Monday, July 9, 2012

Chick Lit

Loyal reader Paulina (who provided this wonderful response on melancholia and nihilsm) sent me this fantastic translation of an article from the Spiegel discussing Chick Lit - as read by a male reader. Take a look at it; it's really interesting piece (the original article, in German, can be found here:
How do I become a dream guy?
A man spies in women’s novels

Happy End
Don’t write yourself off! Start on a new chapter of your love life! Our author has read women’s novels – and reveals to you how to become a manipulating macho.

Dating classes, flirt workshops, single coachings – you can do without that, gentlemen. Whoever wants to understand women has to read. Not the “Playboy”, not “Men’s Health”, not “GQ”. He has to read what women read.

Novels as “Der letzte Single fängt den Mann”, “Payoff” and “Mit Skalpell und Lippenstift” belong to so-called “Frauenliteratur” (= women’s literature), a label that writer and presenter Amelie Fried feels to be the “worst label” you can inflict upon a book: “The subtext to it is “rubbish for the feeble-minded”. It’s discriminating and it’s meant to be.” Well, there’s certainly no Männerliteratur (=men’s literature).
Women’s literature however takes up “at least 30%, depending on definition almost 40%” of the German paperback-market”, estimates Nicola Bartels, head of publishers Blanvalet, Limes and Penhaligon at Random House.

This may, of course, be because men in general read less, but prefer picking up the remote control for diversion. Or beer. “Men don’t have fun dealing with their own shortcomings by identifying with chaotic novel heroes” Bartels guesses. They have “less love for self-analysis”. And no love for love-analysis. At least not when it’s presented the way it is in novels. Without pictures.
There are five subgenres to women’s literature: Liebesschmöker à la Rosamunde Pilcher (cheesy sort of romance novel), historische Frauenromane (historical women’s novels), Romantic Crime, erotic novels called “Nackenbeißer” (= neck biter) because the covers often show women with off-the-shoulder clothing, clinging to strong men. And Chick Lit. It’s a term young men should memorize before entering a bookshop. Because the (female) protagonists usually are urban-living academics, age 25-35, searching for Mr. Right. And because the readers correspond to the protagonists. The ideal target group.

For some time German publishers used the synonym “freche Frauenromane” (=cheeky women’s novels) for Chick Lit, Blanvalet now prefers the term “romantic comedies”, mockers speak of “Hühnergeschreibsel, Püppchenprosa oder Tussiliteratur” (= Chick writ, Poppet prose or Bimbo literature). Pastel shades and pink colour ranges dominate the book covers, preferably furnished with drawn stilettos, lipsticks, handbags. They’re usually written from first-person perspective in that self-ironic and colloquial prosecco-tone that imitates the confidential chat with the best (girl) friend. And what man never wished to be a fly on the wall close to such a conversation?

The protagonists are objectively privileged: good looking, good wage, good friends. But something’s missing: the perfect partner. They are successful in business, but fail in private life, as if the one were a consequence of the other – the old conflict between the wish for a career and the wish for children. Indeed, more than that: As long as they’re singles, they regard themselves as big girls, coquette with their scattiness and clumsiness as in “Mit Skalpell und Lippenstift”, smoke and drink too much as in “Ganz entschieden unentschieden”. “When the right man pops up order is restored” says Bartels. Personal fulfillment by way of Mr. Right.

Well-intentioned critics see the characters as emancipated and call them post-feministic. They were claiming the achievements of feminism for themselves, they say, but at the same time living out their femininity extremely, for example by being fixated on pretty clothes; they were allowed to be tough in business and simultaneously sexy. On the other hand: When the romantic partner relationship is the most important goal in life, one is one thing rather not – emancipated.
Literary scholar Annette Peitz has addressed this in her doctoral dissertation: “Chick Lit thematises the situation of young, single women, “lost girls”, who, in the face of a host of possible life designs and achievements, have to decide for the first time in history entirely independently what they want to do with their lives”, she writes. And what do they want to do with their lives? Marry and have babies. Which can be shocking, not only when you’re a feminist. Also to a man.

The search for Mr. Right proves to be complicated for the characters, but not devoid of fun and sex. Lots of sex. “The Chicks don’t suffer from privations or prohibitions, but from excess” writes Peitz. The consequence of this post-modern dilemma, the multi-option-society:

Women are on a quest for meaning, women who don’t always know what to make of their independence – and so yearn for dependence. Viewed like that, marrying and having babies are an escapist fantasy, similar to the flight into the great city in earlier times. The Chicks’ life is already glamorous, and so they wish to stay at home on a Sunday, put a roast in the oven, bake a cake, watch “Tatort” (a Sunday evening German crime show, extremely popular) while snuggling. All of that, of course, with the perfect partner. Which you probably shouldn’t even condemn. Which you should only know. As a man.

The Chick Lit prototypes are Helen Fielding’s “Schokolade zum Frühstück” and Candace Bushnell’s “Sex and the City”, and, the German classic: Ildikó von Kürthy’s “Mondscheintarif”.

As of late their model is often modified, reports Blanvalet-publisher Bartels. The settings are sometimes rural, the characters don’t stem only from the culture- and media-scene any longer, the tone is becoming less ironic, female friendships gain even more importance, Mr. Right is allowed to be less perfect. That’s good news for once.

Bartels’ s explanation though is less than positive: It’s the economic crisis. It increases the longing for safe circumstances, both career- and family-wise. “It’s (the book settings) becoming more conventional”.

A second trend, seemingly contradictory: Sex is becoming “salonfähig” (=acceptable in polite society). “Right now we are discussing five erotic novels every week in our editorial conferences” says Bartels. “They’re shooting up from the ground”. Explicit sex-scenes are wrapped up in love stories – a paradox phenomenon that can be described as “romantic porn”. As Rosamunde Pilcher (origin of veeery cheesy harmless predictable romance stories) for raunchy city dwellers. As Twilight for grown-ups.
In her dissertation Peitz labels this as the “Trend zum Raunch”. A Genre related to Chick Lit and occasionally called Clit Lit in the USA. So, on the 9th of July Goldmann will publish the first part of the erotic-trilogy “Fifty Shades of Grey” in German, which has sold more than 10 million copies in the USA. “Smut for the educated classes” “Die Welt” (a newspaper) called the Sado-Maso-novel; it’s about the pleasure derived from female submission – now, of all times, when women have more power than ever before and confidently shout for a female quota in management positions.
The publishing house Schwarzkopf&Schwarzkopf even dedicated an entire line to erotica, called Anais. Just recently, the autobiographical novel “Unanständig” (=naughty) was published there, in which a 23-year-old Berlin girl savours the benefits of single life; she’s not looking for Mr. Right, she’s looking for “Mr. Right Now”. And that one can be dominant.
“Fifty Shades of Grey” and “Unanständig” are texts by women about women for women, just like the tamer books “Mädchen in Weiß” and “Himmel über der Hallig”. But they are also an Ego-course for men. Because it’s only about them. And they are also a manual to women. (Many thanks to Paulina for bringing this website to my attention!)

Yes, of course, chauvinist-alert, ladies. But whoever wants to increase his chances, gentlemen, can give it a try, can leave the blood-dripping thriller at home for his holidays – and read, what usually only women read at the beach. To avoid confused, amused and pitying looks, the self-experiment shows, one should cover the women’s literature with men’s literature. With “Frau – Deutsch/ Deutsch – Frau” by Mario Barth (= “Woman – German/ German – Woman”, a mock-dictionary by an incredibly popular German comedian of dubious comedic value). Or with “Sportbild” (= a sports magazine). Or, well, with the SPIEGEL. Something by real blokes for real blokes.

Now, that’ll do for theory, into the field: When’s a man a man? A man the way women want him?

For once, he has manners, he’s an old-school guy. On a date he’s polite to the waitress, after the date he helps the woman into her coat, pays the bill, flags down the cab for her, puts an arm around her shoulder when she’s feeling chilly, he’s nice to his own mother, he’s best pals with the woman’s father, he offers his seat up to the elderly on the train, he’s “a knight in white armour”.
On the other hand the ideal man is masculine. Very masculine. He has tousled hair and a stubble that chafes the woman’s face when snogging. He puts five fruit chews into his mouth at once. He smokes Gauloises, liberté toujours. He has no night-blue satin bed sheets. At a date in a bar he orders for the woman without asking her what she wants. To a sex-date at hers he brings a bottle of vodka, not prosecco. When he strips down tight black pants emerge, not checkered boxers “with 19 men stop with that”. And: He never, never, never wears a jeans size smaller than the woman’s.

In short: The ideal man has manners, but he’s a man. Not flawless, neither in appearance nor in habits. No woman wants to be with an etiquette guide, as Isabella says in “Mädchen in Weiß”.

The ideal man knows what he wants, he is arrogant, even a little dominant. And in no case he is nice. “Nice men are just, how can I say, it’s simply not envisaged by evolution”, says Sophie in “Die emotionale Obdachlosigkeit männlicher Singles”. And further: “I want the male that screams loudest and not the one that wants to delouse me all the time”. A lousy phrase, not entirely serious, of course, but one that, in variations, appears in many novels. “With coffee, alcohol and men there’s only one thing that counts: the stronger, the more appealing”. “What we women really want are attractive men with cash. We are fond of children ourselves”. “I love polite men! Courteous in public and filthy in bed. Perfect mix!” In “Eigentlich bin ich eine Traumfrau” (girl) friends compare natural cosmetics to chemical ones. It’s about the choice between “respectable, but useless, or nasty and potent”, they say – and add: “We face the same choice with men all the time”.

Who can’t or won’t offer that, for instance because he thinks that sort of role outdated, can resort to tricks. He can appear aloof: “When he reveals something then, one feels like a winner”. He can pretend to be unable to love or at least not admit his love to her, because women (this isn’t from me, dear (female) readers) derive their self-esteem from men’s acknowledgement: “The harder they seem to crack open, the bigger the reward”. Or he can go out with beautiful friends as a disguise: “We always fall for the guy that has won the alpha-female. What better self-affirmation could there be than being desired by her man.”

Not agreeable either? Well, then there’s only the roundabout way of winning her (girl) friends over. Or of a friendship. Women in these novels often have sex with their best friend – apparently a widely spread fantasy. As widely spread as the longing after a culturally educated man, a writer, publisher, scientist, journalist, interpreter, video game inventor, organ (the instrument) maker. So: Eyes open in choosing a job. If it’s too late for that, one should at least read or go to the museum instead of talking about boxing or GPS treasure hunts. Which the arts editor enjoyed to read.

When nothing seems to help men can still let themselves go to appear “schmuddelsexy” (=scruffy-sexy), for which, according to “Mädchen in Weiß”, every woman will fall at some point: greasy hair, scar on the chin, dull stare, “as if he were thinking of smut all the time”. Or he could count on the “Cutest boy in class-Syndrome”: When girls are bored in school they quickly develop a crush on the one guy who appears hot in comparison to the subject and all the other idiots in class, but really isn’t. A mechanism that should function equally well at work.

Oh yes, one more thing: The ideal man is neither called Henrik nor Hendrik, and if he is, he will think up a different date-name. Because who is called Henrik or Hendrik will be left, in “Unanständig” as well as in “Die emotionale Obdachlosigkeit männlicher Singles”.

Would you have known, gentlemen? Well, Chick Lit, that is literature for the chicken in the woman – and for the fox in the man.

Women’s novels:
Jana Seidel: “Eigentlich bin ich eine Traumfrau”, Goldmann, 288 pages, 8,99€
Michaela Möller: „Die emotionale Obdachlosigkeit männlicher Singles“, Bastei Lübbe, 352 p., 7,99€
Gemma Burgess: „Der letzte Single fängt den Mann“, Blanvalet, 542 p., 8,99€
Alessia Gazzola: „Mit Skalpell und Lippenstift“, Carl’s Books, 400 p., 14,99€
Lena Johannson: „Himmel über der Hallig“, Rütten&Loening, 176 p., 9,99€
Jennifer Close: „Mädchen in Weiß“, Berlin Verlag, 336 p., 19,90€
Simone Bauer: „Ganz entschieden unentschieden“, Schwarzkopf&Schwarzkopf, 240 p., 9,95€
Christina Haubold: „Payoff“, Schwarzkopf&Schwarzkopf, 304 p., 9,95€
Rosa Sophie Mai: „Unanständig“, Schwarzkopf&Schwarzkopf, 272 p., 9,95€
E. L. James: „Shades of Grey. Geheimes Verlangen”, Goldmann, 608 p., 12,99€ (9th of July)
Annette Peitz: “Chick Lit. Genrekonstituierende Untersuchungen unter anglo-amerikanischem Einfluss”, Peter Lang Internationaler Verlag der Wissenschaften, 292 p., 49,95€
Needless to say, I really like this article. I can only imagine what it would be like if more men read romance novels - and read them critically. I think there'd be a lot more understanding between the sexes. Although, apparently men are reading chick lit - but not in the way that Mr. Becker is. Check this out and I'll be back to talk about it later :D

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