ChickLit that isn’t ChickenSh*t

Please welcome counsellor, psychotherapist and former journalist Rhiannon Daniel with what I hope is one of many delightful guest posts. Here she shares her typically lively views, on ChickLit … one of fiction’s most “popular” genres…

medium_4408892521Anna Karenina, which I reread earlier this year, is, technically, ChickLit.  Tolstoy, considered one of the greats of his era, often lapsed into waffle but among that stuff about trains, peasants and the intricacies of old Russian ‘society’ was a literary bodice ripper. It left everything to the imagination, yet it worked.

The Brontës were endlessly examined, interpreted and worshipped, but would have sold fewer were it not for their pulsating sexual tension.

I once thought that I might write for that flagship of modern ChickLit, Mills & Boon. They sent me twenty pages of instructions. Whether this counts as ‘writing’ is a moot point. I chose to plough my own furrow.

From the 18th century, titillating ‘romances’ circulated, so the downmarket pulp tradition for women is well established.

Where are we today? Risking a rhyme, Fifty Shades of Grey?

Fifty Shades Of Grey isn’t romantic ChickLit: major components are missing, like an authentic relationship between the protagonists. It’s quite negative stuff and romance fans don’t like that. Power play might feature in recreational sex nowadays, but it’s not romance.

I managed about half of FSOG before throwing it at the wall, not because it was too dirty, meh! but because I didn’t care about the characters, and it was just badly written:

“Why are you stopping?” I gasp. “Because I have other plans for you, Anastasia.” What… oh my… but… I was… that’s not fair. “Turn around. I need washing, too,” he murmurs. Oh! Turning to face him, I’m shocked to find he has his erection firmly in his grasp. My mouth drops open. “I want you to become well acquainted, on first name terms if you will, with my favorite (sic) and most cherished part of my body. I’m very attached to this.” It’s so big and growing.

Seriously?  For adult women?  Who talks like this in bed? ..‘if you will’!

My favourite ChickLit writer to date is  Sophie Duffy.  This Holey Life and The Generation Game straddle the divide between literary and purely entertaining.

Accessible, tender, referencing the culture, they have depth, a beginning, middle and satisfying, not cloyingly happy, ending. She has solid writing style, apart from a little hyphenitis: ‘We find the spot – a little overgrown but not as bad as I feared – and I lay one of the roses down by the headstone. No, nothing has changed. Lucas is still dead. Still seven-years-old. But I’ve come back, bringing you with me. “Here she is,” I announce. “Lucy.” Then I tell him that Doctor Who has been resurrected. I tell him that there are stickers and cards and all sorts of TV tie-ins. I tell him about Blue Peter – that there is a myriad of young trendy presenters and it is as good as ever. That there are all sorts of channels these days, even ones devoted solely to children’s programmes. Then I tell him about you.

I like the simple way she punctuates grief in the last heartrending sentence.

It won’t compete with the structural complexities of a Booker but to evoke emotion, that’s real skill.

HTWB Rhiannon bookNext up, Nick Alexander, a prolific, technically skilled author whose catalogue contains a sizeable imprint of gay lit too. Nick created a serial character, always seductive. My favourite, The French House, is an in-depth exploration of couple dynamics, the miscommunication farce formula keeping the couple on the edge of implosion for most of the narrative, resolving to a satisfying romantic outcome.

Believable sex scenes, but in keeping with ChickLit rules, Love Finally Conquers All.

‘Why?’ he says. ‘What’s wrong with France?’ I shrug. ‘I don’t know. It’s sort of an instinct thing. I want to have my friends around me. I want my mother nearby. I want to understand what the doctors are saying. I want the kid to learn English and watch The Apprentice, and like Irish stew and Marmite.’ Victor nods. ‘OK. But we can cross that bridge when we get to it, can’t we?’ ‘I’m pregnant,’ I blurt out. I lower my gaze and stare at my hands for a moment, because I’m almost too scared to see his reaction. But then I hear him sigh deeply, and have to look back to check out what’s happening. He is staring at me like a madman, both hands cupped over his mouth. ‘I’m pregnant,’ I say again, this time staring him in the eye.

Nicely paced, it could almost be a screenplay.

My final two writers represent the best and worst

American Gillian Flynn is more literary than any of the above and also sits in the crime genre, but I’ve included her because these are really women’s books, exuding dark, female sexuality.

Based in dysfunctional communities, each heroine/accidental detective overcomes personal trauma for a rational outcome rather than happy ending.

Flynn’s construction is superb.

Sharp Objects: The girls glided toward us, Amma waving her hands extravagantly in protest of the black exhaust cloud. They were hot little things, I had to admit. Long blonde hair, heart-shaped faces, and skinny legs. Miniskirts with tiny Ts exposing flat baby tummies. And except for the girl Jodes, whose bosom was too high and stiff to be anything but padding, the rest had breasts, full and wobbly and way overripe. All those milk-fed, hog-fed, beef-fed early years. All those extra hormones we put in our livestock. We’ll be seeing toddlers with tits before long. “Hey, Dick,” Amma called. She was sucking on a red oversized Blow Pop. “Hi, ladies.” “Hi, Camille, make me a star yet?” Amma asked, rolling her tongue around the sucker. The Alps-inspired braids were gone, as were the clothes she’d worn to the plant, which had to reek with odors of all kinds and species. Now she wore a tank and a skirt that passed her crotch by an inch. “Not yet.”

Her characters make you wince, set in beautifully observed social milieus like the stultifyingly hierarchical deep South or grinding, alienated urban America.

In Mhairi MacFarlane’s You Had Me At Hello, the slickest writing was the title

‘He keeps things bouncing along with a stream of polite questions. He tells me about colourful clients, I tell him about colourful court cases. We trade tales about barristers and judges we’re mutually acquainted with. He moans about intrusive, slapdash reporters, I complain about standoffish, unnecessarily secretive solicitors to even things up. He seems genuinely interested and amused, and after a while I notice how much I’m enjoying being listened to. His attentiveness is slightly intoxicating, though not as intoxicating as the heavy red he chose. Rhys would sit here grunting, eyes flicking towards the exits, foot tapping a rhythm on the floor, impatience greeting my every utterance.’  I’m already saying blah blah blah in my head at this point, I’m afraid.

M&B country, but the mixed tenses and the split infinitives are like a nail down a blackboard, yet selling like hot cakes to the grammatically challenged.

Rhiannon Daniel

Rhiannon Daniel

It’s OK to write for money, Duffy pours herself into her books, Flynn lives every heartrending, blood soaked scenario, but, polished writing skills make the finished product so much more pleasurable.  If you’re taking money off the reader, that’s the least you can do.

Rhiannon’s counselling and psychotherapy practice is based in Brighton, on the south coast of England. Please visit her site for more information.

And while you’re here, don’t forget to stop by my Bookshop…books and eBooks to help you write better – and to give to friends and family – from just $2.50

photo credit: Enokson via photopin cc