an interesting, unique way. Dawn begins on this research journey while dealing with her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend, the fact that she does not make enough money, her crazy depressed roommate, and her lonely feelings of being the younger sister in NYC while her sister and divorced parents are all in Oregon. All the makings of a classic chick lit book, but there are some things that make this book so much more interesting than that.
First, it’s super dated. Like it’s so now it’s crazy, and while I wonder what that will mean to its readers even five years from now (also, it takes place in 2007 but seems more 2012, to be honest–that’s how fast tech and slang move), I love it, because it’s so about how the now works that it has to have constant references to things like Craigslist to work. It also seamlessly blends that in with the fake websites and stuff it uses, and it totally pegs today’s twentysomethings as far as technology trends and habits are concerned. Second, while it’s very white, there are occasional moments where Dawn sees fit to comment on the unbearable whiteness of the chick lit world in which she finds herself. Ditto comments on class and gender. Third, Dawn finds herself in the most inexplicable, incomprehensible, realistic non-relationship with someone who doesn’t call her back but texts when he feels like it, who sleeps with her and visits her at work but then goes away to his parents’ house for a month, who is so moody and noncommittal and cute that it just kills her and she can’t stop loving how good he hurts. At least in my experience, that is very much how relationships work with my generation.
Finally, the premise of this book, that Dawn keeps calling all of these women who from 1957 on have been achievers and trailblazers and gets to interview them, is so insufferably obvious and yet somehow it’s not cliche or obnoxious but really interesting! I really don’t know if I can explain how much it doesn’t read like a self-help book or “inspirational” novel, but it doesn’t. And yet you know Shumway must have had a similar job or something, and you know you should read the women’s stories to Dawn as frou frou and cliche, but they really are interesting and don’t seem hackneyed at all. Like, I’m sure the script is already finished and Emma Stone is in talks for the movie because it’s just that kind of story, but it’s actually a lot deeper than the inevitable movie adaptation will make it, I promise. While the end of the book is as much a fairy tale ending as any other chick lit book (but not as fairy tale as chick flicks; that’s the main thing that makes those related genres different, I think), I wasn’t angry because it was so well-written before that, and of course it had to end that way, because it’s self-aware chick lit.
Basically, this book baffles me, because it should be awful but instead it’s really great, and people should give it a try even if they think they’re over chick lit, like me.