“Literature” is a big word. One that is usually used to refer to works such as Hamlet or Keats’s poems. One that you wouldn’t necessarily apply to Cecily von Ziegesar’s series Gossip Girl. But how do we judge what is literature and what is not? Or more precisely what is “good” and what is “bad” literature? We all seem to be able to distinguish between these two kinds of literature, and yet our judgment is not based on the enjoyment derived from reading the book. I personally disagree with this view and think that when it comes to literature (and art in general for that matter) enjoyment is everything. I am speaking of real active pleasure here, not the passive sort where you would enjoy anything and everything because you’re half asleep and your brain doesn’t get enough oxygen to feel alive. And I, for one, actively enjoy reading Gossip Girl.
The attraction I have for this series of novels has several sources. First, there is the story in itself, of course. It’s totally superficial in appearance, focusing on the life of beautiful rich kids going to school, partying and sleeping (sometimes with each other) in New York City. For those who are not well acquainted with it, this apparently shallow lifestyle is attractive in itself. Indeed, even though this world is hugely glamorised in the books it still holds, like everything different and new, the thrill of the discovery of the unknown. In my opinion the superficiality is undermined by the fact that the work says something about today’s youth. We do care about our appearance, about how the outside world – and especially our friends – perceives us and about being successful. Do we not? I do not want to suggest that today’s youth is utterly superficial and shallow, but I think it is honest to recognise that we are, to a certain extent, concerned with all these things.
Gossip Girl is very much anchored in its (our) time. The constant naming of brands, for example, can be tiring but it sets the novels in today’s world where people wear Marc Jacob’s clothes and shower with L’Occitane beauty products. Well … certain people at least. Similarly, the texts, e-mails and IM weaved into the narrative mirror the way people communicate today. In that sense, the novels are very modern and I feel that this modernity contributes to the enjoyment one has/may have reading it. It can be nice to be immerged in a very different world, with Jane Austen for example, but it is also enjoyable to recognise one’s traditions and habits in a work.
Cecily von Ziegesar’s tone is usually hugely ironic and she plays with the traditional codes of the novel. For example Dan is your typical wretched poet – he is thin, drinks lots of coffee, chain-smokes and writes dark poetry – but the very fact that he works on his image and takes it seriously undermines it for it shows that it is a construct. Moreover, he is always slightly ridiculed. At some point for example one of his poem portraying a beautiful girl as a pigeon is qualified as genius but the external narrator adds “or not” undermining the whole thing. The traditional type of the beautiful, blond heroine is also played with here. Serena is indeed gorgeous, charming and wild but, all in all, she is boring and described as having “a shorter attention span than that of a newborn puppy”. The author also plays with the codes of the fairy tales. Thus the lady from the bra shop Jenny visits becomes a sort of fairy godmother, supplying her with a bra capable of containing her gigantic breasts. Not exactly what one would dream for when granted with a fairy godmother. I do feel that Cecily von Ziegesar fully embraces our epoch but always portrays it with a certain distance and irony.
It can be said, and it would be true, that Gossip Girl is very stylized and glossy, somewhat analogous to Coppola’s Marie Antoinette in that respect. It’s not necessarily the most earth-shattering book, yet I still enjoy reading it, and I mean enjoy in an intellectual sense here not as in fulfilling an impulse. I believe that this enjoyment should be key when judging what is “good” and what is “bad” literature and that these categories aren’t set. They change from person to person and one person’s “bad” literature will be another one’s “good”. I’m sure many people won’t enjoy Gossip Girl but to be honest that is also true for Hamlet, it’s just that in the latter’s case people don’t say it.