As part of my MA course on ‘Postmodernities: New Sexualities/New Textualities,’ which deals with Gender Studies as it is easy to surmise, I decided to include a ‘chick lit’ novel. I needed something reasonably short and, ideally, about a woman who already has a candidate to be her Mr Right but who comes across the real thing unexpectedly. Also short enough given the numbers of texts in the course. With the invaluable help of my dear Elena Serrano, who is writing her dissertation on this genre, I finally chose Sophie Kinsella’s Can you keep a secret? Kinsella is a well-known brand name in the field of chick lit thanks to her Shopaholic series. If I have to believe the comments on Amazon, any of these novels are vastly superior to the one I chose. I may be then passing unfair judgement on Can you keep a secret? but the fact is that, in the end, this novel has been most useful for my students to consider the problem of what kind of readership is willing to put up with its appalling writing.

The plot is trite enough. Middle-class, 25-year-old Emma (yes, as in Austen) is a junior marketing executive (very junior, as in barely an assistant) who, despite having a college degree, seems quite fond of showing how ignorant and incompetent she is at work. During a bumpy flight to London back from Scotland, where she ruins a business meeting, she panics and blurts out her most intimate secrets to a complete stranger, an older American guy. This unlikely guy, of course, turns out to be the millionaire owner of the company Emma works for and is in possession of a wondrous memory which allows him to recall every single stupid secret Emma unveiled on the plane. A series of embarrassing misencounters happen and by the end of the book, guess what?, she’s got the promotion she was hankering after and the millionaire guy in her bed (no rock on her finger, though).

In principle, there is no reason why you couldn’t create fine literature out of this, since Jane Austen, the great-grandma of chick lit, managed to spun a subtle, irony-laden prose out of comparable bilge (excuse my… bile). We ended up, though, figuring out that she was lucky in that her readership welcomed (perhaps even demanded) that kind of prose for their literary entertainment, whereas in our supposedly more cultured time, thousands and thousands if not millions of (female) readers seem satisfied with Kinsella’s unbearable… trash. Trash, because as my students complained, you do not see any kind of thinking behind it, though we don’t know whether this is the product of hurried writing under marketing pressures or of plain inability to put the literary brain at work. Considering Kinsella’s education I doubt she lacks the brainpower, and if she is just dumbing it all down to please an allegedly less cultivated readership, well, isn’t that cynical?

There is something else that concerns me. If I compare Austen’s Darcy and Kinsella’s Jack Harper they are not really that different: both can be described as patient gentlemen, quite ready to tutor the younger heroine on the pragmatics of social life and also quite willing to love them despite the many irritating mistakes they make. The heroine has changed, though, in a crucial matter: she is much less dignified. Discussing Amy Heckerling’s updating of Emma, the teen pic Clueless, Melissa Mazmanian claims that since the 19th century lady has no equivalent today Heckerling could only rewrite Emma as a much more relevant figure for the late 20th century: the (rich) dumb blonde. Paris Hilton, yes, is the kind of woman Austen would have to write about today if she were alive. I’ll grant that Hilton, and Kinsella’s Emma and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones may be more clever than they appear to be but ‘lady’ is not the kind of word that comes to my mind when I think of them.

Last week, teaching a seminar on the comic and the film 300, I ended with film critic Roger Ebert’s complaint that whereas heroes seemed dignified in the old 1960s sword-and-sandal films (we know them as ‘peplums’), the hypermuscled lot in 300 act as ‘lager louts.’ Now it is my turn to complain about this new batch of bumbling, idiotic heroines. My students pointed out that, for all her mistakes, you still like Emma by the end of Austen’s novel, as she remains indeed dignified, even much more so after humbly learning a lesson. About Kinsella’s Emma the only thing I can say is that I hope there are not many real women like her. And novels like Kinsella’s.