Cardinal Column #10: Chick Lit

(Editor’s note: This particular column was actually conceived many months before it was written, on suggestion of my old editor Emily who now maintains an amusingly insightful blog of her own. She’d wanted me to spend a week reading nothing but these types of books, and I kept the idea on my back burner until Valentine’s Day rolled around, making it a timely topic for that week’s column.

Beyond being a column that got praise from almost everyone in the office when I walked in after it was published – and also giving rise to a title phrase my editor had been saving almost as long as I’d been saving the idea itself – I think this one is genuinely funny in places and also continues my trend of discovering my own style. Were I to do it again I may swap romance novels into it as well and also try writing the column in more of a chick-lit format, but it stands as one of my personal favorites regardless.)

Valentine’s Day lesson: chick-lit is not a free ride to the Chappell of love

Originally published in The Daily Cardinal, February 15, 2006

By the excess of red discount candy Valentine’s Day has come and gone – and in the immortal words of “Futurama’s” Philip J. Fry, “I forgot to get a girlfriend again.”

Yes, like Jay Gatsby sitting at the end of the pier watching the green light or Sherlock Holmes shooting morphine inside his den, there was no romance in this literature columnist’s life on the one day where everyone is pressured to have some. I had no plans for a movie date, no quiet candlelight dinner or even a random hookup – just another night among my classic texts.

I’ve considered why I always wind up single on this day – my awkward twitching and short attention span usually comes to mind – but the main reason appears to be that I just don’t know how to seriously communicate with women. When I run out of small talk I tend to get into my favorite books, and unfortunately most women I meet don’t find Burroughs and Thompson a turn-on.

So this year, I decided to make my literary passions work for me by spending a few days exclusively reading “chick lit,” books targeted toward young hip women offering advice and exciting life stories. I hoped that by going through books – a very personal form of communication – I could get a look at how the other half lives and use that perspective to my dating advantage.

I decided to stick with the basics for my research: Candace Bushnell’s quintessential “Sex and the City,” Greg Behrendt’s dumping textbook “He’s Just Not That Into You” and Lauren Weisberger’s scathingly fashionable “The Devil Wears Prada.” Swallowing back my embarrassment at publicly reading books with pink and pastel covers, I dove in with gusto.

Unfortunately, I emerged from this text-induced estrogen haze more confused than I was when I first entered. Rather than provide me with some compelling secret as to how to win a women’s heart, I found characters that were sharply written but shallow, a high-velocity cast who were hardly the sort of people I’d share a cosmopolitan at the Plaza with.

“Sex and the City” has been talked up as the single woman’s Bible and “The Devil Wears Prada” is the first chick lit book that comes to most minds, but I hope readers don’t take on those characters as their role models. They seem to be more concerned with appearance than heart, models on how to be secure and happy with heartless exteriors and the mindset “better alone than badly accompanied.”

“He’s Just Not That Into You” was a bit more help since it offered advice over anecdotes, but unfortunately the advice only heaped more pressure onto my fragile relationship skills. I can buy cheating as a sign to dump them, but apparently if I’m not the one calling her all the time and the one making all the first moves it’s a sign to throw me to the curb. Whatever happened to being adorably inexperienced, or panic at being in love?

I will say this for the book, however: it did supplement its criticism with various motivational sayings. I felt fairly fragile after being told any little misstep would get me canned, but being told “There’s someone out there that does want to have sex with you, hot stuff” and “You, the superfox reading this book, are worth asking out” is a definite morale boost.

If reading chick lit did anything it made things worse for me – the books girls enjoy aren’t a textbook to their hearts, and are every bit as complicated as they are. It’s also done little to improve my dating confidence, as my paranoia at being judged has increased dramatically and my ideas on the right thing have been thrown into chaos.

I did get one good thing out of it, however: I intend to add “superfox” onto my resume the next time I head down to the bar.

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