the trouble with chicklit

Here’s the thing about chicklit. It can be so real. Seriously. I can hear you saying, “right. Clicklit. Real. Uh-huh.” But it’s true. There’s so much I can identify with. So much that I read and think, “oh me too! me too! That’s exactly how I feel! Finally, someone has captured what I feel exactly. And even I could never really describe it right to myself.”

And I read on obsessively, hoping maybe this time the heroine will discover a real solution to these exact problems I have, these absolutely same feelings I feel, so that I too can end up with the happily ever life I just know is awaiting her by the end of the book. Of course, the trouble with chicklit is that the writer goes and fucks it up by skipping right by any solutions and just handing the heroine some wonderful life that would solve anyone’s problems.

These books are fluffy reading, but they do touch on some of the real issues of life. Well, they sort of hesitantly poke at the issues with a really long stick and run away, which is really kind of the problem with taking them seriously.

I understand that the writers of these books don’t want to spend all their time dwelling on things that are depressing. And loneliness, lack of self-confidence, and feeling lost in this world do not a feel-good romp make. I get it.

But these books are really frustrating when they encapsulate so perfectly the very emotion I feel, but then dismiss it with a cute guy’s smile. It’s as though the writer looked deep into my eyes and told me that she understands completely, and then told me to fuck off. She’s dismissed my deepest fears, my greatest anxieties as petty problems fixed with slightly better apartment or a new couch.

Not that there isn’t something to be said for a new apartment, as evidenced by the very difficult to read scribblings in my paper journal less than two years ago, but a new apartment in New York City, just because your mom’s friend has one to sublet, with no work on your part and no significance whatsoever, does not for an epiphany as to the meaning of inner happiness make. Yes, I know. It’s New York City. Whatever, there was no journey, no discovery, no accomplishment. Just a phone call. One that you didn’t even solicit.

How do you achieve inner happiness, anyway? As I was crying myself to sleep once again, telling P. that I just didn’t know what to do to be happy, he asked me, “what will make you happy? what do you need to do to be happy?” I told him that he made me happy, and he said that no, that’s not what he meant. That I need to find out how to be happy with myself.

How does someone do that? How do you separate inner happiness from happiness due to circumstance? Maybe a great relationship, a fantastic job, and a sunny day aren’t necessary for happiness, but if your boss just yelled at you for something you didn’t do, or your boyfriend forgot your birthday, it’s probably not going to do wonders for your mood.

And sure, some people seem to have some inner zen where little irritations like this just don’t seem to bother them, but are they just able to project a calm front? Or do they have some genetic disposition for not being bothered?

What is happiness anyway if not satisfaction with yourself and your surroundings? And if that’s what happiness really is, are we all fated to have our emotions forever tied to what happens around us?

Oh no, I can hear you say. We are masters of our own destiny. If you don’t like something about yourself or what’s around you, you can change it! I’ve heard this one before. And I sort of get that, and I’ve done it, and I’ve seen the results. But that can’t be all there is. You may be unsatisifed with yourself, but that doesn’t mean you know what needs to be changed. Also, your actions don’t guarantee a particular result. They just don’t.

P. asked me what would make me happy? I told him it would make me happy to sit in a cozy room by a fire, in a comfortable chair, reading a book and drinking tea. But that’s not what he meant. I can’t make a living at that. I should write. And so I said, but just writing doesn’t guarantee I can make a living at that either. And it said it only mattered that I tried. It does? I don’t know. How is writing different from sitting by the fire then, really?

Consider: Say I pour my heart and soul into writing a novel. And I get it published. I would be happy. And you could say that I was master of my fate. That I decided what I wanted, and worked hard, and achieved my goal. Result: happiness. But what if something else happens? What if I pour my heart and soul into writing a novel. And I try and try, but cannot get it published. Ever. I’d be pretty bummed. Same effort, very different result. In fact, I might feel pretty despondent about wasting so much time. But I tell P. this and he tells me that the act of writing is enough for my happiness. But again, how is that different from sitting by the fire?

Is it really the effort that brings happiness or the result? The circumstance?

This latest chicklit I read was particularly frustrating because it started out so near to my heart. If only the author hadn’t gotten it so right, I wouldn’t have minded the inevitable non-solution style ending.

I discover you can’t go home again (at least, not without marriage prospects).
I never would have thought this was true of my mom, but I guess that’s because I generally always had a serious boyfriend once I reached a marriageable age, and I got married before she started to worry about me. Now that I’m divorced, it’s a whole new story. “How’s P.?” She asked me last time she called. Which is weird, because she never even asks how I’m doing. “He’s doing well.” I replied hesitantly, wondering what was up. “He’s still hanging in there, huh?” What? “Well, he’s put up with you for quite a while now.” Huh?

All I have to look forward to now is support hose and short-term memory loss.
A couple of nights ago, we were watching that birthday cake competition and P. joked that he was going to get me the scary sock monkey cake for my birthday. My birthday! My God. This year I’ll turn 33. 33! How did I get this old? What do I have to show for…? Fuck. 33. I even started crying a little.

I don’t even like me anymore.
I admit, this is the one that really got me. What do you do when you don’t like yourself? The crazy thing is that I actually do like myself, but then I get into these periods of self-doubt and unsurety and then I get insecure and whiny and stressed and I cry and I annoy myself. So whiny! So insecure! So annoying! And then I start disliking myself, which only makes the insecurity worse. If this is the great discovery the chicklit heroine has made, how does she resolve it? How does she find a way to like herself again? I flip ahead, hoping to find my salvation. Of course, it never comes.

I begin to question my own sanity.
Only every day, sister.

It is now public knowledge: I am a complete and utter failure.
This one goes hand in hand with not liking myself. And feeling old. And well, OK, the sanity thing too. I hate feeling like a failure. Why do I like others dictate my feeling that way? Do I care that much about the opinions of those around me that they define me? Apparently.

So what do you think happens to our self-doubting girl? Does she discover how to best self-doubt, self-loathing, and despair? In a way.

She discovers the cute boy she’s discounted because she thought he was a store clerk is actually a successful something or other who really likes her and they fall into an effortless, fantastic relationship. Her boss gives her the name of a magazine editor who accepts the first article query she sends and soon she quits her job and writes freelance full time, because the jobs just keep pouring in. Her mom’s friend just happens to have a free apartment in the city that’s huge and lovely and at below-market rent.

And so goes the trouble with chicklit. Her despair and her happiness, were all due to circumstance. And her circumstance changed through random acts of luck. How do you deal with pressure to get married, feeling like a failure, not liking yourself? You fall into situations where things go your way, where your efforts are rewarded. And not because you did anything differently, or learned how to deal, or somehow managed to get beyond what was weighing you down, or struggled through and changed your life. Just because things happened that way.

I know chicklit isn’t self-help. But it’s still frustrating to identify so strongly with some of the things that the chicks in the lit go through, only to have them abandon me at the end. Because in the end, it really doesn’t matter what the specifics are of what these characters go through. The resolution to the story really has nothing to do with working through those issues. It just has to do with getting the girl happy again. Which is nearly always based on chance that changes the world around her.

Which brings me back to wondering: what is happiness? Is it mostly circumstance? That can’t be it, right? That’s just the easy answer for someone who needs to end her book. So what about the rest of us? Most of life doesn’t have easy answers. And we’re not really looking for endings. We know that life goes on beyond that last page. So, what is it? Is it effort? Validation? The satisfaction of a job well done, even if no one else appreciates it?

Or is it really just a sunny day, a comfy chair, and a cup of tea?

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