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6 December, 2011  ▪  Oksana Shchur

Books for Chicks

In the West, there is growing demand for women's literature, the favored genre of young emancipated female megalopolis residents. Ukraine also has books in this genre but they are special in their own way

After Bridget Jones’s Diary, Sex and the City and The Devil Wears Prada, based on bestsellers of the same names, became huge box office hits, it was clear that the tradition of “high” writing for women found its continuation in the chick lit genre. Demand creates supply, and now the epigones of Sophie Kinsella and Candace Bushnell are hard to count.

The “new woman” of present times is a girl in a large city who wants to balance her career and personal life. While “ideal wives” watch serials and re-read Angelique from time to time, the single megalopolis resident prefers ironic chick lit and expensive glamour glossies. There is still enough chick lit in Ukrainian, but not among new books. However, after studying demand and supply, you can figure out answers to a number of questions: Who are the female residents of contemporary Ukrainian cities? What are their concerns? What do they read? What do they write about, after all?

THE CLAUDIA, CINDY AND NAOMI OF CONTEMPORARY UKRAINIAN LITERATURE

Ukrainian chick lit started with Svitlana Pyrkalo’s Zelena Marharyta (Green Margarita, 2000). Maryna Pohribna writes for a glossy magazine but looks and behaves nothing like a character or reader of glossies. To eat fried eggs at home and be a restaurant critic, to be unglamorous and set lifestyle standards for readers of women’s magazines – this is what this new character of ironic prose is. She is working hard to win a scholarship and leave Ukraine (Note: not by marrying a foreigner through a marriage agency). The book necessarily includes romantic adventures but, unlike in classical women’s novels, they are not the focus of attention. Pyrkalo’s book, which is very similar to the story of Bridget Jones’s sufferings, remains unparalleled: even the author herself has not managed to write anything sharper. Her next novel, Ne dumai pro chervone (Don’t Think About Red, 2004), although written in the same easy style, is less ironic and sometimes piercingly lyrical. Sadly, autobiographical candor does not do the work good in general, especially when the reader expects self-irony, acidity and another bout of sneering at social stereotypes.

Svitlana Pyrkalo The Green Margarita (Follow the link to see book review in Ukrainian)

Kolektsiya prystrastei, abo Pryhody molodoi ukrainky (A Collection of Passions, or Adventures of a Young Ukrainian Woman, 2001) is a novel by Natalka Sniadanko written on behalf of an emancipated Galician student of philology. The absence of a dominant partner and commitment to the idée fixe of marriage set this woman apart from the rest. She was raised properly in the patriarchal tradition and was not hopelessly traumatized by it. Unlike Pyrkalo, Sniadanko focuses on describing national stereotypes (passions Ukrainian, Russian, German, etc. style) and grabs the opportunity to mock traditional views and conventional morals. A fine Galician lady, “over 25” but “not yet over 30” (these are landmark years for her). She is well versed in social rules and knows how to turn Victorian-style double standards to her own advantage, which makes her character authentic. For better or worse, Sniadanko decided to limit herself to just one ironic text for “cool chicks”: her subsequent literary exercises may be assessed in different ways, but they are definitely not chick lit. However, this does not prevent critics and publishers from repeatedly branding her, no matter what she writes, as “not Zabuzhko.”

Natalka Sniadanko A Collection of Passions, or Adventures of a Young Ukrainian Woman (Follow the link to see book review in Ukrainian)

Irena Karpa is the third author whose debut came during the same period. She is, perhaps, the only one who continues to write one book after another with almost no changes to her topics, style and audience. Those who read columns by Soya Los (Karpa’s journalistic pseudo. – Ed.) – a Dee Snider in a skirt – will be surprised to meet their pubertal-age selves at Karpa’s book launches. The naivety written across the forehead, pimples on the cheeks and enthusiastic swearing as a tool with which to upset school norms are the defining features of the readers who turn her every book into a bestseller – from 50 khvylyn travy (50 Minutes of Grass) and Freud by plakav (Freud Would Weep) to Piza “Himalayi” (The Himalaya Pizza). Karpa’s popularity is also fuelled by the fact that she is the only Ukrainian writer who is a perennial character on gossip pages. She is the leader of a music band, has worked as a VJ at MTV, had several photo sessions for men’s magazines, married a foreign businessman and has two children. It appears the critics have never been so unanimous in vilifying a writer. Nor has any writer been so consistent in living up to her motto “I also write.” It is another example of attacking stereotypes. In this case the writer takes on literary critics: they lambast her and give her anti-awards, but she becomes increasingly successful. To the attention of those who may be interested, The Himalaya Pizza is not as fragmentary as her previous texts and is quite readable.

PRÊT-À-PORTER

And then, following the laws of the genre and literature process, the genre snowballed. Young female writers rushed to publish their revelations that could just as well be published in an online journal. At their best, these autobiographical monologs resemble confessions to a stranger on a train. These debutants do better at literally describing their experiences complete with the still nagging teenage complexes, unforgotten lovers and aspirations for “dolce vita” than at crafting a novel ironic in style and thought-out in form.

36 pisen pro zhyttia (36 Songs About Life) by Kateryna Khinkulova was promoted as typical chick lit by the publisher. However, if the reader compares this piece of prose with general conceptions of the genre, the rose-colored cover is the only feature that fits. It is a novel about émigrés, raising someone else’s child, one’s own orphanhood, unrequited love and episodic flashes of passion. The author could become a character of chick lit, because she is one of those girls who translate their traumas and complexes into novellas and do so in a fairly non-literal fashion, at least enough to assert that no, there is no autobiographical stuff here and it’s not sublimation at all. Self-irony is totally absent here, and the woman whose experiences the author attempts to analyze is a far cry from an independent chick.

The stereotypes of glossy magazines are dealt with in Ira Tsilyk’s autobiographical Pisliavchora (The Day Before Yesterday) which tells the story of advertisement businesswoman Kira Butsim. The details, such as stylish clothing, interiors and recognizable Kyiv streets and cafés, are well elaborated. A diploma in theater art, an exhausting creative commercial job, a trip to Paris, a married lover and an existential crisis – here you find the style of a poet who can convey the emotional condition of her character through one detail. But it is not enough for prose – she has failed to say anything deeper. The author’s excessive liking for her protagonist makes the story mushy.

 Ira Tsilyk The Day Before Yesterday  (Follow the link to see book review in Ukrainian)

Yulia Burkovska is still writing her blog in which she describes the world around and recounts her experiences and those of her acquaintances in such succulent living Russian-Ukrainian mixture that you want to drink from this source no less than from standard Ukrainian. However, the language of her novel Tra-la-la is much smoother, and the text suffers for it. The novel is a monolog of the protagonist and has a confessional and largely therapeutic feel. We learn a lot about showbiz, Ukrainian culture, men and the thing girls live by after they succeeded in breaking through to Kyiv and winning a ticket, although a small one, in the life of its high society. But all the same, you want to cry: “Why Yulia? You could have written about Dima Lazutkin much more vividly!”

WE’VE GROWN UP. WHAT’S NEXT?

If Western chick lit authors live on royalties and this is one of the reasons stimulating them to keep churning out new stories about cool chicks, Ukrainian female writers seem to write as long as they have the inspiration or their experiences last. What follows is either a creative stupor or a switch to something new.

Pyrkalo’s columns and blogs are still read and re-read by her followers who are hungry for new books from her. Publishers capitalize on this – Kukhnia ehoista (An Egoist’s Cuisine) and Avtorska kolonka (An Editorial) are precisely collections of her columns previously published in periodicals.

Natalka Sniadanko wrote Herbariy kokhantsiv (A Herbarium of Lovers), a well-designed novel in terms of composition and style by which she proved she is a mature writer. However, the experience of chick lit is not so easy to cast off. Some characters, they say, have prototypes among public figures. The author also continues to take witty shots at the stereotypes of Galician society.

Burkovska and Karpa generously describe their experience as mothers in their blogs, so chances are you will soon see mom-lit in bookstores – continuations of the story of an ambitious and successful young woman who has entered motherhood.

There are as yet no new books in the chick lit genre, while women’s prose has seen some good growth: new novels have been published by Liuko Dashvar, Iren Rozdobudko and Halyna Vdovychenko. At the same time, successful girls in large cities have to channel all their creative energy into office work due to economic crisis. What they write are theses, press releases and scripts for reality shows and commercials. Nevertheless, the literature process moves on, and publishers announce new names: Olena Pechorna is a new Liuko Dashvar, author of the novel Hrishnytsia (The Sinner) about an extremely unfortunate woman.

Viktoria Hranetska tells in her mystic Mantra-omana (The Deceitful Mantra) about a blonde who comes to a large city and has qualms about having to be bitchy.

Viktoria Hranetska The Deceitful Mantra (Follow the link to see book review in Ukrainian)

Viktoria Horbunova has published the novel Nadra banku about how money competes with feelings in an office setting. The price of women’s success is again measured by other categories. The reader wants love, heart-felt feelings and a true happy ending – a prince on a white horse, the wedding march and such. Instead, she is being fed tearful stories of the type told on commuter trains, but she is content even with this. Post-feminism has allowed even housewives to be happy in their kitchens, and patriarchal society has immediately taken advantage of this concession. In literature, it has led to an onslaught of women’s literature, and thus the victory of ironic chicks over Stepford wives turned out to be illusory.


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