Thursday, November 14, 2013

Bridget Jonesization by Jenny Gardiner

Peanut M&Ms inhaled: 220 count
Time exercised: 40 shameful and half-hearted minutes
Words written on my latest manuscript: Big. Fat. Zero.

            Crap. Crap. Crap. Crap. Crap.
            Another day, another 24 hours of feeling like that quasi-slothful and not particularly successful character Bridget Jones, whose diary iconized a generation of young women and helped us all feel just that much better for being very average. I mean why not? Bridget Jones was entirely loveable thanks to that very attribute of not being very driven to succeed. She had a notion of maybe sometime getting around to it, but we loved her for her half-assedness, really.
            With the release of Helen Fielding's novel Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy, the follow-up to her wildly popular novel Bridget Jones's Diary, many of us who were influenced by this novel might feel it's time to pause for self-reflection, just as Bridget did so successfully  obsessively throughout the course of the book. After all, it's been a while. Life has changed. We've all grown older. We've evolved. One would hope so, after nearly 15 years. Hell, I've got a dog as old as that book (although granted, she's not doing so well).
            When Bridget Jones's Diary was released, I was in the thick of raising young children. It was perhaps the first book I'd read since college, entrenched as I'd been in the quagmire of child-rearing. And it was revelatory to me. None of this Ethan Frome nonsense, no forced reading of Oh Pioneers! with a test on Friday and a term paper to follow. This was, to paraphrase an old chestnut, not your English professor's novel. No, sir. It was, on some glorious level, mindless yet compelling blather, and so much fun. With such an empathetic character. Who couldn't relate to a woman who couldn't control her eating, her drinking, and, for that matter, her life? Bridget Jones was so perfectly flawed, she was charming.
            It wasn't long until I was inspired to begin writing myself. I'd always assumed I would a write a novel one day (after all, my math skills would only get me through counting on my fingers, so I had no other options), but I guess I needed to have lived a life for a bit to have grist for the mill. And I discovered that Bridget’s voice, and the voice of similar “Britspeak” heroines, matched my own real-life voice: smart alecky and alarmingly honest (one could argue merely impulse control-flawed truthfulness). It was a match made in heaven.
            Alas, timing matters, doesn't it? And with the ridiculous success of Bridget Jones came a greedy publishing industry, intent on capitalizing on this newfound genre, tritely named "chick lit" and thus bound for the history books into the crapper of the book world. 
            "Chick lit," sneered "true" writers of literary masterpieces.
            "Garbage!" They would smirk, disgusted at such drivel on the printed page, until then reserved only for more highbrow (and occasionally deadly dull) matter.
            It seems the genre was trivialized down to a level of disrespect usually afforded a small-town stripper.
            It didn't help that that greedy publishing world was pumping out pathetic drivel, slapping a campy cover on it and labeling it "chick lit", hoping to appeal to gullible women desperate for a similar novel. Call me crazy, but doesn't this sound a little bit like another hugely successful novel of recent history? The Bridget Jonesization -- or would that be the Fifty Shadesization -- of a genre. What publishing companies tend to do with something that hits big is copy it until it's dead and buried.
            And killed indeed is what they did with the chick lit genre. Within a year, inside the publishing world, the term chick lit was about as toxic as a bottle of strychnine, and if you wanted to publish a novel that dared smack of anything chick lit-esque you were doomed and might as well have returned to waiting tables for a living. It didn't matter that what was horrible about the chick lit that the industry was putting out was the generic framing they erroneously saw as their winning ticket, as book after book came out with the same tired theme: single-girl-in-the-big-city-with-crap-job-credit-card-debt-out-the-wazoo-lousy-cad-boyfriend-wise-sage-gay-best-friend-and-all-would-be-resolved-when-the-nice-guy-next-door-swoops-in-on-his-charger-and-fixed-it-all.
            Readers were wise to this slapdash marketing tactic and stopped buying all the lousy books that had flooded the market. But what that meant was that only a small handful of authors who slipped in under the wire and achieved success in the genre are now the only ones considered by the New York publishing world to be "entitled" to publish the only novels they're still willing to call "chick lit." Which is funny, as somewhere in the reading public there are those who love chick lit in the broader sense: the strong voice, the humor, the overarching theme that does have some meat on it, a protagonist who is flawed but you want to root for her. You want her journey to succeed. And she doesn't have to be 21 years old in Manhattan. She can be fifty and wrestling with mid-life issues in Dubai. She can be newly-divorced and facing dating in a digital world. She can be as individual as each woman is, not that superficial prototype that was rightly disdained by readers and hence publishers. Even though chick lit was evolving, growing up with its writers and protagonists, the industry had already closed up the castle drawbridge and was pouring boiling oil on any potential invaders below.
            In the meantime, I'm grateful that independent publishing has enabled writers to find an audience despite the roadblocks thrown in the way by traditional publishing. While I might find it a bit annoying the next time a "sanctioned" writer of chick lit publishes a novel to a hailstorm of "bravo! It's about time we have a chick lit novel out!", I'll gladly put books out myself and let my audience find me and my chick lit-inspired novels. No matter what we call these quirky stories about women told through first person narratives, in the age of independent publishing there's now a chance for unknown writers to digitally stand shoulder-to-shoulder with giants like Bridget Jones.

Jenny Gardiner is the bestselling author of Winging It, Where the Heart Is, and Slim to None. She enjoys writing in multiple genres, though so-called chick lit will always have a special place in her heart.