Monday, August 27, 2007

Reader's Diary #283- Susan Rendell: Ladies Wear

Short Story Monday

There's been a lot of criticism of Chick Lit lately. This is where I'd weigh in on the topic but alas, I don't think I've ever read any. And you can't judge what you don't know, right?

What is it? Like all genre definitions, what categorizes something as Chick Lit is a hazy proposition. Still, despite my ignorance of the term, I had an idea of what it might entail and I also admit I didn't look on it favourably.

Susan Rendell's short story, "Ladies Wear," fits my conception of what Chick Lit is- no surprise given the title. It didn't, however, fit my low expectations. Instead of a rather vacant, shallow tale, it was very intelligent and complex.

"Ladies Wear" is the story of two cousins who stick with one another despite appearing to be polar opposites. Told only from the perspective of one cousin, at first I was quick to agree with the implied condemnations of the other. She appeared shallow, hung up on looks, judgemental and elitist.

It's a fun read; sometimes cracking jokes outright, other times using a dry subtle wit. One of my favourite lines in the story occurred after revealing how Raina (the shallow cousin) reacted to the death of her Portuguese water dog:

Raina wore a black band around her arm for a month, even though people thought
she was protesting something and stopped inviting her to parties for a while.

Speaking of the dog, Rendell use of dogs and butterflies as symbols was fantastic. Was it an intentional throwback to the Heart song? I'm not sure, but Ann and Nancy Wilson seem appropriate for such a story in any case.

I think "Ladies Wear" works best as a character study. After a couple of readings, I began to be reminded of Robert Frost's "Mending Wall." Like that poem, I first agreed with the narrator's judgement of the second person. But in both cases, multiple readings made me think the original view is somewhat hypocritical. In the Frost poem, the narrator's smugness implied (to me) that while he might be opposed to physical fences, he seems to need the metaphorical one to separate himself from his inferior neighbour. Likewise, the narrator in Rendell's story is critical of Raina's judgemental attitudes (especially towards the poor), yet the bulk of the story is judgement of Raina (and the rich are arguably not given any fair chance in the narrator's eyes either). With Rendell's strength as a writer, small reminders that Raina is still a human being-capable of love- leak through, despite the narrator's slander.

If "Ladies Wear" is representative of the Chick Lit genre, I've underestimated it. But in my defense, the term itself doesn't exactly demand respect does it? Or did "chick" suddenly become acceptable? I'm so out of touch with what's p.c. and what isn't it.

In other business, if you click on the link to Susan Rendell's story above and find that you enjoy it, you might also want to consider ordering her audio book of short stories In the Chambers of the Sea available from Rattling .

Also, I'm again reminding my fellow bloggers that if you, too, write a short story post, please consider submitting the link to me at jmutford [at] hotmail [dot] com to use in my short story themed Bookworms Carnival coming up in November. September's carnival will be hosted by Book Nut. Her theme is classics. If you've written a post about classic literature, or would like to, consider submitting your post link to her: mmfraf [at] sbcglobal [dot] net before September 14th.)


raidergirl3 said...

I don't think I'd call that 'chick lit', just a good short story. It has got to the point where anything written by a woman, about a woman is called chick lit.
I must go think more fully about what makes a book 'chick lit' because I know when a book is chick lit, in my opinion, but what is making it that?

I'm hoping to do a short story post for you. Do I post it on my blog before the carnival, or wait until November?

John Mutford said...

Raidrergirl: Oh good, it looks like you read her story. Possibly you're right about it not being "Chick Lit" at all. It wasn't so much that it was written by a woman about a woman that I considered it, it was also that it dealt a lot with fashion as well, and for some reason I expected Chick Lit to use similarly stereotypical or cliched women's interests. That said, I obviously enjoyed Rendell's story even if the surface level of the story doesn't break any gender expectations (and hey, just because it's a stereotype doesn't mean a woman can't or shouldn't have an interest in fashion!) And for what it's worth, I don't consider works by say Margaret Atwood or Carol Shields to be Chick Lit, despite usually being about women. Maybe I don't like the term "Chick Lit" at all. I'll have to think some more on it. Soon as we start with the labels, there's always trouble! ;)

Most people post their submissions before the actual carnival. It would be my choice as well- that way your regular readers' comments add to the post and there's even more for your new Carnival reader's to take in. It also gives the host a chance to read it beforehand and decide how to use it (in terms or organization and so on). I'm looking forward to yours!

raidergirl3 said...

It was interesting about the fashion in the story, because although the narrator judged her cousin, she knew all the names and what was good style. If she was really anti-fashion, would she have known the brands like that? I may have to go back and read that again.
Margaret Atwood and Carol Shields are certainly Literature.

Also, for short stories, for the RIP II challenge, Carl is having, or looking for, a Sunday Short Story peril - read a creepy/spooky short story on the weekend and write a post, so there should be some great posts around over the next two months.

John Mutford said...

Raidergirl: It's a good point about the narrator seeming to have an awful lot of knowledge about names and fashion sense, but it could be argued that she just picked it up from listening to the other cousin.

I'd read about the RIP II Challenge and wondered if I'd get any short story posts drifting my way. The October Carnival is apparently about spooky books, so they'll no doubt get some of those RIP posts as well. I'm also considering adding a Mister Linky thing to my Short Story Monday posts, hoping to get more people involved much like Poetry Friday's (even though they'll typically get more people because it's much easier to post a quick a poem than a review of a short story, but who knows it might start taking off eventually.)

Heather said...

Hi John! Thank you for your comment on my blog (The Library Ladder) about short stories. I'm hoping to get back to regular blogging and Short Story Mondays would be something I'd be very much interested in. I'm going to add your blog to my links if that is alright. Another suggestion is that you might want to get involved in A Singular Curiousity - a short story discussion blog (the link is in my side bar).

John Mutford said...

Heather: That sounds like a great link- how'd I miss that? Thanks for the heads up.