Chick Lit Grows Up

In the past year, a different breed of chick lit has appeared with smarter writing and characters. It's notable not just for the content, but also for what it says about women, and what they are willing to read in their leisure time.
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The stereotype of chick lit is not always a good one: It's often viewed as beach reading with predictable characters and storylines. There also is often a shoe or a martini on the cover.

There's also the name: chick lit. The quasi-alliteration hardly inspires a reputation of serious reading. Regardless how much readers and publishers scoff at the name, and make strides to call it something -- anything -- else, it's still a consistent seller. There were reports back in September that sales of a few major chick lit writers were down, but those numbers were looking at hardcover sales. Chick lit actually thrives on devices such as the Kindle.

In the past year, though, a different breed of chick lit has appeared with smarter writing and characters. It's notable not just for the content, but also for what it says about women, and what they are willing to read in their leisure time.

It started in 2010 with Alexandra Lebenthal's The Recessionistas. It follows the lives of three women who work in finance in New York City. Apart from being well written, it doesn't dumb down the financial crisis in any way. Lebenthal assumes that the readers know what she was talking about, and wrote an intelligent - and still fun - book.

In early fall 2011, Molly Jong-Fast wrote, The Social Climbers Handbook, a darkly funny mystery about an Upper East Side wife so determined to keep her upscale life at 740 Park Avenue that she goes on a murder spree. Between bodies piling up, the book is a nuanced look into life West of Lexington without relying on any shrill, hedge fund wife stereotypes. To the contrary, Daisy Greenbaum in The Social Climbers Handbook knows as much about how the world of finance works as her husband. And Jong-Fast assumes her readers do as well. This, mes amis, is where chick lit is making a very important move.

In January, Harper Collins published Bond Girl. It follows Alex Garrett, a newly hired sales assistant on a trading floor in Manhattan. When I saw the plot for this book I made a full stop -- trading floors are not typical chick lit fodder. Chick lit, and all its clichés, takes place in magazine offices with Cruella deVille type bosses. If three's a charm then something is definitely up with what publishers think women want to read -- and I like it.

The publishing industry is in a state of flux. Book deals are not being handed out like candy. Any deal is a gamble, especially in the realm of fiction. Since these books are being published -- and getting great reviews -- it shows that not only is the genre evolving, but so is the readership. While everyone likes a beach read, no one wants their intelligence insulted, either. Women like myself who read chick lit en mass know all too well the frustration of picking up a pile of dreck under the guise of a pastel cover. We live in an age where reader book reviews are right next to any book you can buy online. If it's drivel, the masses will speak. And speak they do.

In a more obtuse way, these books show how women are evolving. Follow my logic: in 1958, Rona Jaffe wrote The Best of Everything, which followed five young women as they made their way in New York City. If you were a 25-year-old woman in Manhattan back then, chances are you and your friends were someone's assistant, slugging it out in the typing pool, Mad Men style.

Fast forward to 2012, and you have books like Bond Girl where, sure, Alex is a young assistant, but she's an assistant on a trading floor at an investment bank, where she is one of only a handful of women. In The Recessionistas, the Sasha Silver character runs a bond business and has to deal with prickly male colleagues.

It's impossible to predict trends, but I hope that the days of popular chick lit based around the lives of jilted hedge fund wives are over. If these latest books are any indication, the readership wants to relate to characters such as Alex Garrett. They want educated women making their own way in the world, not sponging off the riches of a financial wizard. I could get all Feminism 101 and make the argument that this latest crop is a better message to young women. The more important point is that these publishers should be lauded for taking a chance. It is difficult to predict what will sell, and pairing chick lit with finance, on face value, doesn't seem like an intuitive choice. Yet it works.

Although no matter what's inside, some chick lit cliches seem to be here to stay. Bond Girl, for instance, has a stiletto on the cover. Some habits, it seems, die hard.

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