Chick-Lit, Fiction

A Satisfying Salad

Amazon describes Sad Desk Salad as The Devil Wears Prada for the twenty-teens. Author Jessica Grose has even jokingly called it The Devil Wears Sweatpants. The book’s title is a reference to the official lunch of choice for yuppie desk drones everywhere (from what I can tell, this meme came after the book, but I had to laugh in self-recognition). Grose’s tale is a not-quite roman à clef of her days as a dozen-posts-a-day blogger for Jezebel (or so she says), but it offers up intimate and often biting commentary on the late 2000s and early 2010s online media world.

Grose says the book is meant to be an updated portrait of what it’s like to have an entry-level-job-in-New-York-City-media: Bright Lights, Big City was just as much an inspiration as the 2003 The Devil Wears Prada, based on author Lauren Weisberger’s experiences working under Anna Wintour (and made into a fabulous movie of the same name, starring Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway).

Sad Desk Salad chronicles a week-in-the-life of Alex Lyons, a glued-to-the-couch, muumuu-clad copy monkey for a women’s gossip website. Alex is tasked with feeding the daily beast dozens of bite-sized witticisms on celebrities and assorted news of the weird in the name of the all-mighty page view. When she receives her most salacious tip yet — a sex tape of a Tiger Mom-like socialite’s daughter — her moral mettle is tested by the wilds of the web. Her job, personal relationships and the esteem of readers and colleagues are all suddenly on the line.

The good: Having personally experienced the feed-the-internet beast pressure in previous day jobs (and having friends who still do), it’s difficult to objectively gauge the effectiveness of its satire for the lay reader who isn’t as familiar with that world. Grose portrays a sense of humor about her experiences that can only come from a healthy distance. More often than not, she skewers the media gossip blog world and the characters in it with a salad spinner, not an axe. Alex’s neuroses often border on obnoxious; Grose clearly doesn’t coddle her leading lady. And Alex’s hard-charging editor, Moira, ruthless in her quest for page views and upper management accolades, is hardly a clear-cut villain. There’s enough satire to appeal to the reader who can appreciate fictionalized social commentary but wouldn’t otherwise pick up something that looks vaguely chick-litty. But a tiny bit of earnestness in this salad’s dressing tempers its cynicism and provides a satisfying ending, too.

The not-so-good: I got through this one without the chick-lit cringe I get when I read characters who sound like they could be on Dawson’s Creek, use phrases like “just the same” too many times, or suffer through all-too-familiar plot lines hoping they’ll take a turn for the clever. It helps that Alex already has a man — a live-in boyfriend named Peter who works in finance — so the quest for one isn’t at all a part of the narrative.  While it was refreshing to read a chick-lit novel that portrays the challenge of maintaining an already decent relationship rather than the struggle to land one, it felt a bit too much like a page from DWP.  It doesn’t help that the beaus in both books are patently unlikable. Aside from one insightful exchange about the moral relativism of their respective jobs, Peter’s concern for Alex seemed too paternal for me to take their partnership seriously. The story would have held up just fine without him.

Cheese-o-meter: A couple of sad salad bar parmesan sprinkles here and there, courtesy of the aforementioned boyfriend.

Writerly lessons: You kill more flies — and win more readers’ hearts — with honey when writing what you know. Disciplined satire makes for a more satisfying read than a full-throttled sendup. Kudos to Grose.


Chick-Lit, Fiction, Storytelling

Warning: This Book Tastes Delicious

Girls GuideSince The Manny Diaries’ one loyal, regular reader has been on a boat in the middle of the Mediterranean for the past two weeks, there’s no one around to make fun of my chick lit habit and peep my Kindle’s contents over my shoulder. So I thought I’d come clean about the two books I gobbled up in said readers’ absence to any other lurkers out there, because I’m actually pretty excited about them. I read The Girls’ Guide To Love and Supper Clubs and Sad Desk Salad back to back over the course of two weeks. They involve food, the internet, and twenty-something urbanite girly stuff, which is to say: a few of my very favorite things. I’ll start with …Supper Clubs.

Dana Bate’s heroine, Hannah Sugarman, is a pro when it comes to whipping up a carrot cake from scratch. But playing the part of proper bougie girlfriend of her boyfriends’ parents’ dreams? Not so much. After her boyfriend dumps her, she moves into a basement apartment and cooks. A lot. The “Spunky Sidekick Friend” (you know, the one that’s in every romcom?) convinces her to open a super secret — and illegal — supper club in the upstairs apartment inhabited by her landlord, without his knowledge. The rest is a cat-and-mouse-game-cum-romance with all sorts madcap mishaps and tantalizing foodie porn along the way.

The good: Dana Bate can surely spin a good yarn (She’s an alumnus of my journalism school, so I’d hope so!) Even during the parts that felt too predictable or conventional, Bate’s Hannah Sugarman is such uniquely pleasant company that you want to keep reading even when you know exactly where the story is going. This is Bate’s debut novel and I cannot wait to see what she comes up with next, and to hopefully meet her: she’s a former DC resident and we’ve communicated on Twitter (I refuse to say we’ve “tweeted.” Ew). But still, this makes her awesome in my book. She also seems to understand the worlds she depicts in Supper Club pretty darn well: foodies and young DC professionals. I have a feeling I’d either really enjoy dining out with Dana or gain 10 pounds eating her braised brisket and pretzel bread — if she cooks anything like Hannah Sugarman. Also: I’d be shocked if this hasn’t been optioned for a movie yet; I was casting it in my head the whole time.

The not-so-good: As in most romcom’s and chick lit, it’s pretty easy to sniff out who Hannah’s main man will be by the end of the novel pretty early on, despite Bate’s best efforts to well, bait us in other directions (sorry I’m not sorry for that pun). Other reviews have pointed out the improbability of the book’s ending, but I really think we all need to get over this craving for “plausibility” in storytelling. While some of Bate’s characters are delightfully quirky and well-imagined (Hannah herself, her wonky think tank boss, her landlord who peppers sentences with nautical puns), the stories and themes are well worn ones. The “follow your dream instead of your parents’ dream” trope in particular could have benefitted from a bit more nuance or edge; do the chick-lit publishing Gods allow that?

Cheese-o-meter: Jarlsberg from the Dupont Circle farmer’s market on crackers.

Writerly lessons: Sometimes it’s OK to write a predictable story with an ending that’s smothered in pink cream cheese frosting, if you’ve got delicious characters and a real feel for the worlds they inhabit. Oh, and if you give readers all the recipes featured in the book at the end. Yup, even the Kindle version doubles as a cook book (thanks, Dana!) I’m more inspired to make my own bacon-wrapped dates than ever before.

 Sad Desk Salad gets the cheese-o-meter treatment…coming soon!


Chick-Lit, On Women, On Writing

Beyond Beauty Mags: Chick Lit Is Bad For Your Self-Esteem

So, psychology has moved on from targeting Cosmopolitan as the place where a young woman’s self-esteem goes to die and found a new culprit: chick-lit novels.
Not only is chick-lit divisive in  the literary community — it’s also hazardous to your health, according to a new Virginia Tech study. The researchers had 159 girls in their early 20s answer questions about how they perceived their own weight and attractiveness after reading doctored-up passages from a chick-lit novel (we don’t know which novels. Well, OK, we might if I wanted to purchase a PDF of the actual study. Which I don’t. Sorry!)
Some of the study’s participants read a narrative with a skinny protagonist (this article calls it “underweight” but let’s call a spade a spade, m’kay?). Some read a narrative featuring an “average-weight or overweight” central female character, and others read a passage where the female protagonist had some body image issues. Surprise, surprise, the study participants in the latter group “were significantly more concerned about their weight than participants in the control condition.”

“In other words, readers had a stronger, more personal reaction to the character’s internal dialogue than to the novelist’s description of her body,” as Pacific Standard’s Tom Jacobs put it.

Well, duh. Of course a character’s inner monologue leaves a bigger imprint on the reader’s psyche than the author’s physical description. Why else does a writer even mention her character’s appearance unless she wants to let readers know that this, in some way, informs who that character is? In many cases in women’s fiction (or chick lit, whichever you prefer), a female protagonist’s appearance does inform who they are, or how they think about themselves — for better or for worse (and I’d argue that says more about where we’re at as a society than it does about women’s literature). It’s not difficult to imagine feeling more empathy for a character who tells us how she feels about her body in her own words. An inner monologue, even in a novel written largely in the third person, ups the intimacy quotient between character and reader.

I do wonder what would have happened to the study’s participants if they’d read anything by Jennifer Weiner. Weiner, patron saint of women’s fiction, tends to write confident but relatable female protagonists. In “Good in Bed,” Weiner’s debut novel, our heroine Cannie Shapiro neither starts nor ends the novel as a skinny girl. In a Q&A with Weiner printed in the back of my paperback copy of the book, Weiner says this is no accident:

“Like Cannie, I’ve suffered with the culture that never shows women who look like me unless they’re desperately trying to look some other way, or when they’re there for comic relief…It’s true that being big can give you all kinds of unhappiness, but it doesn’t mean that you’re destined for a life of misery and/or comic relief.”

Cannie struggles with body image issues, to be sure. The book opens, hilariously, with Cannie reading a first-person account about loving a plus-sized woman…written by her ex-boyfriend. But the novel isn’t defined by Cannie’s quest to become thin, nor is the narrative consumed by her body image neuroses. I’d be shocked if anyone would report finishing the book and feeling worse about her body.

I also wonder about selection bias in this study: who are these 159 women? Is it possible they could be the sorts of young women who read Cosmo, watch “The Bachelor” unironically and pin wedding gowns to Pinterest before they are even engaged?  I’m being flip here, but what I mean to say is, were the women in the study more apt to buy into the beauty myth to begin with? And are these really the only women reading chick lit?

Chick-Lit, Experimenting, On Manny, On Women, On Writing

An experiment

I’m Manny. I’m not a male nanny, it’s short for Amanda. I’m a 26-year-old Washington, DC resident who has held various day jobs in journalism, but I’ve been told by a few pretty insightful friends that my true calling might be writing chick-lit.

At first, I was offended by this.

Sure, I’ve read my fair share of Jennifer Weiner and Emily Giffin. I adore all things Nora Ephron.  Feministing and Slate’s X Factor blog are mainstays of my Google Reader. I also have a sort of closet obsession with dating blogs that I don’t really like to talk about…

Writing about women and their experiences can sometimes involve talking about these things called “feelings.” Dissecting relationships (not just romantic ones). Exploring what it means to be human in an appealing, smart and hopefully not-too-precious sort of way. In real life, I do these things all the time. On the page, I mostly stick to facts, quotes from public officials and the inverted pyramid. And all literary hand-wringing about the term “chick-lit” aside, the truth is, I’ve been too embarrassed to admit that I might just have the “chick-lit” gene. My friends have called my bluff.

Watch me let my uncool, feeling-talking, sorta-girlie freak flag fly as I attempt what thousands before me attempt every November: 50,000 words in 30 days. I’ll post updates on my novel writing progress and include some links and thoughts on the writing, journalism, women and snark about trend stories about women. You’ll be keeping me accountable to my goal, and arming yourself with plenty of things to tease me about in the meantime. As if you needed any more.