The Pink Elephant in the Room

What exactly is commercial women’s fiction? I should know since this is what I tell people I write. Actually what I say is something like “It’s sort of like chick-lit but more mainstream.” This, I am well aware of, doesn’t make sense, but it’s my attempt not to relegate my work to a specific genre, even or especially one like chick-lit.

I avoided reading ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’ for as long as possible. It was well into it’s reprint when I finally gave in and purchased a copy. Not that I’m a connoisseur of highbrow literature, I just didn’t want to get into the whole thing, the whole chick-lit thing.

I went through a period in my early teens where I devoured paperback romances, one after another, until I realized I was really sick and tired of the basic storyline all romance novels follow*. Sure the sex was titillating (and completely misleading), but they were fun quick reads I could get for cheap and in bulk at my local Goodwill. Around the time my appetite was on the wane, the selection also dropped off. I don’t think it’s because people (women) stopped reading romance novels. Most likely a fan of the books joined the Goodwill team and started keeping the best copies for herself.

After my romance novel jag I bounced around, bouncing as far as to read ‘War and Peace’ the summer between the eight and ninth grade. Mysteries never did it for me and I couldn’t get into vampires so I just stuck to what I wanted to read and enjoyed every minute of it. Then I grew up and gradually realized there are the right kinds of books to read and the ones you never admit to having on your nightstand. For me chick-lit fell into this category. When a very funny and not completely illiterate boss suggested I give Bridget a go, I finally gave in. And to my surprise, I enjoyed every page of it.

So started my next quest to see what else was out there in the realm of a specific genre. I read the ‘Shopaholic’ series and recommended it to friends and family, and found a few other titles (‘Fashionistas’ was another one I really liked). But much sooner then had happened with romance novels, I found many of the books to be banal at best and down right dumb at worst. My sister and I even traded a few of the really bad ones trying to find some enjoyment and redeeming points in them as we did with movies like ‘Showgirls’ (which is a classic) and ‘Fair Game’ (which is just bad). After a while we had to admit things were looking bleak and we went back to sampling from are usual literature buffet (gory true-crime and paranormal titles for her and selections from the New York Times book section and who ever sounded interesting on Terry Gross for me.)

When I started writing my first book, I went chick-lit all the way. I figured, how hard could it be? I am a fairly competent writer, I had read enough chick-lit to discern from the good and the bad and like romance novels, the core story was the same. Girl has glamorous job or just a job, lots of mentions of the latest shoe and clothes trends, an easily solvable dilemma (girl has so-so job/tyrant boss/no boyfriend/needs to drop a few pounds) and a satisfying resolution (girl gets better job/shows up boss/ lands boyfriend/loses weight from the stress of it all).

See? Easy. It was just a mater of avoiding carpel tunnel from all the typing.

After I sat back and read my first few chapters I realized this story had been done before and done much better. My book was little more than a fill in the blank template of bad chick-lit with rampant product placement and a strained romance that was going no where fast.

Plus, it just felt wrong. I was phony to write the type book I had found to be so lacking as a reader. I wanted to write fiction, but this wasn’t the type of fiction that wanted to have anything to do with me. I had to find my voice, as they say (and when they do, it never fails to make me squirm). But it was true. What was in front of me was high pitched and rushed, me on helium. Not at all my usual ‘voice.’ So I set it aside, lost some sleep and gathered my thoughts.

When I was done with this stage of the writing process, I said to anyone else who’d listen to me, my goal was/is to write something different, but still accessible and commercial. I want to write fiction with a Latina bent, but not so bent that it ends up a offensive parody of itself. I want to keep it fun and maybe make statement or two without beating people over the head with my soapbox. The final result would, hopefully, be like pizza you have with a glass (or two) of wine because it’s just that good.

And this is what I did, finally after many false starts, and I was lucky to find an agent AND an editor who completely understand what I’m trying to do. Now that my book is done and will on the shelves in about eleven months, I find myself in an ill-defined no (wo)man's land.

Do I come out and agree with critics (usually other women who write literature) and agree Chick-Lit leaves lots to be desired or do I stand up and champion the good amongst the bunch. After all, even established genres like mystery and horror and, dare I say it, literary fiction have their less than shiny apples. You can’t write off a whole category of writing just because some books went to press with the only intention being to cash in on a hot trend. But, at the same time, you can’t get defensive and say it’s sour grapes from one side to the other which is more profitable.

It just turns into a cat fight no one is going to win and which I believe readers (remember the people who, like, buy and read the books?) care little about. They just want to find well-written, absorbing and entertaining books on the shelf.

Still, I have to say something when asked what kind of books I write, and short of telling people I’m writing good pizza and a nice glass of wine, I’ll say I write books where chick-lit , women’s fiction, commercial fiction and maybe even the odd literary fiction reader or two looking to take a vacation will enjoy. I’m not sure what Latina-Lit or this new Chica-Lit movement entail, but I hope I’m on the right track to being accepted in those circles also. After all, I’m a Latina writing about Latinas—it’s my shtick and I’m proud of it.

And then I’ll sit down and catch my breath and hope their eyes haven’t glazed over due to too much information.

This was my plan at least until my editor told me my book will be published by Kensington’s general fiction line. Relief. After all, there’s nothing wrong with being general and saying I write general fiction (with qualifiers) is so much more cocktail party friendly.

*Gorgeously proportioned and pox scar free heroine finds herself in sticky situation. Roguish and rich hero comes to her rescue and/or is the cause of her sticky situation. Sparks fly, both the good kind and the bad kind. Things are said, clothes are discarded, they break up or she’s kidnapped by Moorish white slavers, but eventually they live happily ever after.

(Originally published on margocandela.com, 02-18-06)

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