With the recent publication of Lauren Weisberger’s second novel, Everyone Worth Knowing, job-horror fiction has officially come into its own—but only for women. Birthed by Weisberger’s debut, The Devil Wears Prada (2003), and Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus’s The Nanny Diaries (2002), the job-horror novel tells the story of a young woman being eaten alive by her ravenous occupation. We recoil as the insane supervisor doles out illogical assignments; we hold our breath as the heroine fights to juggle work and personal life. Job horror is well plotted, poorly written, and hugely entertaining. It is also placed squarely in the world of frothy women’s fiction, inaccessible to anyone who doesn’t understand the implications of a Birkin bag.
But why chick lit? Surely there are twentysomething men who hate their jobs as much as Devil‘s exhausted assistant or Everyone‘s frustrated publicist. One answer has to do with the conventions of the genre. Since Bridget Jones’s Diary came out six years ago, chick lit has required its heroines to be adorably beleaguered messes—Lucille Balls getting their toes stuck in the dishwasher. Readers enjoy the masochistic thrill of identifying with a klutz. Job horror simply takes that pleasure and moves it into a slightly darker place.
Darker, but also more glamorous. Chick lit emphasizes fashion: When Andrea in Devil finally escapes her job, she takes with her $38,000 worth of designer gear. Of course, glitz comes with a price, a theme repeated in Everyone. Gossip columnists are bitches; everyone is anorexic, which in the Weisberger universe is code for “really mean.” By depicting publicity as a viper pit, Weisberger can appeal to those readers who aren’t VIPs at Bungalow 8. Wish your life were this glamorous? Uh, no you don’t.
Both of these factors begin to explain why nobody’s writing job-horror novels for men. As a culture, we have little patience for male masochism; guys who put up with mistreatment are wimps, not martyrs. And men aren’t encouraged to trade salary for chic the way women are. For men, a high-status job traditionally involves a huge amount of money. It’s easier to abuse an underling who costs your company $25,000 annually than one who makes that much as a Christmas bonus. Conventional wisdom also suggests that men don’t make good assistants; they’re not supposed to be as considerate (or as submissive). And so few men end up in the position to write a scandalous roman à clef about the mean boss.
But there’s another, more sinister reason these books don’t exist for men. Guys are expected to work. You hate your job, you find another job. Women, on the other hand, have an old-fashioned escape hatch. In her new collection of essays on gender Are Men Necessary? Maureen Dowd quotes Cosmopolitan editor Kate White on the issue of dropping out: “Women now wantmore freedom. They don’t want to report to someone and they might want to be a mommy. They don’t want to be in the grind. Baby boomers make the grind seem unappealing.” How to break free of the grind? Well, as White suggests, you could always go have kids. Disturbingly, job-horror chick lit banks on this convention even when its characters are single and ostensibly babyless.
In Devil, for example, Andrea’s best friend Lily is an alcoholic orphan who grows sicker as Andrea spends more time at work. By the end, Andrea must choose between taking care of her boss at fashion shows or tending to Lily, who’s in a drunk-driving-induced coma (since she’s a lush) with no one else in the world to look after her (since she’s an orphan). Most editorial assistants have it tough enough—did Weisberger really need to throw in a baby in disguise?
Or take the recent film In Her Shoes, based on a novel by chick-lit doyenne Jennifer Weiner. It tells the story of Rose, who finds happiness only after quitting her high-status career as a lawyer to take up dog walking. This also helps her find a husband, a fellow attorney who’s content to put in long hours at the office while Rose acts out the museum-steps scene from Rocky with a passel of golden retrievers. By opting out of the role of power lawyer, Rose also opts into an older, equally stifling job: the lady who bathes, feeds, and cleans up poop while her man exercises his brain.
The Nanny Diaries toes the line, avoiding the queasy businesswoman-vs.-nurturer dichotomy by invoking a situation in which career
is motherhood. Nanny, like Devil‘s Andrea, is young and unmarried, but her life goal is to work with children, so taking care of four-year-old Grayer X seems like a logical job choice. When Grayer’s parents turn out to be horrible people, she becomes a martyr to both the little boy and the work. Her final speech into the Nanny Cam, after Grayer’s mother has spontaneously fired her, manages to be a pitch-perfect blend of “Take this job and shove it!” and “Not without my child!”
The Nanny authors did go on to write a novel that more explicitly questions the snarl of gender issues present in job-horror chick lit. Citizen Girl (2004) is about a twentysomething hired to lend a feminist slant to a struggling website. The hardworking heroine is named Girl, her boss Guy, the business My Company; at the end, a tough lady named Manley takes over and turns the entire operation into a porn website. It’s the Pilgrim’s Progress of job-horror fiction. And commercially, it was a flop. In part, this might have been due to the convoluted, underpolished writing. But the subject matter can’t have helped. After all, who wants to bring allegories about sexism to the beach?
Ultimately, chick lit isn’t supposed to criticize society; it’s supposed to reflect it, highlighting the particularly absurd parts for the audience’s amusement. Which is what’s worrisome about job horror as a subgenre of women’s fiction. As a society, we’re still pretty ambivalent about what makes a successful woman. Witness the huge flap around the September New York Times article that suggested Ivy League women plan to quit their jobs once they become mothers. Or the controversy in 2003 surrounding a Times magazine piece about high-status women who’ve “opted out” of work to be full-time moms—”opting in” their husbands as primary breadwinners.
Chick lit has played off these old tropes for years—-long enough for it to spawn multiple splinter groups. Sitting a few slots above Weisberger’s novel on the New York Times bestseller list is Weiner’s Goodnight Nobody, a murder mystery starring a stay-at-home-mom sleuth. The book takes place in a fictional Connecticut burb where social pressures force all the women to spend their post-childbirth years baking flaxseed muffins. One gets the impression that if Betty Friedan had ever reached these ladies (or their husbands), nobody would be murdering anybody. Forget job-horror: the newest genre of chick lit might just involve the retro horror of not having a job at all.
Izzy Grinspan is managing editor of Jewsrock.org, a website about the unlikely but significant intersection of Jews and rock.