introducing readers to writers since 1995

March 15, 2004

The New Romantics

by Ron Hogan

Laurie Graff started out her Barnes & Noble reading by handing out tiny plastic frogs to everyone in the audience, a cute reference to the title of her novel, You Have to Kiss a Lot of Frogs. It's published by Red Dress Ink, Harlequin's "chick lit" line, but though it shares the misadventures-in-dating theme in most of that genre, it also diverges in some critical ways. First, like Graff herself, the protagonist is in her mid-forties, a bit higher than the lead characters typically skew. Secondly, the undercurrents are much, much darker; the companionless narrator introduces herself at a friend's surprise shower by dwelling on thoughts of suicide, brought back from the brink essentially by clinging to the idea that her bad dates (subsequently told in flashback) at least give her amusing stories to tell. Mind you, the two short chapters Graff read did have their humorous moments, and she has an actor's sense of making a monologue out of an anecdote. It's also interesting (and rather heartening) to see Red Dress willing to shuffle the deck a bit and not turn out yet another variation on the same bumpy romance tale; I'm led to understand that they'll also be branching out into lad lit later this spring...

Graff was joined by another Red Dress author, Ariella Papa, sharing a few scenes from her second novel, Up and Out. This one hews a little more closely to what I guess we can call the classic conventions, but Papa has a pretty good sense of voice, and her description of the twenty-something protagonist's night out with a foodie, and the dishing among girlfriends the next morning, was fun.

Now, she certainly wasn't in New York this evening, but Red Dress is also the American publisher of Isabel Wolff, a former BBC reporter who became a chick lit writer when the Telegraph invited her to write a fictional column about the misadventures of, well, a chick lit chick. Seven years later, the editors must have found her insufficiently grateful for launching her career, because they open the door to her potential downfall by making her the lead example in an article exposing how authors blurbing other people's novels are frequently lying through their teeth--and, if Wolff's any indication, not feeling the least bit bad about it until somebody else points out that it's, well, patently dishonest (and even then her remorse seems rather insincere).

In a bit of self-justification that must have made her feel quite the clever clogs, she says she only fakes it for American novelists, hoping to boost her own literary presence stateside by appearing on the dust jackets of authors like Emmi Fredericks--who apparently didn't even need her help flogging Fatal Distraction, having won over Deirdre Donahue at USA Today easily enough on her own merits. Of course, American readers probably won't hear much about this, but since most of the literary bloggers I know have picked up on the story, it would be interesting to see how much of our readership also reads chick lit...

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