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Can Chick Lit Grow Up?

Whether my work falls into the chick-lit genre or general fiction category isn't important to me. As long as I'm telling the stories I love to write and there are readers out there who enjoy them, you can call my books whatever you want.
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Red Dress Ink was the first publisher to focus solely on "chick lit," the genre fueled in late 90s and early 2000s by the frenzy around Bridget Jones' Diary and Sex and the City. Red Dress Ink was also my first publisher.

Although my novel featured three 20-somethings on a trip to Rome and Greece, I hadn't written it for the chick lit audience. Or for any audience at all. I just called it fiction. And despite being a card-carrying feminist, after years of literary rejection I was happy to ignore the drama starting to circle the term "chick lit."

Placing works of fiction into boxes called "genres" has long been a complaint of authors, scholars, critics and readers. But genres are a way to label a book for the purposes of marketing and to give pointers to retailers and distributors about where to place the book on their site or on the shelves.

"Chick lit" was meant to connote a fun, often humorous read, usually involving an everyday kind of woman who goes through something a little extraordinary. Such books would have strong characters and relationships, contemporary settings and issues, entertaining story lines and maybe (but not always) a happy ending.

But the term hit a chord, and people started getting angry, arguing the term was derisive and belittling. Jennifer Weiner and Jody Piccoult (among various other writers) pointed out that when male authors (think Tom Perrotta or Jonathan Franzen) wrote fiction about everyday things -- relationships and families -- their "fiction" was often heralded as insightful and brilliant, no labels needed. They even won Pulitzers!

I understood their complaints. But to me, the phrasing "chick lit" had created a market for my work. In short, I didn't feel like I had a right to complain about a genre brought me into tens of countries internationally. Instead, I embraced riding the front tables of book stores at a time when physical stores still mattered and all displayed novels whose covers screamed with martinis and high heels in multiple hues of pink.

Then the chick lit market got flooded. Everyone, it seemed was writing it. Soon it was followed by others attempting to get in on the dance, like mommie lit, religious chick lit, and a male version no one could decide whether to call "dude lit" or "dick lit." Soon there was way, way too much content, not all of it good, and the saturation led to a sharp nosedive for "chick lit." The publishing industry called time of death on the genre. Many authors who'd planned careers around it had veered those careers elsewhere.

Luckily for me, I had already transitioned to different genres, writing "mysteries," "thrillers" and "suspense". I'd long been a fan of such novels, and I enjoyed the new challenge.

All told, I wrote seven suspense-ish, thriller-y mystery novels, and had one book left in my contract. I started plotting the seventh book in the series. At the time, I had just gotten a puppy and was absolutely in love with her. My publisher pointed out that my social media posts and photos had gone from books and mysteries to dogs and dogs and dogs. And they had an idea -- why not write novel involving a dog, one they could market easily and well? Strong characters were what they wanted, with strong relationship stories, something fast-moving, contemporary, entertaining and a little sexy. And maybe, just maybe, a happy ending.

"So it would be like chick lit?" I asked them.

"No!" they said immediately. You could hear the shudder over the phone. No one used the term chick lit anymore. It had too much baggage.

We left the labeling alone and instead brainstormed about a great beach book. We landed on a concept, and I set off to writing The Dog Park about a divorced couple sharing joint custody of their suddenly-famous dog. And I had a blast doing it.

The process was a return to the way I used to write before I was published, before I was fettered with the nickel and diming (and yet necessary) work of corralling the work in genres. I wrote with utter joy about divorce and secrets and Chicago and social media and viral videos. I brought my pup Shafer everywhere, wrote the book often at dog parks, and wove into the book the profound, and yet profoundly different, relationships people have with their dogs. It was, quite simply, one of the most wonderful writing experiences of my career.

Whether my work falls into the chick-lit genre or general fiction category isn't important to me. As long as I'm telling the stories I love to write and there are readers out there who enjoy them, you can call my books whatever you want.

Laura Caldwell is the author of The Dog Park [Harlequin, $7.99].