Chick Lit Meets the Avant-Garde

Tess McNulty

Ask the average critic, professor, or reader to name an experimental novelist and they will more likely name a man—Pynchon, DeLillo, Foster Wallace—than a woman—Tillman, Winterson, Lessing. Ask them to name the protagonist of an experimental novel and they will probably do the same. Though female authors write experimental novels about women—like Renata Adler’s Speedboat or Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?—the avant-garde has long been associated with male authors and stories. That association made Alexandra Kleeman’s You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, first published last August, seem doubly unusual.

The book was clearly experimental. Written in a postmodern style marked by parody, paranoia, and dispassion, it described a surreal version of our own world in which three semi-human characters, A, B, and C, grapple with technology and consumer culture. But unlike books by the most celebrated exponents of that style, Pynchon and DeLillo, You Too concerned itself primarily with the female experience. It even focused on the most insistently girly features of that experience, the blatantly feminine themes—diets, dating, cosmetics—that are typically consigned to the most trivialized literary genre: commercial women’s fiction, or “chick lit.”

Rather than efface her book’s femininity, moreover, Kleeman flaunted it with pride. In interviews she framed her novel as an unconventional application of the “postmodern dystopian” style to the “female experience.” And though her career was just taking off, a super-saccharine femininity, knowing yet unironic, seemed already to be a trademark of her persona. Her website linked to a spread on her hairstyle in which, between pictures of herself posing coquettishly—holding up her hair, smiling over her shoulder, tugging at her tank-top strap—she earnestly adopted the idiolect of Cosmopolitan: “I carry a small hairbrush with boar and plastic bristles at all times—I use it for secret emergency teasings and sometimes to smooth over the surfaces of big tangles.” More recently, she’s written an article for Elle called “The Slip Dress That Changed My Life.”

Following Kleeman’s lead, media outlets promoting You Too emphasized its girly features. Vanity Fair embedded its discussion of the book in an interview with Kleeman about eye make-up, and Vogue followed her through the cosmetics aisle of a local drugstore, highlighting the clash between her obvious talent and intelligence and her enthusiasm for all things feminine: Kleeman “must have seemed like just another beauty junkie, right up to the moment she stopped browsing the store’s goods and started disserting on their semiotics.”Fight Club for Women,” Vogue labeled her book, suggesting that this was an avant-garde novel for girls, a subversive sort of chick-lit, experimental fiction for her.

The for-girls-only feel of the publicity surrounding Kleeman’s book might have seemed a mere blip were it not for the fact that a number of books published in the past year—from Helen Phillips’s The Beautiful Bureaucrat and Catie Disabato’s The Ghost Network to Andrea Phillips’s Revision and Sarai Walker’s Dietland—staked out a territory at the intersection of experimental fiction and chick lit. Though spanning a spectrum from the predominantly literary (You Too) to the more clearly commercial (Dietland) all incorporated elements of both genres. And all were publicized and celebrated as combinations of the two: the more literary works were lauded as experimental fiction for women, the more commercial praised as chick lit with an edge.

The books’ covers begin to suggest their hybridity, fusing the typical two-dimensional abstraction of avant-garde design with chick lit’s girly signifiers: The Beautiful Bureaucrat’s foregrounds a hand with red-painted fingernails against a backdrop of gray-on-gray code, while The Ghost Network’s surrounds a heavily mascara-ed eye with an illuminati symbol. Kleeman’s, meanwhile, is predominantly abstract, with only a hint of eerie femininity about the Barbie-doll legs beneath its blue surface. Dietland’s cover might seem the most conventional—a cupcake plays a prominent role—were it not for the grenade pin perched atop the treat.

What the books’ covers suggest, their blurbs more explicitly confirm: one of Dietland’s describes the book as “anti-chick-lit for smart chicks,” while one of Ghost Network’s calls the book’s author “Borges filtering Lady Gaga.” None, however, could match that which appeared on Helen Phillips’s first book: “‘Brashly experimental’—Elle Magazine.” Or the sound bite that her editor provided, quoting a fan who claimed her latest book read like “Kafka with a vagina.”

Publicity schemes such as these can of course be misleading. Publishers have a reputation for trying to market almost any book written by a woman as chick lit, slapping a pink cover on it on the assumption that it will never attract male readers anyway. In this case, however, the marketing campaigns don’t entirely misrepresent the books. As one reviewer of Ghost Network puts it, “Imagine Thomas Pynchon possessed by the spirit of a teenaged girl.”

How, exactly, did this union come about? It’s a story of boy meets girl, a narrative conforming to the classic structure of the romance novel, that fantasy of class mobility in which a high-status male and a socially subordinate female implausibly and yet predictably end up together. And, like any good romance, it begins with two figures divided by strong social forces.

For decades, experimental fiction has sat atop the literary totem pole. In keeping with its status as the most “serious” of “serious” literary fiction, it has been seen as probing, original, subversive, and inaccessible. Its exemplars, like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest or Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, have been marked by an anti-realist or non-“lyrical Realist” aesthetic approach (to quote Zadie Smith). And its subject matter has been mostly the male experience. That last fact should come as no surprise, given that its most celebrated authors are male.

Chick lit, meanwhile, has been lambasted as the most “trivial” of “trivial” commercial genres. Since its rise to prominence in the mid-1990s, it has earned a reputation as shallow, hackneyed, and conventionalizing. Its exemplars, like Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City or Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, have been marked by a banal realist style (“There was a girl named Susan living in the city …”). And its subject matter has been unabashedly feminine. The classic chick-lit novel describes a young straight woman in her 20s or 30s, living in the city and spending time with her female friends and the occasional gay male sidekick while navigating a trifecta of concerns: diets, dating, and professional life. Needless to say, authors of chick lit are mostly women.

Sally Phillips, Shirley Henderson, Renée Zellweger, and James Callis in <i>Bridget Jones’s Diary: The Edge of Reason</i> (2004)

Lately, though, changes have been taking place in both genres, conducive to their union. Experimental fiction, on the one hand, has become more accessible. In recent years, it has produced a spate of remarkably well-received novels, lauded for being less intimidating than their forebears. When Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad won the Pulitzer in 2011, it was praised as “Old School” avant-garde literature—or experimental fiction that didn’t, as Egan herself put it, “drown out the story.” Ali Smith’s How to Be Both was awarded Britain’s Goldsmiths Prize in 2014 for proving “that formal innovation is completely compatible with pleasure.” The mainstreaming of the experimental novel has been aided by “for dummies” style guides, such as Experimental Fiction: An Introduction for Readers and Writers, which seek, ironically, to standardize experimentation and make it less off-putting.

Even as experimental fiction has been commercializing, chick lit has been heading in more literary and challenging directions. Since the 2008 recession, when chick lit of the classic mid-’90s variety was declared “dead,” the genre has matured; in the words of Publishers Weekly’s editor in chief Sara Nelson, it had to, like its heroines, become “a little more accomplished and grown-up.” That has meant embracing more serious themes, like motherhood and marriage, and becoming more “high-concept” so as to acquire more literary heft. Its post-recession readers, agent Diane Banks explains, “want to be challenged by their reading as they are being challenged in other areas of their lives.”

Finally, pressures preventing female authors from fusing experimental form with chick-lit content have been weakening. As recently as 2013, critics saw the success of Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers as evidence for an accepted fact: that female authors of avant-garde fiction had to masculinize their manuscripts in order to succeed. But that trend has been reversing in recent years, with experimental novels by and about women receiving more recognition. Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, a fragmented tale of motherhood, was one of the New York Times’s top-10 books of 2014. A year before the Goldsmiths Prize was awarded to How to Be Both, it went to Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.

Those books applied experimental styles to descriptions of female lives, rather than to the far “girlier” sets of subjects associated with chick lit. But their successes paved the way for a far more radical fusion. With experimental fiction growing more accessible, chick lit becoming more serious, and the aesthetic approach of one converging on the feminine subject matter of the other, it was only a matter of time before the two would cross paths.

And cross paths they have, though with less success than critics have suggested. What all of the books under review here have in common is that they apply experimentalism’s anti-realism to chick lit’s girly topics. All portray “postmodern dystopian” worlds rendered surreal through the proliferation of technology and conspiratorial networks: The Beautiful Bureaucrat’s is populated by literally faceless drones; Revision’s is controlled by a website. And most include some formal quirks: Ghost Network is encased in meta-texts; Dietland includes footnotes. But all still focus, in classic mid-’90s chick-lit fashion, on city-dwelling young women juggling diets, dating, and jobs, and obsessing over fashion and cosmetics: Revision describes a girl pining for her ex-boyfriend; You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine and Dietland treat body image; and Ghost Network centers on Molly Metropolis, “the world’s hottest pop star.”

Indeed, many of the books’ authors have publicly described their novels as unprecedented applications of experimental styles to feminine themes—Dietland’s author even proclaimed that she was trying to “subvert the form of a ‘woman’s novel.’” To that degree, then, the authors were complicit with their publicists’ schemes, encouraging reviews like Flavorwire’s celebration of The Ghost Network, which praised the book’s elevation of “‘girl’ culture to its rightful status as a matter for thoughtful literary inquiry.”

That assessment, however overblown, defines the stakes inherent in the fusion of experimentalism and chick lit. The most celebrated works of “serious” fiction do in fact often exclude overtly feminine themes—a pattern to which the stigma in our culture equating femininity with triviality doubtless contributes. And the genre to which those themes are so often consigned does often fail to subject them to “thoughtful literary inquiry.” This isn’t to say that all chick lit is bad. Bridget Jones’s Diary deftly ironizes its heroine’s travails. And Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, however poorly written, tap deep into the cultural bloodstream, satisfying itches readers didn’t know they had. That, to be sure, is no simple feat. But most chick lit is less inspired, and reduces the experiences of twentysomething women to a set of tired tropes, neither accurately representing nor interestingly reinventing the everyday. And the genre often accepts its own banality with complacency, such that a fairly stale story can be seen as fully satisfying its aesthetic mandates.

changes have taken place recently in both chick lit and experimental fiction, conducive to their union. 

If an experimental treatment of “girl culture” seems to promise to subject it to the “thoughtful literary inquiry” that chick lit so often does not, the books under review here do not deliver on that promise. Where chick lit often accepts its own banality, experimental fiction can court novelty for its own sake. And in the process it can lapse into its own type of formulism. Most of these books do little more than hang a few half-heartedly “experimental” forms on their frames like baubles. And most feel as if they were gleaned from Experimental Fiction: A Guide for Readers and Writers. The Beautiful Bureaucrat’s incessant wordplay, for example, falls flat: “Nobody. No Body. Oneself. One’s elf.”

But even if their experimental tactics were effective, the books would be marred by their inability to disentangle chick lit’s themes from its typical hackneyed aesthetic, something that only the more ambitious among them even try to do. When Ghost Network turns to the world of female fashion, for example, it does so in accordance with the myth that clothing authentically expresses identity. Sentences like “[she] was also a trendy dresser, who spent most of the summer in long jean shorts and thin backless T-shirts” substitute for characterization. The Beautiful Bureaucrat, meanwhile, inadvertently crowds itself with stock chick-lit personae: “Joseph” is the guy who appears wearing a sign on his head that says “good boyfriend” and “Trishiffany” is the exaggeratedly silly woman who exists to make the protagonist look sensible.

Which brings us back to Alexandra Kleeman. From a stack of graceless blends of girly themes, formal quirks, and hackneyed styles, her book emerges as the only successful integration of the two genres. Stripping chick lit’s topics of their mundane realist dress, Kleeman refashions them entirely in experimental forms. Viewed through the refracted lens of her stilted style, “girl culture” appears as something stranger than most of us had realized.

Take Kleeman’s descriptions of cosmetics commercials. Each is a surreal little set piece, rendering the sort of ad one sees for Dove beauty cream or Bioré pore cleanser entirely alien simply by describing it in detail. In one faux advertisement for some sort of face cream, as plausible as it is bizarre, a woman peels off layers of her face, “smiling wildly at the camera” until “underneath is a video of the sea shore,” and after that “a deciduous forest.”

Or take her descriptions of A, the book’s protagonist, interacting with her boyfriend, C. In one scene they exchange sexual fantasies, each an amusingly off-kilter caricature of gendered sexuality. In A’s, all of her ex-boyfriends arrive at her door, bearing gifts. After they “sit around catching up” for a while, and A begins to feel a “tremendous sense of well-being,” they suddenly start “stripping down and fucking … very politely.” “The ratio of actual sex to chatting, joking, and eating snacks in this fantasy is about one part to six.” C is horrified by that vision. His involves “five women, five different flavors of peanut butter, and a jungle gym.”

<i>Inner Beauty: A Bioré Nose Strip</i> (2009). Photograph by R Lopez / Flickr

But of all the surreal features of Kleeman’s girl world, A’s roommate B is by far the most inspired. In contemporary college-girl parlance, the B would stand for “basic.” “If you reduced each of us to a list of adjectives,” A thinks, “we’d come out nearly equivalent.” B depends utterly on A for things like “companionship, interactivity,” and “help [making] breakfast for herself.” Throughout the book she performs a series of actions that, in their exaggerations of girly behavior, perfectly express its absurd quintessence. She bites people when she feels cornered. She photographs all of the doughnuts at the supermarket. She draws a painstakingly detailed portrait of her ex-boyfriend’s head, “twenty percent larger than it would have been in real life.” In sum, she is the bizarro everygirl. And Kleeman makes us feel that she is magnificent.

Which is why assessments of Kleeman’s book have missed the mark. When You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine first came out, critics insisted that it was scathing. NPR called it “a takedown—chilly in its precision—of beauty standards, face creams,” and so forth. The New York Times lauded its gendered critique of “the society of the spectacle.” In so doing, they aligned it with a prevailing form of pop-feminist cultural critique that, though it accurately identifies the ill effects of “airbrushing” and “unrealistic beauty standards” on the female psyche, reduces feminist discourse to a set of fairly superficial complaints, as if the central problem with patriarchal control were the fact that it makes women feel un-pretty.

But Kleeman’s book has little to do with that form of critique, and she resists applying cookie-cutter analyses to complex social realities. At the center of her book, for example, is a case of what we might call “anorexia,” though defamiliarized to such a degree that we hesitate to apply the term. Rather than attribute it to a single social cause, Kleeman examines it from multiple angles. Consumer culture, to be sure, contributes to it—A’s reluctance to eat has something to do with her desire to fuse with the women on the TV screen. But so, too, does a deep desire for spiritual purity, which predates the “society of the spectacle”—Kleeman claims to have based A’s behavior on that of medieval mystics. Furthermore, while A’s motivations are at times intelligible, they are at others as inscrutable as real human actions often are. We may identify with her acceptance of the mantra “self-improvement is self-subtraction,” but probably not with her urge to swallow a handful of her roommate’s hair.

Rather than approach “girl culture” armed with a predetermined critical narrative, then, Kleeman approaches it as an anthropologist, holding it at a distance, looking at it askance, and recording its every detail before rendering any conclusions. So to reduce her book to an oversimple slogan—to say, for example, that it skewers the cosmetics industry, or eviscerates consumer culture—is to rob it of the key to its success: the fact that it strips “girl culture” of all the clichés in which it has been couched, including shallow cultural critique.