I live in Queen’s Park, in north-west London. It is a nice neighbourhood (or ‘area’ is probably a better word). It’s full of affluent young families on their first or second kid, who can’t afford Notting Hill but are damned if they’re moving to Ealing or Acton. There is a park and a farmer’s market on Sundays. There is a branch of the absurdly expensive Baker & Spice (actually, watch this space, it’s being renovated/closing down, hurray). There is a gastropub and a very good bookshop, and a good curry takeaway and several great Lebanese grocers.
Queen’s Park is also the spiritual home of chick lit – that is, the new, grown-up chick lit (hen lit?) The novels The Rise and Fall of a Slummy Mummy and Mrs Zhivago of Queen’s Park are set here (neither of which I liked, but anyway). Chick lit is a genre that arouses a lot of ire among people, many of whom have never read any. Jackie Collins brilliantly dismissed the entire genre as ‘some girl in a bedsit, moaning about some guy’ and it must be said there is some truth in this description. They are quite different from Jackie C’s novels, and it’s interesting to examine why. Here’s my theory:
The 1980s blockbusters – sex and shopping novels – were written at a time when people were, in general, less affluent, and certainly nobody was jetting off to St Kitts in a Katherine Hamnett dress to sleep with a cruel millionaire or whatever. So these novels were total escapism, allowing readers a glimpse into an undreamably glamorous lifestyle.
In contrast, chick lit happened in the 1990s, at a time when everybody had more money than during the 1980s heyday of the bonkbuster. With that increased affluence came a pressure to live up to a certain type of lifestyle. Chick lit was about the contrast between that ideal lifestyle (perfect flat, ideal career, great man and designer wardrobe) and most ordinary women’s lives (queuing for cappucinos, getting squashed on the tube, buying the wrong dress and leaving it too late to take it back). The best chick lit, ie Bridget Jones, parodied the perfect lifestyle. So you have Bridget fantasising about ‘mini breaks’ spent ‘maybe even in a small boat, with Daniel rowing and me in a long dress possibly from Ghost.’
It’s the ‘possibly from Ghost’ that makes that line so funny – how Bridget can’t quite separate her romantic dreams of Daniel and her consumer vision of herself in a Ghost dress. The fact that it’s such a 90s label makes it all the more priceless, I think … That’s why it’s annoying when people think chick lit is all about shopping, as Bridget never goes shopping except on a couple of disastrous occasions. I suppose I’m trying to say that Bridget Jones is as much a satire on consumer values as anything else. So is Confessions of a Shopaholic (the novel) but I know you won’t believe me so I won’t bother expanding on that.
Many people who disapprove of chick lit think that it’s anti-feminist to have women reading novels that are all about romance/men. But chick lit novels aren’t just about men – they’re about careers (The Devil Wears Prada) addiction (Rachel’s Holiday) music (The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets) and lots of other things besides. Chick lit is just commercial fiction aimed at women. Some of it is rubbish and some of it is very good. I see men reading thrillers about things exploding and people being shot, which are aimed squarely at men, but nobody worries about that.
One predicted outcome of the recession is that the big bonkbuster novel is back. I met someone recently who is having one published – I forget her name, but I think the novel is called Glamour or Glitter or Gilt or something similar. I’m sure it’s very good, but I think I probably prefer the kitchen-sink realism (so to speak) of chick lit.