Strictly for the girls

Crit­ics may dis­miss it as fluff, but chick lit rings cash reg­is­ters, writes Jane Fraser

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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

Il­lus­tra­tion: Eric Lobbecke

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