This Week’s Column:


... a MobyLives guest column

by Caren Lissner

June 9, 2003 — Amidst all the endless chatter about chick lit, it seemed none of the talk ever came from an actual chick lit author. Then MobyLives ran into one right near the MobyLives intergalactic headquarters. We asked her, hey, what's it like in there?

When I started writing my novel in 1999, I thought it was going to be a funny and offbeat look at situational ethics and moral relativism through the eyes of a 19–year–old genius. When I finally sold it in 2001, to a "chick lit" publisher — maybe THE chick lit publisher, Harlequin's Red Dress Ink imprint — I immediately realized just what it was: "chick lit."

It has all the elements — a few dates, a young protagonist, a gay friend. Now that it's just been released, I'm revising the pitch I give to potential readers. "You won't have to think about morality all that much — it's actually perfect for the beach this summer!"

I admit, the marketing was hard to accept at first. Last year, I fought against the swirly lettering on the cover. I wanted something like Rick Moody's Demonology, with a single iconic image in the middle of the cover and a solid background. Instead, I got some girly–looking letters in pastel blue. "It looks like Judy Blume!" I howled at the publishers.

What did I know about marketing? I now realize they were right. A recent trip to Barnes & Noble found it on the "Beach Reading" display with dozens of others, while poor Z.Z. Packer and Annie Proulx were relegated to the back of a row of a new fiction. Who's going to accidentally have suntan lotion dumped on their cover this summer — them or me?

The truth is, this is publishing, and getting published is a miracle, and I'm extremely lucky and grateful for it. Several of us who have been writing for years, and were finally guided into print by this new category, at first added disclaimers when telling our friends the good news. "Mine is different," I would explain, losing confidence toward the end. "My main character doesn't work in publishing — she's in proofreading!" "She isn't 21 — shešs 19!" I still tell people, "My publisher is an imprint of Harlequin, but it's not a romance, I swear!" But so what if it was? People buy Harlequin. And isn't that what every writer wants: readers?

I want everyone to know that at one point in my book, someone is partially naked. A couple of people drink too much. And, I can now reveal, someone has sex. There are a few cuss words and a job interview. The main character recently graduated from a top college and is confused about relationships. The word "nubile" is on page 161.

The categorization is tough for some, particularly those with genteel publishing creds. Meghan Daum, who got an MFA from Columbia and wrote for the Times Book Review and the New Yorker, is concerned that her new book, "The Quality of Life Report," might be classified as chick lit. The reason I know this is that in the Jan. 27 Publisheršs Weekly it says, "Daum is concerned that 'The Quality of Life Report' not be classified as Chick Lit." If you haven't been jealously and obsessively following young Daum's career, four years ago, she was living in New York and finding it hard to survive on what was still an impressive freelance income, so she moved to the slower life in Nebraska. Her new book follows a twentysomething TV correspondent who leaves New York to move to the slower life in Nebraska. It's something Daum clearly would have written anyway. Publisheršs Weekly helped her out by writing in their review, "Though the love story occupies center stage, this is not mere chick lit, and men will enjoy it, too."

Beryl Bainbridge is even more obviously horrified by the idea of "chick lit." In 2001, she said, "It is a froth sort of thing." The next day, chick lit author Jenny Colgan responded in the Guardian with, "We know the difference between foie gras and Hula Hoops, Beryl, but sometimes we just want Hula Hoops."

I would rather have Hula Hoops AND foie gras, but Colgan is right. Even though there are now hundreds of chick lit books, and an obscene number of them are pink, there is a reason for their numbers. Besides the fact that they're fun to read, they also remind women of marriageable age, as "Quarterlife Crisis" did for the twentysomething crowd, that we're not alone in screwing up.

Yet, every chick lit book can't be painted with the same blush and cold cream. Some are literary. At the other end of the spectrum, some are, as one agent said to me, "snacks, like potato chips." And some are right in the middle. If the poet Horace said literature should be utile et dulce — useful and pleasurable — it's still true that even the dulce alone takes work; producing a convincing story with humor, romance, and characters we care about is an impressive feat, even when it's not the height of intellectualism. Books that are purely sweet can learn from the useful ones, and the reverse is true as well.

But — there's always a but — it definitely is getting harder to tell these books apart with the barrage of pink assaulting us when we walk into bookstores. (There were ninety–one chick lit books on the "Beach Reading" shelf alongside mine.) Their popularity may be nearing its plateau, since it seems like every publisher is trying to jump on the bandwagon. When Red Dress Ink first announced their line two summers ago, a literary agent told Newsweek, "I think they're getting there a little late." Since then, Simon & Schuster and Kensington Books have created their own chick lit lines, but as they were doing that, RDI was already carving and molding their guidelines to include edgier fiction, which was where mine came in. Now, come July, RDI will go to two to three titles per month. Publishers like Ballantine, Delta and HarperPerennial each had chick lit books on the shelves when I made a recent trip to a bookstore.

This supersaturation is probably what has inspired a few new pokes at the genre. A column in the Guardian by Amanda Platell three weeks ago argued for more serious women's literature. "Why should we be forced to endure a long summer on a selection of novels where tragedy is a sick nanny and failure is a lackluster dinner party?" she asked.

But chick lit is already starting to change focus. The books on the shelves now were written largely before Sept. 11, and before their authors knew everyone else was writing the same thing. Red Dress Ink revised their guidelines months ago to say "It's okay to be smart, introspective and topical ... RDI heroines are growing up. One thing they all have in common: something is missing from their life. They've got something to learn." Some books about young women in the future, in other words, will have tragedy, and some will have tears. Some will hopefully have main characters who are doctors, lawyers, or maybe even the evil boss as protagonist rather than villain.

But if an upcoming chick book turns out to be more literary than breezy, or it has an unhappy ending — the distinction Platell makes — does that mean it's not chick lit? What makes something chick lit, anyway — the marketing and cover? If a book is more serious, is it just regular "women's fiction"? Where is the line drawn? Will chick lit soon split back into the categories from whence it came — romance, women's fiction, memoir, humor?

There will always be lighter fare on the literary menu, since we need it at times, but it's also unlikely that ther's room for 100 more books that are exactly the same. The ones that last, in the end, will have to be meatier. (Still, as one person told me, the genre has always been around. Had "The Bell Jar" or "Waiting to Exhale" been written today, they might have been slapped with pink covers and deposited onto the "Beach Reading" shelf. So, actually, might the Wizard of Oz: Girl moves to big city, has to wear high–heeled shoes to get anywhere, meets three men — first has no brain, second, no heart, third is gay — and she finally thinks the last man will be the answer to her prayers, but when she meets him, he's short and impotent.)

In the end, the chick lit writers I know are grateful to finally have made it into publishing, but we don't intend to write twelve of the same book. Other novels that have been in my heart for years are just waiting to be unleashed — and they donšt all have 24–year–old protagonists. But I'm pleased to have been given the opening, and I'll feel lucky if my book succeeds either as chick lit or as social satire.

Chick lit will change, and we will change, too. Jonathan Franzen wrote in How to Be Alone, "There are, today, millions of American women whose lives do not resemble the lives they might have projected from their mothers, and all of them ... are potentially susceptible to substantive fiction."

He's right. There are better things to come. But with so much on the table to choose from now, if you give what's already there a fair shot, you might notice some foie gras on your pink plates.

Caren Lissner is the editor of the Hoboken Reporter, the hometown newspaper of MobyLives. Her book, "Carrie Pilby," is just out from Red Dress Ink. Visit her website,

©2003 Caren Lissner

Last Week's Column: SPIEGELMAN'S BURNING ... The MobyLives interview with Page Six reporter — and now novelist — Ian Spiegelman.


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