Is "New Chick Lit" Just A Different Kind Of Obnoxious?

The interwebs are abuzz this week with news of a shift in chick lit from Shopaholic-style conspicuous consumption to more recession-appropriate storylines. But is this "new chick lit" just more of the same, dressed up in slightly cheaper clothes?

In her essay on Double X, author Sarah Bliston says, "like many American businesses, chick-lit must reinvent itself - fast - if it's going to survive." And in a way it's doing so. In a slightly annoying article ("contrition is the new black") for the Times, Ruth La Ferla describes new books like The Penny Pinchers Club, in which a woman resorts to dumpster-diving when she fears her husband is about to divorce her, and The Summer Kitchen, whose heroine goes back to work after her husband's arrest. And in Publisher's Weekly, Doree Shafrir mentions Mercury in Retrograde, which features a character forced to fend for herself after a lifetime of relying on her parents.

On the one hand, these books would seem to champion a new self-reliance not present in more traditional, catch-the-man novels. Shafrir quotes Greer Hendricks, editor of Mercury in Retrograde, who says,

These women were really getting a life. It's really about friendship and self-acceptance and getting your act together. It's about the life, not the guy.

These tales of women overcoming obstacles to live independently of men and their bank accounts certainly sound inspiring — except that the obstacles aren't really that big. In fact, it seems that divorce and financial devastation usually cause the heroines to do something fun and hip that they really wanted to do anyway. When her parents take away her credit cards, Mercury in Retrograde's Lena "Lipstick" Lippencrass "discovers a talent for fashion design" — that noted path to financial security. The heroine of The Summer Kitchen is "forced to open a bakery," also usually a capital-intensive and uncertain enterprise, at least in the real world. And Jill Kargman's The Ex-Mrs. Hedgefund, has its heroine, post-divorce, "picking up the threads of a career built on her first love, rock 'n' roll." These women don't have to scrimp and save in menial jobs — instead, they embark on glamorous careers, with the implication that their lives are now more fulfilling than they were in the days of easy marital money.

This idea of salvation through reduced circumstances — the concept that having less disposable income will help us focus on what's really important and perhaps even become better people — has been around since at least the beginning of the recession, and probably long before. But the key word is disposable. Describing the post-recession edits she made to her book Sleepless Nights, Bliston says,

Whereas before, if I'm going to be completely honest, my characters' motivations to change were somewhat murky and self-centered, now they have a splash of excitement and energy about them. Somehow, the changes I'd made to try to keep up with the changing economy had actually made the novel better.

And author Sarah Strohmeyer tells the Times about curbing her own overspending. "I mean," she says, "how many more napkin rings can you buy?" The new, recession-era chick lit may tell the stories of women who pare away the fat in their lives to find true happiness, but this is a lot easier if there's some fat to begin with. Broadsheet's Amy Benfer writes that the heroines' newer, leaner lives still "reflect the kinds of decisions that those of us who spent the boom years wondering if we could ever afford a mortgage on an average professional salary before our 65th birthdays might still find a bit out of touch with reality." After all, "one can lose the home in Aspen and the five-tiered cakes and still be a good long way from foreclosure on one's primary residence and clipping coupons for Kraft macaroni and cheese."

And while "losing a home in Aspen" might indeed force someone to focus on what's truly valuable in life, getting laid off and losing health insurance don't usually give people "a splash of excitement and energy." For women outside the hedge fund set, especially those who've been out of the workforce for a while, divorce can mean a plunge into poverty, not a launch into a new and exciting career. Benfer writes that chick lit about wealthy women might "appeal to the aspirational fantasies" of readers (that word again), and that these fantasies may have helped get us into this financial mess in the first place. And Amy Sohn, author of the new novel Prospect Park West, says, "The book is really about the perils of aspiration," and of a life that is "always about the next thing, trading up." Not every woman is able to trade up, but chick lit may be, in part, about wanting to, and this may not be such a good thing.

The chick lit genre doesn't deserve across-the-board opprobrium — at their best, these novels can be witty and wise, and their popularity supports many a female writer. But chick lit writers may be unconsciously buying into women's magazine culture, with its idea that reading should inspire desire — for more stuff, or, in the new, recession-era formulation, for a life that is glamorous even in fallback mode. It's neither realistic nor necessary to ask that writers produce only what Benfer calls "Great and Difficult works of art," or that all chick lit novels be about unmitigated pain and suffering. But, as author Gigi Levangie Grazer says, "the idea that having the right bag buys you happiness-now that's dark." And there's something dark, too, about the notion that even in a recession, heroines need to be better off than their readers. Do chick lit consumers want to read about working-class families dealing with layoffs, or women who find fulfillment in jobs that aren't traditionally "cool"? We don't know, because those books aren't being written — yet.

More Gumption, Less Gucci [New York Times]
Chick-literati [Financial Times]
Women's Lit: Chick Lit Gets An Update [Publishers Weekly]
The Death Of Chick Lit [Double X]
The Devil Wears Old Navy [Broadsheet]