Are all chick lit novels actually “written” by a supersecret computer program? Only Radar knows.
You want to know how to judge a book by its cover? Here’s one rule of thumb: If, instead of a small author photo on the inside flap, you find that the entire back cover is a glamorously styled shot of an attractive young (or youngish) woman, what you hold in your hands is an undeniable example of chick lit. You might assume this marketing practice arose because attractive women are known to write better books; in fact, the publishers’ primary motivation is to create a smokescreen. If, for example, the blonde and winsome photo gracing Lauren Weisberger’s new novel, Everyone Worth Knowing—the follow-up to the best-selling roman à clef The Devil Wears Prada—didn’t loom large for all to see, the average reader would probably begin to question whether an actual human had written the book, so unfailingly does it embrace every cliché of the genre.
But Radar Online is not your average reader, and we weren’t about to let ourselves be fooled, gauzy photo or no gauzy photo. Operating on the assumption that chick lit is produced by some piece of automated fiction software developed under extreme security by a powerful cartel of publishers, we hired a computer hacker/comp-lit grad student and asked him to reverse-engineer the program. His preliminary findings indicate that there are five guiding principles to the genre, presented here with examples from Everyone Worth Knowing.
1. Offer Two Potential Love Interests
The first rule is inviolable. Typically one suitor is wealthy but unstable while the other is decent but elusive (he’s the One, but it must take the book 300 pages to arrive at this stunningly obvious fact). In Everyone Worth Knowing, heroine Bette’s caddish option is wealthy Brit Philip Weston, a campy socialite whose family money has shady sources. In other words, Fabian Basabe with an English accent. The One is a hunky aspiring chef named Sammy. This isn’t a spoiler; his destiny as Bette’s true love is crystal clear the moment he appears, on page 16, mainly because he’s rude to her. (The One is always a bit peevish at the beginning.)
Significant Prototype: Moody and mysterious Mr. Darcy vs. Mr. Collins, the repellent heir to the Bennet estate, from Jane Austen’s mother of all chick lit novels, Pride and Prejudice.
2. Make Sure that Even Your Dog Can Spot Plot Twists Ahead of Time
Narrative tension will be conspicuous in its absence, with every plot point blatantly telegraphed. A quarter of the way into Everyone Worth Knowing the reader is fully aware of a) who will emerge as Bette’s backstabbing co-worker; b) who’s the slut who will end up in tears; and c) who’s in the closet. Fake tans, plastic surgery, and eating disorders are often reliable pointers for each of the above.
Significant Prototype: “Moi,” the breathless transatlantic narrator of Plum Sykes’s Bergdorf Blondes, has spent her entire life fending off Mummy’s insistence that she marry the Earl Next Door despite his inconvenient disappearance from the manor many years ago. Within 50 pages, however, she meets a “disarming” British-born film director in Los Angeles. Have you figured it out yet, Fido?
3. Romanticize a Homosexual
A flamboyant gay man must be featured centrally in the plot, playing the role of the Wise Cheerleader. Bette’s Wise Cheerleader is her uncle, rather than the customary best friend or neighbor, but this does not alter his essential role: to provide counsel and to flatter our heroine so we grasp how fabulous she is, even as her own words betray a character that is neurotically insecure. Here’s gay Uncle Will: “You are an absolutely intoxicating creature, so fascinating, so fabulous,” and “You’re a wonderful writer, and I don’t know why you haven’t done anything with it.” Neither does the reader.
Significant Prototype: Tom in Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, who rarely opens his mouth other than to dispense advice and say things to Bridget like “You look about sixteen.”
4. Let Coincidence Reign
On an island like Manhattan where millions of people live and work, convenient encounters and fortuitous connections will arise among a handful of characters, who are only allowed to have sex with one another, and who happen to bump into each other whenever the plot requires it, such as when Bette turns around and sees Sammy sitting on a bench in Madison Square, or when they both happen to find themselves passing by 8th Street and Broadway. The assumption is that the reader has more highlights than brain cells, so any gestures toward a realistic portrayal of life are unnecessary.
Significant Prototype: Cannie, the “zaftig” Philadelphia reporter of Jennifer Weiner’s Good in Bed, sells a screenplay for megabucks after she meets a famous actress who immediately decides to film and star in it. When Cannie accompanies said actress to a Los Angeles plastic surgeon’s office, the doctor turns out to be Cannie’s long-lost father. Not like there are many plastic surgeons in Los Angeles or anything.
5: Conclude the Book Without Ambiguity
The ending will be reassuringly positive. This is a typical final chapter quote from Bette: “I thought I might pass out from happiness.” Just to be clear, the heroine will find True Love with the One as all obstacles to their happily ever after evaporate during the final chapter. The One’s financial worries will disappear (through legit means, natch), and the heroine will be able to get off the demeaning nine-to-five grind (whichever demeaning grind it is that she finds herself in) and begin her true career as a writer or painter or whatever housewife-friendly aspiration she has. The climax of each secondary plot line will dovetail with the above: The mean characters arrive at the sticky ends they richly deserve, while the virtuous minor characters are rewarded. Moral gray areas are as anathema to the chick lit novel as comfortable shoes.
Significant Prototype: In The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, boss-from-hell Mrs. X winds up with a philandering husband who hates her, while the saintly Nan secures herself a devoted “Harvard Hottie” and a cute new puppy. Who, we presume, will be able to spot the plot twists in her first book a mile away.