Chick Lit (In Sophie Kinsella’s Defense)

Apologies for writing about books instead of Twin Peaks (I’ve been reading so much that I haven’t finished the show yet but I definitely will before the school year begins.)

Sophie Kinsella is one of my favorite authors. I guess you could say that prior to my thinking about this post/writing it/considering writing it, I was sort of weirded out by how much I enjoy reading her novels. It’s not as though I’ve explored the world of actual legitimate literature (or at least I don’t think so) and I have no excuses for that, but my other favorite authors aren’t, like, Danielle Steel, Nicholas Sparks, or E. L. James (the author of 50 Shades of Grey.) I just like her books a lot–they’re funny and relatable to some people. Your job may suck or you may be addicted to shopping or you might have an affair with your older American coworker. In an interview with the Guardian in February, Kinsella (or Madeleine Wickham, as that’s her real name) said:

You see, I think there’s two things. You can be highly intelligent, and also ditzy and klutzy. You can be unable to cook, you can like lipstick. And I think it’s more realistic to represent women having all these facets, than to say, OK, you’re intelligent, so I’ve got to write you as all competent, which I think is an unfair ideal. To have someone who never makes a mistake, never finds her personal life in disarray, never worries about work-life balance? I think that would be unreal. What I’m writing is real.”

I’m not going to go out and say that everything in the statement is true–Kinsella’s do portray¬† a certain type of woman, one that she relates to and she once was. I’m not saying is that her books encompass every woman’s experience (because what book does, and these don’t,) but then again, she doesn’t make that claim either. She’s simply writing about things that happened to her (with a lot of embellishment of course, or else they wouldn’t be half as hilarious.) And because she adheres to Western culture’s idea of femininity in many ways (materialistic, heterosexual, etc.) she’s probably a target for people saying that she’s not representing women in the right way. Now while this is a valid statement, it is not her job to A) represent all women, and B) make her characters a certain way. I think that people undervaluing the characters in books like Kinsella’s are just an example of a culture that hates girls who do things that people deem characteristically girly, like shopping or wearing makeup. People like to make the girls that Kinsella portrays in her books as dumb, stupid, vapid, etc. which is just more misogyny. If they buy excessive amounts of makeup and blow their money on it, they’re portrayed as idiotic. Part of feminism is being allowed to do what you want without judgement, whether that’s buy so many articles of clothing at Barney’s that you become in debt or becoming an olympic swimmer. What we’re doing isn’t relevant, nor is how we’re doing it.

Which is where chick lit comes in, because the reason why that genre is assigned to her novels is because she expressed a mainstream idea of femininity and thus, one that is looked down upon in certain areas. In the interview, she says:

I can understand, cos everyone has their own reaction. I always thought chick lit meant third-person contemporary funny novels, dealing with issues of the day. I mean, it’s not the ideal term; when I’m asked to describe what I do, I say I write romantic comedies, cos that’s what I feel they are. But I’m quite pragmatic.

There’s nothing wrong with her novels being assigned the genre, but people like to think less of things that are directed towards women.Of course, Chick Lit as a genre is a different story–it doesn’t encompass things that aren’t heteronormative or things that are about trans* and Women of Color very much either. But that’s not Kinsella’s fault, and I’ll still read her books with the label stamped on them because it’s a bullshit label (reasons mentioned in the previous sentence) and I like her books. I don’t really care what’s stamped on them because they’re funny and entertaining. And it’s not as though every woman in the book is out for a man. While men are usually involved, that is never the main goal of the character. They come along the way. And unlike in movies that are known as “chick flicks,” the women are the main characters and the men are just supporting roles. You get the sense that what happens to the woman is a lot more important.

She seems to go with the flow about the whole thing and writes what she likes, which is what I admire about her. There’s no reason to over analyze. She isn’t out to be a feminist storyteller (not as though there’s anything wrong with that) but she also isn’t out to dehumanize women and turn back feminism.

But still, even after all the paragraphs I have written right above THIS VERY SENTENCE defending the mainstream ideas of femininity, there’s still a lot to be done. I don’t think she intends to, but there’s enough girl hate and stereotypical guy roles to around in her stories. I’m not saying she’s a hero. I’m just saying that liking her stories doesn’t make anybody a shallow villain, her characters’ liking material objects and hair and makeup doesn’t make them shallow, and her writing about those characters and appealing to those readers doesn’t make her a shallow villain either. I think it’s okay to let loose and just read things for the sake of enjoying them rather than having to think about every little detail.

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