At The Back Fence – Issue #179
April 15, 2004
From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:[/fusion_title][fusion_text]
I turn over the reigns to Robin this time around as she delves into the world of Chick Lit novels. We’re anxious to hear how many of you are reading these books, what changes you’ve noticed in them since the term was coined surrounding Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones, and what this might portend for romance novels.
All About Chick Lit
Laurie and I have had the same conversation about Chick Lit books going on for the past couple of years, and it sort of goes like this:
Me: Laurie, I’ve just read the greatest book. It is XXX. I just know you are going to love it.
Laurie: Actually I read it last year. You know, Robin, I know that you love these Chick Lit books but I just haven’t liked most of them. I like a lot of Chick Lit for Teens but most of them for adults leave me cold. In the one you’re talking about I just hated the hero. I get sick of the designer name dropping too.
Me: Okay, okay. You didn’t like that one. I understand. Hey that’s okay. I’ve got another one. Its YYY by ZZZ. You’re going to love it. There are very few labels in it.[/fusion_text][/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container][fusion_builder_container background_color=”” background_image=”” background_parallax=”none” enable_mobile=”no” parallax_speed=”0.3″ background_repeat=”no-repeat” background_position=”left top” video_url=”” video_aspect_ratio=”16:9″ video_webm=”” video_mp4=”” video_ogv=”” video_preview_image=”” overlay_color=”” overlay_opacity=”0.5″ video_mute=”yes” video_loop=”yes” fade=”no” border_size=”0px” border_color=”” border_style=”” padding_top=”20″ padding_bottom=”20″ padding_left=”” padding_right=”” hundred_percent=”no” equal_height_columns=”no” hide_on_mobile=”no” menu_anchor=”” class=”” id=””][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][fusion_text]
Laurie: I’ve read another one by her. Sorry, didn’t like it. These books just seem to try so hard to include pop culture; a little of that goes a long way, particularly when it’s of the Sex and the City variety. It’s too much of a wink and a nod, like if you “get” it you’re superior to the so-called mid-Western suburbanites who wouldn’t know a Jimmy Choo from a Naturalizer.
Me: But I hate pop culture in books if its not part of the story. Wait! I just know you are going to like this one….I’ll read you this great line from the first chapter. (Lots of rustling of paper, dropping phone.) I read two hilarious paragraphs.
Laurie: Hmm. Sounds okay. But the book costs what? $13 from Amazon? And I don’t like these books.
Me: Maybe I could send it….
So in case you are all wondering this is me, Robin, once again trying to convince Laurie to try Chick Lit.
Why do I like Chick Lit? I think its because I see it as nothing more than an engaging way to tell the stories of many different kinds of women.
In the 1980s, while still in my twenties and working for a big insurance company in New York City, I tried my hand at writing a short story about a professional woman, like me, who worked in an office. What I wanted to write was a funny, engaging story about what it was like to work for a company as a young woman. I wanted to write about making girlfriends at the office, trying to manage my budget, my clothes, my diet and my career. I wanted to write about how odd it felt to be the only professional woman at every meeting I attended, what it was like to work for an executive who was completely self-absorbed and unreasonable, to watch the company spend money like water. I wanted to tell people how exciting it was, how scary it was and how challenging it was to have all the freedom and expectations that my mother never had. I tried to write the story again and again and I failed again and again. Though I started out chatty and funny I had trouble describing the texture of office life. And, I had nothing to go by. None of the stories I read for women reflected my life. They were either deadly serious literary fiction, which mostly starred women professors or museum curators, or stories about moms home with little kids.
I began asking questions about what I was reading. Why was literary fiction, mostly published in New York, so obsessed with poor Southern white people who spoke in dialect? Week after week the New Yorker published short stories about poor Southerners and suburbanites, the likes of whom were known to few outside New Canaan, Connecticut or below the Mason-Dixon Line (if there – I have had my doubts whether those New Yorker editors had a clue about the South).
Why wasn’t anybody writing about my female boss who wore real Channel suits, commented on my weight (I wore a size six at the time), jewelry or lack of a fur coat? Why were there no stories about the impossibility of dressing well in New York on a salary that supported a family of four in Rhode Island, or the fact that my MBA educated boss thought that The Barber of Seville was a historical personage?
Fast-forward twenty years.
I have a bunch of books on my shelf. The heroines of these stories are young, old, single, married, divorced or widowed, a parent or childless, sometimes in love but not always. She’s a successful professional woman, a woman who works at home taking care of her kids or a secretary frustrated with a boring job. Or, she’s a nanny, a portfolio manager, a fashion model, a writer, a photographer, a reporter, a recent college grad working for a nightmare boss. She’s fat (as the heroine of Jennifer Weiner’s Good in Bed) thin (like the fashion model vampire in MaryJanice Davidson’s Undead and Unwed (a book even Laurie adored), or somewhere in between. She’s entranced with fashion, like Rebecca Bloomwood of the Shopaholic series, or, like the heroine of The Devil Wears Prada, she eschews it. She’s a Harvard grad like the intellectual heroine Carrie Pilby or a girl who gets by on her wits, like Rachel in Marion Keyes’ Rachel’s Holiday.
The variety of these stories is what I most like about them. Chick Lit may have begun with the hapless adventures of poor Bridget Jones, a girl who drank too much, smoked too much and was clueless about the hazards of dating the boss, but the genre has developed into a way to tell the stories of many different kinds of women. There is British Chick Lit and American Chick Lit and the heroines from both countries reflect the challenges for women living in urban cultures that are different, but not that different. Kate Reddy, the overwhelmed mother and portfolio manager of Alison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It is English and her life could easily be set in New York and Westchester. American books do seem to have a few more professional heroines. British books do seem to have a few more Bridget Jones style girls starting out and living with roommates. British heroines seem more likely to smoke and drink but they are certainly not the only ones doing it – as anyone who has witnessed Carrie Bradshaw struggle with cigarettes can attest.
So that’s my take on what Chick Lit is about. To see if I could back up my theories I went to the Potpourri Message Board and asked people to jump in, define Chick Lit and talk about their feelings about it. Lots of readers talked about Chick Lit in relation to romance (which makes sense on a romance website message board) and many pointed out that Chick Lit uses young “heroines.”
Maili pointed out that the books are simply shaped differently, that they encompass a wider world and feel “bigger.” Whereas in Romance, she argues, the story is very much between the hero and heroine and the heroine finding happiness in the hero alone, “in a good Chick Lit novel the heroine doesn’t ‘get’ her man until she has internal happiness or peace within herself, which appeals to me.” She also finds that Chick Lit novels can be more “mature” than Romance novels, noting, “A Chick Lit heroine wouldn’t go out to find a man to take her virginity like many heroines in Romance tend to.”
Author Karen Templeton pointed out the link with contemporary culture which is present in most of the books. Chick Lit is defined for her as “heroine-centered stories” that are “very, very grounded in contemporary culture, attitude and tone. The first wave primarily concerned urban single women, but that’s changing as the market becomes oversaturated with Bridget Jones wannabes.”
KC stressed the imperfection of the heroines, “She’s imperfect, she’s trying to figure out her life just like the rest of us. Love may or may not work out.” Like Maili, she points to the broader context of these novels; they revolve around “her social life, her love life as well as friendships and family. While the story is mostly about her, there are subplots that involve her friends.”
A number of other posters pointed out that most of these female protagonists are young, in their twenties or early thirties. This is certainly true, although more and more I can see writers stretching this as Pamela Redmond Satran did with The Man I Should Have Married.
But how important are the trappings of pop culture in Chick Lit? I don’t think you could have a conversation about Chick Lit without at least brushing on Candice Bushnel’s popular Sex and the City, and the HBO series based on it. Carrie Bradshaw and her three friends have given many of us a short course in pop culture. Carrie is somewhat obsessed with designer shoes and has probably done more for the designer Manolo Blahnik than anyone has done for any shoe designer in history.
Is it necessary to be completely in tune with pop culture to write Chick Lit? For Jacqueline deMontravel, author of The Fabulous Emily Briggs, the answer is yes:
“In regard to the American author’s knowledge of fashion, beauty, food, trends etc. we’re just speaking from what we know. How it’s acceptable to drop $500 on a pair of artfully designed shoes but when it comes to the practical expenses who wants to stuff money in your IRA when it doesn’t make your legs look as pretty.
“Fashion excites us. We live it and want to sink our Eres clad, Barton trained figure in the pool of new designs and styles. It’s fun, creative and allows us to be stylish participants in this era. I don’t know a woman who can’t keep her eye from scanning the fashion pages without considering what pieces and looks will work for her.
“These very traits are what makes out characters real and relatable. The heroines are your best friend. Her conversations and emails are the ones you discussed today. Therefore the stories are an entertaining extension of those very issues that weave your daily existence.
“Chick lit authors, like the Chick Lit authors of Edith Wharton’s time, have insight on the quest for finding a suitable ‘match’ (to use Wharton’s language). The rules are different. We have no use in a husband’s ownership of land and status in social hierarchy, which translates to interesting career and can he amuse us in a social atmosphere. We make our own money and thrive on the independence it fosters. Therefore there is more of an emphasis on love when choosing that love interest.”
But, as I discovered in polling a small group of Chick Lit authors, different authors feel differently about the genre. One of my favorite Chick Lit books, A Clean Slate is a book about a woman (a non-New Yorker) who suddenly discovers she cannot remember the last five months of her life. What’s interesting about this book is that it ignores many of the Chick Lit conventions, including the talk of designer labels. But the heroine does talk in a very modern way. Here is what the book’s author, Laura Caldwell, said when I asked her for her thoughts about what makes Chick Lit:
“Three years ago, I first heard the term ‘chick-lit’ from Margaret Marbury, the senior editor at Red Dress Ink, the imprint which helped take such fiction into the mainstream. As Margaret explained it, they were looking to publish stories about urban women, most of them single and searching for something in their lives. But I know from speaking to Margaret that her definition of ‘chick-lit’ has opened wide since that time, as has mine.
“The phrase ‘Chick Lit’ has come to define a body of work that appeals to women and has, as its primary purpose, the desire to entertain. If you learn something along the way, that’s even better. But the characters are no longer just urban singletons looking for their next drink. The characters are now women of all ages and all stages. Stories about being a mommy or losing your husband now top the Chick Lit charts, and I appreciate this inclusion of other types of women into the genre.
“When I wrote my first novel, Burning the Map, I was the urban singleton looking for her next cosmo. Now I’m in my mid-thirties, having to make choices about family and my future, which seems much broader than it did back then, and I want to be able to write about these struggles as well. Some people have complained that Chick Lit has become too homogenized and the stories too similar because they always involve women and often too many glasses of wine. To me, this criticism is lacking. It’s like complaining that mystery novels have too many dead bodies. There will always be similar characteristics in chick-lit novels, but as we’ve seen from the new crop of such fiction, they will tell widely varying stories, too. I, for one, look forward to this particular future.”
In her email Laura mentioned the name of her upcoming book, The Year of Living Famously, and I had to laugh. Who knows what the book is about – but I did think of Carrie Bradshaw when I read it!
Meg Cabot, author of the incredibly popular Princess Diaries series had a different take. Like many authors Meg doesn’t want to get pigeon-holed. She writes, that she’s been told her books Boy Next Door and Boy Meets Girl “fall into the Chick Lit category, in that they’re humorous stories about young and slightly neurotic urban career gals looking for love…and, in the case of my heroines, a promotion,” but argues that the “same could be said of Jane Austen’s books, such as Pride and Prejudice and Emma, since to me, they’re humorous love stories featuring young and slightly neurotic heroines. Except for the job thing, what’s the difference? I think Chick Lit has been around much longer than most people think…It’s just that no one ever called it that before Bridget Jones.”
There is certainly something to this. As I was thinking about this column it occurred to me that I had had a number of favorite books over the years that were written in the chummy, witty, humorous first person style that we associate with Chick Lit. One of my favorite books of all time is I Love You Honey But the Season’s Over by Connie Clausen, published in 1961. The book is Clausen’s first person account of joining Barnum & Baily’s Circus in the 1940s and begins with the line, “Hey you with the long hair, get the hell up on that elephant,” and is largely told in dialogue. Clausen, roughly eighteen at the time, was hired for her long blonde hair (so she could play Alice in Wonderland in the parade) and was deathly afraid of heights. Over the course of the book Clausen spends most of her time managing to survive the job. She falls in love with a handsome acrobat and leaves him because he’s too much of a chauvinist for her. And yes this book is about the 1940s!
But even though Meg Cabot has a point, there is something to be said for the fact that Chick Lit is a genre that is finally addresses the diversity in the lives of American and British women. Caren Lissner, who wrote another favorite, Carrie Pilby, thought so too. She wrote:
“I think that since young women have so many more choices to make today, people enjoy reading romantic stories that also incorporate the difficulties in finding the right career, boyfriend, or relationship to one’s family. These are all tough long-term choices that we have to make, and it’s great to see how different characters deal with them and still manage to (hopefully) find happiness with someone. Everyone wants a story they can relate to.
“You know, the stuff that happens in Chick Lit is appealing because it actually happens every day, no matter how silly it is. Not long ago, someone I know was in a bar talking to a guy for an hour, and all of a sudden he revealed that he had a fiancée. That’s the kind of thing that’s not reflected in old-fashioned romance, but it might end up in a modern Chick Lit book – and when we read how the character overcomes it, and can laugh at it and feel better!”
One thing that has startled me recently about Chick Lit is the way it seems to be popping up in places where I never expected it. Two huge surprises were The Accidental Duchess by Jessica Benson and Undead and Unwed by MaryJanice Davidson.
A few months ago I jokingly suggested to Laurie that I write a Chick Lit Regency for the upcoming Purple Prose Parody Contest. I imagined a chatty opening describing dancing slippers, problems with unexpectedly juvenile fifty-something parents and diary pages recording things like number of visiting cards left by “D.” Imagine my surprise when I opened the pages of The Accidental Duchess to read:
“I married the wrong man. And by this I do not mean, as people so often do, any of the more cryptic things that you might imagine: That I awoke one morning to the realization that my husband and I had grown apart. That I discovered something about my spouse that caused me to doubt that we were not well suited. Not even that I had met by chance and old love in Bond Street. And, as I shopped for reticules and he carried and armload of packages for his wife, our eyes met and it was as thought the intervening years in which we had both found others had never been.
“What I do mean is that yesterday I stood up in St. George’s Hanover Square and before some three hundred witnesses promised to love, honor, and obey the wrong man.”
Yes, The Accidental Duchess is a Chick Lit Regency! Although it did not work too well for my colleague Sandy Coleman, I just loved it and laughed all the way through, partly because I enjoy books where the story is told in dialogue and partly because I am a great fan of traditional Regencies.
I asked Jessica Benson about what she thought of Chick Lit and how she came to write, of all things, a Chick Lit Regency. Here is most of what she had to say:
“I really like Chick Lit, and while the trend will obviously cool, I think it’s here to stay because it touches, in an accessible way, on the universality of the female experience. And, as your list below attests to, it successfully spans the different interests and/or stages of a woman’s life (have you read Jeanne Ray’s Step-Ball-Change? Because I think that did a terrific job of examining maybe two stages past Alison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It). I think women’s fiction does the same thing, but to be perfectly honest, I think it often does it in a way that is either inaccessible, too literary to be an easy ‘comfort read’ kind of book, or too weighty.
“I think most women want to connect over the experiences of jobs, co-workers, and friends – both good and bad – wise and unwise choices, sex, love, marriage, and kids. But I think they want to do it in a way that’s fun, and maybe intimate and confiding (thus the first-person voice) rather than a way that’s grim or unsettling. I mean, I think that one of the reasons the Shopaholic books have been so successful, aside from the fact that Sophie Kinsella is a good writer and they’re fun, is that they allow women a safe way to examine a big fear – the specter of being out-of-control, but not in a preachy way, and in a way that’s somehow both relatable and redemptive, if that makes any sense.
“That said, I decided to write a Chick Lit style regency, for three reasons. The first was that although the regency obviously had different societal expectations, I firmly believe that people are people, and that my theory on the universality of women’s experiences holds through history. That Regency-era women, too, (particularly the married ones) probably sat around drinking tea and talking about love and sex and men and shopping and difficult parents, and that it would be a lot of fun to show that part of their world. The second was the idea (that popped into my head after reading Bridget Jones for around the fiftieth time) that a common thread in a lot of these books is awful mothers. I think it must be part of the universality of the experience – that every generation to some extent feels the need to lament the awfulness of the lives/values of the previous generation, so they can believe that they will be different – at least until the next generation starts complaining about them. And why should Regency girls have been and different? And while Bridget’s mother might have been a pain in the butt, she didn’t have any real power over her, whereas in the Regency, not only would pain-in-the-butt parents have a lot of power, a young woman wouldn’t have a lot of options open to her other than to deal with her marriage. And the third was that I thought it would be really fun to give the first-person thing a shot.
“I have to say that I was extremely fortunate to find, in Amy Pierpont at Pocket, an editor who was willing to take a chance with this. It seemed to me that there should be quite a bit of crossover between romance and Chick Lit readers, but publishers did not necessarily agree. I think the general thinking is that Chick Lit readers skew much younger and we historical readers are a bunch of old biddies, although I suspect Chick Lit is also gradually sliding to an older demographic. When The Accidental Duchess sold, it went to a bidding war between two houses based on about a 100-page partial, and one of the houses said flat out that romance readers don’t read first-person and that they would want me to change it to third. I played with the idea, but couldn’t see it working. To me, part of the fun of the book was the fun of being inside Gwen’s head as she moves through the story.”
The other most unusual Chick Lit book I have come across lately, is the Chick Lit Vampire novel, Undead and Unwed. I loved the story of a fashion model/secretary Betsy, who wakes up one night to discover she’s a vampire. As our reviewer Laurie Shallah wrote in her review, “its heroine never takes itself seriously and pokes fun at romance, vampire and Chick Lit clichés.”
LLB, who also adored this book, pointed to some specific vampire and romance clichés she found particularly delightful. Her favorite “vampire lore moment” turned on its head was this; vampires hold their victims in their thrall while sucking their blood and this goes back to at least Stoker’s Dracula. Davidson’s book does this one better by having even a gay man want to jump Betsy’s bones after she took a sip. Davidson’s response?
“I’ve always thought vampires were ultra-sexy. I didn’t think I could write about an unsexy, uncool, yucky vampire (the Fiends notwithstanding). And I don’t think gay equals ‘only attracted to men 100% of the time without exception.’ I don’t think anybody’s sexuality can be summed up in one sentence. So it just made sense to me that a gay man wouldn’t exactly spurn the Queen of the undead. Besides, Betsy’s hot.”
Laurie also noted that a great many romance novels feature a hero with a large penis – larger, in fact, than normal, although “probably not porn size,” and wanted to know about the book’s love scene, which occurs when they’re in a swimming pool. Betsy can read Sinclair’s thoughts at this moment and he’s very worried about his size hurting her. On the one hand Laurie thought this was actually sweet and incredibly sexy at the same time, but on the other hand it seemed a wink and a nod to turn that whole cliché on its head. Davidson’s response to this is surprising, but then, her answers regarding Chick Lit, as you’ll later read, are also surprising:
“I’m afraid you’re giving me too much credit. The thing is, I’m just not that bright. But thank you! Basically, I’ve, um, noticed that men who are tall and broad shouldered and have big feet and big hands…well, they’re big in other places, too. Sure, the cliche is a hero with a big d_ck, but I try to follow physiology. Not that I’ve got gobs of experience, but I’ve never known a big guy with a little hammer, so to speak. And Sinclair, you’ll notice, is huge. When Betsy sees him for the first time she notices he’s so tall and broad-shouldered he pretty much fills the doorway. It just made sense to me that, in addition, he was hung like a moose. Which, if you’ve ever seen a moose…never mind, we’re getting off subject.”
For Laurie, Betsy seems to capture the “Gen-Y underachiever we’ve now seen on Wonderfalls (if you missed the month’s worth of episodes of this show, you missed something terrific; unfortunately the show’s already been canceled). But she takes a great Chick Lit turn with her love of shoes and clothing. Then too, Betsy’s co-horts in crime are a gay intern and her filthy rich African American best friend.” We asked Davidson for her brief on the book and about the development of its characters:
“My brief for the book has always been one sentence: A secretary gets laid off and then run over and then her week really goes to hell. That’s how I always explain it, because when I say, ‘It’s about a secretary who becomes the Queen of the Vampires,’ people always go off into gales of humiliating laughter. Now that I’m involved writing my first-ever series (Undead books 1 and 2 – Undead and Unemployed – are in the can; I just started writing the third one, Undead and Unappreciated) I find I just have to say, ‘It’s the third book in my series about a secretary who gets turned into a vampire.’ People still laugh, but I guess the magic word is ‘series.’ Or possibly ‘the.’
“Betsy was really her own person from the beginning. I knew she’d be sassy and annoying and brave (sometimes) and scared. I’ll be frank; she’s a lot like me. Take all my bad qualities, throw in a few made-up good qualities, and voila, you have a blunt blonde with a short attention span who is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. My mother-in-law read the book’s ARC and said, ‘It was exactly like spending the weekend with you.’ And I said, ‘Thanks. Wait. Is that good? Or bad? It’s probably bad. Hello?’ Friends have said they can see me saying and doing (!) the things Betsy says and does. So, I guess it goes back to ‘write what you know.’ The Betsy books pretty much write themselves. I sit down at the computer, I go away in my head, six hours pass, the house has burned down around my ears. I love my other projects (the upcoming The Royal Treatment or Sorority Cyborg) but they’re a little more work. I gotta actually, uh, what’s the word: think. When I’m working on them. Yeah. Think. That’s it.
“[As for Betsy’s friends] again, this was based on my own experience. I have a bunch of not-exactly-normal pals. My most ‘normal’ pal believes in ghosts and can rattle off the movie plot of every film in the history of cinema. That’s the yardstick of normality for me. A few of my friends are on medication at any given time (and have been since high school), a dear friend of mine is gay (in fact, he pretty much rocketed out of the closet after breaking up with me but again, a story for another time), one of them is a cop, one’s a pharmacist, one has a doctorate in, of all things, Japanese Literature, one designs chotchkas for a living and still play Dungeons and Dragons…I could go on and on. I’m not implying in any way that these are bad qualties, just that they’ve spoiled me for regular people. And one of my best friends is very much like Jessica, in that if anyone messed with me, she’d take a baseball bat to their frontal lobe. Repeatedly. One of the things I love about Jessica is her loyalty. Her best friend died and she stuck by her. I loved that.”
I must say that the poking at Chick Lit clichés had me laughing harder than anything. Betsy gets the requisite evil stepmother who commits the capital crime of having Betsy buried in Payless shoes. Oh the horror! So imagine my surprise at MaryJanice’s response to my question about what got her thinking about writing a Chick Lit vampire novel:
“Honestly, I didn’t sit down and think, “Now I will write a Chick Lit vampire novel.” In fact, I don’t really think of Undead and Unwed as Chick Lit…probably because I don’t like to pigeonhole books. What happened was, I couldn’t get this scene out of my head (this is usually how books start for me). I kept seeing this young woman waking up in a morgue, clueless and scared, with no idea how she got there. And I remember thinking, ‘That woman is a vampire. And she doesn’t know she’s a vampire.’ The thought wouldn’t go away. In fact, it compounded: why doesn’t she know she’s a vampire? In the movies, they always know. How can she not know? And what in the world will happen when she finds out? So, I sat down to write the book. I didn’t know how it would end, I didn’t know anything. Just that one scene. But it stuck. From such things series are born!
“So to hear, good job, this book skewers Chick Lit and vampire lit is kind of a surprise to me, because I never set out to do that. I just wanted to write a story, you know?
“What’s really odd is that U&U has consistently been on Barnes and Noble’s Top Ten Horror list since early March. It’s been number one on that same list for much of that 6 weeks. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled, but it’s weird. Very very weird. Because I would never classify the book as horror. It’s not remotely scary. And it was so odd to see it beating out Stephen King’s Secret Window, or John Saul’s latest. I mean, hello? How weird is that? I certainly didn’t sit down to write U&U thinking, ‘Ah-HA! This will knock Stephen King off his perch.’
“So is Undead and Unwed Chick Lit? I never thought so, but that’s more because I’m ignorant of the genre (never read Bridget Jones, etc.) than anything else. It’s not horror. It’s not (hee!) literature. It’s not a cookbook and it’s not True Crime. It’s not Women’s Fiction, and it’s not straight paranormal, either. Believe me, I didn’t envy Berkley’s marketing department.”
As I was preparing this column Laurie and I could not help but reflect on what a huge trend Chick Lit is. As Laurie put it, “Every time I go to the bookstore there are more Chick Lit trade paperbacks.” This is true and just as romance has its share of dull, silly and poorly written books, so does Chick Lit.
One thing that is interesting for me to see is that the established book world seems to be having a tough time coping with the trend. How to treat these books about…women. As always much of the answer seems to be in the packaging. The Nanny Dairies, by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus warranted a hardback release and a glowing New York Times book review. Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada, the story of a Brown University graduate who becomes a personal assistant to an editor a “Vogue-like” magazine, got the hardback release too.
In fact The Devil Wears Prada ended up with a story almost as interesting as the one in the book. That story is told in a pretty interesting way by Mark Goldblatt in a column in The National Review entitled The Devil & the Gray Lady. No, I am not a regular reader of The National Review but I had to laugh at this columnist’s whack at the highly respected New York Times Book Review for getting fashion editors to review a book aimed at skewing them, while making no mention of the conflict of interest inherent in the review.
By contrast, books published by Harlequin’s Red Dress Inc and Simon and Schuster’s Downtown Press seem to be largely ignored by the book world. This is really a shame as two of my favorites are the well written Carrie Pilby, a book about a child prodigy who lives in New York after graduating Harvard at nineteen, and The Man I Should Have Married, published by these imprints. Carrie Pilby could easily have been written in literary fiction form while The Man I Should Have Married, about a woman whose cheating husband left her for another woman, sounds similar to a traditional Woman’s Fiction title.
Ever since Chick Lit became popular people have been bringing out new terms to break up the genre. According to this strategy books like Allison Peason’s I Don’t Know How She Does It are Mommy Lit, and Meg Cabot told me not to forget books like Nick Hornsby’s About A Boy are now dubbed Dick Lit or Lad Lit. To me it is all one thing and we are better off simply assuming that Chick Lit are books about all kinds of women. Much as I loved Hornsby’s About a Boy, it came out long before Chick Lit was a trend. Hornsby’s How to be Good, though, seemed an attempt at writing a Chick Lit book, and unfortunately that book did not work for me, in part because the heroine did not strike me as a believable woman.
The one Chick Lit area that Laurie has enjoyed is Chick Lit for Teens. I haven’t read any of this but my daughter is a devotee of Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries. And hey, anything that gets Laurie interested is good with me.
Lastly, for those still convinced that Chick Lit is all about twenty-something singletons with shoe fetishes, here are some of my personal favorites:
- Rachel’s Holiday by Marion Keyes – 12 step Chick Lit. I am not a fan of getting sober/12 step stories but this one kept my interest mainly because Rachel is such a fully developed character.
- Carrie Pilby by Caren Lissner – Literary fiction Chick Lit. Want to know what an Oprah book would be like as a Chick Lit book? Here it is. Carrie has all the problems but handles them in a light way that is surprisingly free of self-pity.
- A Clean Slate by Laura Caldwell – The amnesia book as Chick Lit. No, heroine Kelly McGraw does not wake up not knowing her name but she does lose the last five months of her life. She’s a funny, practical woman willing to do what it takes to change her life.
- The Man I Should Have Married by Pamela Redmond Sarran – Women’s Fiction as Chick Lit. A woman with two children is left by her cheating husband for a younger woman. She looks up “the one who got away.” This book is more romantic than most.
- The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger – What it’s like to work for the most horrible boss in the universe. Lets all hope Candice Bergan is in line to play the devilish Miranda Priestly.
- The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus – What it’s like to be the nanny for a Park Avenue mother.
- I Don’t Know How She Does It by Alison Pearson – Kate Reddy, the heroine of this book is a portfolio manager with two children. If you know anything about that world, this book will ring true. Here’s a book about what it is really like to “have it all.”
- Do-Over by Dorien Kelly – The heroine of this book is a lawyer, an associate at a law firm. Do-Over is an office romance, probably the best I have read.
- Trading Up by Candace Bushnel – Candace Bushnel wrote the original Sex and the City. Her heroine Jayne isn’t particularly likable but she sure is interesting. Read this one if you like reading a lot of designer names and figuring out who’s who in East Hampton.
So there you have it. I will be interested in hearing how all of you feel about the trend to Chick Lit.
Time to Post to the Message Board
Rather than provide a list of questions as a jumping-off point for the At the Back Fence Message Board, we’d like you to reflect upon the column and your own reading experiences in posting your thoughts and ideas. We look forward to engaging in good discussion about Chick Lit.
Robin Uncapher, with Jacqueline deMontravel, Laura Caldwell,