Chick lit, as a genre, shows fictionalised accounts of women’s lives that are, feasibly, true to life. In chick lit, families argue, health fails, the economy flounders and people treat each other badly. There aren’t any vampires, and friendship and humour are key to happiness.
This is why I love the genre – the ‘life goes on’ ethos that surrounds it leads to my empathising with the characters, hating others, but above all relating to their problems and resolutions whilst being able to also rest assured that, for the most part, everything works out in the end.
In the world at large, ‘everything working out in the end’ could be seen as a byword for ‘gets a partner/family’, or at least it feels like that a lot of the time.
However, Naomi Woolf believes the tide is turning. On the basis of one film, The Five Year Engagement, she has decreed that fictional women are turning their back on wedded bliss. For every Facebook wedding album, there is an article about how so many more people are single than before.
Personally, I think this is bollocks. A good chick flick which doesn’t end in the main character falling in love, or at least meeting someone who fancies them back, is incredibly rare.
Late twenties and single myself, it sometimes feels everyone is getting together. Every single person I lived with in my second and third years of university now either has a ring on their finger, or has just had a baby. Falling in love is still the goal; a decent career and owning your own home are happy extras.
And in chick lit, the same applies. Bridget’s best mate Sharon might have famously flown the flag of the singleton, but in the mid nineties boom she could afford her own home on her own at the age of thirty, and by 1999 she was shagging Simon in a bridesmaid’s dress in The Edge of Reason.
Becky Bloomwood got her man, so did Lucy Sullivan, Polly, Cat, Fen and Elizabeth. Jem got Ralph, the lucky cow, and was still with him ten years later. In chick lit, the women are us; therefore they want what we want, and what the world has decided we want is someone to love.
Chick lit heroines that don’t end up with a man at the end still aspire to one (to my shame I cannot think of one openly lesbian or bisexual chick lit heroine).
JoJo, Marian Keyes’ fabulous literary agent that looks like Jessica Rabbit and used to be a cop, has an all-consuming affair with her boss before deciding her career needs her attention more than a man who would cheat on his wife.
JoJo is gorgeous, intelligent and feisty, and the best thing about The Other Side of the Story; she learns in the end that the greatest love you can have is for yourself.
In Last Chance Saloon, another Keyes Classic, Tara finally ends it with the horror that is Thomas to discover life as a single lady is actually brilliant- flirtations with Ravi the Office Boy aside.
But neither of these women have rejected relationships. They haven’t self-identified as spinster; the fear of dying alone and being eaten by Alsatians hasn’t gone away.
There are more books than ever about splitting up with the wrong boy, the premise of The Five Year Engagement, on which Woolf bases her theory.
Not rushing into marriage and making sure they are ‘the one’ are themes that the woman of 2012 can identify with perhaps easier than the woman of 2002 could.
In a world where the Prime Minister implies that people should still be the responsibility of their parents until they are 25, 40 is the new 30.
Women in their 20s now who grew up with Sex and the City and Bridget Jones as teenage idols don’t see being unmarried way into their thirties as that scary a prospect. But it is expected, like Carrie and Bridget, that you’ll have long-term relationships that result in you living together first.
You have to have the ability to have someone love you. This is the new chick lit; Second Time Lucky Chick Lit, where the possibility of love is more or less guaranteed, because you’ve managed it before.
In Twenties Girl, by Sophie Kinsella, our heroine has just been dumped. In Nine Uses for an Ex-Boyfriend, it takes 300 pages of me screaming at the book before our heroine finally realises that maybe she shouldn’t be with the cheating man, despite their ten-year history.
And even these women end up with the possibility of love at the end. Heroines that have never had a boyfriend, who have never had a long-term relationship and don’t aspire to have one are practically non existent.
After the First World War, there were over 1.5 million more young women than men in Britain. I might whine about being single, but it’s always been in a ‘oh, why can’t I meet a well-read, lefty, feminist-allied man, who also likes curry and drinks in my pub’, rather that ‘oh shit, all the men my age are dead’.
Virginia Nicholson’s excellent book Singled Out tells the history of these women in the 1920s in fascinating detail, and provides a great reading list for any single ladies out there looking for literary inspiration.
I cannot recommend enough reading South Riding by Winifred Holtby. Sarah Burton, ‘born a spinster, and going to spin,’ is incredible enough to make up for the lack of true singletons in modern fiction.
And for the truly cynical, try Stella Gibbon’s Westwood, republished last summer, starring the pathetic but hilarious Margaret Steggles and her struggle with her feelings for the arch-misogynist Gerald.
Chick lit may set us up for love, but as Margaret realises; ‘flowers and solitude and Nature never fail one, they ask nothing and are eternally comforting.’
When books and films marketed at women start promoting that, then we can truly say a revolution has occurred.
Which of your favourite chick lit films or books show that there’s more to life than marriage and kids?