Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Narrowing the Field

One of the absolute best things about working at home is when you wake up in the morning to the sound of rain, and you can lie snug and warm in bed while listening to it rain -- and knowing that you don't have to go out in it. Back in the days when I commuted, I groaned and whimpered when I woke up and it was raining, because traffic was always an even worse nightmare. Now, it's a lovely day to spend at home working, and I may even take a little time off just to read. I have the balcony door open so I can sit at my desk and listen to the rain, and I have the string of firefly lights over the doorway on. Add a cup of tea (which I have), and this is the life!

I had a bit of an epiphany related to reading the other day, in the spirit of "so many books, so little time." I'm pretty stubborn, and I hate to start a book and not finish reading it. Well, in theory. If I own a book and can theoretically go back and finish it at any time, then I haven't technically stopped reading it. I've just put it aside for a while. As a result, I have a shelf full of books with bookmarks stuck about a quarter to a third of the way in. I have actually gone back and finished some of these, so it's not entirely a lost cause. But when it comes to library books, I usually try to finish them because there's something so final about returning a book to the library unread. It's like outright admitting that I'm not going to finish. This time, however, I made a conscious decision not to keep reading, not because I didn't like that particular book, but because I've realized I don't like that kind of book, in general.

Yes, folks, I hereby declare that I am officially over "assistant lit." That is, the books that are about young women toiling in thankless, low-level jobs in supposedly glamorous or high-powered fields -- the assistant to the evil editor of a fashion magazine, the assistant to the top Hollywood agent, you get the picture. I realized that even if the book is entertaining and well written, I don't really enjoy it because I find it stressful. I can feel my blood pressure going up as I read, and I've even found myself having nightmares.

I guess it's kind of like horror. Some people love the thrill of being scared in a safe environment. Some people may enjoy vicarious stress, getting all the sensation of working in a high-pressure field without having to worry about any of the consequences. After all, it's not like your own job is on the line if you can't handle it when every line on the phone is ringing at once, and all the callers are people who are never supposed to be put on hold and who must be put through to your boss immediately. I, however, don't enjoy that (I had to take a sip of tea to calm myself after just writing that). I've worked for people who got high on stress and who would deliberately add stress to a situation just to make it more "fun." I'm more mellow, and the more stress you can remove from a situation, the happier I am.

Not that I'm opposed to characters in books having tough jobs or bad bosses. That's kind of a staple in chick lit. I just don't want that to be all a book is about. The bad job is just part of a life that also includes friends, family and romance. For instance, Emily Giffin's Something Borrowed had a heroine with a really stressful job as a junior lawyer, with a demanding boss and a ridiculous work schedule, but the book was about the heroine falling in love with her best friend's fiance. The hated job was just another sign of how she'd limited herself by thinking about what she thought she should do instead of really considering what she wanted out of life (she'd introduced the fiance to her friend in the first place because she was afraid he was out of her league). Or in Sophie Kinsella's Undomestic Goddess, the story was sparked by something going wrong in the heroine's high-stress career, but the book was more about her exploring options and didn't include a lot of time with her all stressed-out on the job.

As a corollary to this, I've decided I'm also over the thinly veiled autobiography books, because that's what most of these that bother me are. These are the ones where the author actually held the job the character does at a company very much like the one in her book, and with a lot of characters who are fictional versions of real people -- and that's the main selling point of the book. It's all fiction, of course (wink, wink), but see if you can figure out how the characters map to real people.

For one thing, in a lot of these cases, these books weren't bought because of the writing, plotting or character development. They were bought because of that celebrity hook (an editor I've worked with actually rejected one of these that became a bestseller because she thought the writing was "pedestrian"). For another, fiction has to make more sense than real life. Fictional characters need believable motivations that result in logical (within the framework of the book) actions. As a result, most of these books fall apart plot-wise for me, and since I don't much care who all the name-dropped, name-changed celebrities are, that means that in addition to the assistant lit stress, there's not much story there to enjoy.

Also, paradoxically, stories like these that are too closely based on the author's real life tend to be less honest than a flat-out novel. When you're writing about your own experiences in what's more or less an act of revenge and your main character is essentially you, it's hard to be objective. As a result, these novels tend toward a lot of martyrdom and self-pity for the main character, lots of "Everyone around me is soooo mean to me, and I'm the only sane one here, and I'm just trying to do my job!" There's also usually a lot of snobbery along the lines of "Everyone here is so shallow and stupid for thinking that all this actually matters and is important." (Yeah, because it's so much smarter to be killing yourself working for something you think is shallow, stupid and unimportant.) An author who's mostly making things up, even if she is drawing from her own background, can be more honest and objective. The characters tend to be more three-dimensional, with a heroine who has realistic flaws and co-workers who aren't pure mustache-twirling evil.

I'm not ruling out all books that have some parallel to the author's real life. Write what you know, and all that. But there's a huge difference between an author using her own legal career as background to develop a character who works as a lawyer and the former junior associate supporting the senior partner in charge of Michael Jackson's defense against pedophilia charges writing a book about an overworked and much put-upon junior associate supporting the senior partner in charge of pop icon Mitchell Johnson's defense against pedophilia charges (and in the book, the junior associate would probably come up with the key idea that saves the day, only to have the senior partner take credit, so that the heroine then realizes she's wasting her time in the legal field, quits her job in a dramatic scene and then decides to write a book as a way of recovering from all the stress). Oh, and I made that example up. As far as I know, there isn't a chick lit book about the Michael Jackson case. Yet.

This new stance of mine really helps me narrow my reading choices so I can spend more time reading books I like without guilt. I had been forcing myself to read some of these because they were big sellers in my field, but since I have no celebrity ties in my life and have never worked for anyone famous, I'm not sure that there's anything I can take from these books that applies to my career.

Oh, wait! I worked in the PR office at a medical school with a lot of Nobel Prize winners, and I even got to be the media escort for Dr. James Watson (of Watson and Crick, the DNA guys) for a day during a special symposium. That sounds like hot material for a chick lit novel. The scene where the heroine has tea with Dr. John Watkins, who won a Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking research into the structures of ... well, some important molecule, while waiting for a reporter to be ready for an interview, would be a real page-turner. Yeah, American readers would be sure to line up to read the behind-the-scenes scoop on working with some of the world's top scientific minds. (I actually think that was one of the coolest things ever to happen to me at work, and Dr. Watson was a true gentleman, so there's no real scandal there.)

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