ClitLit – Women, Romance Fiction and Patriarchal Discourse

January 4, 2010

The Female Journey: Crusie, Romance and Chicklit

I originally got into reading romance novels because I thought they were so bad they were funny. A very narrow view, I admit, and one I thought I had largely got over – but after the book I read yesterday, it’s totally not true. Yesterday, I had my first ever encounter with a romance novel which was seriously good.

The book was Tell Me Lies by Jennifer Crusie and it was made of awesome. The heroine, Maddie, was both believable and likeable; the hero, C.L., wasn’t a total douchecastle like some romance heroes; and – which I found most shocking of all – the side characters were fleshed out, well drawn and likeable too. The highest mentions here need to go to Maddie’s daughter Em and Maddie’s BFF Treva, but the whole cast was pretty much awesomely well written. And the villain wasn’t demonised – Maddie’s husband Brent was a bad guy, but he wasn’t evil. (Though I did think the domestic violence incident should have been given a little more weight, but I’ve seen much, more worse in romance fiction).

I read a lot of category romance, as I intend to write my PhD thesis on it, so this was a really pleasant surprise for me. I wanted to read some Crusie after enjoying her essay so much – there’s still more from it I need to talk about, but I got distracted by Christmas and New Year and what not – and it was a real treat. I definitely intend to read more. Categories are limited by length if nothing else and it was great to read a book wherein you had a rich cast of characters instead of it being focused purely on the main pair. And it was funny, and Crusie has a beautiful turn of phrase, and… oh, it was great.

But.

Oh yes, there is a but.

It didn’t feel like romance to me.

This is all to do with me and my personal hangups and not to do with the book. It obviously is romance – I mean, hello, the genre is not based on what I think is romance. And having read so many categories and nowhere near as many standalone titles, my view is obviously skewed. So this was a real eye-opener for me in terms of what romance could – and should – be: real, honest to God, readable literature, compelling and heartwarming.

But to tell the truth, Crusie’s book read to me like chicklit.

And this, of course, got me thinking – where exactly does this fabled boundary between chicklit and romance lie? And is there one?

There is a boundary, I would contend. I think that they are different (related, but different) genres. But it’s a fuzzy boundary, a blurry one, and if you slapped a different cover on Tell Me Lies, I’m pretty sure you could market Jenny Crusie in much the same way as you market Sophie Kinsella or Marion Keyes.

Crusie fulfils the tenets of romance. There is a central pairing – in this case, Maddie and C.L. – and they get their happily ever after. They both grow as people and go on a journey and improve each other and complete each other (hello, Foucault) and whatnot. This is all basic romance 101 stuff.

But then Crusie goes another step further, and I think this is where I find myself reading Tell Me Lies as chicklit rather than romance. To me, the book wasn’t about Maddie and C.L.’s relationship. Sure, it was a major feature, but that is totally not what it was about. The book was about Maddie. C.L. was a big figure, but to me he seemed like a supporting character. Tell Me Lies was as much about Maddie’s relationship with her best friend Treva as her relationship with C.L., and in a way was more about her tumultuous relationship with her husband Brent than anything else. And Maddie’s relationship with her daughter Em was key, as was Em’s relationship with Treva’s daughter Mel, and the whole town was a major character.

It was a novel of relationships – plural. If we’re working on a scale, where pure chicklit is at one end and category romance is on the other, and the spectrum of standalone romance is somewhere in the middle, it put me more in mind of Meg Cabot than Lynne Graham. Actually, let’s look at it in terms of a Meg Cabot novel – Boy Meets Girl. That book (which I love, by the way – the email format is ingenious) is focused on Kate, a girl working in HR at a big newspaper. It’s about her relationship with the young, socially-conscious lawyer Mitch (the C.L. figure), her best friend Jen (the Treva), lunch lady Ida, her evil boss Amy, Amy’s evil lawyer fiancé, editor Dolly, and a whole host of other characters. The email format of Boy Meets Girl makes it very clear that it is about more relationships than Kate and Mitch – the fact that people email each other distils this presupposition of a relationship.

Compare that to something like Getting Physical, where characters other than Zoe and Stephen get next to no screen time, and you know where Crusie is falling.

This sort of sounds like I’m saying that chicklit is better than romance, and that’s not the case at all. Chicklit has a wider scope, I think – it doesn’t have to be focused on a happily ever after, which is one very strict tenet of romance: you can’t really have a romance novel without the ubiquitous HEA (though I suppose books like the Stephanie Plum series are on the line… but I’m pretty sure you’d call that chicklit rather than romance). One thing chicklit is able to do that romance often doesn’t is focus on friendship, particularly female friendship. Look at classic chicklit novels like Bridget Jones’ Diary or Confessions of a Shopaholic or Single White E-mail. The protagonist’s relationship with her friends is just as important as her romantic fulfilment. And this was definitely true of Tell Me Lies – Treva is definitely just as important to Maddie as C.L.

And chicklit is, I think, more heavily focused on the journey of the heroine, while the hero is pretty much a supporting character – and I thought this was definitely true in Crusie. This was Maddie’s book. Sure, C.L. grew as a person – just as Mitch in Boy Meets Girl does, or Luke in Confessions of a Shopaholic – but his journey was nowhere near as great and arduous as Maddie’s, nor is it the focus. In fact, if Crusie hadn’t followed the romantic convention of having some parts of the book from the hero’s perspective, you’d be forgiven for thinking that C.L. doesn’t really change that much over the course of the book at all. Category romance in particular focuses on the fact that the heroine grows and matures and reforms the hero – hence all that discussion before Christmas about the heroine replacing the hero’s model of sexual fulfilment with her own. In Tell Me Lies, I don’t think Maddie changes C.L. – and I don’t think she would want to. She brings out the best in him, but actually change him…? Not so much.

In her essay, Crusie describes romance fiction as:

“..fiction about women who had sex and then didn’t eat arsenic or throw themselves under trains or swim out to the embrace of the sea, women who won on their own terms (and those terms were pretty varied) and still got the guy in the end without having to apologize or explain that they were still emancipated even though they were forming permanent pair bonds, women who moved through a world of frustration and detail and small pleasures and large friendships.”

 – Crusie, J., 1997, ‘Romancing Reality: The power of romance fiction to reinforce and re-envision the real’ [originally published in Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres. Number 1-2, 1997: 81-93, accessed via http://www.jennycrusie.com/for-writers/essays/romancing-reality-the-power-of-romance-fiction-to-reinforce-and-re-vision-the-real/, 21/12/2009]

Tell Me Lies is definitely that kind of romance fiction. Crusie walks her talk when it comes to writing romance novels. But when you’re looking at category stuff and some of the lesser breed of standalones, I don’t know if it’s necessarily true. Crusie is, I think, an idealist. Romance fiction should be this. If all romance novels were as good as Tell Me Lies, then more people would read it. But I don’t think it is this, not all the time – not if the first time I read a really, really good romance novel, I go, ‘hey, this is chicklit’.

In conclusion, I think I found Tell Me Lies so chicklitty because it was so heavily focused on Maddie. The romance with C.L. was peripheral to her own journey and growth – it was an element of it, sure, but it wasn’t the whole of the story. I don’t necessarily think that all romance fiction has to be like this to be a good book. Tell Me Lies is a good book because Crusie is a good writer and tells a good story and develops her characters – all of them – well. And I liked that it was about Maddie, even though that kind of sets up C.L. as her prize for self-discovery, which is a bit disturbing.

“Therefore the consistently satisfying endings of romance fiction, far from being unrealistic, actually bring balance back to the perception of reality by reminding the romance reader that along with every thing else, good things happen to good people, too, especially to strong, courageous women, especially when they work for it, at the centers of their own lives and stories.” [that Crusie essay again]

Tell Me Lies is definitely like this. Maddie liberates herself and good things happen. And she does it herself, as well – C.L. doesn’t save her, though he certainly gives her a helping hand. Tell Me Lies is a damn good read and I’d recommend it to anyone.

But is it romance? I’m not sure.

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4 Comments »

  1. Apologies in advance for what’s going to be more of a “stream of consciousness” comment than a structured and coherent one.

    Have you read Crusie’s category romances yet? In some ways I prefer them to her single titles, because there’s a freshness to them that’s probably due to the fact that when she was writing them Crusie was just starting her career.

    I wonder, since you mention Lynne Graham (who writes for Sexy/Modern/Presents) and a Blaze, which category lines you’ve been reading. Crusie wrote for the now defunct Temptation line. I don’t know how typical she was of it, though. But the SuperRomances are very different from the Sexy/Modern/Presents in terms of how much time they give to other characters and to the kinds of complications that arise. For example, I’ve read the first and last books in the “Singles … With Kids” mini-series which is about a group of single mothers, and there I think you’d find quite a lot of importance given to female friends, problems with children and lots of other things that mean that there isn’t such a concentrated focus on the hero and heroine.

    I haven’t read much chick lit, but in the UK the Little Black Dress line (published by Headline/Hachette, not by Harlequin Mills & Boon) could perhaps be thought of as category chick lit, because there’s very definitely an identity to the “line” and the books are relatively short.

    I came across some definitions of chick lit recently, by the way:

    by the end of the 1990s the category and term chick lit had become established to describe novels written by women, (largely) for women, depicting the life, loves, trials and tribulations of their predominantly young, single, urban, female protagonists. As Joanne Knowles (2004: 2) writes, whilst plotlines are variable, chick lit can be internally defined by the structure of a female central character “seeking personal fulfilment in a romance-consumer-comedic vein”. (from Sarah Gormley’s Introduction to a September 2009 edition of Working Papers on the Web which was dedicated to chick lit.

    Comment by Laura Vivanco — January 4, 2010 @ 11:24 am | Reply

    • That’s a really useful definition of chicklit. I’ve been existing without a definition of either romance or chicklit, pretty much – going on my gut. Obviously, it’s easier to class something as a romance when you have tropes like the mandatory happily-ever-after, and with categories it’s pretty much a gimme. But this has been the first book where I’ve been genuinely unsure.

      But then there are books like Sophie Kinsella’s ‘The Undomestic Goddess’ where you have your heroine, your hero and your happily ever after, and I would definitely call that chicklit rather than romance. Part of this is probably branding, but I have a vague, half-baked notion that chicklit focuses very heavily on the journey of the woman whereas romance features the journey of both characters. Although I would still say romance is heroine-dominated, I think the hero has a more delineated character arc than he necessarily has in chicklit, where the romance is a strong element of but not the whole of the plot.

      I’m going to have to track down those single mother superromances, as they sound like they would probably prove my whole theory wrong!

      Comment by Jodi — January 5, 2010 @ 8:27 am | Reply

  2. My comment’s disappeared. Did I include too many hyperlinks?

    Comment by Laura Vivanco — January 4, 2010 @ 11:25 am | Reply

  3. Good points, I think I will definitely subscribe! I’ll go and read some more! What do you see the future of this being?

    Comment by Me — January 18, 2010 @ 12:39 pm | Reply


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