Strictly for the girls
Critics may dismiss it as fluff, but chick lit rings cash registers, writes Jane Fraser
IT would be unkind and prurient to hoot derisively at the latest drive by booksellers to sell what is loosely known as chick lit. On the other hand, it is a venture in which cynicism may not be entirely absent. Helen Fielding, author of the genre’s canonical Bridget Jones’s Diary, has a lot to answer for.
When Dymocks’s flagship bookshop in central Sydney launched its Girls Night Out one Friday night earlier this year, it drew more than 200 people, some of them men.
According to general manager Joanne Wood, the evening, with its free champagne, chick lit chatter and the opportunity to network with likeminded twentysomethings, was something the city dearly needed.
The guest speaker at the function was Samantha, Brett who unveiled her book on love among bloggers. Brett is the author of an online dating column and one of the latest authors to climb aboard the lives- and- loves- of- youngwomen bandwagon.
On the other side of town, upmarket bookshop Lesley McKay’s treads cautiously in the matter of this female phenomenon. Anna Low, who selects the stock for Lesley McKay’s, is not a great chick lit fan. She believes the genre is middle- of- the- road fiction and appeals almost exclusively to women, and that there’s no way of knowing why some books in the genre are more successful than others.
‘‘ In the wake of Bridget Jones , an enormous number of these kind of books have been published,’’ she says. ‘‘ So in practical terms you couldn’t buy a tenth of what there is around. It’s not all good writing and quite a bit of it is formulaic; it is only because of the success of Bridget Jones’s Diary , now in its 15th year, that publishers have jumped on the bandwagon.’’
Low picks Maggie Alderson as one of the few chick lit authors who goes down well with her customers. ‘‘ There has to be quality and it most probably has to be a book about life lived in affluent New York or London,’’ she explains.
Alderson, a former Sydney fashion journalist now based in London, finds the very phrase chick lit insulting. ‘‘ It’s a disparaging box that all female writers of contemporary fiction can get hurled into,’’ she indignantly says.
‘‘ It seems the only way I could avoid being put into this category would be to set my novels on an 18th- century mutton farm in Slovenia: The History of Mutton Curing in Slovenia, A Novel.’’ You also have to write in the third person, she adds. And never have a happy ending.
Alderson, who is writing her fifth novel, says she is inspired by little things and sometimes a person she meets for five minutes can inspire a whole character and establish a theme she wants to explore. But she is adamant in her distaste for the idea of chick lit, saying it is dismissive and insulting. According to Alderson, the label is a convenient catch- all for any work by a woman that has a contemporary setting, involves love affairs and is presented from the perspective of a youngish woman.
Melanie La’Brooy is another success story; her latest novel, Serendipity, follows the successful Love Struck and The Wish List .
Her books are close to romantic comedy, telling the tale of modern Australian single girls who find true love after travelling a rocky road, rather than illustrating the lives of the desperate and dateless.
One of last summer’s bestsellers was Getting Rid of Matthew by Jane Fallon ( married to Ricky Gervais, who plays David Brent in The Office ), which explores the ball- breaking new genre chick noir, where men are victims and women victors. There are red high heels on the cover ( inevitably) and a woman tossing away a man’s silk tie. Fallon says she hates chick lit novels of the Bridget Jones ilk, ‘‘ the ones that go: ‘ Oh my God, I’m going to be 30, I must find a man’.’’
Her heroine discovers that she does not, after all, want her lover of four years to move in with her after he has left his wife and children. She stops shaving her armpits, withholds sex, flirts with his son and becomes friendly with his exwife. Very today.
Perhaps it’s only the chick lit label, but there’s something embarrassing about the concept, or at least about needing it; about being the kind of Sex and the City tragic who is addressed by these books. While lovers of more substantial stories don’t think of chick lit as real books, there is no denying their presence in our culture, titillating and reassuring readers.
They are right out of Walt Whitman, in particular the place of his poem I Celebrate and I Sing of Myself and My Life , and suit a society where anything less than a public display of affection for oneself is considered a sign of dangerously low self- esteem.
To fit snugly in the chick lit box an author needs a male character whose sexual profligacy makes him less a role model and more a cautionary tale. He is a blase voluptuary, a weary adventurer committed to conquering boredom and women.
The heroine, on the other hand, sees the world as a romantic code waiting to be deciphered.
Almost without exception, chick lit poses the vexing and desperate question of why young people want to sleep around. And the readers, says Dymocks’s Girls Night Out event manager Natalie Mitchell, are not necessarily the young and restless: ‘‘ Readership hovers between chick noir and hen lit, or even old- boiler lit.’’
Novelists, unlike musicians and painters, are rarely prodigies and they often come to literature — or writing, in any case — via life’s knocks. Alderson eschews the tag of chick lit but says that if you label Marian Keyes, who also writes books in the first person about young women and affairs, as chick lit, she would be only too happy to be grouped with her, because Keyes writes from experience.
The fortysomething bestselling author ( Sushi for Beginners , No Dress Rehearsal , Watermelon ) has attempted suicide, been in rehab and drunk herself stupid.
According to her publicity, Keyes ‘‘ writes about real women with real problems’’. Coming out of a decade of bingeing, she wrote Watermelon , sent it to a publisher, and the rest is history. Nearly five million of her five books have been sold worldwide.
On the other side of the equation there is lad lit, but women writers complain that the authors of Bridget as a bloke are taken far more seriously, and are not consigned to one box.
Take Nick Hornby, author of, inter alia, About a Boy , Fever Pitch and High Fidelity . Australian writer Kathy Lette points to what she calls the Hornby paradox, complaining that for some reason his books, written in the first person from the point of view of a youngish man and involving love affairs, are described by publishers and critics as contemporary fiction.
‘‘ If he was called Nicola Hornby,’’ avers Lette, ‘‘ his books would be dismissed as chick lit.’’ In other words, squirmy embarrassment.
But after the phenomenal success of Bridget Jones’s Diary the formula was fixed, and the search is still on to find an author with a character to continue Bridget’s tradition of utter self- absorption and lust for love, just as all children’s publishers are in a frenzy to find another J. K. Rowling.
The result, says Alderson, is a great many books with pink covers showing a bit of leg. ‘‘ I’ve read some absolute horrors,’’ she says, qualifying her criticism by adding that there are terrible books in all genres. ‘‘ Just look at how many books Jeffrey Archer sells.’’
Perhaps there won’t be another Rowling or Fielding. But the consensus is that chick lit, — described by its proponents as this generation’s Madame Bovary or Pride and Prejudice , only with modern- day language and conduct ( that is, four- letter words and promiscuity) — is the kind of literature that, for the time being, meets its market’s needs.
According to Lesley McKay’s Low, there is more to come. Anybody Out There? , the latest book by Keyes, who can be said to write Irish chick lit, is doing well. As is actress Sophie Lee’s ( Muriel’s Wedding ) novel about an Australian lass in Los Angeles, Alice in La- La Land .
And Low has ordered Fiona Neill’s The Secret Life of the Slummy Mummy ( to be published in August), which she says is a Bridget Jones - style story for the slightly older woman.
The powers that be at Dymocks believe they’re on to something. Events manager Kate Richards says they have gone even further in their quest to liberate young men and women from the shackles of singledom through chick lit celebrations. For the second instalment of Girls Night Out, Dymocks linked up with RSVP, Australia’s largest online dating service. Occurring on — when else? — Valentine’s Day, RSVP launched its journal Hot Dates — Is This One?, which, says Richards, is full of dating tips, safe meeting places, restaurants and bars. Even information on how to acquire a sugar daddy.
On a night when the black scudding clouds and howling winds perhaps augured divine protest, a group of young women gathered at another Girls Night Out to hear from thirtysomething writer Holly Hill, who went a step further in the pursuit of the chick lit legend.
At a time when life is all about selling yourself, she did just that, advertising for a sugar daddy. This initiative proved to be a nice little earner, in return for sex, what she calls stimulating conversation, a sympathetic ear and privacy. And then there were the royalties for her account of these liaisons: Sugarbabe . Of course, she writes under a pseudonym and the men are nameless.
Hill’s publisher says her adventures are ‘‘ based on a true story’’ and that this is a unique book, ‘‘ because no one like Holly ever set out to document this kind of fascinating social experiment.’’ Not quite, as understood by anyone whose familiarity with fiction extends beyond the chic chick kind.
And it is certainly more than Bridget Jones originally had in mind. Bronwyn River’s review of one of the first novels in the divorcee lit genre — Page 15