Friday, June 26, 2009

Lauren Conrad's literary debut.

Having watched all five seasons of The Hills and a few scattered episodes of Laguna Beach, I have developed a certain impression of Lauren Conrad.

She is nice, but not exceptionally nice. She is pretty, but not exceptionally pretty. She is fashionable, but not exceptionally fashionable. She seems reasonably bright, but has never indicated any interest in academic or intellectual pursuits. Lauren Conrad is, above all else, average. She is exceptionally average. And that's what makes her so eminently watchable.

We, the audience, relate to Lauren, not because we share traits in common, but because she is so abnormally normal. We can generally expect her to behave and react in a way that we would consider normal. We can project our own personalities on her. All she has to do is silently widen her eyes, and we fill in the missing dialogue ourselves. We know what she's thinking, because we know what we're thinking.

I want to believe that Lauren wrote L.A. Candy herself. Of course, I assume that an editor or editors helped her plan and outline the story. And that there were editors providing assistance and support along the way. And that those editors polished the final draft with a heavy hand. But I think that L.A. Candy is informed by Lauren's thoughts and emotions and expressed in what is essentially her voice.

Lauren has never appeared to have a literary bent. It would be unreasonable and unrealistic to expect her to know how to structure a novel, or to have a developed literary voice. If L.A. Candy were competently written, I would be forced to conclude that a ghostwriter was responsible. Fortunately for me, it is not competently written.

The narrator shifts from one chapter to another. Stylistically, there is no differentiation between the five different narrative voices. Whenever possible, nouns are modified by clichéd adjective pairings. On the first page alone: "white silk nightie," "loose blond curls" "chocolate brown eyes" "white silk sheets" "strange, sweaty guy." The verbs are distractingly precious and are often modified by the most obvious possible adverb. Again, on the first page alone, the protagonist "[smiles] mischievously," and her hair "[cascades] softly." She slinks into bed, slides onto the sheets, and nestles next to her dream guy. Naturally, said dream guy gazes into her eyes. More than anything, Lauren's writing voice reminds me of my own early creative writing attempts. I imagine I'm not the only one who recognizes this earnest, overly descriptive style. And once again, by reminding us of ourselves, Lauren endears herself through mediocrity.

The story and characters do not explicitly mirror the stories and characters we already know from Laguna Beach and The Hills. If they did, the book would be very dull, since we are already excruciatingly familiar with those stories and characters. And nobody who pays attention should have expected Lauren to fling dirt and catty judgments at thinly veiled versions of people she knows personally. Overt bitchiness would be utterly out of character, and it would undermine Lauren's overall appeal. But I think any attentive reader should be able to glean a great deal about Lauren's feelings and opinions.

The expected, behind the scenes perspective on camera men and body microphones and MTV producers would be fairly entertaining on its own. Of course, we are all so savvy and we know that there are camera men and body microphones and MTV producers, and it isn't hard to guess what those things are like. But since most of us have not personally experienced that life, it is still interesting to hear it described by someone who has. There is more to L.A. Candy than just that, though.

Although the characters are not explicitly familiar, their characteristics are. We learn exactly how Lauren feels about girls who come to Los Angeles in search of fame, who gradually devolve into bleached, bronzed, surgically enhanced clones. We learn how she feels about tabloids, and clubs, and celebrities, and orchestrated relationships with fellow cast members, and backstabbing friends. We learn how she feels about being exploited, about how being on television simultaneously expanded and limited her life, about how she resents being misleadingly edited. We learn that despite her resentments, she enjoys the experience, or at least she did in the beginning.

For me, the most fascinating aspect of L.A. Candy is the characterization of the protagonist's best friend and roommate. You might expect this character to resemble Lo, or Heidi, or perhaps Audrina. But while she shares a few minor qualities with Lo and a few with Audrina, this character seems to be, for the most part, a figment of Lauren's imagination. The protagonist, whose name is Jane Roberts, has known her friend Scarlett since kindergarten. Scarlett is depicted as a strikingly gorgeous, sexually liberated intellectual. Scarlett only wears jeans and t-shirts. She refuses to brush her hair, which is very long and very dark, and she doesn't wear makeup. She's "a rebel with off-the-charts SAT scores who never [hesitates] to say whatever [is] on her mind." Jane is docile and cheerful and naïve, but Scarlett is bitchy and insightful. Scarlett seems to represent everything that Jane is not and, by extension, everything that Lauren Conrad is not. There is a pronounced wistfulness in the depiction of the contrast between this pair of BFFs. While Lauren is not academically or intellectually inclined, she expresses a great deal of admiration and respect for those who are, and she seems envious of women whose dispositions allow them to be sexually confident and free. She also seems acutely aware of her own banality, which comes across even in her choice of character names.

L.A. Candy is just barely adequate as a novel. But as a cultural text, it's fantastic. And it's pretty entertaining. Perfect for reading on the beach.

Lauren Conrad isn't a good actress, nor does she try to be, and yet she's extremely watchable. She isn't a good writer, nor does she try to be, and yet she's extremely readable. That alone intrigues and impresses me.


susan said...

Wow, again I am amazed at your insightfulness. I have a clear understanding and interest in Lauren and the book from your description and review. You are a great reviewer. I love it.

Nathan Bransford said...

I haven't had time to read this yet, but a very interesting review. I'd be really curious to know how much Lauren wrote (if any) or what editorial control she had. But kind of amazing that Lauren the book wound up in the same ballpark as Lauren the person/actress.