Suck My Cupcake: An Introduction, and a Conclusion, to Chick Lit
With International Women's Day and Mother's Day both befalling us this month, the publishing moles from the seventh ring of hell have been busily purveying more special books for women. However, unlike the romance fiction of yesterstink, which dealt with different ways to shag your domestic staff or have it off with a pirate, modern ‘chick lit’ has taken it upon itself to instruct women in woman-being and husband-getting: a commendable objective that combines the product placement of magazines with the casual undermining of autonomy of a 19th century father.
According to Kate Dorny
, chick lit, when compared with the male light fiction equivalent, ‘lad lit’, uniquely takes its target audience out of the cultural sphere and into a brand-oriented and essentially domestic realm predicated on the bagging of husbands. Nothing we don't see everywhere else, but it begs the question - if we must have literature for women and apparently women only, could we not put it to better use than undermining ourselves?
Like different magazines, different brands of chick lit sell different lifestyles for you to hopelessly aspire to, and different material obstacles to complement your husband-getting. If you're into Kate Agnew, she might sell you ‘chic black shift dresses by Chanel, Valentino, or Dior’, while Sophie Kinsella (the perpetrator of the Shopaholic series and other advertisements for unbridled consumer credit and mental illness) might be trying to sell you a Palm Pilot (retro!), or a Mulberry briefcase. And in Mary Carter's My Sister's Voice, we are told that Lacey's Harley Sportster 833 makes her feel ‘sexy, confident, something every woman deserved to feel’ - which made me vomit a little bit in my mouth and then cry a bit into my Mulberry briefcase, but illustrated perfectly the commodification of female sexuality and so was quite a neat find for my purposes. Stella Newman's Pear-Shaped, meanwhile, is all about Marks & Spencer's, but I suppose it takes all sorts, and the point is that whatever your style, your fears of dying alone can be assuaged by shopping. Chick lit, it seems, is all about conspicuous consumption, even if what you are conspicuously consuming is cheesecake and guilt.
Regardless of your place of shopping-worship, and your particular husband-getting obstacles, what is common to every chick lit heroine is the explicit need to find a husband in order to raise one’s social status. As Austen would have it, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman in her thirties must be in want of a husband, and, just like in Austen's time, modern gals want luxury and a man they can respect. Indeed, modern gals apparently want to marry up, as evidenced by Wendy Holden's cleverly named Marrying Up, which is a bit like Tess of the D'Ubervilles but without the dead babies. Apparently, modern women want a good career but, like Friedan's undergrads, they want a husband who makes more money than they do, and they're prepared to forego ambition to achieve this. ‘Why can't I find my own CEO?’ cries the best friend in Lucy Kevins' Sparks Fly, as the heroine hooks up with a hot bazillionaire, adding, ‘Heck, I'll even take a VP at this point.’ Heck, I think I'll skip to the end at this point. Oh look, she gets a husband. Brilliant!
While the advantageous marriage is a tale as old as misogyny, one thing even Austen considered too tedious to discuss was the mind-numbing and menial task of preparing food. But apparently nowadays cooking has become one of those aspirational careers that makes you sexy for men (yeah, that kind of aspirational), so if you can't shop your way into a good marriage, you can always make him a nice cake. The titles of recent and impending releases suggest that desserts are the surest way to a man's bank account, as this month Jenny Colgan is releasing a painfully titled book called Welcome to Rosie Hopkins' Sweetshop of Dreams, while Sasha Wagstaff and Katie Fforde are both releasing books called Recipe for Love, and Meg Donohue is bringing forth the undoubtedly enlightening treatise How to Eat a Cupcake (not to be taken orally). July will then see the release of Beth Harbison's When in Doubt, Add Butter, which, unless it is a guide to producing home-made lubricant, promises to be another book about a beautiful woman who cooks her way into a respectable marriage.
Now I'm not saying that the retrogression of women's lib has taken us all the way back to the very fucking beginning and we may as well all go home, but even before they could vote, literate women were impressing dudes by playing the harpsichord and speaking French. Why are they now all cooking? We can only conclude that it is a metaphor, and that a woman in possession of an oven must be in want of a bun.
In the meantime, while the ladies are sweating over their desserts, the prospective husbands are off having all the fun. They're promiscuous, they're educated, they're ruthless businessmen, and they're much more interesting. It is not hyperbole to say that in 90% of these books written by women for women, the men have all the cultural capital, and the women look nice and make cakes.
Frankly, it makes one nostalgic for the days when women's books were all about shagging a waiter at the polo club, because at least then you could probably get off to it. The existence of this increasingly narrowly-themed literature for women drags their readership away from the pursuit of more interesting culture with false promises of enjoyment and, you know, literature, and should therefore be afforded the same level of suspicion as a loose fart. Is it necessary that it literally place us firmly back in the kitchen? And if they really insist on endlessly pursuing husbands, couldn't these possibly misled characters do it while being a little bit more interesting? If the chick lit sphere just can't bring itself to respect these facile representations of its imagined readership, would it be too much to ask that it at least doesn't make them feel worse about themselves just to sell them some M&S pudding? Apparently it would. If literature exalts, unites and mobilises us, then I will take mine with a catalogue of my inadequacies, please. Hold the footnotes.
I will leave you with a quote from Jenny Colgan's Meet Me at the Cupcake Factory, where she writes that ‘[he] taught me how to make my first white sauce out of sheer exasperation.’ Which sounds low-fat and an excellent use of our feelings on this subject.
Happy Women's History Month, bookselling stinkmoles, and suck my cupcake.