Monday, July 28, 2003

Chick Lit Inc.

By Alyson Ward
Star-Telegram Staff Writer

Their names are Bridget, Cannie and Jane, Jackie, Jemima and Mel. They live in rent-controlled urban apartments and buy Jimmy Choos on Nine West salaries. Their bosses are handsome, their mothers meddlesome. Single but looking, young but far from naive, these women have become the most recognizable, most successful -- and perhaps the most overexposed -- characters in modern fiction. They're the irrepressible (and unavoidable) women of chick lit.

"Chick lit," the shorthand term for breezy novels written by and about young women, has been a prominent, sometimes dominant part of publishing since the mid-'90s. The books are described as "perky," "witty" and "playful romps" -- and they have been romping up the bestseller charts on a routine basis.

But the backlash has begun. Derided by serious scholars, declared passé by the British press, chick lit has been on shaky ground for at least a year. "The chick lit phenomenon is in decline," Britain's `The Independent' declared last August. And this month's `Book' magazine claims the genre has failed to live up to its potential and is damaging the market for stronger, more serious female writers.

Not everyone agrees, though, about where chick lit is headed. In May, the `Philadelphia Inquirer' announced that the "sassy, kicky" genre is still the "hottest trend in publishing."

So what gives? Is the frothy feminine fiction bound to gain a permanent place in publishing, or is it a five-year flash in the pan?

The answer depends on where this much-debated genre goes next.

First of all: No one needs to sound a death knell for chick lit just yet. Rumors of its demise have been exaggerated.

"From the sales numbers, it's doing really well," says Elizabeth Bewley, an assistant editor at St. Martin's Press, which has published such chick lit titles as `The Nanny Diaries' and `The Dirty Girls Social Club.' "These books are selling really strongly, in a book market that is kind of dragging at the moment."

In fact, chick lit books are being pushed onto store shelves more quickly than ever.

"You used to go in the bookstore and you'd see one new chick-lit book," say Rian Montgomery of New Hampshire, an avid fan of the genre. "Now there are eight."

In the past couple of years, publishers have rolled out new imprints to snag their share of the chick lit market. Pocket Books started up Downtown Press this spring, with a shopping-bag logo and a list of chick-friendly titles, including Cara Lockwood's `I Do (But I Don't)' and Elise Juska's `Getting Over Jack Wagner.'

In late 2001, Harlequin emerged with Red Dress Ink, a subsidiary designed to attract young women who aren't reading romance novels. The first novel, `See Jane Date' by Melissa Senate, has become a TV movie starring `Buffy the Vampire Slayer's' Charisma Carpenter; it's scheduled to air on ABC in August.

"It's almost more like a mindset than a [literary] subgenre at this point," says chick lit and romance author Cathy Yardley.

Indeed. On TV, there's `Sex and the City,' based on Candace Bushnell's 1996 novel, the Women's Entertainment reality series `Single in the City,' and the ABC sitcom `Less Than Perfect,' in which Sara Rue stars as a single girl in a big-city newsroom. At theaters, `Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde' is full of fashion, female bonding and plenty of pink.

Academics, of course, tend to peer down their noses at chick lit. In 2001, British novelist Beryl Bainbridge famously called the genre "a froth sort of thing." Feminist writer Doris Lessing agreed, saying young women should write about their true lives, "and not these helpless girls, drunken, worrying about their weight and so on."

But Julia MacDonnell, a professor who heads the creative writing program at New Jersey's Rowan University, is one academic who sees value in chick lit.

The genre is full of "witty, ironic stories about idiosyncratic heroines," MacDonnell says. The stories, she claims, are "lightyears beyond your basic Harlequin romance, not merely entertaining but also offering insights into how we live now."

Montgomery, who's 25, agrees.

"I kind of lead a chick-lit life myself," says Montgomery, who runs the Web site "I'm in my mid-20s, I'm single -- I can identify with some of the stuff the characters go through."

If you ask Montgomery, the only crucial element of a chick-lit story is a woman "trying to find her way in life." Of course, there's more to the stereotype than that.

`Bridget Jones's Diary,' Helen Fielding's novel-turned-movie, was the book that made chick-lit trendy in America, says Bewley.

The fictional Bridget, a thirtysomething British "singleton," is bent on self-improvement so she won't end up "dying fat and alone and being found three weeks later half eaten by Alsatians." Her diary recounts a year of bumbling career moves, disastrous romance and a full accounting of calorie, alcohol and cigarette consumption.

`Bridget Jones' was a bestseller in Fielding's own Britain and in the United States. "It was a really funny, intelligent book, I think, and it set the precedent," Bewley says.

Now there are hundreds of similar titles, and bookstores and chain discount stores all feature prominent shelves devoted to chick lit. (Target labels its section "`chic' lit."

Women are snapping up books with Barbie-colored covers bearing titles such as `Running in Heels, Good in Bed,' and `Dating Without Novocaine.' Some of the novels, thanks to `Bridget Jones,' take the form of a diary. Others use emails to tell the story. Almost all are written in a self-deprecating, funny, first-person voice. Sometimes the book works, and sometimes it doesn't.

"There have been a lot of spinoffs, both good and bad," Bewley says. "There's plenty of chick lit that's pretty schlocky, but there is some out there that is smart."

So is chick lit, then, the Harry Potter series of adult fiction? No matter the quality, do we simply shrug and say, "Well, at least people are reading"?

MacDonnell thinks so.

"People who haven't read much `are' reading -- and finding that they really like it," she says. "It makes them a little more daring in their next choice of book, I think."

MacDonnell is optimistic about the reading habits of her fellow chick-lit readers.

"What I think might happen is that these women who are reading what are, to me, very intelligent books. . . [will] then go back to other authors -- like Julia Alvarez, because her work can be approached from that angle." (Alvarez is the author of several books, including the acclaimed `How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.' )

Of course, the popularity of chick lit has already led readers to some excellent authors. Good stories have been published, sold and embraced that, a few years ago, might have slipped through the cracks.

Caren Lissner's `Carrie Pilby' is a novel that contains almost none of the chick-lit stereotypes. But it does have a quirky style of humor and a young female protagonist, and Lissner's book was published this year by Red Dress Ink. The book's cutesy pink-and-blue cover is a small price to pay for the kind of exposure a chick lit book receives, Lissner says.

"There are advantages to being published by Red Dress Ink," she says. "They published 50,000 copies of my book. If I'd gone to a more literary publisher with a more literary reputation, they would probably have put out 5,000 or 10,000 copies of it, and it wouldn't have gotten the attention it got."

"It doesn't matter how good it is if nobody sees it," Lissner says; the frilly packaging helps her novel more than it hurts, so she doesn't mind being swept up in the chick-lit current.

On the other hand, MacDonnell's first novel, `A Year of Favor,' was published in 1994 -- just a few years before the chick-lit craze emerged in America. The story of a young female reporter sent to investigate government corruption in a South American country, "it's a story that would have had more success in this [current] environment," MacDonnell says.

Oh, to have written that story when Helen Fielding was climbing the bestseller lists.

Lissner says her book made "wish lists" even before it was published, simply because it was classified as chick lit. Which proves one thing: Female readers are hooked. They can't get enough of breezy tales about single women's zany adventures in the city.

But to keep the momentum going, the publishing industry needs to breathe fresh life into the now-predictable stories.

"I think there's a limit to how many chick lit books there can be," Lissner says. "The genre is going to have to go in different directions if it wants to stay viable."

Many publishers, she says, are now rejecting manuscripts that are "about a woman getting dumped and having to go on dates with a lot of incompetent men."

In its second year, Yardley says, Red Dress Ink has made "a very concerted effort to look for nontraditional, nonconventional chick lit."

The imprint's Web site features guidelines for potential writers: "We're looking for novels that really set themselves apart from the average chick lit book. . . Predictability is not your friend. So shake it up. Put your heroine in some inspired and crazy circumstances. Give her quirky characteristics. (Maybe even a job that's not in publishing)."

Despite all that encouragement, though, here's the description of one of Red Dress Ink's latest releases: "All Evelyn Mays wants is to be the perfect bride in a size 8 Vera Wang wedding dress."

Diversification may not be easy.

But while most chick lit today is written for and about the young, white, urban, upwardly mobile career woman, some in publishing are determined to encourage books about women of different races. And that means finding `authors' of different races.

"What I would like to see -- at St. Martin's and elsewhere -- is more books written by Latina authors," Bewley says.

`The Dirty Girls Social Club,' a recent St. Martin's release by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, is the story of six Latina women who maintain a friendship over years, miles and life changes.

"`Dirty Girls' will set a precedent that will be really good," Bewley hopes. "It's an example that Latina writers will see, [and] they will write novels themselves."

Meanwhile, Harlem Moon, a Random House imprint, is publishing a handful of chick-lit novels that feature African-American protagonists. `SilkyDreamGirl,' a novel by Cris Burks, is the story of a woman who escapes her romance and weight worries by creating a new identity on the Web. And the E. Lynn Harris novel `A Love of My Own' tells of the life and loves of Zola, the young editor of a magazine called `Bling Bling.' (This books diversifies in two ways; the author is a man.)

Other trends show that chick lit is beginning to go in new directions. Here's what you can find today:

Chick lit mysteries. Nancy Drew lives: Chick lit mysteries are popping up. Sarah Strohmeyer has written a series of books about an investigative journalist/sleuth named Bubbles Yablonsky; `Bubbles Ablaze' is new this summer. The silly sleuth comes complete with a Camaro and a boyfriend called Steve Stiletto, and she balances a life of crime-solving and raising an ornery teen-age daughter.

Chick lit nonfiction. The chick-lit feel has even expanded beyond fiction. And we're not just talking about the breezy self-help books, `The Go-Girl Guide' and `How to Pee Standing Up.' Witness `Cooking for Mr. Latte,' an autobiographical story (and cookbook) by Amanda Hesser, a food writer for `The New York Times.' Hesser's book, published in May, chronicles a year in food and romance -- concluding with her marriage to a man who writes for `The New Yorker.' `The New York Times, The New Yorker. . . ' you might think it's literary nonfiction -- but then you see the hot-pink cover and the cartoonlike line drawings that portray the author and her romance.

Chick lit for young adults. "A lot of young-adult fiction is starting to be packaged like chick lit," Bewley says.

Consider the Louise Rennison series that started in 2000 with `Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging.' The British author has written a bestselling series about teen-ager Georgia Nicolson and her Bridget Jonesian crises.

"That series has an amazingly chick-lit feel, even though the protagonist is 14 years old," Yardley says. "She's got this sense of haplessness about her."

"It's sort of like hooking fans in really early," Bewley says. "They'll grow up and start reading the twentysomething ones and the thirtysomething ones."

Chick lit about older women. Until recently, chick lit has implied that the search for identity, romance, career satisfaction and Manolo Blahniks abruptly stops at age 39 -- and most protagonists were in their 20s. But now, Yardley says, a few of the candy-colored novels star older women.

Jeanne Ray, for example, writes chick-lit romances -- such as `Step-Ball-Change' and `Eat Cake' -- that feature women in their 50s and 60s.

They're calling it "lady lit," Yardley says.

Mommy lit. In the past couple of years, some of the most popular chick-lit titles have featured the adventures of women with children. Allison Pearson's `I Don't Know How She Does It: The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother' was a bestseller in both Britain and America. `Babyville,' a new offering from chick lit favorite Jane Green, is making its way up the sales charts. Books of this ilk are doing for mothers, critics say, what chick lit has done for single women: They are helping women connect by exposing the secret insecurities and absurdities of motherhood.

The fact that chick lit has developed so many tributaries is a sign that it's here to stay, MacDonnell says. And perhaps it's time to consider the books as more than mind candy and beach reads.

"I think, certainly, these will be studied in classrooms, although I'm not sure how many [books] will actually make the canon," MacDonnell says. "I don't know how lasting any of this will be, but I also don't know if it matters very much.

"If you look back to the glory days of the American novel, in the '20s, '30s and '40s, you're really looking at Guy Lit," MacDonnell claims. "Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and the rest of the old boys telling tales about themselves."

This time around, women's lives are getting attention, she says, and that's a good thing.

There are perennial complaints, of course, that the often inept, clothes- and man-obsessed heroines are reflecting pre-feminist ideals. Nevertheless, MacDonnell says, chick lit represents progress.

"I think what's now being called `chick lit' is a very natural outgrowth of the feminist movement," MacDonnell says -- "the fact that you have just hordes of well-educated women out there in the world" who want to read books about themselves.

If authors and publishers successfully diversify the books and their readers, she says, "chick lit, in my opinion, is here to stay."

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