'Chick myst' trumps 'chick lit' in offering real-life role models

The Argument

Earnest women-oriented fiction is putting whining losers at the forefront

turn to thrillers instead

October 20, 2002|By Sandy Alexander | By Sandy Alexander,Sun Staff

Book jackets promise young, sassy women in the big city taking on life and love. Too often, the heroines turn out to be whining, self-absorbed, neurotic characters who need to get over themselves and get on with life.

That's not the only thing wrong with "chick lit," as popular fiction targeted at women is often called. Its worst failing is the way it promotes, in book after book, disappointing examples of female characters.

Readers would do well to leave the chick lit behind and try a mystery.

In mysteries and thrillers with women as the main characters -- let's call the genre "chick myst" -- the heroines have realistic problems, like frustrating boyfriends, overbearing bosses and embarrassing families. But bad guys (or girls) will come into the plot at some point, so chick-myst writers tend to make sure their leading ladies have smarts, self-confidence and skills.

That makes them much more fun to read about.

One problem is that too many of the chicks in chick lit are mired in their bad decisions. The chick-myst women -- though certainly not perfect -- are more motivated to take action.

Take as an example a recent top chick lit-er, Laura Zigman. Her Animal Husbandry (Bantam, 304 pages, $13.95) is 295 pages (in paperback, minus the epilogue) of a character named Jane Goodall trying to get over her ex-boyfriend. She hides her heartbreak by coming up with scientific theories about why men don't stay with one woman, and she records these ideas in journals.

Jane says: "Writing in the notebook became the one thing I actually looked forward to at the end of the day, the one worthwhile thing I could funnel all my obsessive energy into and feel like I was producing something of note. Those notebooks, my database, would, in quite short order, become files -- case files -- which I filled with newspaper clippings, magazine articles, xeroxed pages from books, and anything else that helped explain why Ray dumped me."

Jane's emotions may be understandable, but that doesn't make this book a gripping read, or Jane an admirable character.

In comparison, in the first paragraph of chick-myst author Janet Evanovich's Hard Eight (St. Martin's Press, 320 pages, $25.95), Stephanie Plum, a bond-enforcement agent, reveals she's been rolling around on the ground with men lately.

"The rolling around is what happens when a bust goes crapola and there's a last ditch effort to hog-tie a big, dumb, bad guy possessing a congenitally defective frontal lobe," she says.

As the book progresses, Stephanie enlists the help of a sexy male bounty hunter; tracks down a missing woman and her daughter; fends off a couple of thugs, a bag of snakes and a big spider; and escapes the bad guys with help from her sister's well-timed driving through the wall of a house.

Another difference in genres: While chick-lit gals are obsessing over make-up and men, chick-myst heroines have much more interesting problems.

Back in chick lit, See Jane Date by Melissa Senate (283 pages, $12.95) was one of the first books in Harlequin's Red Dress Ink imprint. According to the Harlequin Web site, these books are "stories that reflect the lifestyles of today's urban, single women."

Jane is trying to get promoted at a publishing company, find the man of her dreams and cover a lie about having a boyfriend to take to her cousin's wedding. So off she goes, consulting the required group of dishing girlfriends and going on blind dates, seeking the man who will save her.

"I eyed my reflection, wondering what else I could possibly do to make myself attractive to [co-worker] Jeremy Black," Jane says in one part. Later, when Jane asks her friend if lying about having a boyfriend is pathetic, the friend says, "Try necessary!"

Compare that to chick-myst heroine Stephanie Plum, who, when her sister asks if she should wear pink heels or "retro Weitzmans" on a date, thinks, "I found a dead man sitting on my couch last night. I have couch cooties and Valerie needs me to make a shoe decision."

In O is for Outlaw (Henry Holt, 318 pages, $26), author Sue Grafton's private investigator and chick-myst staple, Kinsey Millhone, offers this take on fashion:

"I only own one dress. ... This entirely synthetic garment, guaranteed wrinkle-free (but probably flammable) is as versatile as anything I've owned. In it, I can accept invitations to all but the snootiest of cocktail parties, pose as a mourner at any funeral, make court appearances, conduct surveillance, hustle clients, interview hostile witnesses, traffic with known felons, or pass myself off as a gainfully employed person instead of a freelance busybody accustomed to blue jeans, turtlenecks, and tennis shoes."

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