At an engagement party in Seattle last year, I found myself contemplating the hostess’s bookshelf: a collection of pink covers adorned with high heels, shopping bags, and tall slender women on the go, their cellphones firmly in grasp. Just as I realized that the bookshelf was a monument to chick lit—the girls’-club books that all read, and look, exactly alike—the hostess materialized, her engagement ring glinting. “It’s all I read,” she gushed. “I love chick lit.”
She’s not alone. Since the mid-’90s, when Candace Bushnell and Helen Fielding birthed Sex and the City and Bridget Jones’s Diary, millions of copies of chick-lit novels have come to represent a new force in publishing. With the classics came a slew of imitators, some very well-written and enjoyable, and most formulaic: Girl meets two guys, one right and one wrong, and takes 300 pages to choose between them while introducing the sarcastic (often gay) friend, the wise (often dying) elder, and trouble at an unsatisfying job—all before delivering a happy, and theoretically empowering, ending involving l-o-v-e.
Even before Kaavya Viswanathan got caught cribbing other novelists’ plotlines and passages for her disgraced debut, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, in April, chick lit’s imitative qualities were obvious—particularly in their neatly coded covers. A cosmopolitan glass indicates a sexy edge and big mistakes in pursuit of happiness; a whimsical, cursive title alerts consumers that the narrator will eventually knock over a tray of glasses in a roomful of glaring partygoers. A high heel forecasts a neurotic, shopping-prone city dweller, while a bare foot promises a more personal, emotional tale (especially if the foot’s been intricately hennaed, thus tagging it as Indian-American chick lit—not to be confused with Asian-American, African-American, or Latina chick lit).
Viewed as a body of work—as a monument in a Seattle apartment, say, or in this chart—the book covers reveal clear connections. Terry McMillan’s faceless, statuesque women, and the rear-view on Melissa Bank’s monstrously successful 1999 novel The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, have evolved into an army of headless wonders, as though publishers are trying to decapitate a nation of women. The comic appeal of the Bridget Jones’s Diary cover pervades the more whimsical books—girl, get over yourself!—while the pink, italic font and sexpot photo on Sex and the City has been reprised enough to turn the power of being a young single woman in urban America into a dull cliché.
The publishing industry loves to put its products into neat marketing boxes. Maybe over the next decade, chick-lit authors will learn how to punch their way out.