It Happened To Me: I Was a Chick Lit Author, I Guess

I didn’t plan to be a chick lit writer or a commercial writer or any specific kind of a writer. I just wanted to write. And I was writing. I was getting paid to write

Jul 27, 2012 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

On my 28th birthday, I walked into a Barnes and Noble bookstore and saw my first novel, "ON THE VERGE," face out on a shelf waiting to be bought. My book was in the company of Alice Munro’s books, Truman Capote’s books and Stephen King’s books. OK, it wasn’t right next to those authors, but it was on the same floor of this three-story building.

With the exception of finding out the novel was actually going to be published, this was the happiest moment of my life. And now, 10 years later, only a handful of moments have surpassed it (and then only the ones that involve vows or contractions).

I had been trying to sell that book for four years before it was bought. When I first pitched it to agents, I compared it to "Bridget Jones’s Diary," but younger and in New York. Then later, I tried comparing it to "Sex and the City." I had never read that one, but my book had a similar attitude to the show and I got that this was the zeitgeist. A few agents showed interest, but nothing took. Then a friend of mine read an article in Salon about a company that was looking for kinds of books like that, books for young independent women. I pitched mine right to the company and they snapped it up.

The next bit was a whirlwind.

At that point, the company was putting out a book a month. I was the seventh person to have a book published by that line and my month was July. So for July, all the press and marketing focus was on me. The website featured an interview with me about my life, the kind of guys I liked and my most embarrassing dating story. I felt sort of like the Playmate of the Month only with less boobs and more body hair.

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That summer was amazing. There were parties and signings where my pretty book cover was blown up to life-size proportions. My fellow authors and I got invited to random lunches with booksellers and went to each other’s parties. I would open a magazine and see an ad for my book. Reports kept coming in from friends who had seen people reading my book on the subway (though I never did).

What I had dreamed of since I was three was becoming my reality.

There were good reviews and bad reviews. The first time someone wrote something bad about the book on Amazon, I was incensed that they had read only 50 pages before giving it one star. This was back when someone saying something mean about your work on the Internet actually really stung. (OK, it still does, but back then it was the end of the world.)

I wasn’t privy to the numbers that my book was selling, but pretty quickly I got offered a deal for an additional two books. I surmised by the jump in advance money, that the first book must have done well.

I heard the term chick lit and I understood that some people dismissed my book as “commercial,” as if that were an insult, but I didn’t care. Honestly, most of those people who downplayed my kind of book to my face were frustrated writers who weren’t actually writing anything.

I didn’t plan to be a chick lit writer or a commercial writer or any specific kind of a writer. I just wanted to write. And I was writing. I was getting paid to write. I had a plan to put out books for the next two years.

I pitched a collection of short stories about women in their early 20s as the second book. But that didn’t fly with my publishing house. Short stories were too literary, they said. They needed something commercial. To them, it wasn’t an insult; it was a business plan. I promise you these stories were not that highbrow; they were just stories about young women that happened to be short. But, okay, I wasn’t going to fight it. They were paying.

I hunkered down and wrote another novel, "UP&OUT." This one dealt with a group of women facing unemployment, drug addiction, divorce, and was framed by the potential dissolution of their friendship. All serious stuff, but it was not considered serious fiction because as they wrestled with all these things, the women in my novel also partied, had sex, shopped and occasionally laughed. They didn’t dwell; they dealt.

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For better or worse, I was writing chick lit. With my first novel, when people asked me what it was about, I stuttered and mumbled something about first jobs and living on your own in NYC and quarter life crisis and by then the person usually lost interest. I didn’t know how to sell myself.

For my next two books, I figured out quick alliterative sentences that fit nicely on the cute covers (a novel about food, friendship and getting fired; a novel about reproduction and real estate). I was happy to play the game. I had no pretense about what my readers thought; I just wanted to be read.

Though I got better at signings and parties and selling (and writing), these next books did not garner the same fanfare. This business model of putting out chick lit novels had been so successful that my publishing company decided one a month wasn’t enough. They decided to release three at a time. And thus, focus less on each author.

Women who I had been supporting as teammates were suddenly competing with me for sales on the book table. There only can be one centerfold. My book sales were cut into almost exactly a third of what they once were. It was amazing how perfectly the math worked.

But I don’t want this to come off as a complaint. I was just happy to be invited to the party. I got options for two of my novels. I put a down payment on an apartment and went on a nice honeymoon. Maybe it wasn’t high art, but I was still writing and that’s what mattered to me.

And then chick lit became a dirty word. There was a backlash. A review in the NY Times (written by a woman) declared that calling a woman’s novel chick lit was “not unlike calling her a slut.”  A group of women authors decided they couldn’t bear this and released a collection of short stories called "THIS IS NOT CHICK LIT." They wanted to capitalize on chick lit’s success but somehow separate themselves from it.

But other women writers -- myself included -- decided to own the term and published a collection called THIS IS CHICK LIT. And on a personal level, I was glad to finally get one of my short stories out there.

Our book did better in sales and with critics because we weren’t trying to disparage anyone. A review in Bust magazine cited my story as one that showed “it’s time to take this maturing genre a little more seriously.”

And it was time; I was ready to be taken seriously. Yes, I thought, we will evolve!

But that was six years ago and I haven’t had a new chick lit book on a bookshelf since then.

Chick lit was over, they said. Just like that. My publishing company realized it killed its golden-egged goose and started releasing less and less, canceling deals with fellow authors even after advances had already been paid.

Yes, you can still find chick lit out there, but it’s not being traditionally published at quite the same volume anymore.
And here’s one of the things I’ve learned about traditional publishing: Once you write a certain kind of book, no matter how well it does, that’s what you’re expected to be writing FOREVER. For most authors there is very little you can do to change what you are expected to write.

So whether or not I wanted to be a chick lit author and even though I own and am proud of works of mine that are chick lit, it’s unlikely I will ever sell anything else to a publishing house. I am destined to be identified as a chick lit author even if that’s not how I identify. And chick lit is over.

So what’s a girl to do?

Most of the women who I came up with in this magic time of the early aughts are moving on the best we can. As our characters often did in these commercial novels, we are dealing, not dwelling. We write and we can’t stop ourselves.

Many people have moved onto YA, where it seems chick lit lite is welcome. Most of us, myself included, are epublishing and holding on to our fans that way. We’re trying to write what we want. In many ways, it’s a joy not having to deal with the publishing companies, which get to decide everything.

Something I will always be grateful for is the financial security writing those books gave so many of us to have more freedom to write. I know one woman who has had an option for 9 years and just keeps getting paid.

Yet I know another who recently sold a book to one of the big houses on the condition that she create a pseudonym and abandon her former chick-lit identity forever. She cannot ever own up to being herself. It’s a writer’s protection program. But it makes me kind of sad and worried. What if this book is her hit? How will she ever meet her readers?

It’s been a while, but I still love some of those books, whatever you want to call them. I don’t care if they’re considered cheap or coarse or even slutty. They’re fun, and if you’re lucky, there is much more to them behind their pretty covers.

A guilty pleasure is still a pleasure.

Recently, the science-fiction issue of the New Yorker came in the mail, and it was full of reflections by writers both literary and commercial about how much the sci-fi genre had influenced them. There were musings about reading sci-fi in secret because it wasn’t taken seriously. It’s hard to believe that a genre once dismissed as pulp gets all this praise now. I wish that would happen for genres like chick lit or romance or mystery. But I doubt it ever will.

Not all of the chick lit lessons I learned stuck with me, though. Recently, at a baby shower, someone’s 60-something-year-old mother asked me what kind of books I write. I started stuttering and mumbling and tried to describe my latest digitally published novel. My cover was pretty but I hadn’t come up with the proper alliterative phrase. Finally, because I’ve learned that everything needs to be categorized, I settled on “mom-lit.”

“Oh, that’s good,” the woman said. “At least you’re not writing chick lit.”

Ariella Papa continues to write novels and short stories which she prefers not to classify. She also blogs at ariellapapa.com.