Kind of a continuation of the genre post: This morning on the train I started reading The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud—I've heard a lot of good things about this book in the past few years, and John knew it was on my list so he picked me up a used copy somewhere. I was excited because I like reading about (or watching) rich people who misbehave. See Gossip Girl, The Secret History, Metropolitan, etc.
But the first few pages—nay, the first paragraph, even sentence—tripped all my bestseller sensors. I really, really don't think I can go on. The writing screams chick lit. I've only read one book, to my knowledge, that qualifies categorically as chick lit—The Beach House by Jane Green, which I read last year for a big feature Open Letters did (they reviewed the full fiction bestseller list). You can read the review here; needless to say, I hated it.
From that experience I gleaned some markers of chick lit, which is basically like YA for adults—very similar to the crappy "bestsellers" I read occasionally when I was 11 or whatever (though I read a lot of good books too). The biggest and most obvious sign that "you might be reading a chick lit novel" (maybe any bestseller but I think particularly those marketed toward women) is that the primary method of establishing scene and character is via physical description. The first few pages of The Emperor's Children are full of descriptions of what color clothes people are wearing, what their jewelry and makeup looks like, how thin and/or hairy and/or doe-eyed and/or crow's-feeted they are etc., mixed in with some "house porn" (the opening setting is a party): opulent décor, people's red wine being illuminated by the sun streaming in the giant windows and so on.
This is exactly how every Babysitter's Club book started—they'd all be gathering for a meeting, tearing open bags of potato chips and M&M's (carrot sticks for Stacey, who was diabetic), Claudia (the artsy one) in leggings and an oversized, "day-glo" off-the-shoulder "top," Mary Ann (the shy one) in a prim pleated skirt, etc. The spread indicates socioeconomic status, the costumes indicate personality. It's all superficial signaling. (Isn't that what makes bad genre fiction bad genre fiction? Overt, ridiculous signaling?)
The other thing about bestseller writing—people are always grinning. I fucking hate when people "grin" in novels! It's like you might as well write in a parenthetical "I know this dialogue sucks but the characters don't know any better, they're having a good time. Trust me." This woman walks into a party, people are lounging on the opulent couch, the hostess shouts for "Rog" to bring more wine—except we don't know it's short for "Roger" yet, so I'm like "What kind of a name is Rog (rhymes with dog)?" Then the hostess asks the guest if she wants "red or white"—how fucking opulent could this party be if the only beverage choices are "red" and "white"? That is so goddamn amateurish. Then she chooses red, of course, and some dude in lavender with a "high" "Nabokovian" forehead leans in and says, "Good choice." And grins. UGH.
Have any of you read this book? How did you get past the first few pages? Does it get any better? (P.S. I just googled "the emperor's children chick lit" and I'm not the first person to make the connection.)