Missoulian Rachel Toor would seem to know her audience. An author who spent more than 10 years in the publishing industry, Toor has a keen eye for what will sell. What’s hot right now? Any best-seller list, any glance at the front table of Barnes and Noble, any chat with a publisher will give you the same answer: memoirs and books for and about women. Chick lit. My publishing friend in New York City (would she be anywhere but in New York?) tells me that roughly 70 percent of the book-buying public is female, and within the next 20 years that number is expected to go up to anywhere between 85 and 90 percent. Thus is explained the not-so-mysterious phenomenon of chick lit: the genre for the professional, single woman; the genre for the woman with a penchant for the wrong man.
Toor’s second book, The Pig and I: Why It’s So Easy to Love an Animal and So Hard to Live with a Man, combines memoir and chick lit. The autobiographical book follows Toor’s romantic life as she falls in and out of love with men who are often as quirky and eclectic as the current pets in her life. Her true loves, however, always begin and end with the pet: the mouse, the rat, a dog, a cat, a horse, an ass and a potbellied pig. Often the pets, in some characteristic, will resemble the current man in her life; always the personality of the pet will inform her view of the relationship.
First there’s Prudence, the pet mouse who didn’t like boyfriend Charlie. “My love for Prudence was as real as any I would feel…That she hated Charlie was at first funny. That she continued to hate him or treat him badly even as he did everything he could to make her life better showed me she was her mother’s mouse. She loved me, she reflected me.” By the time we get to Emma, the Vietnamese potbellied pig, Toor’s commentary reflects even more self-awareness (as well as the title of the book): “In Emma I saw myself. Saw my selfish ways, my me-centric worldview, my insistence on my own pleasure, my own way. Unlike my other animals, Emma didn’t need me; she used me. I still loved her, but I saw that she was limited in her ability to love back. In the pig, I saw, too, my own limitations. I finally recognized what kind of animal I was. The pig and I. What a pair.”
The Pig and I is reflective; it is intelligent; at times it is as humble as it is irreverent; it’s witty: “I came to refer to [my roommates] as Frat Boy and Pencil Dick. Frat Boy had been one, and Pencil Dick probably had one, not that I ever saw it, but sometimes you don’t have to see it to know.” The cover depicts a young, svelte and stylish woman with matching hot pink belt, handbag and a pig on a leash.
The Pig and I is nothing if not a book for stylish, single adults, the sort with a loving dog trailing behind, or even leading the way.
Know anyone like that around here?
As a single, professional, pet-owning woman, I am Toor’s target audience. I’m also a sucker for a neat cover. My only problem is that this book does absolutely nothing new. The Pig and I is a pleasant-enough read, but what’s satisfying about it? At its best the book comforts and validates, but at its worst it appeals to vast common denominators. Love animals? Confused about love? Need to get away from it all? Then here’s the book for you! When discussing her publishing career in the early chapters, Toor remarks: “‘It’s not like I’m saying the books shouldn’t be published,’ I would tell myself, and others. ‘I’m just saying,’ I would say, ‘that I’m not going to publish it.’ I would wait for a manuscript to land on my desk that would either blow me away, or, more typically, that I knew was doing the job it was supposed to do: filling a gap in the existing literature, proffering a new way of thinking about something important…I knew that bad books could sometimes sell well and that too many great books went unread. It was a murky business, publishing.”
If chick lit and memoir are the existing literature, then Toor has set herself the task of proffering a new way of thinking about women, men and personal experience. Yet for all its wit and revelatory intelligence, Toor’s book is so consciously wrapped in marketing that it cheapens any wisdom (formulaic or otherwise) the book might deliver.
Memoirs like Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face or Judy Blunt’s Breaking Clean, and novels like The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank and Cowboys Are My Weakness by Pam Houston, succeed through the ways in which those authors use wit and intelligence to turn personal experience into narratives as engaging and engrossing as they are individual. They are stories of grace that take our image of the world and throw it off balance.
But chick lit, as exemplified by Bridget Jones’ Diary, does nothing for me. I suppose I’m old-fashioned, a publisher might even argue naïve, in my belief that all good literature should challenge our outlook on life, should illustrate an author’s wisdom. Too many fashionable publishers believe the autonomy of the author must give way to his or her role in a group: A writer is as worthy as her function–racial, ethnic, sexual–in the tribe to which she belongs.
What The Pig and I sacrifices at this altar is complexity, which is integral to literature. What disappears is depth. “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” Emily Dickinson advised. And those who speak the truth indirectly, as individuals instead of as products of the media, the marketers or the tribalists, encourage individuality.