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Detail of illustration by Michelle Thompson (Michelle Thompson)
Detail of illustration by Michelle Thompson (Michelle Thompson)

Publishing

Chick lit gets a makeover Add to ...

After the final page of The Edge of Reason was penned, chick lit poster girl Bridget Jones did something most of her disciples would have cringed at, had they followed her story to its 2006 conclusion in The Independent: She became pregnant with Daniel Cleaver's baby and moved in with him. I know. Gasp! The horror! What about Mark Darcy?!

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And here perhaps is an even deeper betrayal: The final sentence about Bridget ever written by Helen Fielding, her creator, was, "Bridget is giving every attention to the care of her newborn son - and is too busy to keep up her Diary for the time being."

As Bridget would have said: Doooooooooooooom.

I devoured Fielding's books along with my singleton friends, back before we all met our very own Darcy-esque husbands and became Smug Marrieds too busy to keep diaries, too. Finally, we enthused, someone has tapped into our inner reality. Then we clinked our martini glasses and kept reading, ignoring the fact that Jones was a parody of single, weight-obsessed, binge-drinking, slightly slutty women everywhere - and delighting in the fact that she was us.

Were we too young to know ourselves? Was Bridget? Either way, chick lit staggered along without her, but was at risk of losing vital signs, of devolving into nothing more than formulaic beach books - deemed women's fiction - in which an ambitious young woman seeks perfect career, perfect man, perfect sex, perfect shopping. No wonder it developed such a bad reputation.

But as women search for reading that is nourishing, in summer and beyond, it seems chick lit is evolving into a range of female-centric genres with a little more cachet.

"Chick lit can be good. And entertaining," says Amy Einhorn, publisher of Amy Einhorn Books. "But to me what happened was there was just too much sub-par chick lit being published and that gave chick lit a bad rap."

Einhorn is the editor behind many up-market commercial women's titles, including Sarah Blake's T he Postmistress and Kathryn Stockett's The Help. "I always look for stories I've never heard before, and characters I can care about deeply," says Einhorn. " What Alice Forgot, by Liane Moriarty, publishing this month, is about what would happen if your 29-year-old self was able to look at your 39-year-old self. Are you who you thought you'd be? Did you stay true to yourself, or did you become someone you vowed you'd never be?"

Well, hmm -not questions one can answer while quaffing Cosmopolitans on the patio, are they?

"Readers don't go away, they age and outgrow genres," says literary agent Samantha Haywood. Meaning, chick lit may have been the equivalent of Early Reader's books for a generation of women who were liberated and nothing like their mothers (unless they wanted to be) - but also rather insecure, materialistic and, let's face it, a bit boy crazy.

And, even though straightforward romance still sells very well (especially as e-books), the Sex and City model seems to be giving way to something more sophisticated, or at least different.

So what does that generation want now? "To me, 'chick lit' has just morphed into 'accessible women's fiction' in terms of demand," Haywood says. Depending on whom you talk to and the content, this kind of writing is also simply called women's fiction, or commercial women's fiction, or up-market commercial women's fiction - but almost never called chick lit, the moral equivalent of calling your best friend a ditz.

"And let's be honest," says Einhorn. "There's a bit of misogyny with all these terms: Lad lit doesn't have a negative connation. You don't talk about men's commercial fiction. But for female writers, their work is defined by their gender. One has to wonder why." So take that, V.S. Naipaul (the Nobel Prize winner caused a great stir recently when he opined that no woman, not even Jane Austen, could write as well as man - that is, as himself).

The genre labelling remains discouraging, for both readers and writers - but it's not likely to change. As A-list women's author Jennifer Weiner told The Huffington Post (during "Franzengate," in which a controversy erupted over Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, and whether the level of fawning by the literary establishment meant female writers were getting the cold shoulder), "I think it's a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it's literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it's romance, or a beach book - in short, it's unworthy of a serious critic's attention."

"Sometimes it feels like if you laugh at all while reading a book, suddenly it's cast off as chick lit and it's not important," agrees Toronto's Chantel Simmons, author of Stuck in Downward Dog and Love Struck. "I don't mind how my books are labelled, but it can be problematic because it can feel like if you're funny, you can't possibly be writing something intelligent or thoughtful."

Kim Izzo, also Toronto-based, just sold her first novel in Canada, the US and UK, after a heated auction. The Jane Austen Marriage Manual (slated for 2012) is about a beauty editor at a fashion magazine who finds herself unemployed, single, homeless - and about to turn 40.

Izzo isn't self-conscious about how her writing is defined. "All I want is for it to be a good book that women will enjoy - and I don't know any women who don't enjoy reading a good love story. I'd call it dramatic or romantic comedy if I had to label it, but I don't necessarily mind if it's called chick lit."

Editors and readers alike are excited about the September publication of Girls in White Dresses, by New York writer Jennifer Close, a much-touted debut about three women coping with the onset of adulthood.

Jenny Jackson, Close's editor, agrees that defining any brand of women's fiction can be tricky. "I recognize that the vast majority of the audience for a book will be women, and those are the books I define as women's fiction. For me, it's not really a formula. It doesn't have to be about a single girl, or a mother or a marriage; it's just a book that will resonate with more women than men."

Jennifer Close says she would prefer not to be pigeon-holed at all when it comes to genre "I guess part of it is that there's so much assigned to each category. When you say 'commercial women's,' people think a certain way about it," she says. I think Girls in White Dresses could be read and enjoyed by a lot of different people, for different reasons." And even though it's decidedly funny, Close's writing still comes off as intelligent. "I write funny no matter what is happening. Sometimes the most unfunny things are the funniest."

Outside of North America, the women's fiction milieu is also full of change. "I think women nowadays don't want to escape reality only, but also want to learn something from a book," says Jacqueline Smit, editor and publisher with AW Bruna/Orlando in the Netherlands. "They want to recognize themselves, want to learn from the psychological processes and also maybe something about another culture or period."

Like women themselves, the books marketed toward them are constantly changing. And the bottom line perhaps is that a generation of girls has grown up and looking for books that offer something more than we used to settle for. Which doesn't mean we don't enjoy a good joke, a cocktail, or a breathless romance - just that we're now women who know where to draw the line (most of the time), like to learn about ourselves and the world, and are looking for more than just Mr. Right and a great pair of stilettos. (Not that there's anything wrong with having either.)

Toronto writer Marissa Stapley-Ponikowski is a close observer of developments in fiction for women.

 

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