Popular womens fiction and the pleasure of the text
Popular women’s fiction and the pleasure of the text Carol-Anne Croker PhD Swinburne University of Technology We have no knowledge, that is, no general principles drawn from the contemplation of particular facts, but what has been built up by pleasure, and exists in us by pleasure alone. . . . However painful may be the objects with which the [critic’s] knowledge is connected, he [sic] feels that his knowledge is pleasure; and where he has no pleasure he has no knowledge—William Wordsworth, 1802iWhen discussing popular genre fiction, it is useful to reflect on the readers’ purpose forselecting this genre. In the case of romantic fiction, readers questioned by Janice Radway,spoke of the primacy of reading for pleasure and reading as a form of escapism. (Radway1991)In the Academy it is very easy to get caught up in the low/high culture debate and the whatis literature/what is not discussion, and often we ignore the fundamental pleasure ofreading. With emergence of post-structuralism in the humanities, Roland Barthes penned adefinitive work, The Pleasure of the Text. Barthes theorised the difference between readingfor pleasure against the “indifference of (mere) knowledge”. (McGraw 1977: 943) (I wouldadd to this the notion of knowledge acquisition as an act of acquiring cultural capital byreading ‘high’ literature).Reading as knowledge acquisition is the most openly discussed and reading for pleasure isless well-researched, yet when consumers are questioned as to which books they choose toborrow from libraries and purchase they almost always list the ‘like factor’. I like the bookwritten by Stephanie Myers or Dan Brown. By positioning their selection in the realm of thesubjective, there can be no challenge to their choices. Yet, when we discuss one genre offiction, popular women’s fiction, a different discussion ensues.If we look at surveys with readers of Harlequin Mills and Boon titles or those now marketedas ‘chick lit’, usually the notion of ‘an easy read’ or a ‘guilty pleasure’ is articulated yet themeaning couched within these terms remains unexamined. Why is reading thus positionedas a guilty indulgence in this instance but not when reading a crime novel or Stephen Kingthriller? What is the concept of an ‘easy read’ actually illuminating?To tease out these unspoken or guilty pleasures within the text, it is useful to look at themost prolific and dominant popular fiction produced in the 1990s, the pastel covered genredubbed ‘chick lit’. I have chosen the genre of ‘chick lit’ to examine notions of reading forpleasure as it has many diverging opinions and commentary available to writer/scholars in
the popular media and in academic journals, along with a rapidly growing list of thesesexamining the phenomenon from cultural studies, media studies, literary criticism, and evenconsumer economic perspectives. It can also be argued that the chick lit genre is apostmodern take on traditional romantic fiction. Many critics take care to develop theargument that the original text in this genre, Bridget Jones Diary (Fielding 2001) is a modernre-telling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, for the twenty-first century woman reader,and thus chick lit is a contemporary novel of manners. (Harzewski 2006)B.R. McGraw in his review of Barthes writing on text and pleasure, speaks of how we havelost our understanding of pleasure as a non-rational, in the sense of being a “friable,precarious principle which cannot be spoken as a positivist science” (McGraw 1977), or asBarthes himself describes “its jurisdiction is that of the critical science” (Barthes 1975:52)As Harzewski notes, it is the very popularity of the romance and chick lit genre, that drivesmuch of the critical approbation and denigration of the genre. She speaks of a new “anti-novel sentiment directed at a new segment of women authors. They have been classified bythe neolism chickeratti, scribblers of chick lit, popular fiction characterized by its antagonistsas consisting of ‘connect-the-dot-plots’ recognized by ‘identikit covers’ (Thomas 2002).“(Harzewski 2006:30)Perhaps, as Radway suggests, it is the very predictability of the plots and character traitsthat make the genre so appealing to readers? Women are able to simply concentrate onthe irony implicit in singleton females slaving away at unrewarding jobs, whilst assuagingtheir discontent by indulging in mindless shopping for upmarket brands in the vain attemptto buy the lifestyle associated with the designer iconography, whilst waiting to discover themissing soul mate. Women know this is the material of fantasy and wish fulfilment. They donot take these novels seriously nor do they assume that by purchasing the same shoes orjackets worn by the heroine will they in turn find Mr Right. It is the old Cinderella fairytalewrit large on the urban screen for the 21st century.In the same way that readers can appreciate the classic Hollywood narrative structure thatpropels the path of the hero in Western films and novels, (Wright 1975.) readers canappreciate the adherence to and divergence from the expected fairytale trajectory of ourChick Lit heroines.Another debate that can be found within academic and literary discussions, is very specificto popular womens’ fiction marketed as Chick Lit. Do the novels (and by implication theirreaders) “buy in” to the consumerist world view (Spurnick 2003) or does it allow a space foracknowledging the pleasure of frivolous spending and consumption in our time-poor,disposable income rich working lives? (Jernigan 2004) Both sides of the argument can befound in the commentary surrounding this genre.“ Although the novel, unlike the more ‘elevated’ genre of poetry, has always been concernedwith the material world, chick lit is distinguished both by the centrality of what Woolf called‘the ever-changing and turning of gloves and shoes and stuff (Woolf 1929:98) and by theimplicit message that while indulgence may not always bring happiness, happiness cannotbe found without a good dose of indulgence.”(Wells 2006)
It is this very gendering of what is deemed worthy and what is trivial that allows us tounpack the criticisms and discover the hidden gender messages. As Woolf (Modeleski 2008)pointed out many decades ago, “Speaking crudely, football and sport are ‘important’; theworship of fashion, the buying of clothes ‘trivial’. And these values are inevitably transferredfrom life to fiction”. (Woolf 1929:77)Modelski (2008) suggest that it is actually difficult to find writings on popular femininenarratives with “aggrandized titles of certain classic studies of popular male genres (‘TheGangster as Tragic Hero’) or the inflated claims made for say, the detective novel which fillthe pages of the Journal of Popular Culture”. (Modeleski 2008) Thus the critical discussionon Chick Lit is similarly dismissive of the heroine’s position within the narrative. The femaleprotagonist becomes a signifier of greater cultural ideology. She is either a post-feministicon or a second-wave feminist example of cultural backlash and masculine hegemony.(Faludi 1991)She is considered by many younger feminist critics as post-feminist because she exhibits: a negative reaction to second wave feminism (in that she wants to find happiness with a male partner and possibly children and is willing to put her career second) her focus is individualistic instead of that of the collective sisterhood (she is not likely to engage in political agitating at work to stem the inappropriate advances of the predatory work colleague or boss she speaks positively about her desire for a more traditional femininity with self fulfilment achieved through domesticity, romance and motherhood she speaks knowingly about the “man drought” and her “ticking biological clock” and lastly she exhibit anxiety over her ability to make ‘correct decisions’ about her futureNowhere within the text does she ever identify as feminist, despite appearing to have takenthe opportunities offered by equal access to previously male dominated careers andoccupations. Feminism is viewed as outdated and obsolete at best, and even seen as theroot of all her man-problems.She perceives that feminism took away her right to have fun, to flaunt and enjoy hersexuality through dress, make-up and basic female consumerism. (She obviously hasn’t readWoolf). Our heroine stresses the importance of romance as a way of achieving happinessand she opposes the denigration of ‘at home mothers’ whose life she idealises in thetraditional fairytale “happy ever after” ending. (There is a reason fairytales end up with theseduction of the charming prince and do not follow the storyline into domesticity as thismay challenge the idealised notion of domestic bliss).In her Masters thesis, Susan Glasburg cites Faludi’s contention that the “supposed femalecrises are a closed system that starts and ends with the media, popular culture andadvertising – an endless feedback loop that perpetuates and exaggerates its own falseimages of womanhood” (Faludi 1991: xv). As Glasburg perceptively notes it is a case of“don’t blame feminism, blame the media for the unhappy images”. Thus she asserts that
texts such as Chick Lit can be viewed as part of this closed system of coercion for women.(Glasburg 2006)Glasburg also asserts that Chick Lit’s confessional formula and first person narration createsa relatability for the reader, and in content chick lit is closer to what is happening inwomen’s lives today than feminist theory. (Mabry 2005) As the author of Bridget JonesDiary, Helen Fielding quips “ if we can’t laugh at ourselves without having a panic attackabout what it says about women, we haven’t got very far with our equality”. (Quotedin(Razdan 2004)The term Chick Lit is a radicalised term, coined originally by Chris Mazza and Jeffrey DeShellin 1995 on the cover of an anthology entitled Chick-lit: Post feminist fiction produced by theFiction Collective 2, who proudly acclaimed that “if fiction proposes to improve life bymaking social and political changes, postfeminism answers the large portions of life thatcan’t be dealt with so rationally” (Mazza in Ferriss and Young 206: 19)In 2003 on the website litbooks.com Rian Montgomery declared her list of what Chick Lit isNOT: Lame and ridiculous Cheesy romance novels Bad influence on women Brain-numbing fluff (Ferriss 2006:34)Basically she is articulating the Cyndi Lauper lyric that ‘girls just want to have fun’, and thisincludes their reading matter. In fact in Chick Lit novels, the workplace is the scene ofunhappiness and competitiveness, and friends and work colleagues share their values andcareer advancement goals. It is the law of the (urban) jungle to survive and prosper, so it isno surprise that these heroines see feminism as anachronistic and passé, with collectivismand solidarity among women simply ludicrous in this environment. As Bridget Jonesexclaims to her friend Shazza “After after all, there is nothing so unattractive to a man asstrident feminism” (BJD:18) As readers we can laugh at her naivity in assumingpostfeminism has all the answers. Chick Lit is above all humourous.Thus reader popularity is conflated with notions of substandard quality, or ‘low culture’.Chick Lit is often described as “Lit” not “literature”. This is a continuation of a genderedprocess begun many years ago. Chick Lit has difficulty in breaking away from its commercialorigins. This “denigration stems in part from its gendered reclamation of the novelscommodity roots” Harzewski in Ferriss & Young 2006: 35)As noted by Harzewski prose romance (from Harlequin to Chick Lit), has always stirreddebates about “the women writer’s moral and financial status as well as the genre’seducational and entertainment benefits, especially in regard to women readers.” (Ferrissand Young 2006: 31) This argument denies women readers agency in that it is assumedwomen are incapable of reading fiction and remaining logical and rational. They alone willbe influenced by what is written rather than what they perceive in their lived experienceand everyday lives. Perhaps this is where the idea of reading romance fiction as a guiltypleasure is to be found. If women are seen to be willing readers of women’s romance fiction
then these women are intellectually inferior or incapable of rational thought to thosereaders who devour ‘high culture’ and ‘literature’.In 1984 and again 1991 in her reprinted text Reading the Romance , “Janice Radway tooksuch vilified popular forms as the romance novel and constructed them as offering a waywomen could resist the patriarchal structures imposed on their lives” and was at thebeginning of the era when cultural studies began examining the ‘ordinary’ and ‘low brow’ ,and transforming them into ‘texts with deeper significations’ .(Lynch Cooke 2006:5-6)In her thesis Lynch Cooke discusses the idea that the popularity of a cultural text allows forthe examination of power within capitalist societies, “who holds the claim on culturalauthority – academics of entrepreneurs?” She cites the example of the Book of the MonthClub (a predominantly female market and social grouping. Think of the Opra Book Club asthe most powerful incarnation today) used by Janice Radway to conceptualise a changingdefinition of culture in distinguishing economic class; “the upwardly mobile white middleclass used the discourse over the act of reading to separate itself from the blue-collar class.The middle class asserted that its members “pleasure read” for self education andimprovement while the working class “were made content by simple-minded fun”.(Radway1992:519)In Radway’s research she noted the positioning of reading as an act rather than reading as ameans to significance in content. She noted that in her research sample, “women readers’construction of the act of romance reading as a ‘declaration of independence’ “, with escapereading as an empowering action. (Lynch Cooke 2006:9)This empowerment goes some way to explaining the popularity of the Chick Lit genre. Asearly as 2001, major romance publishing houses recognised the commercial market forChick Lit. Harlequin launched a new imprint, Red Dress Inc specifically to cater for thisgenre; followed in 2003 by Random House’s Broadway Books, Simon and Schuster’sDowntown Press (then Pocket Books; a teen imprint, in 2005) ,Kensington Books Straplessand Hyperion launched an older reader/ ‘hen lit’ imprint in 2007. All imprints are still to befound in great numbers on Australian booksellers shelves.Chick Lit author Jennifer Weiner, as cited by Lynch Cooke states “my theory is that mygeneration of women have more choices and options available than any other generation inhistory, and these choices are empowering but also terrifying. I think that novels, even theones derided as light ‘n’ fluffy, help them think through choices and make peace with theirdecisions.” (Weiner 2004)As Lynch Cooke summarises Chick Lit novels function beyond mere entertainment and“serve as a guide to navigating life in the twenty-first century”.(Lynch Cooke 2006:25)Some critics lament that the sexually liberated heroines of Chick Lit novels share the desireto participate in the traditional romance novel trope of a quest for romantic love andultimate heterosexual partnerships, the heroines do little to challenge or reposition thebalance of power within these relationships. The women are very comfortable being theobject of the male gaze, whilst at the same time readily objectifying and de-personalising
the male targets for their affection. Their sexual conquests become just anotheraccoutrement or commodity to be purchased or won, to enhance their self-image. In thesame way they are into conspicuous consumption by flaunting their Jimmy Choos andManolo Blahniks, they too, place their partners on display for other female eyes. Thus theheroine is now ‘the player’ epitomised by sexually predatory behaviour. These women aremerely colonising the masculine power role and within their fleeting sexual encountersremain unfulfilled and emotionally damaged by their actions. There is no sense at theconclusion that it is “happy ever after”, just “it’s all good for now”.Yet despite this, or perhaps because of this narrative construction, women readers arebuying these titles in large numbers and in contrast to the dire predictions that Chick Lit wasdeemed to be dead in the market in 2006, the titles still sit displayed in all their pastel-covered glory in most Australian commercial bookstores.The popularity of Chick Lit is evidenced by global sales data, and whilst it is costly to obtainNeilson Bookscan sales figures and revenue in Australia, the Auslit data base goes some wayto reconciling how many popular novels are published annually in Australia.
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