Chick lit to chew on

The trouble began, as it always does, with a Helen. I'm referring, of course, to Helen Fielding, author of 1997's Bridget Jones's Diary. Perhaps you've heard of it? It was only 271 pages long, but the publishing boom it created grossed $71 million dollars in the last year alone, according to a recent report by ABC News, and launched a flurry of manuscripts that could bury a small nation in typescript. And this summer it seems like they all made it to your local bookstore.

We're talking about Chick Lit — a trend variously described as "breezy novels written by and about young women" (Fort Worth Star-Telegram); "stories of fallible, single professional women" (The Sydney Morning Herald); and "tales dominated by a plucky heroine who searches for her place in the big city" (Hollywood Reporter). (Chick Lit has arguably started its own cottage industry: articles about Chick Lit.) It's the Bildungsroman of the spike-heeled, single girl — and she's downing some Chardonnay at a multilevel bookstore display near you.

Chick Lit is often confused with romance literature, but it has little to do with bodice-rippers and frothy historical pas de deux. Its roots are in books like Mary McCarthy's The Group, Helen Gurley Brown's Sex and the Single Girl, Rona Jaffe's Best of Everything, and Nora Ephron's Heartburn: works that linked the touchstones of their eras — white-gloved marriages, career girls, the Pill, divorce — to the women.

But not everyone is pleased to have this era defined by lovelorn, Prada-clad media mavens. In Barnes and Noble's glossy Book magazine, Anna Weinberg lamented, "Inside their dust jackets covered with shopping bags, martini glasses, shoes or purses, many of these titles really are trash: trash that imitates other, better books that could have ushered in a new wave of smart, postfeminist writing." In the United Kingdom, venerable authors Beryl Bainbridge and Doris Lessing tut-tutted at the onslaught of works like Fashionistas and Jemina J. (The British are even crazier for Chick Lit than we are.) Ladies! critics rail. How many bitchy bosses, noncommitting boyfriends, urban families, and Manolo Blahniks can a girl have?

But the deals keep coming. According to Publishers Lunch, the daily Web report of the publishing industry, readers can look forward to a slew of new titles like Phi Beta Bimbo and Phoebe Fights Back in the coming months. The Hollywood Reporter recently revealed that Hilary Swank snapped up the movie rights to Legally Blonde author Amanda Brown's new novel, Family Trust, while Gigi Levangie Grazer's Maneater was optioned for $1 million-plus six months before the book appeared in stores. The whole thing has taken on such force that three new Chick Lit imprints (see page 24) have launched at Harlequin, Simon and Schuster, and Kensington Press, and Ballantine, Avon, and Plume have devoted much of their upcoming lists to the genre.

New Chick Lit authors are also getting used to the idea of living larger than the typical first-time novelist. Initially reluctant, Caren Lissner (author of Carrie Pilby) discussed her gradual acceptance of her book's pastel blue lettering in an essay on "A recent trip to Barnes and Noble found [Carrie Pilby] on the 'Beach Reading' display with dozens of others, while poor ZZ Packer and Annie Proulx were relegated to the back of a row of new fiction," Lissner writes. "Who's going to accidentally have suntan lotion dumped on their cover — them or me?"

Well, here at City Paper, veritable vats of suntan lotion have been dumped in an exploration of the many heads of this publishing hydra. Below, please find the major Chick Lit breeds from this, the chickiest summer on record — and some of the rarer species — in their native habitat.

The Other Woman (Or Man)

The breed: Obsession is a worthy subject — after all, it fueled most of Shakespeare's works and, if I'm not mistaken, many a Lifetime original movie. Luckily, these ex-boyfriends and boyfriend's-ex's don't stalk and destroy — they merely grow, like a fungus, on the host's body, slowly eating away at all vestiges of her self-esteem. By the time their work is done, the heroine has lost her pride, her common sense, and — often — a pair of good shoes. (She stands out in the rain a lot, looking up at windows.) But that's what makes her story such a hoot.

The prime specimen: Her by Laura Zigman (Anchor Books, July)

I don't know what happened to Laura Zigman between her childhood and her current incarnation as successful author, but it clearly involved some incredibly sucky partners. Her first book, Animal Husbandry — which became the Ashley Judd vehicle Someone Like You — informs us that men's treatment of women mirrors how, on the farm, bulls dismiss "old cows." This book tells the story of Elise, an freelance editor of self-help books who becomes a little unhinged when lithe, French-speaking Adrienne, the ex-girlfriend of her fiancé, Donald, moves down to Washington and inserts herself in the middle of their suddenly incredibly pedestrian, supremely vulnerable relationship. As in Othello, stalking, misunderstandings, and strangling — sorry, that's shopping — ensue.

Also-rans: Bachelorette #1 by Jennifer O'Connell (New American Library, August), Getting Over Jack Wagner by Elise Juska (Downtown Press, April), Good Girls Gone Bad by Jillian Medoff (Perennial Press, out in paperback in November)

The Boy Next Door

The breed: What Cinderella doesn't want to marry the Prince? After all, he's got the face, the bod, the big house, and — best of all — the bank account. Sometimes, though, your prince is the little schlub around the corner, and you need only look up from your scuffed Jimmy Choos.

The prime specimen: Coffee and Kung Fu by Karen Brichoux (New American Library, June)

It's too bad that Coffee and Kung Fu is such a poor update of this venerable plot, in which a woman pursues a clearly unsuitable attachment, only to miss the love that's right under her nose. Of course, it's hard to top Jane Austen, who beat it to death in Emma and Mansfield Park, and Jennifer Weiner's faultless Good in Bed sets a bar few could gracefully clear. But Coffee and Kung Fu, the story of the love that blooms over a counter at Starbucks, is watery brew by any standards.

Nicci Bradford, the daughter of missionaries, keeps in touch with her Far East childhood by watching Jackie Chan movies and brewing "real" tea, studiously avoiding an attachment to her day job, which is writing copy for a marketing company in Boston. After Nicci's best friend's husband feels her up at an office party, she spills the shameful tale to Michael, the coffee jerk across the street. He also likes kung fu movies and geographically correct tea, and they're off to the races! Family troubles and an affair with a glamorous boatswain interfere, but not nearly enough.

Also-rans: Bookends by Jane Green (Broadway, May), The Quality-of-Life Report by Meghan Daum (Viking, May)

The Hard-As-Nails Hardcover

The breed: Hardcover is usually reserved for the old guard of romance writing — those hefty tomes that are as gas-guzzling Cadillacs to the sleek, V-Bug appeal of Chick Lit's trade paperback. But sometimes a gal's been around the block, and she doesn't want to ditch her midlist roots for some snappy new rig that puts her shelf-side with a bunch of nubile young upstarts. Candace Bushnell — whose Sex in the City and 4 Blondes combine snappy singletons with pure Dallas-era cheese — is no fool: If your book has a dust jacket, your author photo can take up the entire flip side. And that Botoxed babe looks good!

The prime specimen: Trading Up by Candace Bushnell (Hyperion, July)

Before she met my mother, my grandmother declared that whoever had managed to snag her son must be one "foxy, shrewd article." My mild-mannered mother wasn't one, but aging (30-plus) Victoria's Secret model Janey Wilcox, whom we first met in 4 Blondes, certainly is. Staggeringly self-involved and ruthless to the point of self-abasement, Janey is on the hunt for a husband who can support her in the style to which she hopes to become accustomed. After she's befriended by Mimi Kilroy, a Kennedy-esque doyenne with cash and cachet to spare, her fortunes improve enough to land her such a man — until an episode from the past rears up to bite her in the ass. I won't reveal the various plot twists, but Bushnell gives a new meaning to the term "Hollywood Ending."

Bushnell, who got her start writing the now-infamous "Sex and the City" column for The New York Observer, has already taken a lot of heat for what is, admittedly, not a sparkling display of wordsmithery. But she's not a bad writer so much as an overwriter, ruining perfectly good starts such as, "Pretty girls were always told that their looks would make them special," with absurd and maudlin finishes: "Reluctantly, she tore herself away from the window, knowing that at heart she was that girl, the only difference being that somehow she was now a success, and married to a rich movie producer. . . . " She's also woefully neglected by her copy editor: dangerously dangling participles — "Being a Monday afternoon in June, the main street in East Hampton wasn't particularly crowded" — abound.

As Bushnell's prose overreaches, so do her clumsy attempts at depth: Critics were right to lambaste her attempts to link Janey to The House of Mirth's Lily Bart (she paints Janey's husband as an amalgam of the two main guys from Mirth, borrows its plot points, and mentions the book prominently, in case you've missed any hints). But her detractors neglect two literary masters whom Bushnell genuinely resembles: With her humorously evocative names (is Splatch Verner not the bizarro-universe's Time Warner, and Roditzy Deardrum its Lizzie Grubman?) I caught a whiff of Henry James, and in the plot's impressive twists and contortions, just a shade of el patron himself, Charles Dickens. Not bad for a girl from small-town Connecticut.

Also-rans: anything by Rona Jaffe, Jacqueline Susann, or Marilyn French

The Thinly Veiled Workplace Tell-All

The breed: Once a trend is satirized in the New York Times' Fashions of the Times (see Joyce Chang's "It's a Mag, Mag, Mag, Mag World" in the Aug. 17 issue), it's a pretty sure sign that it's over. Still, editorial assistants who've fetched lattes and ferried phone calls are storming the publishing gates, and, by my Ferragamos, they will be heard.

The prime specimen: The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger (Doubleday, April)

Weisberger has already been spanked so thoroughly for her tremendously popular send-up of her tenure as Anna Wintour's assistant at Vogue, I'm reluctant to add to the carnage. (In a double KO by the Times, Janet Maslin snapped that in Weisberger's world, "Footwear is character," and Kate Betts, herself a former assistant of Wintour's, says that Weisberger "seems to have understood almost nothing" about Wintour or the inner workings of Vogue.) On the other hand, the film rights for the story of "Andrea Sachs" and her sojourn with the beastly "Miranda Kingsley" alone sold for six figures, so what the hell.

It's true that Weinberger's prose can be terrifying at times — train wrecks like "her multi-carat, flawless diamond engagement ring emanated an incredible lightness" pepper the pages — but for the most part, it's standard women's-mag copy: smooth, pert, and a little bare, like an unfinished night-table from Ikea (even one of which, incidentally, Andrea cannot fit into her closet-sized bedroom on the Upper East Side). Her flimsy characters — Alex, a saintly boyfriend, Christian Collingsworth, a "hot young author," and drunken best friend Lily — orbit Andrea like a cloud of gnats at whom, from time to time, she swats unconvincingly. The queen mosquito is Miranda, and, in the end, she remains as opaque and inscrutable as Wintour herself behind her signature sunglasses.

Also-rans: In Full Bloom by Caroline Hwang (Dutton, March), Sushi for Beginners by Marian Keyes (William Morrow, May), Fashionistas by Lynn Messina (Red Dress Ink, March), The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus (Griffin, March)

Ethnick Lit

The breed: Dazzled by the assortment of black-oriented books lining the front of most major booksellers, readers can be forgiven for forgetting that, as recently as the early '90s, most publishers were still reluctant to tailor books to black or Latino readers. Since the phenomenal success of Terry McMillan's Waiting to Exhale, Random House, Simon and Schuster, and Hyperion have added black imprints to their lineups, and St. Martin's Press gave newspaper editor Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez a nearly $500,000 advance for her first book. Progress or publishers' version of segregation? It's unclear, but one thing is certain: Publishing has come a long way since McMillan had to hock her first book, Mama, from the back of her car.

The prime specimen: The Night Before Thirty by Tajuana "TJ" Butler (Villard, May)

This engaging and harmless nod to Waiting to Exhale tells the story of a radio contest, the Night Before Thirty Getaway Weekend, that gives five women verging on old hagdom a chance for one last hurrah. Catara, a personal shopper, is the fat one; gymnast Elise is the mouse; receptionist LaShawnda is stuck in a lopsided relationship with her (female) boss; pretty Tanya dates a thug; and high-maintenance Alecia can't admit that her bitchy maneuvers are costing her her own happiness.

The book sets up each conflict nimbly, gets each woman into the contest, then lets us watch them help each other to work out their problems. It's hokey, of course, the prose is often clunky and hackneyed, there is perhaps an overdependence on exclamation points (the book even ends in one), but dammit, you keep on turning those pages.

Also-rans: Sexual Healing by Jill Nelson (Agate, June), The Dirty Girls Social Club by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez (St. Martin's, May)

Chick NonFiction

The breed: Wait — doesn't Chick Lit's trinity of footwear, fashion, and fooling around guarantee that, for most of us minimum-wage schlubs, it's got to remain — well — fictitious? Evidently not. Nonfiction Chick Lit includes all kinds of stuff: kicky self-help from Cindy Chupak, a Sex and the City TV series writer; pedigreed reminiscences of a publishing career from Strawberry Saroyan, William's granddaughter; and New York Times food writer Amanda Hesser's cookbook-cum-memoir.

The prime specimen: The Only Girl in the Car by Kathy Dobie (Dial, March)

This memoir grew out of an essay originally published in Harper's, and, accordingly, Dobie's prose is closer to that of Marguerite Duras than to Helen Fielding's. The book, which chronicles Dobie's upbringing in New Haven, Conn., during the late '70s, is a dark, brooding tale about the costs of sexual desire. But it's not all gloom and doom: Dobie is a spirited, sensitive writer, and handles her story with a deft touch and an absence of judgment that makes it all the more intense. This is your single girl in the city, all right — with chops.

Also-rans: Girl Walks Into a Bar by Strawberry Saroyan (Random House, July), The Between Boyfriends Book by Cindy Chupak (St. Martin's, August), Cooking for Mr. Latte by Amanda Hesser (W.W. Norton, May)

Dick Lit

The breed, the prime specimen, and the also-rans, all in one: E. Lynn Harris doesn't write Chick Lit and he's not a woman, but he deserves a seat at this table nonetheless: 1)His Invisible Life — a kind of glossy, juiced-up version of James Baldwin's Another Country — officially heralded the return of books about sexy, swinging singles in the post-AIDS era; 2) Invisible Life talked about brothers on the so-called "DL" more than a decade before The New York Times got wind of the phenomenon; 3) Harris was a Razorbacks cheerleader at the University of Arkansas; 4) Harris self-published the book in 1991 and sold it at black-owned businesses until, as his Web site states, he "was 'discovered' by Anchor books"; 5) Harris' covers, which feature glam, hip-looking black folks, are the forerunners of Chick Lit's snackable designs; 6) Harris' astonishing success broke ground for contemporary romance writers of all colors; 7) he's just published a memoir, What Becomes of the Brokenhearted (Doubleday, July); and 8) if the phenomenal success of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" is any indication, Dick Lit (Britain uses the more genteel "Lad Lit") is about to explode, big time. Who's your daddy? Lizzie Skurnick writes for City Paper, where the original version of this feature appeared. Send comments to [email protected]

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