What's it all about, Alfie? Well perhaps it is about Alfie. If Chick Lit is a term used to denote genre fiction written for and marketed solely to women -- shallow, girl searching for Mr Right while shopping for the perfect diet and shoes--then I guess boychiklit or fratire would be exactly the same thing but written for and marketed to young men. So, cliché being what it is, boy avoids Ms Right while shopping for beer and sportscar. Don't all men want to be like Alfie? Don't all women want to be like Carrie? Only on TV surely. Is the gender divide so clean? Are we always so true to our stereotypes?
We're all from the same species after all, so surely I can enjoy a good, lusty read about boy things. Many of my favourite all time writers are male: Salman Rushdie, Umberto Eco, James Joyce, Cormac McCarthy, Peter Carey, Julian Barnes. Barnes' England, England for example has some pretty racy male scenes, and we all know about Joyce. Does the fact that he can do such rich beautiful female characters like Molly make him any less 'male' in his writing style? Other writers like DBC Pierre, Mark Haddon and Martin Amis are all known for their vigorous, male oriented humour, and have the kind of rich blokyness that would make them number one on my recommended list for male friends looking for a fun read. What about Hemingway, or Steinback? Surely these writers are the epitome of strong, robust, male perspective literature.
Or is there something else behind the notion of a genre designed specifically to denote a book that is not substantial: maybe a bridge between a magazine, a TV show, and a book. Maybe it's like shed time. You've got to get away from all that introspection for a while and just mess about in the sheer mindlessness of blokeland: where women are delightfully simple, and men just wanna have fun, before all that responsibility comes crashing back down on you again.
This is probably the time to admit that I haven't read all that much in this genre. Nor do I want to reveal just what a quality snob I am. It may well be an affliction associated with my gender (I do after all like shopping for shoes), but give me a book with too many girl-chasey gratuitous boob scenes (Bikini Beach: the book) or any kind of stock formula, and I'm afraid I'd be shelfing it faster than you can say puerile. Different strokes and all that. If the formula works and the audience is buying and enjoying the book, what difference does mindlessness make. But...surely a book can be lighthearted and funny, without resorting to cardboard characters, cliché heaped upon cliché, and tired, stock situations. How about, just say, a latelife crisis coupled with a strange mole on the leg and a pair of scissors (Haddon)? What about a successful Casanova who suddenly discovers his womanising is strangely flat and what he really needs is to find his missing father (Irving)? Surely there are male oriented subjects including things like beer, baseball, fast cars, pretty girls and even large breasts, that have universal appeal. Surely books can make us laugh and forget our responsibilities without diminishing the whole notion of what it means to be a human being. Why typecast ourselves? I would have thought that even the most male oriented plot (and to be honest, I’m not all that sure if gender distinctions like male/female are that helpful either – good writing is always interesting to me, regardless of the plot) can aspire to a deep theme, rich and powerful characters, complex plots, and exceptional writing skills, without losing the lightness, the sense of fun, or even the mid-life crisis, the beer or the sportscar. Just ask DBC Pierre. Or, for that matter, Bill Naughton (Alfie’s creator).
Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. Her stories, poetry, reviews and articles have appeared in many printed anthologies and journals, and have won several awards. She is the author of The Art of Assessment, Quark Soup, and Sleep Before Evening.
Wow, Maggie--so well read! I hope you have a social life there in the Outback. Jeez. I never heard of half this stuff.
The core question--is fratire or whatever you call it a worthwhile genre? I get that there is no excuse for poor quality, pulp fiction nothwithstanding.
To be a counterpoint to chick lit, fratire (or boychik lit) would need a formula. Not just a fascination with the puke on your own shoes (Tucker Max) or the adventure of the road-trip (Quentin Cain), or the thrill of a fist fight (Chuck Palahniuk).
Jane Austen provided the formula for chick lit. The woman who cannot snare Mr. Right will not only be miserable, but she will also CEASE TO EXIST socially and perhaps economically.
I extracted this formula from My Inflatable Friend. I do think that geeks and nerds are much more interesting as protagonists than bikers, say.
In the boychik-lit story:
· The male main character is looking for sex and is bewildered by emotional entanglements.
· He is a slacker and a hacker. He is clever and resourceful but chronically lazy.
· He’s a dropout who can’t hold a steady job.
· Far from being the hero with a single tragic flaw, the boychik is riddled with worrisome flaws, with one or two possibly redeeming qualities.
· The tone is observational and witty, sometimes sarcastic.
· The boychik tells his story in a confessional, first-person narrative.
· At the end of the story, the hero has almost managed to undo the complicated mess he’s made in the course of the story and thinks he has learned important lessons, which may or may not be valid.
Maggie, you got the book. You tell me whether a female audience wants anything to do with this.
I'm not sure that the genre distinctions matter all that much. If you do follow the formula (and it's as workable as the hero's journey or any other), it will have to flow very naturally from the character development rather than the other way around. So whether the book appeals to a female (or probably male) audience, doesn't depend on the formula or plot so much as on the quality of the work, and the development of the characters. If they are shallow and unbelievable -- just a vehicle for the plot, then it will have limited appeal. If the characters are realistic, appealing (flaws are great but there has to be something to draw us in and care), and they grow, then it will probably appeal to women and men. I'll keep you posted!
The distinction to be made, I think, is--what separates a genre from the rest of literature? I suggest that having a defined target audience is not sufficient. The genre must have a formula, however loosely defined or applied. In a mystery novel, for example, you start with a dead body and end up with an accusation at a gathering of the usual suspects. The fact that Agatha Christie had a formula does not detract from the her books' status as literature. Or does it?
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