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Published: 11/13/2005

Women's lives are reflected in 'chick lit' genre

BY TAHREE LANE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

She's young and insecure. So flawed. Struggling to make sense of career, boss, men, her family, her obsession with food and shopping.

But she's smart, urban, and accomplished. She's got a tribe of friends and a self-deprecating sense of humor. We like her.

She's Emily, Bridget, Carrie, Stella, Elise, Samantha, Georgia, Sophie, Mim, Bronwyn - the she-tagonists of breezy, quick-read paperbacks. Book covers are likely to be pink with snappy titles in curlicue fonts and images of a woman's body part (often long, bare legs tapering to a couple of high-heeled exclamation points).

For better or worse, they're dubbed, "chick lit," a fast-growing genre that has expanded to include sub-genres such as big-girl lit (Fat Chance; Losing It), paranormal (Charmed and Dangerous; A Connecticut Fashionista in King Arthur's Court), Christian (Heavens to Betsy; He's Fine, but Is He Saved?), wedding lit (Cold Feet; Escape from Bridezilla), mystery (Sex, Murder, and a Double Latte; Killer Heels; Fashion Victim), working-girl lit (The Devil Wears Prada; Chore Whore: Adventures of a Celebrity Personal Assistant), and mommy lit (Play Dates; Are You in the Mood?).

A genre for mid-life women is disparagingly dubbed "hen," "matron," or "gray" lit. Adding insult to injury, these titles aren't nearly as alluring: (Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons; Did the Earth Move?; The Dewey Decimal System of Love).

There's a well-established body of chick lit by African American writers, including Pamela Thompson, Benilde Little, Bebe Moore Campbell, Brenda Thomas, Eric Jerome Dickey, the steamy Zane, and Toledo's own Philana Marie Boles.

Ethnic lit features characters who are Latina, Native American, East Indian, Asian, and Arab-American. Southern chick lit includes the sassy Sweet Potato Queens series.

Typical is Emily's Reasons Why Not, by Carrie Gerlach; it's slated to be a sitcom pilot starring Heather Graham on the ABC network in January, said Pam Spengler-Jaffee, of William Morrow/Avon books.

"I wouldn't be here if I weren't alone," the book starts, with Emily in a psychologist's waiting room. "I haven't lost touch with reality and I don't hear voices. I'm just having trouble concentrating on anything except the chiming of my ovaries."

Before the chick met lit, Terry McMillan had written Waiting to Exhale (1992) and How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1996).

In the mid-1990s, Helen Fielding was writing 1,000-word columns for the Independent newspaper in London, which she eventually wove around an updated Pride and Prejudice plot, and published in Bridget Jones's Diary. Bridget was an appealing mess; optimistic, spirited, and trying hard to get it right, without knowing what "it" was. The 2001 movie introduced Bridget to America.

Meanwhile, Candace Bushnell wrote a column called "Sex and the City" for the New York Observer, which became a book and then the addictive HBO television series.

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood was a word-of-mouth bestseller after its paperback release in 1998. And Melissa Banks enjoyed a hit with her 1999 collection of short stories, The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing.

About that time, several publishing houses ramped up to capitalize on the emerging trend. Scores of 30-something women, many never before published, won contracts to crank out a novel a year as publishers each pushed out up to three chick lit titles a month.

"It's all sort of a marketing thing," said Stephanie Lehmann, who has published three books. "In a way, it's always been there, and they're naming it." Creating a category helps publishers decide how to design book covers, and helps bookstores decide how to group books. Chick lit is usually printed in a "trade" paperback size, which is a little bigger than the standard paperback, and sells for about $12 to $14.

Ms. Lehmann sold her first book, Thoughts While Having Sex, in 2001 and it hit bookstores in January, 2003. She hadn't intended to write chick lit, but when publishers were hungry for offerings, her book seemed to fit the bill, she said. She's teaching her third Writing Chick Lit course.

"One of the really great things about chick lit is it's very writer-accessible," she said. "It's been a really good way for women to get published."

According to the Romance Writers of America, 1,400 contemporary romance novels were published in 2004 in the United States including both traditional (finding Mr. Right) and chick lit (finding Mr. Right Now), said Nicole Kennedy, public relations manager for the organization.

Paranormal chick lit, featuring young women encountering ghosts, vampires, and extraterrestrials, is hot, Kennedy added. Red Dress Ink will publish The Girl's Guide to Witchcraft next fall.

Called "metro lit" by some who find the reference to a fuzzy little chicken condescending, and "alternative post-feminist fiction" by academics, the stories reflect a generation of women who don't view their lives in the socio/economic/political contexts that feminists of an earlier generation did, said Suzanne Ferriss, who with Mallory Young edited Chick Lit: The New Woman's Fiction, slated for publication this month. It's a collection of 16 articles examining the phenomenon from perspectives such as body image and conflicted thoughts on feminism.

"Chick" is a denigration, but a word that younger women have tried to recapture and infuse with positive meaning, said Ferriss, an English professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The popularity is simple: readers are looking for characters who are facing the same kinds of life challenges they are, she said. Moreover, the stories are entertaining.

Books for women, by women, have been discredited as far back as the 18th and 19th centuries, said Mallory Young, coauthor of Chick Lit. Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Jane Austen, and lesser-known female writers were frequently castigated by male reviewers, said Young. Even Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, decried the proliferation of female writers as "that damn mob of scribbling women," said Young, an English professor at Tarleton State University in Texas.

Elizabeth Merrick's first novel, Girly, will be published next month by Random House. Despite its name, don't suggest it's chick lit. "It's an epic novel of two sisters and told in seven voices," said Merrick, 33, who teaches writing in Brooklyn.

Women who write literary fiction see their work assigned a back seat at bookstores to chick lit, which goes to the front of the class, she said. In April, Merrick drew the ire of many chick-lit scribes when it was announced she would edit a collection entitled, This is Not Chick Lit: A Collection of Original Stories by America's Best Women Writers, to be published in 2006.

"The point of the anthology is to put emphasis on another kind of woman writer who doesn't get as much attention as chick lit," let alone as much attention as literary writing by men, she said. The chick-lit genre includes excellent writers, she said. But with publishers seeking such a fast infusion of writers, quality wasn't always sustained.

"I think it's wonderful that we have more content about women's lives than we did 10 years ago," said Merrick. "But there's so much more going in women's lives than what's frequently portrayed [in chick lit]."

There was, of course, a backlash from the chick-literati.

Lauren Baratz-Logsted was mad about chick lit being treated "as if they were the literary anti-Christ." She zoomed into action and is editing This is Chick Lit, a collection of the best of the genre, expected to be published - you guessed it, perceptive reader - about the same time as This is Not Chick Lit.

"I get letters every day from readers telling me, 'Your books made me laugh' and sometimes they say, 'Your books made me think,' " she said. "I want stories that say something about the lives of their characters, as opposed to juggling lives and careers."

Her first chick-lit title, in 2003, was The Thin Pink Line, about a young woman in London who fakes a pregnancy. "All too often in life we pursue things more because everyone else is doing it than in terms of the real, long-term impact on our lives."

She plans to include a "reaching across the aisle" appendix in her collection, suggesting more literary fiction by women writers that chick lit fans might enjoy.

What's the next trend?

Chances are it will be erotica, erotic fiction, and the more toned-down, romantica, said Nicole Kennedy of the Romance Writers of America. Red Dress Ink, an imprint of Harlequin Books, will introduce Spice, an erotic line of novels, next summer, said Selina McLemore, Red Dress editor. And Avon press will launch an erotica line in the summer with an anthology, followed by a book next fall.

"Women's tastes are getting stronger in everything we do," said Pamela Spengler-Jaffee, of Avon.

Contact Tahree Lane at: tlane@theblade.com or 419-724-6075.



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