So Jon and I just got back from a three-hour excursion to Half-Price Books on North Lamar. This is where the powers-that-be moved my favorite bookstore on the Drag after it became prohibitively expensive to rent property in that particular neighborhood (unless your store name is Starbucks or Urban Outfitters). Huge, long, tall rows of books - general fiction - encompassed the main floor of Half-Price, which used to be an H.E.B. grocery store prior to its conversion. Yummy tomes to filter through and perhaps take home, smelling slightly musty and unique, of other people's homes.
After three hours of picking through fiction designed to appeal to women, I've noticed that a certain trend has all but taken over in the so-called "chick lit" genre," which is, to wit, flimsy plots featuring a female protagonist who lives in New York City. Oh, sure, I found a handful of London- or L.A.-bound heroines, but the solitary rule of this type of fiction seems to be that the main character must either live in New York City or move to New York City, and she must love it there with a blindered Carrie Bradshaw love as to suggest that the rest of us peons are piddling our lives away somewhere in the unfashionable sticks.
Of course, our girl has a swell job - she's a publicist, a magazine editor, a food critic, a fashion designer; nothing pedantic (e.g., school teacher, bartender, manager of Chili's) will do. Thumb through the pages of any of these books, and you'll see that the pages are peppered with the words "Prada" and "Manolos" and similar nouns connoting serious fashion snobbery. That's what living in NYC is about, making an impression, and it shows in these books. But hush! One is about to read a story about a genuine woman of the world - She Who is to Be Admired - and her fashion sense and decision where to live makes her so.
The secondary feature of New York Chicky lit is the sad, beta-prone fiancee/boyfriend who inevitably gets usurped by a handsome, dashing admirer, and in true metropolitan form, always at the last minute and as a second thought. But since the romantic plotline is such a buried feature of these books, you don't have to listen to me natter on about this. There's usually some kind of career crisis involved, as family matters don't figure prominently in New York Chicky Lit. The additional supporting characters are an off-beat/bohemian best friend, an anorexic sister, a bitchy rival (who wears even glossier Manolos than our long-suffering heroine), and the ubiquitous Boss From Hell, Finally, the protagonist must have an absurd habit, such as routinely maxing out credit cards, failing to show for blind dates and what not. I've unwittingly read dozens of these books, and I have no idea what they're about; the final impression one is left with is that these manuscripts were hastily dashed off on laptops in trendy cafes by bunches of Columbia grad students during Christmas break.
The real truth, I'm convinced, is that there's only one New York Chicky Lit novel, and the rest is done with mirrors.
I don't know about the rest of you gal readers, but I'm craving novels of substance. I want real protagonists without glamorous career accountrements and large closets - women with real problems, not imaginary ones like not having enough change to valet park - and I want them to live in Boise, El Paso, Kansas City, or Duluth. My long-suffering heroines can be baristas, dog walkers, or hospital clerks, but they have to be underemployed with little hope of obtaining a comfortable measure of cash in their bank accounts unless they marry into it. Writer Sarah Bird does an excellent job of creating dynamic heroines that teeter on the cusp of sad-sack. A grad-school drop-out who works as a file clerk at the LBJ Library. An aspiring romance novelist whose rent is three months in arrears. A surrogate mother who took fifteen years to receive her undergraduate degree. Now, these are real people. These are the kind of women I know, the kind I habitually meet here in A-town. The kind who wouldn't know a Manolo from a Doc Marten. The kind that I want to know more about. Bird crafts her tales as such that you feel for her people as you trasverse their fictional landscape. Very few writers to date have been able to do that. Well, maybe the late, great Dara Joy. But that's another story entirely.
As with music and fashion, trends in literature can be dispiriting, particularly if you don't like them, and even if you do. No reader enjoys being faced with an endless stream of similar protagonists and similar plotlines; honestly, if I read another passage about a gal character lusting after a Prada handbag, I feel that I'll pitch it into the bin without further ado. But ... looking on the bright side of things, trends don't last forever. A good story does.