Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Chick-lit: A Personal Story

I've been reading the posts defending chick-lit over the past few days. Diana Peterfreund has a brilliant essay over at her blog here, better than I could ever write it, and Barb Pollack has a spirited defense over at her blog Fashionista. So I thought I'd add my two cents but on a more personal level of how and why I write chick-lit.

I first discovered chick-lit like most writers with Bridget Jones during a trip to London just before Christmas in 1996. This was before the book had hit our shores. I was charmed by the book and couldn't wait to recommend it to all my friends. What I loved most about it was the reference to Pride and Prejudice with Mark Darcy. On subsequent trips to London, I picked up other writers, Fiona Walker, Freya North, Jane Green and Sue Margolis among others.

In the meantime, I was struggling in my attempts to write a romance, in particular a category romance. I took a class with Ann Leslie Tuttle at Marymount, where I tried to learn the ropes of writing category. The first thing I learned was that my heroine, who was an actress, was not going to fly, actresses being verboten at the time. So much for writing what you know! I had the meet cute, with the hero and heroine meeting in the first chapter, I found clever ways to keep the hero and heroine interracting, but something was missing. I wondered why I couldn't write a book like the books I'd been reading from England.

Then Bridget Jones hit our shores, and things changed. Publishers discovered that there was a burgeoning market for books like Bridget Jones. Harlequin and Simon & Schuster created their own imprints, as did Kensington. Writers like Melissa Banks and Candance Bushnell were marketed as chick-lit (by the way, I found Sex and the City, the book to be incredibly depressing).

I eagerly retooled my romance for the new City Girl line at Harlequin, which I pitched at the first RWA conference I went to in New Orleans. Unfortunately, the book was rejected exactly one week after 9/11.

I duly plugged away, writing a new book, still reading what was coming out in America. I at first I was frustrated because all the books seemed like retreads, publishing assistants living beyond their means, only concerned with shopping. But I kept writing and reading, finding American authors that I admired. Finally, I decided that maybe I should join a workshop to hone my craft. I found the Queen Bee's workshop through Time Out. She was a published author, whose books I admired. She too was marketed as chick-lit, although I discovered in our first meeting that she disdained the genre. Not just disdained it, she despised it, even though she had personally benefited from being marketed as part of the chick-lit genre.

I had to promise not to refer to my work as chick-lit, so I started calling them contemporary urban comedies, which they were. I still read chick-lit and I tried to show her that not all the books being published with that moniker were bad books or bad writing. I tried to turn her on to Anna Maxted, and Sue Margolis, two writers with whom she shared a sensibility to no avail. She refused to read any chick-lit writers as she decried their writing to all and sundry.

It became apparent, that the writers in the workshop who wrote more literary fiction were favored with promises of quotes once they were published. Her own new manuscript that she was working on in the workshop was about an author who's book had been branded chick-lit. She would bring pages in where the protagonist railed against readers on the subway who were reading the Nanny Diaries or Jennifer Weiner (who she really had a problem with).

I hated having to hide the fact that I considered my work chick-lit, but I figured that I could learn from the other authors, including the Queen Bee, in the workshop. Finally, I had to take a leave to finish the rewrites on my book because an agent had requested the full manuscript. When I returned in the fall, her attitude towards me had drastically changed, or maybe I had. I was no longer willing to pretend that I wasn't writing chick-lit, or hiding the books that I read, while the rest of the workshop discussed The Corrections, or Middlesex.

So the Queen Bee decided to throw me out of the workshop, because she didn't want my kind of writing sullying everyone else's ears. This was after 2 years of being in the workshop. I defended myself vigorously and was finally allowed back in. Don't ask me why I bothered, given her attitude. We took a break over the holidays while she gave birth to her first child. When the workshop started up again, I declined to rejoin. I'd done some soul-searching, and realized that I could pretend to write literary fiction when that's not where my heart lay.

What I love about chick-lit, particularly now, is that there's no much variety. There's the more literary writers like Rebecca Bloom, Jennifer Weiner and Deanna Krizias. There's paranormal chick-lit, multicultural chick-lit, mystery chick-lit, christian chick-lit, and everything in between. But the one constant is that all these books are about women empowering themselves, finding who they are, and where they fit in, and sometimes they wear designer shoes while doing it.

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