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January 15, 2004

Is Chick Lit Chic?

by Ron Hogan

When I heard that was the title of the Women's National Book Association's latest panel discussion, held tonight in the Time-Life Building, my first reaction was, admittedly, "What, did somebody set the wayback machine on 2000 again?" Shows what I know--or, perhaps, how far I've clawed my way into publishing's inner circles that I'm out of touch with the average reader. Panelist Carol Fitzgerald of had some very interesting things to say about just how much of the bookbuying market still doesn't recognize the term "chick lit," and all the panelists seemed to agree that the genre has a ways to go before it reaches its peak. Barnes & Noble fiction buyer Sessalee Hensley pointed out the genre's particular strength in trade paperback, while Doug Mendini, the director of national accounts for Kensington Books, added that mass market doesn't hurt either; for one thing, it makes it easier to get the book into Wal-Mart. (He also had some interesting things to say about the erotic romance market being poised to explode very soon, especially the stuff Lori Foster is writing for the house's Brava imprint.

But some of the most provocative comments came from author Jennifer Weiner, who explained why "dick lit" doesn't really work as fiction but seems increasingly to wind up in the memoir section, wittily ran down the checklist of chick lit's stock characters, and aptly described the whole genre as "comfort food between covers." (Carol also made an apt comment about how the genre's heroines, often losers in love trapped in jobs from hell, are proof that we're allowed to admit our failures now--think of all those dotcom ex-millionaires who just laugh and move on to the next thing.)

During Beatrice's second big wave, which began the day Amazon cut me loose and gave me all the free time I needed to work on my own website again, I interviewed a LOT of chick lit writers because that's what was hitting the market then and because, in all honesty, I was 30, single, and more than happy to hang out with talented women and talk literature. (Not, I hesitate to add, that I was ever able to get a date from those interviews, though I was able to get dates out of having a literary website, but that's another story...) That's how I first found out about Jennifer, and discovered other fantastic writers like Elissa Schappell and Kate Christensen. That's sort of stretching the genre's definition a bit, but one of the points that came up tonight, especially from Sessalee, was that the boundaries aren't that firm; it all gets stocked in fiction.

I don't read it as much these days, in part because my professional book reviewing duties have me immersed in nonfiction, but the occasional novel still comes up on my radar screen. I'm looking forward to reading Caroline Hwang's debut, In Full Bloom, when I catch my breath after the Return to the Outer Boroughs, as well as Carrie Pilby by Caren Lissner, which has the best name for a protagonist-as-title I've seen in ages--and which I promised Caren's pal Dawn I would read months ago. (Why Malcolm Gladwell didn't use Dawn as an example of Connectors in The Tipping Point is one of life's great mysteries.) Plus it's from Red Dress Ink, which has done a fantastic job of specializing in the genre yet maintaining a degree of diversity among its writers.

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