lip lit: be careful what you wish for
If you’ve got the workings of the ultimate cliché chick lit novel stashed in your bottom draw, then you’re too late. Gemma Crisp already wrote the most typical chick lit novel ever with her offering, Be Careful What You Wish For.
Nina works in the giddy world of women’s glossies. Supported by her boyfriend Jeremy, cousin Tess, and best gay friend Johan, the novel traces her conspicuously fast rise through the magazine world. She goes from intern, to editorial assistant, to beauty editor, to features editor, and finally to editor in a timeline that seems to be measured better in months than years.
Nina is obsessed by magazines as well as fashion. In fact, the book probably drops as many designer brand and expensive restaurant names as American Psycho, the difference being that unlike Bret Easton Ellis, I very much doubt that Crisp is being ironic. Nina is also judgey of those who opt not to come to work dressed in yellow leather shift dresses.
Nina’s a good sort though. She gets upset at the exploitation of models who are forced to shave a brand logo in the back of their heads for a runway show, and while she’s beauty editor she allows other staff to trawl through the closet of free things PR companies send her. Also, she shops at ASOS instead of Gucci, how thrifty and down-to-earth!
Yet, Nina’s priorities are all wrong, apparently. While she’s focusing on working stupidly long hours, she’s not spending any time with Jeremy, she doesn’t notice Tess’s descent into major mental illness, and !!!!!!!SPOILER ALERT she isn’t there for Johan when he finds out he’s HIV-positive (yes, really, this is a plot point Crisp rushedly throws in at the end). Plus, she also very suddenly becomes an alcoholic. END SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!! It seems like Nina just focused too much on her career, when really should have been taking care of others and not progressing along so quickly in a professional setting. Or something. I’m not really sure what the message is here.
Be Careful What You Wish For is a really interesting book to read in relation to debates that are going on right now concerning the ‘chick lit’ genre. Many women authors have spoken out about how their work has been relegated. They really write ‘lit’ but because the books are written by women and have pink covers, they aren’t taken seriously in the literary world. This theory is certainly valid, indeed one can think of many novelists who have been screwed over by gender stereotyping (Jane Austen comes to mind). Yet, I don’t think that there is anything particularly ‘literary’ in Crisp’s book. It’s escapism all the way.
Some posit that escapist chick lit is in itself anti-feminist in nature. This argument is straightforwardly applied here: Crisp presents a woman who expresses her femininity through very limited means – she has her GHD and works on articles which encourage readers to guess if a fully clothed man does/doesn’t have chest hair. Her slight tendency towards workaholism is punished with the complete degradation of her health and relationships. Even in the twenty-first century, her career does not provide viable space for her to thrive outside the rubric of others’ needs and expectations, or maybe it does, but only in the few seconds her career spans before she becomes an editor. The message sent is not exactly affirming to women, to say the least.
Yet, some argue that ‘women’s activities’ and ‘women’s concerns’ do not have a place in books outside of chick lit. As such, chick lit performs an important function of untangling the issues women face. I mean, I don’t recall ever reading a James Joyce novel which tackles the issue of whether or not to have drunken sex with a Canadian man on a promotional bus tour in Eastern Europe when you have a boyfriend waiting for you back home in Australia. While say, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man delves into important themes such as renouncing Irish Catholicism and developing the self as an artist, Joyce’s concerns don’t seem so relevant to most people in their daily lives. Chick lit can address the pragmatics of being a woman.
Obviously, the easy counter to this theory is that ‘women’ are not a homogenous group. What are ‘women’s activities’ and ‘women’s concerns’ anyway? Fashion? Relationships? Maybe, but let’s put it this way: I don’t see more of myself in Nina than in Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, even though Stephen Dedalus probably never used Twitter or wore stilettos. The representation of women in literature is a big issue, but chick lit doesn’t solve it just because there are women characters running around doing girly things. If anything, it puts across quite stereotypical views of femininity. In the end, which is better? Being totally ignored or being cast as superficial? It’s a tricky one.
Aside from concerns surrounding gender representation, the book’s editing was perhaps done a bit hastily – I found two grammatical errors in the first chapter. The pacing and some of the humour also missed the mark. Equally, some of the dialogue was atrocious. For instance, when Tess tells Nina that she is in treatment for depression and anxiety, the conversation sounds like a cross between a pantomime and an infomercial as Tess explains what function Cognitive Behavioural Therapy serves and how antidepressant medication works (‘The more serotonin in my body, the better’).
That’s not to say that Be Careful What You Wish For is bad. Reading the book is like reading butter, it’s quick and easy and painless. Crisp writes very clearly and this story would probably interest those who loved The Devil Wears Prada, or Mia Freedman’s memoir, Mama Mia. I imagine it would be a good book to take on a flight from Melbourne to Perth (you’d probably finish in those four hours), but it’d probably be no more fun than flicking through the latest edition of your favourite glossy.
Be Careful What You Wish For is published by Allen and Unwin.