Page last updated at 09:14 GMT, Saturday, 21 June 2008 10:14 UK

Inside the world of chick lit

By Emma Jones
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Chick lit
The awards were set up in memory of Melissa Nathan, who died in 2006

They are everyday tales of women who muddle comically through the mundane, bagging a handsome hero along the way to the happy ending - even if he does tend to be the local headmaster or a vet.

Welcome to the world of romantic comedy fiction - or "chick lit", as it's commonly known.

These books are as lucrative as crime thrillers in terms of UK fiction sales - and now they have their own award ceremony.

The Melissa Nathan Awards for Romantic Comedy was appropriately held in a club in London strewn with red rose petals, while guests sipped on pink champagne.

'Best Bitch'

Author Lisa Jewell was the overall recipient of this year's comedy romance prize for her novel 31 Dream St.

Other awards announced included the Best Bastard category, which went to Victoria Clayton for her character Sebastian in A Girl's Guide to Kissing Frogs, and Best Happy Ever After for Carole Matthews' The Chocolate Lover's Diet.

"Chick lit is one of those terms like 'toy boy' which a lot of people sneer at," said comic Jo Brand, who hosted the event.

It "refers to something seen as un-intellectual, but an awful lot of women read it," Brand continued.

She presented prizes in categories like Best Lovable Rogue, Best First Kiss and Best Bitch.

Best-selling chick lit writer Sophie Kinsella, who sat on the judging panel, said: "There is some snobbery which I try to rise above. "

Joanna Trollope
There's a squeamishness in the literary world about love, but love is the great topic
Joanna Trollope

But in the end it's authors like Kinsella that are having the last laugh. She has the biggest backlist sales out of any female author in the UK, mainly thanks to the popular Shopaholic series which is currently being made into a film.

"I'd like to show people that this prize is about what people love to read - not what they feel they ought to read," she explained.

"I think people look at the pastel jackets and the swirly writing on the cover and dismiss it because it's about love. But really - what's more important in life than love?"

Kinsella was joined on the judging panel by best-selling author Joanna Trollope.

"There's a squeamishness in the literary world about love, but love is the great topic," Trollope said.

"I think it produces a fear amongst some people in the industry that if they have to write about their feelings, they'll confess too much."

'Mum lit'

Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary in 1996 ushered in the chick lit genre and a host of pale imitations.

The single girl's preoccupation with finding Mr Right became the subject of choice.

That has since matured into "mum lit" with journalist Fiona Neill's novel about chaotic motherhood, The Secret Life of a Slummy Mummy.

That book became one of the fastest-selling debuts ever, earning her the Melissa Nathan award for best heroine.

"The characters came to me very quickly," said Neill.

Jo Brand
Chick lit is one of those terms like 'toy boy' which a lot of people sneer at
Jo Brand

"I was lucky. It was like I captured the zeitgeist of the time, with this reaction against over perfectionism, this idea that a mum had to do everything brilliantly - and there was a backlash."

Originality seems to be the key to big sales - with chick lit's detractors complaining that too many of the plots are predictable, the heroines are stereotypes and the comedy is lame.

Then, there are the pastel-coloured bookjackets.

"I do think the covers are dire," admitted Trollope.

"Far more men read these books than you'd believe, because often they want to find out what the women in their life are thinking.

"But they all say, 'I have to hide it inside a Wilbur Smith novel because I can't be seen out reading a pink sparkly-coloured book'. It infantalises the genre, I think."

Washing pants

Publishers don't believe they've reached saturation point with the books yet - mainly because women are still snapping them up.

"A lot of the novels are really grounded in reality," said Brand.

"They're about fed-up heroines trying to get to work on time or washing their pants. Women like to read about romance, but they also want to feel that connection with the heroine as well."

Trollope believes chick lit started far earlier than Bridget Jones, beginning with many women's ultimate literary heroine - Jane Austen.

"What else was Jane Austen but a writer of romantic comedy?" she asked. "And these days, the best of the genre does measure up to good literature."

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