Who says women’s lit is light?

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Who says women’s lit is light?

I was never a fan of escapist fiction.
I never read romance novels when I was a teenager. I always regarded them as emotional waste. Instead, I was more drawn to tragic epics about wars and revolutions that often involved long journeys and grand tasks. Until I started reading Jane Austen, I didn’t realize that there was a certain language and sensibility to women’s writing that most of my male friends would never be able to fully understand.
Then one day, while I overheard my father whispering in my mother’s ears that their daughter might be a “ball-breaker,” I was casually flipping through a newspaper, and found “My Sweet City,” a coming-of-age novel series about a 31-year-old editor, single, who sat in a bathroom blowing her nose because she didn’t have the strength to cry about her ex-boyfriend’s wedding.
I kept on reading. I was hooked. By the end of the series, I was officially a chick-lit fan.
I found myself obsessing over the scene in which an amiable young man sat quietly in the corner of a grungy motel room, gently sprinkling powdered soup out of a spice packet over a cup of instant noodles for his lover before they finally start making the most of their one-night stand. I could identify with every tale of woe they shared in the pub when they first met, drunk after sharing a bottle of tequila.
The morning after I read that scene, my female colleague and I exchanged deep sighs over a messenger program (yes, we sigh over instant messenger!) over the guy’s line near the end of the scene, in which he whispers to the woman, “Have this soup before you sleep. You could hurt yourself on an empty stomach.”
We truly identified ― perhaps more than we should ― when the narrator described in her dramatic encounter with the man in a tone that’s ridiculously cliched yet irresistibly delicious that he was “an angel sent by God as a gift for a poor shepherd.”
She smartly left out the other details of the night, saying “a few of the things you would imagine happening to a man and woman in a closed space also happened to us.”
It was beautiful. The story was imaginative, profoundly romantic and relieving, something I haven’t seen in many period epics by male writers.

On a beautiful September afternoon I’m sitting on my plush sofa, trying to come up with a list of light prose I’ve seen on bookstore shelves within the past two years about bumbling heroines finding the loves of their lives.
I am not inclined to, but I do it anyway.
On top of the list, there is “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” the story of a hopeless, overweight 30-something woman’s quest to marry Mr. Right, Mark Darcy, a man who proclaims to love her “just the way she is.”
There is “Shopaholic,” the confessions of a financial journalist with an addiction to shopping; “The Devil Wears Prada,” which dips into the wild world of the Manhattan fashion industry; “The Thing about Jane Spring,” the dating adventures of a tall blonde, assistant district attorney for the city of New York. And, of course, there is “Sex and the City,” a post-feminist bible for single women around the world.
The figures are telling as well: “Shopaholic” has sold over 2 million copies in Korea so far; “The Devil Wears Prada” has sold 1 million copies since May.

Yet it seems more than just a coincidence that there is such a great divide between those who love “chick-lit” and those who hate it. The majority of readers who love it are young women. On the other hand, the critics lament the declining standards in the local publishing scene rather than lauding their rather telling book sales.
Lit blogs are full of bitter reviews, blaming chick-lit for the dearth of serious literature. Across the Pacific Ocean, Gloria Steinem, a feminist author and the founder of Ms. Magazine, offers praise for the recent publication of “This is Not Chick Lit: Original Stories by America’s Best Women Writers,” an anthology of serious women writers edited by Elizabeth Merrick as a backlash against the cultural obsession with “chick-lit.”
But I remember when critics scoffed at Korean women authors for writing “sentimental memoirs” about their personal traumas ― one veteran male novelist publicly accused a woman writer of “selling her divorce experience like a badge of honor, as in some a heroic episode,” in his book.
The word “feminism” has been tainted so badly by literary criticism over the years that it’s become a stigma. Indeed, an artist friend of mine recently said, “If ‘chick-lit’ survives literary criticism, it’s probably because deep down, society is more tolerant of women who are vain than who are militant.”

Yet throughout history women have always been punished for seeking pleasure. During a recent conversation with my girlfriends, I began to wonder why the media has been constantly labeling the new breed of women in Korea.
I’m trying to read between the lines in different names I recently came across in media to describe social trends among young Korean women, hoping they provide some clues to the fuss over “chick-lit.”
Most recently, there has been the debate on “bean-paste girls” (known in Korean as doenjang-nyeo), a term for young Korean women who imitate the glamorous lifestyle of New Yorkers. The term spread over the Internet after an anonymous writer lampooned the girls.
These are the kind of girls who eat cheap street food to save money so they can buy a pair of luxury shoes; they bathe themselves in Chanel perfume purchased with their parent’s credit cards; when they run out of money, they get male classmates to buy them coffee at Starbucks.
The pathos of a bean-paste girl is that they are vain and miserable while lacking the style and wit of the girls in “Sex and the City.” No matter how they try, they can’t fake their personalities.
Then recently there was also the social syndrome notably dubbed “gold miss diary,” which came from the Korean TV drama “Old Miss Diary.” The “gold misses” are perhaps the fittest of the bean-paste breed. The term is a new nickname for professional young women in Korea who have everything they need in life ― power and success ― except men.
A recent poll in a newspaper article on “gold misses” indicated that an increasing number of Korean women with a successful career and a higher income have problems finding husbands, because men tend to be intimidated by successful women.
The article cited statistics from a matchmaking company that showed that men greatly prefer younger, less successful women over older, more accomplished ones.
It’s a Catch-22: Women can be disdained for being too vain and dependent on men (a “bean paste girl”), but if they work hard to accomplish a certain status in their professions, they’re frightening (a “gold miss”).
Yet exact rules seem to apply for writing by women as well. If the book delves into serious feminist subjects, it lacks literary sensuality; if it slips into “chic-lit” mode, it’s frivolous.

In a time when criticism ― both literary and moral ― of “chick-lit” is peaking, is it just a coincidence that society is constantly evaluating the lifestyle choices of women?
I might also add that in the course of the debate over bean-paste girls, “The Devil Wears Prada,” by Lauren Weisberger, was constantly mentioned as the typical thing a dull young woman would read.
Indeed, why should certain genres of books be pinpointed for avoiding pressing issues of humanity when there is tons of commercial fiction out there that does the same and is left untouched? You rarely see critics penning harsh criticisms of books or stories about hunting or car racing.
Why can’t naive young women hold on to some silly books that provide them with fantasies and hope in a harsh world that leaves women torn between what they want to be and what they should be? Do we have the moral right to be critics of vanity when failed dreams of feminism and lessons we learned from our mothers have been proven wrong, that after all, women are determined by their looks in this society; that women should be stronger, more vicious and more pretentious if we want to maintain our sanity?
Women need to look around and take what they’ve got. After all, that’s what “chick-lit” heroines did ― at least before they met Mr. Right.


by Park Soo-mee

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