Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Reading chick-lit

with one comment

During my recent trip to Bonn, I picked up a number of books in the larger-/better-than-in-Wuppertal bookstores. Among these, two examples of “chick-lit”: “A Discovery of Witches” (ADoW) by Deborah Harkness* and “Rebecca” (R) by Daphne du Maurier**.

*Mostly through ignorance of the contents, as I had assumed that this book would be more regular fantasy and less “Twilight” than it turned out to be.

**The classification as “chick-lit” might be a little unfair, e.g. with an eye on the high quality, but the book likely caters more to women than to men. (But having seen the Hitchcock movie at least thrice, I had a much better idea of what to expect than with ADoW.) This especially in my edition, which comes with a decidedly odd, strongly red cover, picturing red cloth and with the name “Rebecca” written in large, pseudo-calligraphy letters. Indeed, while I have no qualms about reading this work, even in public, I was a little embarrassed reading this specific edition in a restaurant—the cover (unfairly) screams “cheap romance”.

I read about half of ADoW while in Bonn, taking a number of notes, and about a hundred pages of R. I finished them in the next week or two back in Wuppertal, reading a chapter here-and-there without taking notes. Below follows first a discussion of the “Bonn portion” of ADoW based on the notes, then some minor further remarks on the two books and their similarities and differences. Throughout, I make reservations for memory deficits. To cut to the chase, ADoW is sufficiently crappy that I will not bother with the sequels (and do not recommend the first book to others), while R is considerably better and well worth a read (even for a man and even for someone who has already seen the movie).

Remark: I will refer to the respective main female protagonist as “heroine” throughout, in part because the heroine of R is (probably) never named other than by pronouns and the cumbersome and ambiguous “Mrs. de Winter”. (An interesting contrast to Rebecca, the “other” Mrs. de Winter, whose name appears again and again, including as the book’s title.) This allows for more generic expressions. For the sake of completeness, the named heroine of ADoW is Diana, and the respective romantic interests are Maxim in R and Matthew in ADoW.

Discussion of ADoW based on Bonn notes (some overlap and duplication might be present):

  1. The book is derivative, stereotypical, and childish, with no attempts at “higher values” of note. The plot is limited and filled with “feel good” descriptions, the adult woman’s equivalent of Enid Blyton’s food orgies.
  2. It borders on being “porn for women”, except in as far as there is little actual sex.

    This includes female fantasies about being special* and desired, a too-good-to-be-true** man, and other sugary feel-goodery.

    *Note how the heroine is simultaneously the most talented witch in centuries, an extremely rare abstainer from magic use (or so she thinks), has an odd adrenaline overload, and has a highly successful academic career—and she does yoga and rows, to boat, sorry, to boot. In this regard, both she and Matthew could be seen as “Mary Sues”, being good at everything, bad at nothing, etc.

    **Vampire super-powers, rich and landed, hyper-educated, successful, leader of a knightly order, very old and still young looking, preternaturally beautiful, personal friend of dozens of historical persons (including Shakespeare), etc. To some degree, the book could be seen as an exercise in dreaming up the perfect man, “a discovery of a man”. This is to a high degree compatible with my hypothesis that women are relatively more likely to dream of getting a man/partner with great capabilities, while men are more likely to dream of getting the capabilities themselves.

  3. Overlapping, there are a lot of modern vampire cliches, including the odd attraction for this one special woman by a vampire who has lived for ages.*

    *And how come that Angel and Buffy were considered romantic, while a (non-vampire) man a tenth of Angel’s age would otherwise be branded a pervert and a pedophile for showing interest in a girl of sixteen, and while Angel–Buffy, or even ADoW, scenarios are arguably closer to a “Lolita” setup. (Also see another footnote on “Lolita” below.)

  4. There is too much filler, too much (mostly irrelevant) detail, too little that happens. In particular, there is an extreme focus on sensory perceptions, especially taste. This to the point that I at one point* actually threw the book away in disgust, only picking it up again the next day, because I felt that there were some lessons on both writing and women to be drawn. (Notably, is is hard for a typical man to naturally/intuitively understand the type of woman used as the heroine, and/or those women who like to read such stories, as will likely be clear from some of the items in this list.)

    *I could not find the exact place again, on short notice, but it might have been somewhere around page 200 in my edition, with some scene relating to eating or drinking having the heroine quasi-orgasmic.

    ADoW might have been good if the large low value descriptive portions and other “filler” had been removed—and the book been half as thick. The story it self has some potential, but it is drowned in nonsense.

    I am, however, starting to suspect, based on literary preferences, that women tend to be more interested in experiences*, sensations, moods, whatnot than events, psychology, ethical dilemmas, … If so, it would explain a number of oddities in works by or for women. Similarly, it might be that men read/write for entertainment and value, while women read/write for mood and “feel good” escapism—emotions, not substance.

    *In Germany, I also note phrases like “Einkaufserlebnis” (“shopping experience”), which are entirely strange to me—if I go shopping, it is not to “experience” something, it is to find suitable products. Cut out the experience, and give me good prices and many choices, and I will be perfectly happy. If women see it the other way around, this phrase and this priority becomes less odd. (Note that women are more likely to spend money on shopping and are, therefore, of more interest to the advertising industry. I am, obviously, long aware that many women see shopping as entertainment or relaxation, along the pattern of Carrie Bradshaw.)

  5. There is an extreme naivete about evolution and genetics (both referenced repeatedly) and science in general. This includes interbreeding between different species* and “teleological” mutations causing “deliberate” adaptions**. Other issues include unrealistic effects of low metabolism*** and a perpetuation of the ignorant “races do not exist” myth****.

    *I am a little vague on exactly what I meant during note-taking, but it probably was the combination of the in-universe take that humans, vampires, witches, and/or demons belong to radically different species combined with the question whether they could interbreed. Barring some highly magical exception, this does not make sense, because interbreeding between creatures of this complexity is at odds with considering them as belonging to different species or, on the outside, “neighboring” species (e.g. horses and donkeys). Similarly, the great similarity in looks would be at odds with even e.g. parallel evolution. The whole thing is simply not thought through—or the author is astonishingly ignorant of the biological sciences. (This is not made better by the various creation paths involved, with witches descending from witches, vampires being turned from human to vampire by other vampires, and demons arising as mutations of humans, IIRC. Witches excepted, this fits the pattern of typical species very poorly and raises doubts as to whether speaking of species makes sense at all.)

    **As in changing circumstances causing genes to mutate to fit the circumstances, which is not at all what happens in real life, where mutations occur somewhat randomly and the circumstances affect a filtering of those mutations. Note Terry Pratchett’s “The Last Continent” for this incompatible-with-reality type of adaption taken to a humorous extreme.

    ***If e.g. a low metabolism is the explanation for the increased life span of vampires, how do we explain that they are far faster than humans? It just does not make sense, it is like eating one’s cake and ending up with more cake than one had originally … (To my vague recollection, there was some type of excuse offered of vampires saving their energy for the needed moment, but since the behavior displayed is very far from e.g. a crocodile laying in wait for its pray, this simply does not pan out—nor am I certain that this would be realistically possible even with a more crocodilian life-style, barring magical help.)

    ****The odder in light of viewing very similar creatures as members of different species.

    However, the idea of declining species is interesting, IF motivated by insight into the current dysgenic situation. Then again, I doubt that this is the case, and more likely it will turn out that the artificial ban on interspecies relationships is the cause of the problem.

  6. More generally, there is a lot that is poorly thought-through and lacks deliberation on potential consequences, including the claim that about 1-in-10 of the population would be supernatural while the existence of supernaturals is not public knowledge, and various covenant issues*. Similarly, Matthew is attributed with an enormous influence to keep others out of the library without reason/explanation, and in a manner that is hard to combine with later events and any causal mechanism. (His knightly order notwithstanding.)

    *My notes speak only of “covenant issues” and I do not recall the details. It will likely be understandable to those reading the book, however.

    (While I have not payed attention to this aspect in great detail, where male and female authors are concerned, it is noteworthy that J. K. Rowling is similar. The over-valuation of the “Golden Snitch” in Quidditch is an obvious example, but consider also e.g. how a group of students created the “Marauder’s Map” while none of the adult wizards, Voldemort included, has something similar, or how a “time turner” (?) is given to Hermione for such a trivial task as taking parallel classes, while they are not used for more important tasks, e.g. fighting Voldemort, nor by Voldemort against the heroes. (The later “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” goes some way to remedy this, but (a) is too little, too late, (b) who is to credit for what is unclear and it need not be Rowling’s idea.)

  7. An oddity is that there is little history content from the historian author. (But this might change in the second book, which, according to included blurb, appears to be dominated by the time-travel scenario begun at the end of ADoW. Also: Magic and time travel in the same book?!? A little too much for my taste.)
  8. The development of the romance is stereotypical with a very passive woman and a man who makes all decisions/takes all initiative.

    More generally, the heroine is surprisingly passive and dependent on others, especially Matthew. On the one hand she is (allegedly) academically successful, a powerful witch, strong willed, whatnot; on the other, she behaves like a child, manages little on her own, and has an almost daughter–father relationship with her “husband”.* If she is representative for “intelligent” women, no wonder that they trail men as high-achievers, unless they are given artificial assistance to overcome largely non-existent problems (e.g. the infamous “glass roof”).

    *As an aside, one of the other books that I picked up was Nabokov’s “Lolita”, which I am currently reading. While a very different type of book, it does take the daughter–father version of wife–husband to an extreme. Still, the eponymous Lolita appears to have a stronger will and more to say in the relationship, while barely straddling the border between childhood and womanhood, than the thirty-something heroine of ADoW. I might also consider Lolita and Rebecca something of kindred spirits.

  9. (I repeatedly found myself suspecting inconsistencies in who-is-who and continuity, but I did not go back to check and might have been wrong.)

As to my post-Bonn readings, I had the impression that the story fell apart after the heroine was kidnapped.

Looking at R and, especially, R vs. ADoW, R is of much higher quality, especially when it comes to prose, some parts reading almost like poetry.* It also has some psychology, a more engaging romance, a few plot twists** that actually work; is more believable (even supernatural aspects of ADoW aside); and left me wanting to read on in another manner. A particular strength is the suspense, which even in book form is already almost Hitchcockian (but a comparison here is unfair, as ADoW belongs to a different genre).

*Notwithstanding some odd spelling errors and at least one instance of what seemed like one or more lines missing. There is a fair chance that these errors were introduced by the publisher/printer/whatnot; and if not, they are the type of errors that everyone makes and that a good editor should catch, if they slip by the author during proof-reading.

**With reservations for these already being known to me from the movie, which forces some mental approximation. A difference compared to the movie is that Rebecca is outright murdered (largely an accident in movie), but this too I already knew from a Wikipedia reading.

However, there are quite a few commonalities, including that comparatively little happens, that there are (too) many descriptions, that both heroines are virtual children (with greater justification in R, due to situation and age), that both men are extremely good catches, that both heroines land in unusual environments (including “his” estate) with mysteries and perceptions of danger, etc. A particularly interesting aspect is the (perceived or feared) romantic competition from the past, which is a major theme of R and has repeated occurrences in ADoW—and in both cases the competition turns out to be far less of a romantic threat than the heroine feared (but sometimes quite dangerous in non-romantic areas).

Looking at R alone, I was repeatedly struck by a theme of (almost) self-defeat, where lack of confidence, wasted opportunities, whatnot, unnecessarily held the heroine back. This even post-wedding, when it came to taking on the role as wife and lady of the house. Through large parts of the book, I even suspected that Danvers could have been turned to her side, had she had the guts to step into the shoes of Rebecca (but the later parts of the book cast doubt on that idea).

Excursion on coincidence and awareness (and the “nectarine phenomenon”):
I have often noticed what I think of as the “nectarine phenomenon”*. It struck again with the Ashmolean, which plays an important part in ADoW. I originally thought that it was fictional, made up for the book, until I looked up Nell Gwynne, a name occurring in R (!), on Wikipedia. Almost the first thing that I read is “Ashmolean”. (Small world …) I have seen the name at least twice in other contexts in the few weeks since.

*The word “nectarine” (resp. the Swedish “nektarin”) once lost me critical points in a quiz. I was certain that I had never heard the word before, and thought it unfairly obscure to children of ten, but I stumbled upon it again and again in the months following, which lead me to doubt that I had been right. (Admittedly, after going through a period of thinking that the world, instead of the quiz, was unfair, because “if I had only encountered the word for the first time a week before the quiz instead of a week after the quiz, then …”, but the evidence eventually mounted too high.) Similar experiences have occurred fairly often since then, in that there comes a point of awareness of e.g. a word, sound, image, actor, self-insight, whatnot and that I notice when I encounter said word (etc.) afterwards, but not before. Indeed, my awareness of the nectarine phenomenon is it self an example of the nectarine phenomenon. (But note that some amount of coincidence usually does play in, e.g. in that “Ashmolean” likely has occurred unusually often in the last few weeks.)

Excursion on “Pride and Prejudice”:
While my memory of “Pride and Prejudice”, another of my rare readings of more for-women literature, has faded too much to make this a three-way comparison, there are definitely some similarities. Notably, one of my main complaints in my unfavorable review was the lack of tempo and how little actually happened.

Excursion on boys and reading:
To the degree that differences in reading preferences hold, it could go a long way to explain the lesser interest for reading among boys: shove “Pride and Prejudice” down their throats as mandatory reading and they are likely to be put off, as it is simultaneously boring and lacking in “food for thought”. Indeed, I have read super-hero comics, so often looked down upon by women, with more “higher values”. Hornblower is certainly far more likely to keep boys reading.

Written by michaeleriksson

January 18, 2020 at 4:00 am

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  1. […] a contrast, note my discussion of “A Discovery of Witches”, a book with damaging amounts of undue […]


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