Good girls gone bad

17:00, Jul 06 2013
Chick Lit
MISPLACED AFFECTIONS: Wellington author Catherine Robertson is tired of the tradition helpless female protagonist.

Damsels in distress, watching the clock, just waiting for Prince Charming to stroll around the corner and save them, kiss them, marry them. Life isn't complete until those three little words are shouted into the sunset. Happily. Ever. After.

From Cinderella to Carrie Bradshaw, we are surrounded by fictional women who adorably bumble their way through life, their worlds crumbling around them until, oh, thank goodness, someone else steps in and it all ends well. They are our sisters, our mothers, our best friends. We see ourselves in them because, oh yes, we bumble adorably, too. They are likeable. We like them.

Book-shop bait Fifty Shades of Grey elevated these docile characters to the extreme. 'Heroine' Anastasia Steele was tied up and teased with leather. The plot revolved around her submission and Mr Christian Grey's dominance. According to sales figures, we liked it a lot - the trilogy has sold more than 70 million copies.

But what happens when our bookish BFFs stop being so gosh-darn submissively agreeable? When that adorable bumbling becomes bull-in-a-china-shop bulldozing.

For Wellington author Catherine Robertson - whose first two books were marketed under the "Chick Lit" banner - it has meant fewer sales, harsher reviews and reader backlash. It also means her German publishers have just refused to publish her latest novel.

"It's not just that it has a strongish, borderline-unlikeable character, it's also that she is plottingto break up a marriage. And that was the key thing -it absolutely can't have someone doing something so morally reprehensible, essentially. They can't market it as,'This is someone trying to break up a marriage because she has fallen in love with her boss.' AndI thought, wow, okay."

The Misplaced Affections of Charlotte Fforbes (released here by Random House) peeks into the life of a professional PA who falls for her boss - her married boss - and starts using all of her superior organisational skills to make him leave his wife and child for her welcoming arms. Not particularly endearing behaviour then, but she's not alone.

Bestseller lists the world over have, in the last year or so, been flooded with tales of women being, well, a little bit bad. From thriller Gone Girl's unfettered take on marriage to Tampa, the just-released story of a female school teacher with a sexual obsession for 14-year-old boys, the women's place on the bookshelf is no longer the territory of happy housewives and tightly-wound business women comically searching for love.

The bright, shiny world of television has had a taste of real life too, with the likes of Homeland's bi-polar mistress Carrie Mathison, Nurse Jackie's pill-popping lead and the entire warts-and-all line-up of HBO's Girls, to name but a few. Even the "my life is better because he likes me" tunes of Taylor Swift have spawned a socially conscious fake Twitter account with pearls like: "I bet you think I've either moved on or hate you/'Cause people assume feminists hate men/Even though everyone has a stake in equality."

We are, finally, watching, reading and listening to females saying, doing and thinking the things we do (but might not always own up to). Everyday things. Sometimes they don't end up with a spunky architect (they are always architects) by their side. Sometimes they end up alone, and that's okay. Sometimes they get their comeuppance, though often they don't. Sound the alarm, because the reign of the nice-as-pie character is under threat from these women.

For Robertson, shaking off the shackles of traditional "Chick Lit" was a welcome freedom. But the unwritten rules still loom large. "I think [readers of this genre] want to be lost in a book; they want to be passive; they want to be carried along. [It helps] if they feel the character is passive as well - suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and all that, as many Chick Lit heroines often do."

The characters are waiting for someone else to transform their lives for them and I thought, 'Oh no, that's not the kind of women I want to write.' It makes it much more interesting to look at people who dig themselves into holes because, as people, that's what we do."

Getting there, though, has been a gradual process. Robertson describes her first book, The Sweet Second Life of Darrell Kincaid, as being full of "typical, slightly vulnerable, slightly hapless Chick Lit heroines whosort of responded to life, rather than going out and grabbing it by the neck". Readers liked it. It stayed in the Kiwi bestseller list for 21 weeks.

The follow-up, The Not So Perfect Life of Mo Lawrence, was less typical of the genre. Full of unfiltered women, Robertson calls them. Readers liked it less, with one reviewer writing: "Oh they drink and swear and go their own sweet way trying to bring others down to their level." Robertson couldn't understand the reaction, but then she realised: the reviewer didn't like what these characters, these women, were doing.

"So women [characters] who go out there and say, 'I want this and I'm going to go out there and get it. I'm not hurting anyone by doing it' - that's not allowed. [Instead] they have to be dutiful mothers, they've got to be good wives (that wasn't spoken,but it was certainly implied) and they've also got to be, I think, a little bit helpless."

And now, there's book number three. Plotting, cheating and yearning for the un-yearnable, Robertson has undoubtedly smashed all those unwritten rules of Chick Lit to pieces. Less yes sir, no sir, and more I want it and I want it now. She says because she writes humorous books about relationships, there is little choice about being labelled as Chick Lit. She doesn't like the label, but she does understand it.

"It [used to be] freer - Bridget Jones' Diary[for example]; Chick Lit was born for her - but the parameters have tightened up. In a way [Helen Fielding] broke the barriers in writing that book, but now it's become a bit squashed up." Robertson says she didn't realise that by writing female characters driven by questionable motives in her second book she was sticking her head above any sort of parapet. By the time Charlotte Fforbes came around, though, it was more calculated: "I thought, 'This is what I want to write - bugger it, let's give it a go and see what happens.'"

There is, predictably, a backlash against the backlash. In the Washington Post recently, Jennifer Weiner - author of 10 Chick Lit books, including In Her Shoes, which inspired the Cameron Diaz movie of the same name - fought back against the sudden distaste for nice characters. "Currently the most gauche thing a modern-day writer can do is write a protagonist who is - oh, the horror - likeable... When did beloved become a bad thing?" Weiner wrote. She asked what was wrong with "the kind of books that are sold at airports" and the kind of character who would make good company during a six-hour flight. She asked what was wrong with reading to find friends. Her comments came in the wake of Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs, calling time on what she called a "gendered question" and expectation - no one counts on necessarily liking male characters, but readers need to feel comfortable around female ones.

In a Publishers Weekly Q-and-A about her novel, Messud said this of her angry protagonist, Nora Eldridge, and her place on the literary landscape: "Because if it's unseemly and possibly dangerous for a man to be angry, it's totally unacceptable fora woman to be angry. I wanted to write a voice that, for me, as a reader, had been missing in the chorus." And again, in Canada's National Post: "If you want self-help that's going to make you feel good, or if you want the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, fantastic, that's a great thing to read, I have no complaints about that. But it's not compatible with serious endeavour."

Her comments sparked something of a groundswell in the literary world. Panels of experts were formed, prestigious novelists discussed and ruled. "Intelligent readers do not confuse the quality of a book with the moral rectitude of the characters," said Margaret Atwood in The New Yorker. And back in Wellington, Robertson, for one, is singing the same tune - she doesn't need to like characters to enjoy them.

She says as a reader she wants to be interested in them and interested in their motivations, interested enough to want to read to the end ofthe book. There is, she says echoing Messud, some gender bias in needing to like a book's protagonist.

"Male characters can be unlikeable - you almost expect it, for them to be assholes. Look at Ian Rankin's John Rebus. He's not a cool guy, but you love reading about how he operates, so you go with that. In Chick Lit we definitely push the heroines to a certain point - even Bridget Jones, as funny and wonderful as those books are, she is a passive heroine.

"I think somehow the reader goes into it thinking, it all works out for our heroine in the end. She gets her man, she finds love and she hasn't had to do a lot, or be brave in the face of adversity. I think, unfortunately, that is the trait, the requirement of a Chick Lit book."

The author wonders if there is a similarity between readers' reactions to unlikeable female characters and a recent experience of a friend of hers.

"[My friend] has chosen not to have kids and was told by someone, 'I feel affronted by your decision not to have children.' Is it the same kind of reaction, because there's a certain status or security in sitting with an expected norm - being a wife, looking after your children? I wonder if it's the same sort of thing - that women who don't conform to any norm are somehow threatening?"


GONE BAD: The genre of Chick Lit may be under threat from fewer 'good' girl heroines.
Chick Lit
IN CHARACTER: Homeland's Carrie Mathison.

Sunday Magazine