Chick lit is dead. Long live chick lit! – Lynn Marie Hulsman
By Lynn Marie Hulsman
There’s an old saying in publishing that says everything is cyclical. From my corner of this small world, that looks about right. My genre, as a reader and a writer, is Chick Lit. Feel free to broaden that label if you like: Call it Romantic Comedy, Popular Women’s Fiction, Commercial Women’s Fiction, or Humorous Fiction for Women. I was, and still am, mad about the subgenre of Women’s Literature that came from Britain and took America by storm, with Bridget Jones’s Diary leading the charge.♥
During its heyday, chick lit was driven by commercial viability. Leaders in the category, such as Helen Fielding, Marian Keyes, Sophie Kinsella, Katie Fforde, and Carole Matthews sold books like hotcakes. Their works could ostensibly be touted as modern-day Jane Austen novels: Smart and saleable. Mavericks in this wave, these authors offered not only satisfying romances with happy endings, but also substance. Despite the message sent by their pastel covers, this group of writers demonstrated literary skill and their stories showed depth beyond two-dimensional Cinderella retellings. Here in America, authors Jennifer Weiner, Meg Cabot, Claire Cook, and Jane Green (who, incidentally, is originally from the UK) spearheaded the movement and elaborated on the trend.
Cathy Yardley, chick lit novelist and author of the book Will Write for Shoes: How to Write a Chick Lit Novel, writes on her blog that in the early 2000s mainstream media aimed a spotlight on the genre, showcasing its popularity.
“Bridget Jones was being written about in Newsweek, for God’s sake,” she says. Chick lit novels were “taking over the shelves of bookstores,” she elaborates, “to the point where booksellers were considering giving the books their own category. Publishers were launching imprints and gobbling up books as fast as they could. New authors were getting $20 grand a pop multi-book deals. It was a fast, furious flush.”
Readers hungered for these books, and they demonstrated that by opening their wallets. Many new writers jumped on the bandwagon, and old writers switched style, churning out copycats of the breakout books, relying on a formula of quick resolution and easy pleasures. The market became flooded, and the quality chick lit titles sat shoulder-to-shoulder on the shelves with the wannabes. The saturation point had been reached.
As is inevitable, the bubble burst. What goes up, must come down, as they say. Concurrent with this glut of books, the economy changed, and so did popular culture’s tastes.
In music, the tempos slowed, and the keys went from major to minor. Singers’ voices took on the quality of ragged crying. Torture became a major theme in horror films, replacing old-fashioned surprise and shock. The sit-com formula disappeared from television, and was replaced by “comedies” featuring self-consciously snarky, just-plain-mean characters with few redeeming attributes. People no longer wanted tales of conspicuous consumption, screwball hilarity, and urban excess in the vein of “Sex and the City.” Funny was dead. Tear-jerkers and domestic thrillers were the flavor of the day.
The doors closed on aspiring chick lit authors. Yardley remembers, “2006 hit, and … chick lit authors who hadn’t made a list couldn’t get arrested. And if you had a funny romantic comedy, don’t even bother sending in a query.” In short, no one was buying.
Veterans in publishing have witnessed the fall and resurgence of myriad genres and sub-genres. Who among us didn’t hear that New Adult would triumph over all romance categories over the last few years? Editors and agents at the Romance Writers of America conference agreed that the idea fizzled, more than one industry professional there declared that New Adult is shifting to created a new style of Romantic Comedy.
Which brings us full circle. Vulture critic Matt Zoller Seitz writes that television is experiencing a resurgence of Romantic Comedy, underscoring that storylines involving relationships are universal. But he warns that television writers and producers can’t pander or simplify. “Everybody knows what it’s like to fall in love or break up with somebody. So you can’t tell the audience, ‘Take my word for it.’ Because we know.” I’m heartened to see that a whole slew of TV sitcoms such as Fresh Off the Boat, and Grandfathered have made the fall roster signaling a return to funny.
On the big screen, quirky Romantic Comedies such as Tumbledown and Sleeping with Other People have been stealing the show at film festivals. More light, sweet comedies in the spirit of 1980s Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan films are getting the green light, and better yet, the focus is on more complicated, three-dimensional women involved in family relationships and female friendships, along with romantic relationships.
When my first agent shopped my debut novel, the screwball and sometimes farcical rom-com Christmas at Thornton Hall, the overwhelming response from editors in 2010 was “I love it, but I can’t sell it.” Every year since then, I have asked agents and editors at romance conferences if this would be the year that chick lit would come back. Time and again, I was told, “I wish! I love that genre, but probably not yet.”
In 2015 the answers changed. I have been advised in cautious whispers to watch for new comedic titles that had just been acquired. I am waiting on tenterhooks, both as a reader and an author. I hope the time is right for my newest book, A Miracle at Macy’s, which in addition to being influenced by the Christmas classic A Miracle on 34th Street was also influenced by You’ve Got Mail, When Harry Met Sally, and Four Weddings and a Funeral.
My prediction? New chick lit books will involve less self-deprecation, more sex, fewer heroines who are “too dumb to live,” and more strong women who happen to be going through tough times, older characters, more first-person POVs, and more female “buddy comedies” that involve a romantic sideline.
Long live Chick Lit!
Lynn Marie Hulsman’s varied employment background includes stints writing at a direct marketing agency specialising in casino advertising (Free buffets! Loose slots!), ushering at Manhattan Theatre Club, editing for big pharma companies, and passing out cheese cube samples (a decided low point). As a performer she’s done comedy at places like Caroline’s, Stand Up New York, The Big Stinkin’ Comedy Festival in Austin,TX, and Boom Chicago in Amsterdam. She can’t tell you what she’s ghost written (obv!) but she’s co-written two books on cookery, and wrote The Bourbon Dessert Cookbook. She does not believe in white chocolate.