Wealthy Frenchman

Friday, February 09, 2007

Heels Over Hemingway



I was cruising through Borders, looking for a copy of “Nostromo.”

Suddenly I was swimming in pink. I turned frantically from display table to display table, but I couldn’t find a novel without a pink cover. I was accosted by a sisterhood of cartoon women, sexy string beans in minis and stilettos, fashionably dashing about book covers with the requisite urban props — lattes, books, purses, shopping bags, guns and, most critically, a diamond ring.

Was it a Valentine’s Day special?

No, I realized with growing alarm, chick lit was no longer a niche. It had staged a coup of the literature shelves. Hot babes had shimmied into the grizzled old boys’ club, the land of Conrad, Faulkner and Maugham. The store was possessed with the devil spawn of “The Devil Wears Prada.” The blood-red high heel ending in a devil’s pitchfork on the cover of the Lauren Weisberger best seller might as well be driving a stake through the heart of the classics.

I even found Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” with chick-lit pretty-in-pink lettering.

“Penis lit versus Venus lit,” said my friend Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, who was with me. “An unacceptable choice.”

“Looking for Mr. Goodbunny” by Kathleen O’Reilly sits atop George Orwell’s “1984.” “Mine Are Spectacular!” by Janice Kaplan and Lynn Schnurnberger hovers over “Ulysses.” Sophie Kinsella’s “Shopaholic” series cuddles up to Rudyard Kipling.

Even Will Shakespeare is buffeted by rampaging 30-year-old heroines, each one frantically trying to get their guy or figure out if he’s the right guy, or if he meant what he said, or if he should be with them instead of their BFF or cousin, or if he’ll come back, or if she’ll end up stuck home alone eating Häagen-Dazs and watching “CSI” and “Sex and the City” reruns.

Trying to keep up with soap-opera modernity, “Romeo and Juliet” has been reissued with a perky pink cover.

There are subsections of chick lit: black chick lit (“Diva Diaries”), Bollywood chick lit (“Salaam, Paris”), Jewish chick lit (“The J.A.P. Chronicles” and “The Matzo Ball Heiress”) and assistant lit, which has its own subsection of Hollywood-assistant lit (“The Second Assistant”), mystery lit (“Sex, Murder and a Double Latte”), shopping lit (“Retail Therapy”), the self-loathing genre (“This Is Not Chick Lit”) and Brit chick lit (“Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging”).

The narrator of that last, Georgia, begins with a note to her readers: “Hello, American-type chums! (Perhaps you say ‘Howdy’ in America — I don’t know — but then I’m not really sure where Tibet is either, or my lipstick.) ... I hope you like my diary and don’t hold it against me that my great-great-great-grandparents colonized you. (Not just the two of them. ...).”

Giving the books an even more interchangeable feeling is the bachelorette party of log-rolling blurbs by chick-lit authors. Jennifer “Good in Bed” Weiner blurbs Sarah Mlynowski’s “Me vs. Me” and Karen McCullah Lutz’s “The Bachelorette Party.” Lauren Weisberger blurbs Emily “Something Borrowed” Giffin.

I took home three dozen of the working women romances. They can lull you into a hypnotic state with their simple life lessons — one heroine emulated Doris Day, another Audrey Hepburn, one was the spitting image of Carolyn Bessette, another Charlize Theron — but they’re a long way from Becky Sharp and Elizabeth Bennet. They’re all chick and no lit.

Please do not confuse these books with the love-and-marriage of Jane Austen. These are more like multicultural Harlequin romances. They’re Cinderella bodice rippers — Manolo trippers — girls with long legs, long shiny hair and sparkling eyes stumbling through life, eating potato skins loaded with bacon bits and melted swiss, drinking cocktails, looking for the right man and dispensing nuggets of hard-won wisdom, like, “Any guy who can watch you hurl Cheez Doodles is a keeper,” and, “You can’t puke in wicker. It leaks.”

In the 19th century in America, people often linked the reading of novels with women. Women were creatures of sensibility, and men were creatures of action. But now, Leon suggested, American fiction seems to be undergoing a certain re-feminization.

“These books do not seem particularly demanding in the manner of real novels,” Leon said. “And when we’re at war and the country is under threat, they seem a little insular. America’s reading women could do a lot worse than to put down ‘Will Francine Get Her Guy?’ and pick up ‘The Red Badge of Courage.’ ”

The novel was once said to be a mirror of its times. In my local bookstore, it’s more like a makeup mirror.


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