Monday, September 11, 2006

Chick Lit and 9/11

This morning Google Alert dropped this column off in my in box: Is the Chick-Lit World Ready for 9/11 Plot?

Reading it set off a flurry of thoughts about my own work and the brouhaha over the question if chick lit was dead.

When I look back at In Between Men, I sometimes wonder if I missed an opportunity with the storyline about Alex's brother. I hinted that he was serving in Iraq and at the lowest point in the story, they receive news that he might be dead. Should I have gone into darker waters with the brother and his wife, June? Would my readers have put the story down because they didn't want the stuff they see on the evening news? Or, would the brother and June upstage Isa and Alex?

But then I thought about the interview my agent, Jenny Bent gave two months ago that set off a firestorm among chick lit authors. In the article, Jenny quoted a book buyer who told her that chick lit sales were down and it was officially dead. Well, are sales down because it is no longer relevant? Do we need to shake things up and tackle, for example, a 9/11 plot? Five years later, are we ready as readers and authors?

I'm now thinking that there will be a sequel to In Between Men, but with June and Alex's brother. Could there be a happily-ever-after between a man who almost died in Iraq, and his wife? In my fictional world, the answer is an emphatic yes. I deal with the stuff on the evening news by writing stories that end happily ever after. Otherwise, the sheer overwhelming number of problems and heartbreak would cripple me. Perhaps that makes me a sell-out or an annoying optimist. But when millions of readers pick up books like mine, I must not be the only one.

Still, I'd like to know what you think.



Erica Orloff said...

I have a 9/11 plot in my next RDI. I blogged about 9/11 today and what it means to New Yorkers like myself. The plot element has to do with death--and whether the dead influence the living in practical (i.e., haunting them via whispering to them, involved in their lives) ways. It also has to do with praying, hearing prayers, devils and angels . . . and all sorts of involvement from beyond. I don't think you can live without being aware of death. It's the end point of this particular leg of the journey. I wouldn't use 9/11 as a plot to be trendy, or because "now we're ready," but because I am a New Yorker and have relatives who are cops and firemen . . . and it is simply part of the bigger whole I wish to write about. Therein is the problem with some of these "pronouncements." They try to either incite some sort of blogosphere riot act, or they pretend to be the "final word" on a subject. We're writers. We write. We put ourselves into our work. I am ready to write about death--yes, in chick lit. And I am. Just me. Just this one writer.


Louise said...

I think you've hit on an important issue. If chick lit is on the downslide (and I'm not entirely sold on that rumor, yet), then I do think it has to do with whether readers find any relevance to their own lives in the books. And I think that's why subgenres like "mommy lit' are growing in popularity. We want to see ourselves in the stories. And for all of us, 9/11 is a part of our history and our reality.

I think a sequel to IN BETWEEN MEN would be a wonderful story that would likely resonate with so many people who are facing that same struggle -- how to relate to our loved ones when they return from war.

Put that one on your list!

Weez :)

Nadine Dajani said...

Hmmm... good question. I think what makes chick lit different from 'mainstream' women's fiction, like, say, the stuff the authors of This Is Not Chick Lit write) is a combination of voice, a very 'today' feel, and optimism.

A forgettable chick lit book would take an underdeveloped character, give her a superficial issue to deal with, and lots of comedy or fashion angst. Entertaining, but not memorable. I could see people getting tired of too much of this stuff.

Then again, a book like some of the Oprah picks of the olden days, has very serious, very deep issues, but with none of the chick lit comedy or quirky voice to take the edge off. So you could take an issue like chronic depression and have Marian Keyes write about it and then have Wally Lamb write about it, and you'd have two books that deal with a serious issue, one that's very clearly chick lit and one that's very clearly NOT. Most people are miserable enough in their own lives that they don't need more misery from their entertainment. Which is why, methinks, optimistic books like chick lit do better commercially.

I think it's a lot harder and riskier to write about a tragic theme in a comedic, light tone and make it work, than write about something difficult in an (understandably) derpressing tone. Which is why Marian Keyes is so amazingly popular (or at least some of her books are). That being said, there are some readers who don't like their chick lit mixed in with serious topics.... so what's a writer chick to do?

I think it depends. On the quality of the writing, on the readers themselves, on the political landscape... But if you feel you could make it work, I think you NEED to go for it, that readers are ready for a 9/11 chick lit that works, not fluff with some 9/11 stuff in it, or a truly depressing literary piece about 9/11 posing as chick lit.

Sheesh... that was long-winded, wasn't it?! Sorry!

Erica Orloff said...

Hi Nadine:
I think that's an eloquent delineation--though I don't necessarily agree with all of it. My best numbers sales-wise were for my RDI, Do They Wear High Heels in Heaven--and if the title doesn't explain it (someone gets cancer) . . . It's not light, not about optimism. Anyway, my editor at RDI, and other editors I've chatted about this with (I write for Penguin under a pen name) said that books that aren't "frothy" can and will be embraced by readers. My next RDI partially takes place in Hell. It's not "today" (parts of it are---but only if today you live in Hell). I think in this overcrowded era of pink covers, if you're trying to be bought--or trying to sell through your existing title--it will be harder unless there are elements that show you have relevance. Otherwise, what makes one "voice" and fashion-fused plot line any different from another? Not that one won't be a good book--just standing out in a sea of stilettos isn't easy (not that it CAN'T be done--just harder). I think, with some new releases I see, you see some plots that most definitely lean toward fantasy or do something edgier or different.

Yes, it's riskier to mix the two . . . (tragedy and comedy) but that's what life is (a mix of the two)--and I think those who embrace the challenge and do it well will stand out.

Also, regarding optimism . . . I think there are a number of writers who can do sardonic and do it well--and I think they can be classified in chick lit. I think it probably depends on what you're looking for in a read. I know I have had readers write me "Where's the fashion?!?!" in my books--but they're not my reader. My first cover for Spanish Disco was so anti-chick lit . . . and it got into Cosmo and other mags who "got it"--you didn't have to have a Sarah Jessica Parker narrator. Overwhelmingly, I get bombarded with emails from readers who were ready for a different heroine.

Like I said, it's taste and what you like. Your website, BTW, is GORGEOUS! Good luck with your book!

Nadine Dajani said...

I completely agree with you Erica (I guess I didn't make my point quite as eloquently as I thought!)

Your book 'Do they wear high heels in heaven' has a fantastic cover, title and premise that really made it stand out in the marketplace... and I can't personally think about a more depressing subject than cancer, so kudos for tackling that serious topic.

I think Lolly Winston's Good Grief is another example of a downer topic dealt with in a way that was both sensitive and light. (I think she started off by saying how she always thought of widows as mousy, mumsy types in frumpy cardigans or something, so she had a hard time seeing herself fitting into that group when she became a widow herself... fashion and widowhood... it takes serious talent to combine those two!)

I guess that for me, there IS a difference between The Corrections, She's Come Undone, even Where The Heart Is (which is pretty optimistic) and chick lit... I know it certainly ISN'T fashion or glam locales) maybe I haven't nailed it with my three parameters... I'll have to pick up more of your books and tweak my theory!

PS You visited my website???!!! THANK YOU for the compliment! It just went live on Monday and I haven't told ANYONE yet because I was planning a big splash next week (though I think I just outed myself... he he...) Anyway, thank again, I'm a horribly picky person and I drove my designer nuts, but it was worth it because we finally came up with something I love, even if it was a lot girlier than what I originally intended : )

I'm going to be 'outing' the website next week, so stay tuned...

Erica Orloff said...

Your site is just gorgeous! I think it has a breezy, beautiful feel to it.

And yes, Good Grief is a great example. And I know when I am writing my darker stuff (THE ROOFER, which was a MIRA title), I can feel my voice . . . my being . . . shift. Even when I am sarcastic (The Roofer has dark humor but it's also relentlessly gritty) in a dark book . . . it's somehow different.

I know with "This Is Chick Lit" and "This Isn't Chick Lit" (or whatever that one is called) coming out, the debate over what it is comes to the forefront. It's one of those "if it walks like a duck, acts like a duck" type things. But at the same time . . . I think there's an awful lot of gray and difficulty nailing it precisely.

Congrats on "going live"!