Sunday, June 6, 2010

Literary chick lit: it's real!

For a little while back in the nineties I had the same publisher as Jennifer Belle (or as her website puts it, "bestselling author Jennifer Belle"), and my then-editor sent me a copy of Going Down, her first book. This is before there really was a thing called chick lit, but my editor did that thing people do routinely now when they give each other volumes of the stuff--she kind of apologized for it.

No need for apologies--the book was funny, and cleverly written. It was about a college student earning money as a prostitute. I didn't pay much attention to Belle's career after that, but Rhian recently got her hands on the new one, The Seven-Year Bitch, which I think is the worst title in the history of ever--but Rhian loved it and went to the library for more. This led me to read her third novel, Little Stalker.

Little Stalker is--well, what can I say, it's a romance. But it's a two-blowjob romance, the first of which culminates with the protagonist vomiting on her boyfriend's penis; the second of which is performed on a man in his sixties by a 12-year-old girl. So, you know, Emma this is not. But the book is simply hilarious. Belle is wonderful at self-disgust, social awkwardness, and family dysfunction--she writes here about very familiar but never-written-about relationship nuances--the casual cruelties of people in love, the disgustingness of intimacy, and weird little rules couples invent for one another without even realizing they do it.

Our literate culture has more or less accepted the idea that a crime novel, or even a science fiction novel, might well be of lasting artistic value. But I don't think romance has enjoyed this relationship with readers yet. Maybe, generally speaking, it doesn't deserve it. But Belle is doing something different here, something odd, slightly gross, and slyly ambitious. The rest of the chick lit world (if there even is such a thing, outside of publishers' marketing departments) ought to pay attention.

11 comments:

Diana Holquist said...

Took me a moment to pull myself off the floor. WardSix giving a nod to romance? A disdainful, sneering nod, but at least a nod. I'll restrain myself from alerting the faithful to your casual dismissal. What was the last romance you read before this? Nevermind. Will only make two points:

1) "...lasting artistic value. But I don't think romance has enjoyed this relationship with readers yet..." Georgette Heyer, Jane Austen, Loretta Chase, Lavyrle Spencer.... Again, nevermind.

2) "The rest of the chick lit world (if there even is such a thing, outside of publishers' marketing departments) ought to pay attention." Um...they are. Bestseller, I believe you mentioned. Maybe it's you who aren't paying attention?

jon said...

The french word for the novel is Roman, cognate (i assume) with Romance. I've written what i consider to be literary versions of sci fi, noir crime and 'punk' fiction, never seeing much contradiction there, and when I wrote my last book it struck me it was a romance novel at heart. i don't read the genre except in its literary form, but there is quite a bit of literary romance out there. Henry James? Anna Karenina? i love the idea of literary chick lit. especially any book that delivers on the icky aspects of intimacy.

Hope said...

The recent Ward 6 phrases "litty shenanigans" and now "two-blowjob romance" are now seared into my brain.

jrlennon said...

Diana--alls I'm saying is that most fiction sucks, and that most fiction that sucks isn't even bothering to try to be good. But this writer is indeed trying to be good, and is quite good.

I should make a distinction between chick lit and romance, I guess. I think chick lit is a marketing distinction that essentially signals to writers that they can leave their ambition at the door. And that if it's going to be really good, then we'll just market it as "literature". These Jennifer Belle books, though, seem comfortable being chick lit and excellent at the same time, and maybe this is a new thing.

Not disdainful, not sneering. You will notice that I levy equal amounts of snark to bad books of all stripes, especially bad mysteries. I always want genre fiction to be better than it is. But being in a genre relieves writers of certain responsibilities, and so it usually stinks, even more often than literary fiction, which yes also is usually bad.

You tell me, are there other chick lit and romance--and yes, I mean genre romance--writers who are aiming high? Recommend 'em, it's almost Jersey Shore time.

Diana Holquist said...

To me, literary fiction stinks worse when it's bad. At least genre writers tend to nail plot and pacing while lit fic writers often get lost in pretty sentences, 'profound' insights, and failed 'originality' (she typed, sneeringly). It's all craft, and ridiculously hard, no matter the emphasis. Matter of preference, I guess.

Historical romance: Loretta Chase, Lord of Scoundrels. 'Modern' historical romance at its most un-put-downable. Try Georgette Heyer, Frederica, for an older, but still v. fun historical.

Contemporary romance: I started writing romance after reading Susan Elizabeth Phillip's First Lady. Story of the widowed First Lady sneaking out of the White House to experience "real" America. Not SEP's most popular, but pure fun. What a plot on that one.

Great "chick lit" w/o the 12-year-olds and vomit but still excellent: Marian Keyes, any book, but try Anybody Out There.

(When you get to the beach, notice that nothing we say or do matters. Every other person will be reading Jody Picoult or Stieg Larsson. Sigh.)

jrlennon said...

I agree, bad literary fiction is the worst fiction in the entire world.

Sung said...

Two-blowjob romance! This reminds me of a profile that TNY did of Ronald Bass, where they described various incarnations of The Horse Whisperer script as either the "two-fuck" script or the "three-fuck" script.

I read Jennifer Weiner's Good in Bed not long ago, and although I loved the first hundred pages or so, the rest was tougher to finish. It's hard to get over that rom-com template. Sounds like this one isn't following those well-trodden paths, which can only be a good thing.

zchry_cole said...

The only thing worse than bad literary fiction is bad *historical* literary fiction where every dame and count talk like perpetually awkward Gen-Xers.

jrlennon said...

Someday soon I will have to do a "varieties of American terrible fiction" post...

106193497484508739855 said...

I just read Little Stalker based on your positive evaluation and I really enjoyed it!

Jean said...

I was really impressed with what I read. I read so much about older people having dementia or other serious limiting mental health issues. It was so wonderfully refreshing to learn about these people who were 80 or older, who are writers.