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Hush, Loamy-lipped Lover

So, girl dates cad. Girl leaves cad. Girl trips serendipitously over business card. Girl buys into expensive arranged-marriage service. Marriage is arranged. Newly-met husband turns out to be knave. Girl leaves knave. Arranged husband professes love, knaveship is overturned. Ta-dah!

We all have our fair share of both pleasant and embarrassing reads and re-reads. Buy us a bottle of Veuve Clicquot, seduce us properly, or catch us late enough at night, and all our superficial longings are exposed. As merely entertaining, or pop-culty as a book might be, there must still be a craft.

Some tools and thoughts for those who would write chick lit:

1. Your readers shouldn’t want to punch your protagonist in the eye. Part satire, part guilty pleasure, genre fiction is escapist precisely because it reflects our shells to our selves, and relieves us of burdensome shame and fear. A thirtysomething, almost-successful writer with a voice-of-reason, high-powered, awesome best friend, conveniently disposable income, and an oh-em-gee-annoyingly high metabolism, will neither satire nor guilt provide.

2. Don’t try to be cute. Our heroine looks “just like Anne of Green Gables (red hair, green eyes, pale skin, a smattering of freckles across my nose).”

3. Fluff novels still require writing, which is a craft, and which includes concerns such as diction. No man, and especially no remotely dateable man, would ever use the word “hush.” Pas de hush. No “loamy” mouths; ew. Oh, and no one’s name is Tadd, and if it is, it shouldn’t be immortalized.

Arranged
Catherine McKenzie

Harper Collins
$19.99
paper
390pp
9781550652932

4. Perhaps not every other female character in said immortalization should be a cold, shrewd shrew or an unprepossessing busybody. From the pinched marriage-service lady to the pathetically affable co-arrangee, the other girls in Arranged seem destined only to be confirmations of how solemn and disarming the gossamer nombrilism of the Lady Anne is.

Interlude: In an otherwise gratuitous diamond-ring discussion, Anne briefly slips into a real, human, interesting voice. Her friend has already told her the story of her engagement, and Anne thinks, “I know, but I wasn’t listening because I was wondering why no one wanted to marry me.” It’s a transparent narrative pretext for the reader to get the bended-knee anecdote, but, ah, a few words that ring true.

5. Must the entire secondary cast be either super-supportive, but almost-gay, besties, or assholes reading Maxim waiting for their cad-ship to be spurted all over the page? Or a Nacho-Libre type mooing Latinously? Or an East-Asian beauty who learned to love her arranged husband Even Though She Was Smart? Or an overly solicitous Teutonic therapist serving as chorus?

6. Pas de clichés, either. In Arranged, veritable festival of cliché, people have “kelly green eyes,” beer is “amber liquid,” and the ocean is cerulean. They say things like “dammit, Jack” and “there could never be anybody else for me but you.” Cliché is a broadly social, insidious thing: we are, after all, used to being fed wheels spinning in heads, glints in eyes, hearts skipping beats; pop fiction must be both simultaneously so well spun that we don’t notice the necessary familiarities, and inventive enough that it confirms the common experience by giving us a different way in.

7. Sex is, well, sex. When successfully sold, it seems easy and worthwhile – lip a-pout just so, member throbbing thusly. If you can’t do better than “too good to be wrong” and “then he’s inside me,” get your hand out of my pants.

8. No stream-of-boring-your reader-to-unconsciousness: “No, that’s silly. Didn’t I just decide I needed to be alone? That’s right, I did. So, I’ll be alone. And then I’ll find a new man, the right man, on my own.” True thing.

9. Plausibility is hard to define, and harder still to require or recommend. Good writing will justify the most outlandish conceit, the most unlikeable narrator. As a fairy tale, Arranged fails imaginatively, psychologically, and even formulaically. It doesn’t have the wit or the balls of the kind of schadenfreudic gong show that pop-satire genres can reach, which makes the whole kit – best friend, heartbreak, serendipity, arranged marriage, lovable jerk, happy ending – not only unbelievable, but unbearable.

Perhaps the shaping and marketing of chick lit, more so than its lad lit and fratire cousins, suffer from the notion that content is superfluous. Perhaps the marketing overtakes the content. But, in content and concept, Arranged is embarrassing to chicks, to cads, to arranged marriages, and especially to lit. Purple when she should be straight, tedious when she could be inventive, McKenzie scoops out either little boogers of information or swabs hackneyed generalizations. She didn’t do the work. As for the reading, I did it so you don’t have to. mRb

Katia Grubisic is a writer, editor, and translator.

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