(Check out the Read in a Single Sitting blog or read the copy-and-paste job here.)
“When my first novel (Clean Sweep, formerly titled Cha Cha Cha) was published in 1994, the term ‘chick lit’ hadn’t even been invented,” says bestselling author Jane Heller.
At the time she was told that she was writing “contemporary women’s fiction”. It was a categorisation she assumed was used strictly for booksellers so they’d know how to market the book.
Having worked as a publicist for several of the large NYC publishing houses in the decade before becoming a writer, she knew that the sales forces and their accounts needed marketing designations to work with.
“But then it dawned on me that men’s fiction was never labeled ‘contemporary men’s fiction’. And when the term ‘chick lit’ came along, there was no such thing as ‘guy lit.’ I found it sexist.”
She still does, but is painfully aware that stories by and about women have always been “ghettoised”, and not only in publishing.
“In Hollywood, classic movies starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were known as ‘women’s weepers.’ And in television, put a bunch of actresses in a series and it’s called a soap opera, not a drama.”
Heller says that she’s not a fan of labels in general, but is willing to allow one exception.
“If stamping my novels with the term ‘chick lit’ allows a female reader to feel more comfortable–that she has a better idea of what she’s getting if she’s never read my books before–then it’s okay with me.”
Genre gluts and “dead” genres
Though the chick lit genre has been enormously successful, it seems as though we’ve come full circle. Chick lit seems to be on the wane, with many chick lit authors being repositioned as contemporary or women’s fiction authors.
“Whenever a genre is successful there’s bound to be a glut. Look at how Fifty Shades of Grey is producing knock-offs. It’s a publishing truism. The conventional wisdom will say, ‘Oh, this genre doesn’t sell.’ And then the minute a book breaks out in that genre, suddenly it’s ‘Let’s acquire books just like that one.’”
Chick lit books may be repackaged and marketed according to current trends, but Heller doesn’t think that there will ever truly be an “end” to the genre.
“There will always be stories told about women finding their way in the world – and finding love in the process. It all comes down to what’s on the page. Is the story well told? Is the heroine someone we relate to in any way? Does the plot keep us engaged? The good novels–no matter what the genre–will always rise to the top and the mediocre ones will fall by the wayside.”
What does the market really want?
That said, authors still find themselves facing pressure to conform to ideas about what it is that the reading public wants.
One issue we’ve touched on several times in our interview features is publishers’ concerns over the marketability of a book featuring an older female protagonist. This appears to be an ongoing issue for authors working within contemporary women’s fiction and chick lit.
“Oh, I could do a half hour on this subject!” says Heller. “It drives me crazy when publishing people say nobody wants to read about older heroines. I’m a baby boomer and I represent the biggest demographic there is–a book-buying demographic, I might add. “
In several of Heller’s novels the heroine and her friends are in their 40s. This is the case with Princess Charming, which was received well at the time of its release, and has been her biggest seller overseas.
“But lately? I’ve been told not to write about a woman my age because it would eliminate the younger audience. Do I want to read about seniors at the assisted living facility? No. But a novel about a woman who’s just ended a long marriage and is living on her own for the first time, as an empty nester, would interest me. Why not? Millions of women have been there.”
Bold beginnings: fresh starts in chick lit
Heller’s touching on the “fresh start” theme is interesting, as it’s one that’s often found in the chick lit genre. In fact, it seems the case that many such novels begin with a “bang”, and I can’t help but wonder how readers might respond to a quieter novel.
“What an interesting question. I’m probably not the best person to ask, because my novels are very high-concept and the opposite of ‘quiet’. That’s probably why so many of them have been optioned for film and television!”
Heller says that when starting a book, it’s the “setup” or “what if” that comes to her first.
“I don’t need a ‘fresh start,’ per se, but something has to happen to the heroine to set her on a journey that will change the course of her life.”
There’s more to life than love
Life changing events certainly abound in Heller’s work. Her heroines are empowered and multifaceted, and despite common perceptions of the genre, aren’t just out to find love.
“My novels are not about how to get a guy. They’re not about dating. They’re not about sex. The romantic relationship is central to the story, but the heroine only finds love in the course of trying to accomplish something else.”
In two of Heller’s novels, The Club and The Secret Ingredient, the heroine is married. Both stories involve the frustrations and disappointments that come with marriage, and feature marriages that become stronger because of some dramatic event.
“In virtually every one of my novels, the heroine finds love as a result of pursuing some other goal–from solving a murder and getting revenge on an ex-husband to struggling to get and keep a job. I love writing about men and women falling in love. Just love it. I’m a romantic and I’m a sucker for happy endings, but I like a story with other elements too.”