Friday, March 17, 2006

The State of Chick Lit

I got my comments back from my agent on the Monstrosity, and I'm excited about getting back into the book. It's going to be a lot of work, but she managed to capture my nagging doubts and give me concrete suggestions for making it all better, so it's all for the good and I know it will make it an amazing book when I'm done. I still reserve the right to whine a bit about how hard it is and how much work I need to do. I'll probably let her comments sink in over the weekend while I put in some quality daydreaming time, and then I'll plunge into the work on Monday.

In the meantime, I have to give a workshop on chick lit tomorrow morning at a meeting of the North Texas RWA chapter. That's a challenging thing to do these days because the chick lit market is all in flux. It grew so fast that it got out of control for a while. There was a glut, and as with any glut, that led to quality issues and some sameness. Now it's in a bit of a reverse, with publishers doing fewer books and being much, much pickier. My agent says she's having trouble selling books that a couple of years ago would have been snatched up greedily. In some cases, publishers are even steering away from labeling a work "chick lit" where earlier they would have slapped a pink cartoon cover on it and played up every possible chick element.

Even though that's the market I write in and do most of my reading in, I don't think this is really such a bad thing. I don't think publishers will stop publishing books that are like chick lit. They're just going to quit labeling them that way, and that opens up a lot of fun possibilities.

What the chick lit boom did was show that there was a market for fun books about young, single women that weren't necessarily romances. Back in the Dark Ages before chick lit came along, books like that were few and far between. There were Sarah Bird's books, The Boyfriend School and Alamo House (subtitled "women without men, men without brains" -- you've gotta love it), but I had a hard time finding anything else like that. The only books that acknowledged the existence of young, single women were romances, and those women weren't really single. They were in a relationship, whether they knew it or not, from the moment the hero appeared in the book. The books weren't about finding the hot guy. They were more about dealing with the hot guy once he showed up. In my life, finding the guy in the first place was the real challenge. Meanwhile, most of those 20-something women in romance novels were more like 40-something soccer moms at heart. I was the same age as most of those heroines, and I couldn't relate to or identify with any of them. Outside romance, the books about women tended to be tearjerkers, things like dramatic family sagas, overcoming abuse, surviving disease or other tragedy -- your basic Oprah book content.

Then chick lit came along, and there was finally room for light, funny books that dealt honestly with what it's like to be a young woman today -- the struggle to find a guy who doesn't give you the creeps, the pain and/or boredom of an entry-level job, trying to maintain friendships as everyone's lives change, and adjusting to new roles in your family. But then like anything that gets a genre label slapped on it, there started being expectations, which led to some degree of sameness. The first few books about having to date a lot of Mr. Wrongs before finding Mr. Right were fun, but then that story got old. The fabulous gay best friend became a stereotypical stock character. There were too many scenes of girlfriends sitting around and chatting while drinking cosmos or lattes. It started to seem like every single young woman in New York had a job in publishing. Oddly enough, although there were a lot of criticisms about shoe obsessions, I haven't actually seen that in too many books. That criticism seems to come from people who watched Sex and the City and assumed that chick lit was just like that. There were, however, far too many book covers with shoes on them. The standard chick lit book cover either had a picture of a cocktail or a picture of shoes (and, yeah, I'm one to talk, since my next book revolves around shoes, but believe me, I gave it a big twist).

Now that publishers have recognized that the market exists, they'll probably keep publishing these books, but not necessarily as an identifiable genre. They'll just be another kind of book. They'll be packaged and marketed as appropriate, but each book will be considered on its own merit. I write for one of the few publishers that didn't have an identified chick lit imprint, so this is the way it's always been done there. The fun thing is that when you do away with the genre label, you do away with a lot of the expectations. You don't have to set out to write a chick lit book and be sure to incorporate any requirements. You just write a book. That's kind of scary because there's some comfort in guidelines and expectations. Just writing a book is like working without a net. But I think the book world will be better for it.

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