The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

19 February 2006

Cultural mavens, all of us

Darla has identified what she calls the Fantasy of the Good Life, and it goes like this:

This mostly applies to romance novels, chick lit, and women's fiction. I haven't seen this phenomenon in any other genre. Obviously, it doesn't apply in sf/f.

It seems that an inordinate number of characters, regardless of their personalities or how they grew up, know all about:

  • fashion (a bricklayer can distinguish Armani from another designer from across a crowded room)
  • wine
  • flowers (even self-professed black thumbs know the names of every flower they encounter)
  • classical music (a woman who grew up in a slum can name a Vivaldi concerto in 6 notes or less)
  • perfume (every man and most of the women can identify a woman's brand of perfume at 20 paces)

My theory is that the authors who do this are trying to portray the characters as living The Good Life, and that these details aren't necessarily things that the authors themselves are all that familiar with, but they're things they imagine would be important to living The Good Life. It kind of goes along with the stereotype of women being into shopping and fashion, and looking for status in a mate as opposed to physical attributes (stereotype! I said stereotype!).

Which may explain why you don't see this in science fiction/fantasy, since the author's concept of The Good Life therein is likely worlds away, so to speak, of what we might aspire to in the land of Manic Mundane.

But I'd rather have the stereotyping, such as it is, than some vapid attempt to impose some sort of cultural "authenticity," itself a stereotype, on the characters: it's not useful to have someone drawl just because he grew up in Lubbock, nor to have him fighting said drawl just because he grew up in Lubbock. The object lesson for me came about 15 years ago, when I met a young black woman, maybe not incredibly gorgeous but certainly credibly gorgeous, who worked in the medical field and who was a major Elton John fan; for some reason it took me quite a while to adjust to this particular reality, as though African ancestry would somehow prevent someone from listening to "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." I'm incoherent enough in the presence of beauty, so this bit of silliness made matters much, much worse, and I truly hope that she's forgotten my existence. (Inasmuch as we never had an actual date, I think this is likely; on the other hand, really blatant stupidity is hard to erase from the memory banks.)

On a scale of 0-10, this is how I'd estimate my expertise on the cultural indicators given:

  • fashion: 3
  • wine: 2
  • flowers: 4
  • classical music: 5
  • perfume: 1

Then again, were someone like me to appear in a romance novel or in "chick lit" (surely there ought to be a better name for it than that), he would almost certainly be the guy the heroine avoids at all cost.

Posted at 11:04 AM to Almost Yogurt , Table for One

Actually, that's just bad writing. Romance novels are rife with this sort of garabage writing -- I think there's a word for giving your characters knowledge they couldn't possibly have, but I can't remember it right now. Anyway, many romance writers do this because they have no idea how to establish place, so they have their heroine run a list of brand names through her mind (e.g.: "She saw that he was wearing last year's Armani, and the wine she was sipping was a Glabulon Montrachet 2001, not a very good year" -- this would work only if the heroine was in the same milieu as the rich hero, or worked in the wine and fashion industry, but as Darla points out romance novel heroines are usually from poor, simple backgrounds). My father called this "pages of nothing but descriptions of clothes."

Posted by: Andrea Harris at 6:39 AM on 20 February 2006

Some of these things, you wonder if product placement is part of the story line.

This isn't to say that one should avoid brand names entirely — "She sipped her cola slowly" sounds silly — but there's entirely too much blatant name-checking in contemporary fiction, and not just in the romance/chick-lit genres.

Posted by: CGHill at 7:29 AM on 20 February 2006