Bridget Jones Settles Down but Romance Isn't Dead
Wed May 15,12:56 AM ET
By Joanne Russell
LONDON (Reuters) - They've been touted as turbo-charged romance, analyzed as fictional self-help, and panned as pure froth.
Chick lit books -- a publishing phenomenon spawned by Helen Fielding's hugely successful "Bridget Jones's Diary" -- dominated best-seller lists in the late 1990s.
With their candy-colored covers, these comic tales of twenty- and thirty-somethings seeking Mr. Right sold in their hundreds of thousands.
But, six years after Bridget Jones went public in shopping malls and airport bookshops round the world, have publishers grown weary of the "city girl meets boy" format?
"The perception now is that chick lit is dead and people are looking for the next direction," said Simon Trewin at PFD literary and talent agency in London.
"I don't think it's dead at all. There are millions of people out there who really love reading (it)."
Book sales in Britain topped one billion pounds ($1.4 billion) last year, largely thanks to films of "Bridget Jones's Diary" and JK Rowling's Harry Potter (news - web sites) saga, which gave the books an even bigger audience.
"Bridget Jones's Diary" is a loose contemporary reworking of Jane Austen's classic novel "Pride and Prejudice." It documents the love-life of a neurotic singleton -- better known as a spinster in Austen's day -- who, in between counting calories and guzzling wine, dreams of finding her ideal man.
After Bridget's dizzy musings became international currency, a rush of books about the thirty-something lifestyle hit bookstores, like Jane Green's "Straight Talking" and Adele Parks' "Playing Away."
FROM BONKBUSTERS TO MUMMY LIT
While fantasy adventure novels now storm ahead in the book charts, chick lit still does well, industry experts said.
"There is less (chick lit) in the publishing program than immediately after Bridget Jones, but nonetheless there is still an audience for them so they're still out there," said Lesley Miles, marketing director at Waterstone's bookshops.
But why is chick lit so popular?
"It is interesting as a social phenomena...why did Bridget Jones touch a particular nerve with so many people? Are people finding it harder to commit? Are they finding it harder to find the right person?" asked novelist Sue Gee whose latest book, "Thin Air" focuses on what it's like to be seventy-something. But chick lit has plenty of critics -- particularly those who feel it trivializes the lives of women.
"Mostly it's not terribly well written, but worse than that it pushes the idea that relationships with men are the most important thing, that what you should be aiming for is to find 'the one'," said novelist Patricia Duncker, who teaches literature and writing at the University of Wales.
Novels about finding Mr. Right will always have a readership, but Trewin said publishers want well-written books from novelists who have a distinctive voice.
"It's not a question of saying 'we need to find half a dozen chick lit books and let's fill that slot," he said. "What they're saying is 'is this book brilliant and do we feel passionate about it?'...They want to publish books, not genres."
Yet there are clear fashions in popular fiction.
In the 1980s "bonkbusters" reigned supreme as readers snapped up sizzling tales of sexual intrigue from the likes of Jackie Collins.
Then came Joanna Trollope's books about the complexities of family relationships in rural Britain, dubbed "aga sagas" -- to Trollope's horror -- after a brand of traditional cooking ranges that feature in fashionable country kitchens.
In the 1990s "lad lit" became the new buzz word after Nick Hornby wrote "High Fidelity," a novel about a music-obsessed thirty-something man who is unlucky in love.
And "mummy lit" is seen by some as the next big thing as writers such as Green, who published "Babyville" last year, shift readers' attention to the subject of motherhood.
"Chick lit, lad lit, aga saga, bonkbuster -- the coinages are rather more interesting than the texts really," said Duncker, whose novels include "Hallucinating Foucault" and "The Deadly Space Between."
BEYOND SINGLETONS AND MOTHERHOOD
Less hyped but equally lucrative, other fiction genres -- such as family sagas -- sell consistently well.
"There is a market for what are called 'clogs and shawls' books which are sagas of working class life or about life in the war," said literary agent Caroline Sheldon.
"(They)...all sell extremely well, often much better than chick lit, but they don't get nearly so much coverage... Most of the authors would be over 50 but are extremely commercially successful, earning substantial salaries."
Trewin said publishers are always looking for good thriller writers and novels for the over 35s are in short supply.
"What we're looking for is the book that is going to appeal to a readership from 35 to 60," he said. "The grown up reader who is maybe more settled in their life now and wants a read that isn't all about boyfriends, temporary jobs and flatshares."
The Literary Consultancy, a fee-paying editorial assessment service which offers feedback for writers of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, receives roughly 60 fiction manuscripts a month.
Founder Rebecca Swift said some budding writers imitate successful trends, but "by the time a lot of them have written it the trend has gone slightly out of fashion because the market has become saturated."
Trewin receives about 2,500 manuscripts a year. "The books that really work are where you think the author has written them because they really want to get this story across," he said.
"They're not writing a book because they've got an overdraft to pay off."