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Chick lit: Sex, shoes -- and substance

By Kelly Gyenes
CNN
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Stilettos? Check. City setting? Check. Bitchy boss? Check. Brand names? Check.

Searching for Mr. Right? Perhaps.

But if it seems like that's all there is to the genre called "chick lit," Jennifer Weiner begs to differ.

"In the early days of the genre, it was very much 'single girl in the city,' " the author of "Good in Bed," "In Her Shoes" and the new release "The Guy Not Taken: Stories" (Atria) said in a recent phone interview. "Now I think that chick lit can be about anything from those 'single girl in the city' stories to 'married girl in the suburbs' to 'widowed woman trying to put her life back together.' "

Marian Keyes, often described as the godmother of the field, goes even further. Chick lit, she said, is not to be taken lightly.

"I actually think it's quite a serious movement," Keyes said in a recent phone interview from her home in Dublin, Ireland. "It's articulating the concerns of this unique generation of women. I wasn't getting the answers I needed from magazines, so I started writing about people like me." (Gallery: Chick lit authors in their own words)

Judging a book by its pastel cover

Whew. That's quite a defense for a type of literature that's met with more of its share of brisk dismissals. Indeed, even some authors placed in the category say the term is merely a marketing strategy.

Emily Giffin, author of the best-seller "Something Borrowed" -- which appeared on shelves with an eye-catching, and clichéd, pink cover -- cautioned readers not to read too much into the marketing of her book.

"I think it's short-sighted and narrow-minded to assume that any book with a pink jacket possesses certain characteristics," she told CNN.com. "No one makes broad, sweeping generalizations about all mysteries or all legal thrillers or all memoirs."

What really matters, Giffin said, is the material between the covers. "I think it's important to remember that the quality of writing is really what distinguishes one book from another, even within a genre," she said.

"Chick lit is a manifestation of the publishing industry," said Nicola Kraus, co-author with Emma McLaughlin of "The Nanny Diaries." "Ostensibly, I guess it's supposed to be women writing for women about women, which, of course, can cover a wide range of topics and interests."

Chick lit traces its roots to books such as Keyes' "Watermelon" and, in particular, Helen Fielding's "Bridget Jones's Diary" (1998). Since their success, the publishing industry has released a number of like-minded tomes, many bearing pastel covers and titles written in loose cursive script.

And the industry has even created imprints solely devoted to chick lit, including Harlequin's Red Dress Ink, Simon & Schuster's Downtown Press and Kensington's Strapless. Chick lit has even birthed its own subgenres, such as teen chick lit and ethnic chick lit.

Some commentators have called chick lit itself a subgenre of the often maligned, but hugely profitable, romance novel. Though, writers add, it's romance with a twist.

"It's not your grandma's romance -- as they like to say," said Meg Cabot, author of "The Princess Diaries" series.

"It's an evolving genre," Christina Dodd, best-selling romance author, told CNN in July at the Romance Writers of America conference in Atlanta. "It's splintering out into a bunch of different things." (Watch Dodd and Nora Roberts explain what readers want -- 2:44)

Even though there are different emphases when it comes to what makes a novel chick lit, its practitioners still tend to find common ground.

"[Chick lit] shows we are hilariously funny," said Keyes, adding that humor is "nonnegotiable."

"Chick lit novels are coming of age tales, no matter what age the character," said Sarah Mlynowski, author of "Me vs. Me."

A handful of authors are even issuing how-to books on writing chick lit -- even if its teachers maintain that there's no formula. Mlynowski recently teamed up with former chick lit editor Farrin Jacobs to create "See Jane Write: A Girl's Guide to Writing Chick Lit" (Quirk Books), and "L.A. Woman" author Cathy Yardley wrote "Will Write for Shoes: How to Write a Chick Lit Novel" (St. Martin's Press). (Watch how you create a hit -- 5:26)

'Proud to be shoe addict'

Regardless of the pigeonholing, chick lit authors say they're trying to write the best books they can.

"I think that there's some built in implications that go with the term and I think a lot of it is 'Oh, it's just this silly, frivolous, sex and shopping, boys and shoes book.' And while I do think that chick lit books are entertaining -- and I don't think there's anything wrong with writing an entertaining book -- I think that a lot of the books are dealing with more than that," Weiner said.

So it's not just stilettos. Or cities. Or bitchy bosses. Or brand names. Or, even, looking for Mr. Right. Weiner's first book concerned food and eating disorders. "Bridget Jones" was a modern version of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice." Keyes' latest, "Anybody Out There" (William Morrow), focuses on coping with a difficult loss.

"I think the genre encourages women to be proud of being women and our unique concerns are something to be proud of," Keyes said.

And yet, despite the pejoratives associated with the name "chick lit," she also said she's proud to be called a chick lit writer. "I know the title is meant to be ... 'Oh you silly little women, with your silly little concerns, and your silly little love affairs with shoes and chocolates.' But I think it's written to help women. And I am so proud to be a shoe addict, you know?"


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