After Chick Lit, welcome to ‘baby-sick lit’
The latest publishing craze – rapid-consumption novels about women trying to conceive – is not quite the literary cup of hot chocolate that was provided by Bridget Jones and the other zany singletons of the Chick Lit era.
Stevie Johnson, heroine of A Bad Bride’s Tale, is obviously getting married for the wrong reasons. From the first few pages, we learn that her boyfriend is an unattractive, self-absorbed, emotionally-manipulative, well-meaning bit of a git whose ideas about, and expectations of, life run counter to Stevie’s own. But at the age of 34, Stevie’s biological clock is ticking and her younger sister has two kids already. So Stevie takes the plunge – and quickly jumps back out again, with the happy realisation that her childhood sweetheart is still waiting in the wings. Far from being on the shelf, she still has time for true love, personal fulfilment and the patter of tiny feet! Don’t you just love it when that happens?
Unfortunately, it doesn’t – not outside the world of popular publishing, anyway. True to its genre, A Bad Bride’s Tale sticks well within the cosy formula of Chick Lit – rapid-consumption commuter books, written by, for and about women in their late twenties or early thirties and the strange world of post-equality dissatisfaction that they inhabit. As Chick Lit’s protagonists struggle to reconcile life goals such as finding the right man, the right job and the right levels of self-esteem with the infantilised, commitment-wary, anxiety-ridden hedonism that has characterised their lives to date, Chick Lit’s authors skilfully veer away from interrogating their own insights (a sleight of hand generally described as ‘humorous’) and exposing the depths of the contradiction facing young women trying to pursue worthy ends in a confused, uptight, me-first culture.
The books generally end with an improbable happy-for-now ending, which is strangely comforting – and which is probably why so many of Chick Lit’s endorsements liken the various books to a cup of hot chocolate or some other such girly treat. But sometimes, what you really need is a stiff vodka; and the more that Chick Lit authors stray into the thorny emotional terrain of pregnancy and motherhood, the harder it is for hot chocolate to do the trick.
As one reviewer has reported, ‘baby-sick lit’ has taken over from chick lit as ‘publishing’s latest craze’ (1). Polly Williams’ previous novel, The Rise and Fall of a Yummy Mummy, delved into the turmoil of new motherhood and its corresponding loss of a sex life/decent wardrobe/sense of identity. It’s all quite sharp and entertaining, with some funny insights about the weirdness of postnatal groups and the disorientation facing the onetime girl-in-PR when forced to adapt to a life of tracksuits and buggy-pushing. Like Fiona Neill’s Secret Life of a Slummy Mummy, which projects the struggle with maternal identity further forward into life with school-age children, Williams’ brand of baby-sick lit abounds with the contradictory impulse to love one’s child and escape from it; suspicions of one’s partner having an affair and temptations to have an affair oneself; and a rather peculiar obsession with personal grooming.
To the extent that it connects with a new generation of career-girls-turned-mummies, to whom babies are alien creatures and coffee mornings foreign lands, baby-sick lit has its place, just as Chick Lit does in the life of the busy commuter girl. (As Chick Lit author Jenny Colgan once famously remarked: ‘We do actually know the difference between literature and popular fiction. We know the difference between foie gras and Hula Hoops, but, you know, sometimes we just want Hula Hoops.’ (2)) But when it comes to what we might call piss-stick lit, in honour of the ubiquitous home urine tests for ovulation and pregnancy, things become rather more uncomfortable.
In A Bad Bride’s Tale, Williams is trying to deal with some serious Ishoos. The hardback edition was more forthrightly titled The Egg Race (3), and it picks up on a genuine concern in this age of late marriage and motherhood: what if your desire to pursue your own goals and meet the perfect partner means that you leave it too late to have children? The nagging concern that ‘we’re not getting any younger’ forms the backdrop to the singleton-oriented Chick Lit, and piss-stick lit addresses the question head-on. Williams’ Bad Bride marries for her womb not her heart; Emma, the heroine of Sinead Moriarty’s The Baby Trail, becomes progressively more obsessive and despondent about her failure to conceive; Emily Giffin’s Claudia, in Baby Proof, is adamant that she does not want kids – a position that leads to the breakdown of her marriage.
However pastel the covers and light the tone, it’s all really quite difficult, heartrending stuff. Unlike Chick Lit, where the moral of the story is ‘Get on with it!’, or baby-sick lit, where the moral of the story is ‘Cope with it!’, the age-old clash between women’s social choices and their biological make-up does not make for clear statements or easy comforters. The current obsession with women’s ‘biological clock’ – the thing that apparently starts ticking in one’s early thirties to drive women to have children, whether or not they think they want to, before their eggs run out – has become a facile explanation for why women choose to drop everything and have children, and an easy-to-hand warning about why women should choose to drop everything and have children. It is almost as though sexual equality has been capped at the age of 35: it’s fine for women to have careers, drink in pubs and hang out with the lads, so long as they succumb to their biological destiny before it is Too Late.
Yet as the piss-stick lit illustrates, women’s lives are not as straightforward as this. Some women can’t have children, some women don’t want them, and some women haven’t got the father figure in the right place at the right time. Modern life is messy, and IVF can’t work miracles. Piss-stick lit gets this point across all right, but then is forced to leave the reader either with improbably false hope or a gut-churning uncertainty.
If there is an insight in these novels, it is that despite falling fertility rates, despite the fact that increasing numbers of women in the UK are remaining childless, for a woman not to have children – either because she can’t, or won’t – is not really considered OK. This is not because of a positive cultural appreciation of children: in fact, as I have argued before on spiked, there is a quite shocking ambivalence about kids in today’s society (see Having children can be good for you – and society). Rather, it is because childlessness is considered to go against women’s nature; that we ignore the ticking of our biological clocks at our peril. It’s a shame that it should come down to this, that the decision to have children should be posed as essentially an irrational one. We do make reproductive choices, if not always in ideal circumstances; and whatever makes the modern woman tick, it is a far more complex set of factors than the primal urge to have a child.
Baby Proof by Emily Giffin is published by Orion. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
A Bad Bride’s Tale by Polly Williams is published by Sphere. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
The Baby Trail by Sinead Moriarty is published by Penguin. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
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