Monday, August 24, 2009

If you liked insipid and predictable, you'll love middle-brow/implausible!

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.)


  1. "the primary method of establishing scene and character is via physical description"

    that sounds very victorian also...

  2. I hate when people "grin" in real life, too, for what it's worth. "Grinning" is creepy.

  3. It does not get better. I loathed these characters but was compelled to keep reading for some inexplicable reason. I can almost never allow myself to abandon a book. Now I remember nothing about the plot, only that I effing hated the characters.

  4. I finally worked my way through the HTMLG thread that you linked to in your previous post, and now feel qualified to respond here, a week and a half after everyone has stopped caring. What’s cute about the HTMLG discussion is that they basically conclude “this just amounts to a semantic argument,” but then never really go on to HAVE the semantic argument. I’m gonna go there. I’m afraid we’re going to need a Venn diagram for this. Can we get some hipster up on that shit?

    As to whether “what makes bad genre fiction bad genre fiction” is “overt, ridiculous signaling,” I’m inclined to say yeah, pretty much -- but first we need to talk a little about what we mean by “genre,” as that term is a moving target. Broadly speaking, I believe “genre” just refers to texts which are made intelligible via readers’ familiarity with other texts, whether those texts are epic poems or chick lit or shopping lists or whatever. ALL texts have to be generic at some level if they make any sense at all. (“A genre,” says structuralist smartypants Jonathan Culler, “is a conventional function of language, a particular relation to the world which serves as norm or expectation to guide the reader[...].”) Anything you write is not likely to be the first thing your reader has ever read. If you adopt a strategy to deal with that fact, then you are already in genre territory.

    The question is: what do you do with that? In the previous genre post, you set up an opposition between literary and formulaic writing which seems to get to the matter at hand. What we’re calling “bad genre fiction” basically uses references to familiar material to put readers at ease and to reassure them that they’re interpreting correctly; the signals amount to a series of very slow pitches. But the key adjective here is “bad,” not “genre”: pandering is not the only way to make use of readers’ expectations.

    This is where the Venn diagram comes in. Forgive me if I’m being obvious, but I haven’t seen this spelled out yet: along with genre writing, we should also be talking about a second category -- let’s call it “commercial writing” -- which often shacks up with genre but which is NOT coextensive with it. Sure, you can use generic features to cast a really wide net, which is cheap and easy, or you can use them to lull readers into a false sense of security in order to surprise them later, which can be cool but is often also sort of cheap and easy. It seems to me that when genre stuff succeeds in exerting a plausible claim on being honest-to-god art, it typically does so by using its generic features to radically increase its efficiency and to very specifically direct its readers’ attention. (When Raymond Chandler has Marlow describe himself, in the fourth sentence of The Big Sleep, as “everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be,” he’s telling us that that’s all we need to know about Marlow, and that we shouldn’t expect to be given much more: we should be concerned with other stuff.) Another trick that seems to work: evoke genre and then elide a bunch of the expected ingredients, getting the emotional/conceptual genre jolt while dumping all the typical baggage, leaving it up to the reader to try to put the pieces in order. (Cf. the way Borges and Auster and David Lynch use detective characters, or the way about a million poets make use of noir tropes, or the way visual artists from Magritte to Cindy Sherman have referenced genre works of various types . . . I’m sure there are better examples.)

  5. Oh, hey . . . another probably-obvious point I haven’t really seen get made yet: writing that is not strictly verisimilar (let’s not even say “realistic”) is NOT automatically generic. Any broad survey of global lit ought to make it clear enough that documentarian verisimilitude is a sort of freakish exception, not any sort of rule: it is itself a genre, although one that has clearly dominated English-language “literary” writing for about as long as anybody’s been keeping track. Historically it seems to be tied very closely to the whole Enlightenment project -- which is pretty cool, of course, but which also means that it shares humanism’s limitations and unexamined assumptions. At its worst, ostensibly “literary” writing -- with its inbuilt biases toward interior over surface, contemplation over action, emotion over concept -- functions as a kind of pornography of selfhood, smothering legitimate doubts about agency and individuality, dramatizing fantasies of coherent consciousness while assuring us that this is DEPICTION, and not fantasy at all. If you’re a novelist and you don’t really WANT to write self-porn of this sort, then borrowing from genre is a way out; you seen this clearly in Georges Bataille, William S. Burroughs, J. G. Ballard, the nouveau roman crowd, Kathy Acker, Stewart Home, and all over the FC2 catalogue. I wouldn’t want all my reading to come from this list, but these folks are onto something worthwhile. (Not surprisingly, Viktor Shklovsky was already on the case back in the early ‘20s with his “law of the canonization of the junior branch”: whenever high art starts to play itself out, it always moves to legitimate the previous generation’s commercial trash in order to make use of its concerns and techniques.)

    Anyway: basta. Am I wrong?

  6. Yes! I'm not going to get out my Sharpies for the diagram right now, but you're absolutely right about the commercial thing (among other insights). Commercial fiction (equivalent of the Hollywood movie) is almost always abhorrent to me, and it's only because it so often overlaps with the "genre" bubble that genre gets a bad name. But genre fiction that isn't overtly commercial is fair and pleasing territory. Very astute.