Saturday, May 15, 2004

Books and the single girl


May 11, 2004

The last time single women were celebrated in fiction, they were called New Women, says Elaine Showalter, the recently retired chairwoman of Princeton's English department. That was when the 19th century became the 20th.

Now the 20th has turned into the 21st century, and a genre concentrating on the lives, loves, adventures and misadventures of unwed females is once again booming. This time around, it's called Chick Lit.

Many of its best-selling books are wrapped in pink covers featuring swirly letters and curvy legs ending in stiletto heels - though recent trends include an expansion of the color palette.

"Aqua is the new pink," says Sessalee Hensley, Barnes & Noble's fiction buyer, adding that lime green has also entered the mix. So has a host of subgenres, from widow lit (young woman looks again) to bridezilla lit (young woman gets man) to lad lit (sensitive guy looks for Ms. Right) to hen lit (for the more mature woman, who may conclude chick isn't such a bad label after all). "Where does it stop?" asks Brad Parsons, a senior editor at "The umbrella is getting bigger and bigger."

Did the women's movement ever happen?

"To feel that every piece of literature has to empower women to come out on top, well - what I write is just real life, about those days when you aren't empowered and winning corporate wars or whatever. You're losing your pantyhose and you're lusting after a bag you can't afford. I mean, there's room for both," says author Sophie Kinsella, 34, best- known for her amusing trio of novels known as the "Shopaholic" series.

Her current bestseller, "Can You Keep a Secret?," is also to become a movie starring Kate Hudson. The book - which starts with a young woman blurting out, during a bumpy plane ride, her most embarrassing secrets to a handsome stranger later revealed as her company's chief executive - comes wrapped in retro pink.

Beach reading season

It's one of a recent beach- weather-ready cluster of high- profile entries in the genre, which, most observers agree, jump-started with Helen Fielding's 1998 "Bridget Jones's Diary," was bolstered by TV's "Sex and the City" and has swelled to at least 240 new novels a year, according to Charlotte Abbott, book news editor of Publishers Weekly. Five mainstream publishers have established imprints specializing in chick lit, she says, and they're "now reaching full steam, so that's pumping a lot of books into the market." Other publishers make occasional forays.

Authors have mixed feelings about the grouping and the term "chick lit."

"I think a man might have invented it. I don't think girls would label themselves that way," says Plum Sykes, 34, author of the current bestseller "Bergdorf Blondes" - about the haute world of a Manhattan party-girl narrator who calls herself Moi, her best friend, a fictional department store heiress, and their pals, who get their tresses dyed every 13 days at the Bergdorf family store. (Publishing experts think chick lit was first applied to the popular genre in England, where it's easily as popular as in the United States.)

Sykes, a Vogue contributing editor, fashion celebrity and London-born Oxford graduate, prefers to call her first novel a social comedy, in the manner of "Breakfast at Tiffany's." She also likes the fashion-conscious label "chic lit," as one magazine dubbed it. She did research, she says, to reflect accurately the lifestyles and lingo of Park Avenue princesses: ana for anorexic or perfect, A.T.M. for rich boyfriend, M.I.T. for mogul in training, and M.T.M. for married to mogul, better than the previous two.

"I feel that most chick lit, unfortunately, is about depressed girls eating lots of chocolate," Sykes says over a plate of one sliced apple and one sliced orange at a trendy West Village restaurant, though she admires Fielding and Allison Pearson, author of "I Don't Know How She Does It." On the other hand, she says, "It's great if it helps to sell the books" by getting them to "that huge market that Helen Fielding created sort of single-handedly."

Marian Keyes, 40, another popular author whose seventh novel, "The Other Side of the Story" (aqua cover), debuted two weeks ago and is expected to become a bestseller, defines a different divide, speaking by phone from her home in Ireland prior to her American tour.

"I think that the term is meant to be pejorative, to put women down: Oh, you silly little women with your silly little concerns in your silly little books. But chick lit authors for the first time are helping post- feminist women navigate this world, trying to be the best friend, have a job, have a thin body, have the shiniest hair. For the first time, those conflicting concerns are being addressed, and with humor. The term has made it easier to denigrate these books, not address their substance."

Her newest book tells the tangled tale of three women involved in publishing and love affairs. "The whole career and relationship conflict is very real," she says. "These women are looking for balance, and confused by the demands forced on them."

Funny isn't easy

Both Keyes, whose first novel was published in 1993 (before "Bridget Jones" turned scattered prose into a genre), and Kinsella, a former financial journalist and mother of two, point out that turning out good, funny books isn't easy. Kinsella, in fact, wrote several well-regarded novels under her real name, Madeleine Wickham, before combining her middle name and mother's maiden name into a new moniker, so as not to confuse her readers when she switched styles, she says.

"These books never get reviewed in the Times [of London], but I've put as much, if not more, time into them, and consider them as good, if not better," than her previous novels, says Kinsella over lunch at a midtown hotel during her recent extensive American tour. Her chick lit books take "months of planning. Plots really need to be worked out. It doesn't just sort of fall off the pen."

Showalter, Princeton professor emeritus and author, admires the work of Kinsella, Keyes and Princeton grad Jennifer Weiner. (Weiner's "Good in Bed," about an overweight young woman, is being developed for a series by HBO, while her second book, "In Her Shoes," about two sisters, is being made into a movie starring Toni Collette, Cameron Diaz and Shirley MacLaine. Her third book, "Little Earthquakes," due in September, has just been purchased by Universal.) Showalter plans to read Sykes' book: "I read Vogue. I don't see myself as above any of this."

On the other hand, Showalter - who contributed an essay on lad lit for a 2002 Oxford University Press book, "On Modern British Fiction" - says she thinks chick lit is developing in two directions, one thoughtful and the other commercial, such as Miramax's commissioning of a chick lit novel by Kristen Gore, Al Gore's 26-year-old daughter, to be published in September. "They were looking for a D.C. Bridget. It's just like marketing Barbie dolls - surgeon Barbie, beach Barbie."

However, she adds, "With some of these writers, people will look back in a century and think, this is the way it was for young women then. Some will be ephemeral and lost. Under the guise of this rubric, some of these women are writing really fine work about what women face in these times." She thinks some are writing work "as intelligent and insightful" as Doris Lessing and Margaret Drabble, though lighter in tone. The New Women literature of a century ago, she adds, was also more serious, and sometimes written by men, including H.G. Wells and George Gissing.

The 'mother chick'

One writer who has been called the "mother of chick lit" has a decidedly different view from Showalter's. Erica Jong, speaking up via e-mail, is scathing: "Chick lit is nothing more than the contemporary version of the 'How to Get Married Novel' invented by Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen - and done much better by them (needless to say)."

Her landmark "Fear of Flying," she says, "details the disappointments of marriage and the search for freedom and individuality, while Chick Lit is a retro form that details the search for and nabbing of a husband, any husband." Today's 20- and 30-somethings, she says, "are looking for the opposite of what their mothers looked for. Their mothers sought freedom; they seek slavery. They want The Ring, The White Wedding, The Bugaboo Frog Stroller - and hey - let them have it all." They'll come around as they age, she predicts.

Jong's view is "a narrow-minded description of the genre," says Margaret Marbury, executive editor of Harlequin's Red Dress Ink, the first U.S. imprint dedicated to chick lit when it launched in November 2001. "These are coming-of-age stories, finding out who you are, where you want to go," she says. Finding Mr. Right is part of that, she adds, but so are such themes as getting a more meaningful job, dealing with family and perhaps never finding someone to marry.

"One of the most powerful things about this literature is that it can hold up a mirror and make you feel you're not alone.... These books don't trivialize women's problems." The often-pink covers featuring "body elements or shoes or women's underwear" signal the humor and fun inside the books, she says, and also aid bookstore visitors seeking this type of novel to "make your purchases and get out of there."

New author opportunities

Red Dress now publishes three books a month (culled from 200 submissions each month, many through the company's Web site): one "traditional" single-girl chick lit, one internally called "Red Dress grows up" (for readers older than 40) and the third a "wild card" - perhaps multicultural, mommy, lad or young widow lit.

In October, another division of Harlequin (yes, the romance publisher) will launch a chick lit series "for modern Christian women." The first offering, Judy Baer's "The Whitney Chronicles," features on its pink cover the bottom half of a woman with her skirt covering her knees and her heels more sensible than stiletto. It's about a 30-year-old looking for her Mr. Right, a "fabulous, single, Christian man."

"Another thing chick lit has really provided," says author Cara Lockwood, "is that it has given opportunity to a lot of young women writers." Lockwood's second book, "Pink Slip Party" ("When you lose your job, can your mind be far behind?" the cover asks), has just been published by Downtown Press, an imprint of Pocket Books, which is part of Simon & Schuster, devoted to chick lit. A former journalist who now works in the dean's office of Northwestern University School of Communications, she hasn't given up her day job. She's working on book three, which is "inspired by my mixed-race background," Japanese and Caucasian, "but it's still chick lit," a label she doesn't mind.

"I think it's great.... It's another place women can go to find things that are meaningful to them." But she does think it "unfair" that books that appeal to women often are shown less respect than those that appeal largely to men, such as science fiction.

Perhaps a name change is in order? Carrie Feron, executive editor of Avon Trade (tagline: "... because every bag deserves a great book!"), says her HarperCollins imprint is trying to recast the genre it publishes as metro chic. "We just feel happier saying it ourselves." Almost three years old, Avon publishes two to three books a month, she says, and is getting more diverse. Kim Wong Keltner's "The Dim Sum of All Things" recounts the adventures of a 25-year-old "Chinese-American wage-slave" who lusts after a "white devil" in her office. July brings the debut of "Goddess for Hire" by Indian-American Sonia Singh.

Trade paperbacks are preferred over hardcovers by many chick-lit publishers, she says, because they're more affordable for avid readers, the right size for toting to the beach, and "more attractive" than pulpier mass market paperbacks.

That hasn't stopped Hyperion from going to hardcover with several chick-lit titles, including the recent "P.S. I Love You," a young-widow novel by Cecelia Ahern, the 22-year-old daughter of the Irish prime minister. Ahern has another book coming out in 2005, says vice president and publisher Ellen Archer, as does "Sex and the City" author Candace Bushnell, whose more recent "Trading Up" is about to make its paperback debut. (Also coming in paperback for this summer, from a different publisher: "The Devil Wears Prada," Lauren Weisberger's skewering of her former boss, Vogue editor Anna Wintour, along with its spawn: a host of new assistant lit books, aka underling lit.)

Archer sees Bushnell's books as "social satire," a label that she also applies to her company's July novel, "Gotham Diaries," by Tonya Lewis Lee, wife of Spike Lee, and Crystal McCrary Anthony, wife of former Knicks player and ESPN commentator Greg Anthony (who also co-authored with Rita Ewing, ex-wife of Patrick Ewing, Avon's "Homecourt Advantage").

"Gotham Diaries" is being touted as "an exclusive peek into the world of the super-rich, super-connected African- Americans." Also in an upscale African-American niche is Putnam's new "The Accidental Diva," in which TeenPeople beauty director Tia Williams focuses on an African-American beauty editor of a top, white-oriented fashion magazine.

Barnes & Noble fiction buyer Hensley keeps an eye both on trends and on TV and movie releases - the second "Bridget Jones," she notes, has been postponed - because she has to make sure store shelves are stocked properly. TV's "Sex and the City" and "Friends" boosted the whole genre, she says: "Once people found there are books written like that, they came back." And now that both shows are over, "what can they do but read?"

The genre's evolution

Chick lit is evolving in several ways. Not only is it expanding toward older readers (her summer pick in this category is the upcoming "This Side of Married," by Rachel Pastan) and teens, but it's also building a healthy back list. When readers discover a writer they like, she says, they go back to her previous work. The bestselling back list authors, she says, are Kinsella, Keyes, Fielding (whose "Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination" debuts next month) and two more Brits, Wendy Holden and Anna Maxted.

Amazon's Parsons says much of chick lit is "guilty pleasure ... commercial, disposable stuff," while other books are more literary. Among books he'd place in the latter slot are Elizabeth Robinson's "The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters" and Rachel Cline's "What to Keep" (both of which show a leaping young girl on their covers), and two June books, Jenny McPhee's "No Ordinary Matter" and Bonnie Marson's "Sleeping with Schubert." The Marson book, he thinks, will appeal to "chick lit and classical music fans," especially since it has "a really sharp cover, a drawing of a naked woman playing piano from behind, a bust of Schubert and Manhattan in the background."

While some authors may be "the last to embrace" the term chick lit, he says, "it shows no signs of going away." Adds Hensley: "The main thing is that, despite being called chick lit, the books are really good."

Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc. - Book Reviews

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