I summarize blog entries on: the quality of writing in chicklit novels; Scalzi’s Redshirts; and David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself

Ugh, okay guys. I had all kinds of things to say about the writing in chick lit novels. And I was gonna talk about how Emily Giffin’s Something Borrowed has an amazing premise (it’s told from the point of view of a woman who’s sleeping with her best friend’s fiance) but very thin writing, while Bridget Jones’ Diary has a very stock premise (it is basically copying the plot of Pride and Prejudice), but very information-dense writing–it’s full of all these wonderful snippets and tidbits about middle-class life in Britain.

But instead, I am just going to summarize those thoughts in one paragraph. Because I’m kind of going crazy here. So much stuff to do before I can move! I already gave myself a break on the quality of my reading, but now I think I’m gonna have to give myself a break on the quality of my blogging too.

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I was also gonna write a post on John Scalzi’s Redshirts. I’ll summarize that post too, although I’ll spare you another paragraph written in the subjunctive.

Like every other aspiring writer in the world, I absolutely adore Scalzi’s blog. It’s so light and entertaining and, sometimes, surprisingly informative. You never feel bad after reading Scalzi’s blog. But, years ago, I read Scalzi’s debut novel The Old Man’s War, and was not nearly as impressed. I couldn’t really see what was good about it. The writing felt thin, and the setting and plot felt very generic. After finishing it, I never again felt tempted to pick up another of his novels.

Until I clicked through to the Redshirts excerpt on Tor.com. There was something about the first chapter that clicked with me. The writing felt frothy and light (almost like a novel-length version of his blog). And the book came out at a perfect time for me. And when I was looking around for some more light reading, Redshirts seemed perfect.

But it was kind of a rocky road for me. The writing felt a little uneven. Scalzi even gives characters really similar names (which feels like a total rookie mistake). He has one main character named Dahl and one named Duvall. And he has one main character named Hester and one named Hanson. And when they splashed out with the big reveal about what was going on (i.e. why all the redshirts on this starship kept dying), I seriously groaned. It felt so silly and trivial.

But I was wrong. Scalzi completely blew through the silliness. He rode his incredibly silly premise into the ground and then he stood atop its body and raised his arms in triumph. I absolutely loved the place where this book went. And I loved how the resolution was so simple and friendly. When his main characters explained the situation to the supposed antagonists, they were just like, “Welp, that makes a lot of sense…why don’t I just help you with that?” It was absolutely wonderful.

And then there were the Codas. Because the novel is so short, Scalzi included three short-stories that take place in the same universe and comment directly upon the events of the novel. And at least two of them take this premise into a really emotional and serious place. Maybe, on their own, they might not have been too interesting, but they were exactly the right counterweight to the silliness of the main text.

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            Finally, I was going to write a post about David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself. Anyone who’s ever read my short stories knows that I have a positive obsession with doubling and cloning and self-replication. This novel is the king of self-replication stories. It’s about a man who travels through time, doubling back on himself dozens and dozens of times and eventually sleeping with himself (yes, it is a classic of gay speculative fiction). There is so much that is good about this book. Even the time travel mechanics seem to have been very well thought-out (though I mostly ignored them). At its core, this novel is about one of the questions that SF is superb at asking, “What should a person do with his (or her) life?” The protag’s time travel belt strips away all the obstacles that normally complicate this question, and the resulting story is rigorous and awesome.

But that isn’t what my blog post was gonna be about. My blog post was gonna be about how I’d wanted to read this book for years (uhh, of course I did…it’s about a man who has sex with himself), but was never able to get ahold of it. It was close to being out of print, and none of my local libraries had a copy. But this most recent time, I discovered that it was available on Amazon for just $2.99! Jesus. Even if I’d bought it as a trade paperback, it’d have cost at least $12.00. At $2.99, this was a fantastic bargain, and I bought it without a moment of second-guessing.

I love how nothing will ever again go out of print.

I love Chicklit–over the weekend, I read books by Helen Fielding, Sophie Kinsella, Melissa Bank, and Emily Giffin

I’ve been pretty stressed out lately. I definitely wish I was still eighteen, so my parents could stage-manage my cross-country move and college matriculation. But, since I am an adult, I have to do the bulk of it myself (err, other than forcing them to fax me my immunization forms). Anyway, this move (I’m going to begin driving cross-country on July 4th) has added a whole raft of new commitments to my calendar. Not only do I have to dispose of all my belongings and say all my goodbyes, I also feel this need to keep doing all the other stuff that I normally do (write, read, work, blog) and keep making progress on various summer activities.

So how did I handle all of this stress and work?

I took a vacation.

Not a vacation from doing things, but a vacation from seriousness and productivity. I maintained the forms of my life (the bare activities) but dropped the intent (the desire to produce good work; live life to the fullest; etc.)

Yes, it was a very slapdash weekend. When I was pondering how this mental vacation would affect my reading, I originally considered reading some epic fantasy novels or something. But the thought of men hitting each other with swords just filled me with this terrible ennui. Instead, I went online and conducted an exhaustive search on Google, Amazon, and Goodreads to find the absolute most popular chicklit novels.

Actually, I’d already consumed a fair number of them (The Nanny Diaries, The Devil Wears Prada, Good In Bed), but there were also a fair number of highly popular titles that I’d never even heard of. I assiduously jotted down the titles that showed up on the most lists and then acquired them.

The books I read this weekend were:

  • Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin
  • Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella
  • Bridget Jones’ Diary by Helen Fielding
  • The Girls’ Guide To Hunting And Fishing by Melissa Bank

All of these books are mega bestsellers. As a sidenote, I just really love books that are popular (as in, bestsellers). Popularity is such a well-defined attribute. If a book is popular, that means that many millions of people have read it: a popular book has a solid place in the world. Even if I don’t like a popular book, I at least have the consolation of knowing that I’m learning something about all the millions of people who do like it. And if I do like it, then I get this really warm and fuzzy feeling, as if I’m communing with the beating heart of America.

Hmm, maybe I should’ve read Fifty Shades Of Grey instead.

Actually, my googling revealed that the general consensus is that chicklit is “over”. It’s been replaced by paranormal romance and YA. Chicklit had such a brief reign: a bare ten years. It truly is a cautionary tale for all genres. Actually, I’m not sure what the fable is. Chicklit is still super awesome. I hope it’s not actually dead.

Chicklit seems unique* to me in that it’s a genre which is defined entirely by its protagonist. Almost every chicklit novel has a protagonist who is: a) female; b) between the ages of 25 and 33; c) lives in a city; and d) has some kind of aspirational, upper-middle-class job (usually in the media).

On some level, these protagonists, with their similar socioeconomic backgrounds and sassy voices, kind of run together, so that the entire chicklit genre can come to feel like one large series in which the same protagonist goes on an endless variety of adventures and finds an endless variety of loves.

Chicklit novels do have some other plot and structural conventions, too. They’re usually told in the first person and there’s usually some kind of romantic plot. However, my weekend reading really drove home that they vary tremendously in their structure, tone, and thematic concerns.

For instance, Confessions Of A Shopaholic is basically a parable of addiction. I mean, there’s a perfunctory romance plot, but the story is mostly a harrowing look at compulsive spending behavior that is slowly driving the protagonist to bankruptcy and ruin. I mean, it’s all done up in a very amusing way. But that perhaps makes it more honest and frightening. The protagonist just bops along, shopping every so happily, while she gets more and more letters from her banks and has to tell more and more lies and makes more and more moral compromises. You can really sense the undercurrent of panic that runs through her life. I was particularly haunted by this passage about going on a spending spree in a store:

Every time I add something to my pile, I feel a little whoosh of pleasure, like a firework going off. And for a moment, everything’s all right. But then, gradually, the light and sparkles disappear, and I’m left with cold dark blackness again. So I look feverishly around for something else. A huge scented candle.

And then there’s Bridget Jones’ Diary, which uses the diary form as an ingenuous way to avoid talking about the major romantic and professional developments in the protagonists’ life (these mostly happen on-screen). Instead, the diary entries describe prosaic details and minor conversations and little annoyances. The joy of the book is not in its hackneyed romantic plot (it is quite up-front about the fact that it is ripping off Pride and Prejudice), but in its playful description of a certain kind of life (this is the joy of many chicklit novels, actually).

Actually, chicklit seems, to me, to be one of the more detail-oriented genres of popular fiction. Actually, I guess most types of popular fiction have, in one way or another, some kind of obsession with detail. In science fiction novels and thrillers, it’s the details of technology. In historical fiction and fantasy, it’s the details of history and culture. In YA, it’s the details of youth culture (i.e. whatever it is that separates teens from adults). I guess chicklit is a bit like YA, but for yuppie twentysomethings. We peer into these novels in order to see something of ourselves and our times and our culture. And it’s definitely there. For instance, in the shopaholic book, the protagonist at one point has a fantasy about winning the lottery that is almost exactly the same as one that used to pass through my head.

This new thought transfixes me. I could be a secret winner! I could have all the money and none of the pressure. If people asked me how I could afford so many designer clothes I’d just tell them I was doing lots of freelance work. Yes! And I could transform all my friends’ lives anonymously, like a good angel.

Umm, and that’s all I have to say about chicklit for now (but I think I’ll have more to say on Wednesday).