*White Chicks, Sitting Around, Writing

Jane Austen's awful legacy

Imagine my total lack of surprise when, while reading the Sunday Herald Sun’s book-review page a little while ago, I first heard of a new novel entitled The Jane Austen Marriage Manual. Now, there’s simply so much about that piece of information that makes me doubt the worth of the human race continuing, as can be imagined from the following selection of highlights from the review. The work in question is about a journalist who ‘has it all’ but after ‘her life comes crashing in’, has merely her vintage Chanel dress, one square foot of land on a Scottish estate (allowing her to use the title ‘Lady’!) and ‘an overwhelming love of all things Jane Austen’. Anyone reading this will, I’m sure, feel it to be the least astonishing thing in the history of the world that ‘[t]aking her well-thumbed copy of Pride and Prejudice, Kate sets off to see if Mr Rich can indeed become Mr Right’. As it happens, due to close to two decades of overexposure, ever since that boneheaded 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, I now feel an overwhelming hatred of all things Jane Austen. But even putting that aside, and while admitting that I’ve not read the book and that for, all I know, it ‘subverts the paradigm’, its existence is one of those developments that makes me wonder if it really is desirable for all women to have the vote.

The Jane Austen Marriage Manual is clearly an example of what some person, whom, given that either writing the term or saying it aloud nearly makes me nearly have a heart attack from disgust, I would like to smash over the head, christened ‘chick lit’. My definition of a chick lit (CL) novel is one that tells the story, in non-experimental prose, of a young(ish) single woman who lives in a great city, has a fancy occupation, and seeks, and finds, love. Now, a lot of people, and not only its authors, have ridden to the defence of CL. In one way, my sympathies naturally align with this point of view, as I am a longtime enthusiast for mass entertainment, and the lower the better (although that’s exactly why I can’t stand cringeing middle-brow and shamelessly calculating nods to Jane Austen). Also, I agree entirely that a book that concerns unlikely plans against the continuation of western civilisation in its present form, and that contains a lot of big explosions and vehicles flipping over, is no less stupid than one about a woman who gets dumped/loses her job; goes on an adventure/into rehab; and finds love with a really old male friend who has always been crazy about her and who used to be fat but is now thin, and who, in his slavish devotion, stands in stark contrast to the heroine’s lawyer ex-boyfriend; or with a penniless, yet attractive writer, who with his goofy charm and creativity, particularly when it comes to inexpensive gifts, stands in stark contrast to the heroine’s lawyer ex-boyfriend; or with a manual worker with ‘six-pack abs!’, who, in being honourable and ‘good with his hands!’, stands in stark contrast to the heroine’s lawyer ex-boyfriend, and who, by the end of the book, is on his back to university anyway, meaning that he will be a man with practical skills and a career that makes him a lot of money, just as if he were a lawyer.

Furthermore, I’m certainly all for any kind of romantic-relationship-based drama – show me a book/film/TV show about a couple getting together/splitting up, and I’ll show you me cracking its spine/buying a ticket, settling down eagerly on the sofa. I’ll show you me not understanding anything that’s happening in the almost unfeasibly grim police drama Luther except for the love triangle between Luther, his ex-wife and Paul McGann. The problem I have with CL, though, is that when I’ve been single, I’ve found its brickwall happy endings to be strangely depressing and when I’ve not been single, I’ve just found them annoying. What is cheering about being presented with something completely out of reach? It’s as frustrating as that situation in The Bold and the Beautiful when a sheik kidnapped Taylor and she could only see Ridge through a one-way mirror. I have to say that I have never known, or even heard of, a real-life woman break up with a man and be able, almost immediately, to take up with another man who is better than the other man. For example, I recall that when a friend of mine was dumped, she, yes, met another man, but very early on in their relationship he produced a uniform from an exclusive Sydney girls school for her to wear during what some repulsively refer to as ‘the act of love’, and that was that.

To my knowledge – and I would be delighted to be contradicted regarding this – there is no CL equivalent of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. While I’ve always felt that Laura, the girlfriend of Rob, the book’s hero, is a colossal drag (interestingly, she is much less of a bore in the film, making this one of the times that John Cusack has known what he was doing), as she’s a sensible eye-rolling type with whom he, essentially, has nothing in common, and that they should have split up, leaving Rob to partner up with easygoing country singer Marie LaSalle, I must reluctantly admire the fact that this isn’t what happens. If High Fidelity were CL, Rob would – aside from going shopping, eating chocolate with a best friend who’s endlessly interested in every detail of his life, and fainting in front of men who resemble George Clooney, as opposed to knowing a lot about popular music – have been dumped by his dreary girlfriend, and, yes, Marie LaSalle would have happened along, but he would have held her at arm’s length while she mooned around after him and he mooned around after Laura, and, after a big scene in which, after a race against time, elderly couples applaud them kissing, they would get engaged and have a, no doubt quirky, wedding. In Fidelity, on the other hand, we have the lifelike situation whereby Rob and Laura stay together partly out of apathy. While Hornby is, of course, making the point that love isn’t all about fireworks, I would argue that that’s all very well but that there’s a difference between fireworks, and actually getting along and having shared interests, and that Rob is completely right in his viewpoint that a person is the sum of their tastes in records, movies and so forth. Having said that, though, I find an optimistic tale that is based even remotely in reality to be much more cheering than reading about the type of scenario in which it is unlikely that any actual human has ever played a part, and if Hornby had just made Laura less tedious, I would have no reservations about the book’s outcome.

Essentially, the ‘male’ genre of action thrillers being stupid (although, having just called them ‘male’, the two biggest fans of the genre I’ve ever met have been women with prestigious jobs) doesn’t excuse CL being stupid. Aside from anything, I doubt that a man who reads an action thriller actually sees its contents as a viable plan for living. CL, on the other hand, encourages women to think that a man is always going to come along, and that he will probably even have an income, and that, until he does, she’s like some kind of amputee, but not a sparky, rich one, like Heather Mills-McCartney. Can there be just one CL novel in which a man doesn’t come along, and we are shown that the heroine’s world will continue grinding around on its axis and she’ll be just fine? Again, if there is such a book, please tell me and I’ll go and buy about a thousand copies and live in a hut made out of them.

And then there’s girly old confessional writing, with its many blogging exponents. Yes, men practise it too but having read Marieke Hardy’s You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead has placed a female’s offerings in this area at the forefront of my mind. As with CL, there’s a degree to which I could not be more in favour of this variety of prose. Namely, that confessional writing (CW) is like getting to hear about the ‘seamy side’ (as a sex-education booklet I had at school referred to streetwalkers, etc) of a person’s life, without having to think of something to intelligent to say in return, and getting to hear it at a time that is convenient to oneself, as opposed to having just sat down in front of Mistresses with a steaming plate of seafood extender and hearing the phone ring. However, I want some clarifcation of its purpose. Is it to make the readers feel as though they’re not the only ones who are losers? Well, that is all very well but this rationale does not apply to Dead. More than one person had told me that the book was honest and self-deprecating. However, while it is, for all I know, honest, it is a million miles from self-deprecating, about which I wouldn’t especially care except for the fact that wool – probably from a little hat purchased at a market – is apparently successfully being pulled over people’s eyes. The thing is that talking about how you were a terror as a teenager, and about how you drink a whole heap of booze, and have engaged in much and varied rooting, is always going to be massive boasting, unless you really are the weaker, unwanted party, who is truly humiliating themselves or being humiliated. Going to a party alone, solely for the purpose of talking to someone who isn’t even that attractive, and doesn’t have an occupation you can brag about, and has absolutely no interest in you anyway, and having gastroenteritis while travelling on a freeway are humiliating, unlike: having (many) friendships with people in bands; hiring a prostitute in a spirit of irony; going to a swingers party in a spirit of irony; lusting after ‘snake-hipped guitar players’; and working in television.

One of the most notable aspects of Dead is that several of its subjects are given right of reply and I assume this was for a threefold purprose: doing something different, in giving people in a memoir a right of reply; taking into account the subjects’ feelings by giving them the right of reply, and the fact that they are, if the book stays in print, being immortalised and so deserve to be able to give their side of the story; and padding out the book’s length so that affixing a standard RRP will not seem unreasonable to the general public. However, what are these individuals going to say, really, given that they, no doubt, don’t want to seem vengeful and petty? What they seem keenest to dish out are compliments to M Hardy. For example, someone who is obviously the talented Dan Kelly points out ‘she is smart and funny and great looking’, with ‘truly magnificent’ breasts (he saw them on the internet!). Bob Ellis calls her ‘gorgeous’ and ‘brilliant’. Her ex (NOT the one who ‘provided that addictive sense of freefall you get when you read Bukowski and start drinking whisky at 9am’, though that one thinks highly of her also) really likes her, and remarks that ‘To be brutally honest and frank takes a lot of balls’ – well, really? Unless you are brutally and honestly portraying yourself as someone who truly has done terrible or embarassing things – genuinely terrible or embarrassing things, not ones with a patina of glamour – isn’t it just showing off for profit? That in itself is acceptable to me but I also don’t think we need to be looking round frantically for a Victoria Cross to pin on the person’s (truly magnificent) chest.

While reading You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead, I had often to ask myself the simple question of who really gives a good goddamn about all this (with the exception of the chapter about Young Talent Time that I did find to be pretty entertaining, even as I was irritated by the young Marieke’s, seemingly constant, backstage access to the show and its stars). Yes, I admit, I was happy when someone lent me a copy, so I clearly did, but my interest was very specific. That is, I wanted to read a full-length work by someone who has written for the Age and been approximately one million more times more successful at that endeavour than I myself was in my brief – and, to my knowledge, unmourned by anyone except for my mother – tenure on that newspaper.

And good luck to Hardy for that, may I say. Having had regular spots in a major, or even a minor, journal, for a period running into years is an achievement at any time but especially now that everyone is getting fired, thanks to what is known as the ‘blogosphere’. Anyhow, God forbid Hardy should be fired – which, of course, she won’t be – given that she, quite likely, has neither a vintage Chanel dress nor one square foot of land on a Scottish estate. As an oft self-proclaimed bookish type, she may well have an overwhelming love of all things Jane Austen but that won’t put food on the table, not in real life.

12 Responses to “White Chicks, Sitting Around, Writing”

  1. Amy says:

    Sarina, you have nailed it yet again! Great article and so true about ‘Dead’, which I too read in anticipation but found it to leave me feeling as edgy as a sphere and increasingly insecure about my lack of connection with Melbourne’s “Fitzroyalty”.

    If you write a memoir, I will be first in line to buy 1000 copies for my own hut building purposes.

    • Hi Amy! Thank you so much for this – your comment has totally turned around this freezing morning for me!

  2. Genevieve says:

    Great piece. Spot on. The problem I see with the bulk of CL is that it promotes what I call ‘pink sunset’ culture. Perhaps, we should blame Jane Auten for starting it? I’d like to read a book that explores a much more common modern scenario – A woman in a relationship with a lazy toad who does nothing. She brings in the $$$ and functions as a human Atlas. How does she get out of the relationship without destroying everyone and everything in the process?

    • Many thanks, Genevieve! Perhaps you’re the person to write that novel? I hope you do.

  3. Cath says:

    I decided to accept your challenge of finding a chick lit equivalent to Hi Fidelity but couldn’t think of any so turned to google. I soon came across a link for a page called “50 chick lit novels that are still worthwhile reads”. Alas, for the folks at ‘online college’, ‘chick lit’ clearly means any book with a chick in it, because they include such well known fluffy pink reads as “Anna Karenina”, “Atonement” and “Mrs Dalloway”.
    “Pride and Prejudice” is also on it, and I urge you to buy a copy and then write next week’s column about how you’ve been so terribly wrong in slagging it off all these years…

    • Brilliant, Cath. Yes, ‘Mrs Dalloway’ is certainly one to read on the beach. I should say, though, that I think Jane Austen’s books, including P&P, are superb. I’m just way over the Austen industry. For me, it’s best encapsulated by the fake bestseller list in Steve Hely’s first-rate book, ‘How I Became a Famous Novelist’, in which there’s a fake bestseller list, and one of the titles on it is ‘The Jane Austen Women’s Investigators’ Club’.

      • Cath says:

        oh I’m with you – the whole think jumped the shark years ago and the infection has spread industry-wide. There’s a book out now called (something like) “The JM Barrie Ladies Swimming Club”. It could be the best thing since “Pride and Prejudice” (see what I did there?), but I will never know, because I will never, ever read it

        • Cath says:

          “thing”, obviously

  4. Kate says:

    I’ve long made it a rule

  5. Martin says:

    It occurs to me that as practically all the women in the CL books are newspaper/magazine columnists, your being sacked from The Age means that you once “had it all” and having now “lost it all” you should be finding goofy-but-lovable men pretty much all over the place.

    If this isn’t happening it’s possibly because you’re not publicly embarrassing yourself enough in the style of Bridget Jones’s Diary. The advantage here is that your gross ineptitude is both a great conversation starter for any bloke as well as making you especially grateful for even the most cursory empathy from anyone at all.

    PS – On the Taylor being kidnapped thing. Isn’t the shady Middle Eastern character who keeps doing that just suffering from extremely bad timing? If he appeared on the scene while Taylor and Ridge were having an “off” period then surely he’d be a welcome distraction & the offer of a trip to an overseas palace would be a great alternative to sticking around in LA and meeting up with slut-Brooke five times a day.

    • Mucho gracias, Martin! That’s right – there’s nothing like being a completely incompetent twat to bring the high-status men. And, yes, Taylor totally should have stuck with the sheik – this is someone who, ‘chick lit’ style, doesn’t know what’s good for her.

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