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April 1, 2007

Chick-Lit/Lit-Fic Showdown

In this post from a couple of weeks back, I took offence at this kind of attempt to blur the chick-lit/lit fic divide. By all means chick lit deserves to thrive, but the divide is important, and essential. All lit is not created alike, said I, and when the plots of two books from different sides of the tracks are so similar, here is a chance to pinpoint what distinguishes a work of chick-lit from one of literary fiction. And I suspected the difference was language primarily, so I read both books to be sure.

The literary book was Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World, and I’m going to call the other book MVM. You can find the book’s actual title by going back to my previous post, but I don’t think it’s fair for me to identify it and slag it off for being nothing more than what it purports to be– chick-lit. Because the author of MVM makes no attempt to blur the lit divide. She publishes under an exclusively chick-lit imprint after all, and the genre seems to have been good to her.

Upon first glance MVM does bear a resemblance to The Post-Birthday World. In the first book, character G finds herself inhabiting two realities as she is unable to make the choice between marrying her boyfriend in Arizona, and pursuing her career in New York. Somehow she gets both options (through a wish upon a star, I believe), and hilarity ensues. In PBW, at the choice of to kiss another man or not to kiss, Irina’s life splits in two and the reader follows each outcome in alternating chapters. As she is unaware of her dual realities, very little hilarity ensues, and as I wrote in my review post, what we have instead is an examination of intimacy, and the sombre reality that life is generally trying no matter which way you cut it.

I think it is unfair to compare MVM to PBW, but it wasn’t my idea. And yes, my hypothesis that language is the great divide between these two novels is partially true. Partially, because that divide is a veritable grand canyon, but nonetheless. Lionel Shriver’s book is a tad overwritten in places, and I did come away with a list of fourteen words I had to look up in the dictionary afterwards. Some of them were very good: post-prandial. Whereas in MVM the author does not rely so much upon words to emphasize ideas, but rather prefers to repeat phrases, in the manner of “He’s funny. He’s really really funny.” Or preface unbelievable ideas with “Hello?”, as in “The women make brunch while the men watch sports on TV. Hello, stereotype?” Which brings me to the question marks. Character G talks in permanent unspeak. Reading her first person narrative is sort of like eavesdropping upon the soliloquy of a rambling idiot.

There aren’t a lot of metaphors in this book, but here’s one: “I close my eyes, squeezing out the annoyance like that last drop of toothpaste”. G is able to dismiss the challenges of her new life in New York with a simple “Whatever”. She uses a similar ease to deal with the fact she is now inhabiting two alternate universes, consulting wikipedia to learn a bit about “quantum mechanics (whatever the hell that is)”. She learns that there are many theories of alternate universes and therefore her own strange reality might have some precedent. She says, “You can’t rule out something just because it can’t be proven, can you? There are like a million religions and none of them can be proven!”

The PBW is quite unsentimentally full of sex, description and analysis, while MVM tends to gloss over it. I will give you a sex scene verbatim: “Afterward we go to bed and I seduce him immediately. ‘That was fun,’ he says afterward.” Those two “afterwards” and an “immediately” in two sentences give you some sort of an idea of this books pacing, and the consideration allotted to its scenes. We have such devices as “As I sat waiting for my appointment, I thought about my entire life up till now just to get my reader up to speed without having to impart these details subtly”. We learn what G’s future mother-in-law thinks about her because the woman keeps expounding on G’s flaws when G is standing just around the corner. We know the mother-in-law has bad taste because she is partial to orange. We know that characters are surprised when their jaws drop.

For the first two third of this book, I hated it, and I very nearly abandoned it except I thought maybe it got better. It didn’t, really. I did like G’s “psycho roomate” however, who was very funny, but hardly a developed character and her tricks wore thin eventually. I also liked the plot twist as G’s maid-of-honour in one reality starts dating her ex-boyfriend in the other reality, and G’s resentment bubbles into both worlds. However she only deals with this by ignoring her maid-of-honour altogether, which doesn’t exactly make for compelling fiction. Oh, and the end? Hello, spoilers ahead! In the ends G learns that you can have it all and lives happily ever after. And (presumably) loses her best-friend/maid of honour.

This next paragraph would be diatribe on how truly crap is MVM, but I think I’ve made my point. PBW took me four days to read, and inspired me to think about the nature of choices, the possibility of destiny, different kinds of love and fulfillment, and what it means to share a life. I read MVM last evening and it made me depressed that such trite can pass for lit, chick or otherwise. As I said in my previous post, readers should demand better of themselves and their books.

One thought on “Chick-Lit/Lit-Fic Showdown”

  1. Steven W. Beattie says:

    “Reading her first person narrative is sort of like eavesdropping upon the soliloquy of a rambling idiot.”

    Freakin’ brill.

    I have just one question: If the two characters are already in bed, why does she need to seduce him? (Or is this the kind of question one isn’t supposed to ask with this type of book?)

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