Walking into almost any Barnes & Noble anywhere in the country, a customer will inevitably run into a table offering the latest in women’s literature, and what that table inevitably holds is “chick lit.” In a publishing world where traditional literary fiction by women remains ominously on the chopping block and publishers sign on literary male writers at almost double the rate of women—the chick lit industry continues to swell, always ready to sign on a new female author. Currently, every large publishing company carries at least one imprint entirely devoted to the genre, releasing an average of three to five new titles every month. With Annie Proulx and Alice Munro buried somewhere in the back of the bookstore and Candace Bushnell propped up next to a pink beach bag right in front, the chick lit industry threatens, by its growing ranks alone, to redefine—and ultimately to narrow—the scope of what women writers have to offer.
There’s no better example of the dangers of chick lit than Laurie Horowitz’s The Family Fortune. Though the cover’s hot pink stripes and swirly writing alongside a photograph of a rail-thin woman wearing haute couture screams “chick lit,” the book’s story—a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion—promises something more literary. Chick lit fans will point out that Horowitz isn’t the first to retell Austen, citing the genre’s trailblazer, Bridget Jones’s Diary (a loose retelling of Pride and Prejudice), and those readers would be correct. However, what modern authors embodying Austen seem to forget is that Austen actually risked something for her art. Instead of going with the grain, her novels went against it. Seemingly simple plot lines focused on the female world of love and marriage were Austen’s infrastructure for what would become some of the western canon’s most acute, realistic and critical observations of the social world. To match Austen, then, would be to create a modern literary reality no less observant and no less cutting in its detail. To do less is simply an affront to Austen’s legacy.
In The Family Fortune, Jane Fortune is the overlooked middle daughter of the prominent yet financially ailing Fortune family of Boston. Due to the spending habits of Jane’s father and elder sister, the Fortunes are forced to rent out their stately Beacon Hill mansion. Father and elder sister winter in Palm Beach while Jane spends the holidays alternately caring for her selfish younger sister’s children and managing the literary journal she founded. Jane’s world is thrown upside down when a long lost love (now a prominent writer whom she helped to establish once upon a time) appears on the scene, threatening the spinsterly yet tidy world to which she’s grown accustomed.
From the very beginning, readers are to understand that there can be no argument that Jane Fortune is good. Though her relatives are vain, prejudiced, imbecilic and unconscionably materialistic, Jane is simple, generous and much undervalued by the rest of her family (she prefers books to parties, soap and water to facial emollients and her one dream is to create a fund to aid struggling artists). While Horowitz no doubt attempted to create a character with whom readers would sympathize, her prose is as subtle as a kick in the shins, making Jane Fortune far more cloying than she is likeable. For instance, Jane Fortune reveals:
“…I was coming to terms with the fact that I was going to be left on the shelf to sour like cream. I didn’t like it, but I was coming to accept it.” Then there is: “My father liked to think that one person…could handle every chore in our house. It was as if he never noticed me picking up after him, folding his clothes, putting Miranda’s shoes away, throwing in a load of laundry, dusting a room.”
As we follow Jane through her romantic and familial foibles, the story that emerges is as predictable and about as complex as the fairy tale of Cinderella. Jane changes her looks, learns a thing or two, nabs the guy and buys a chic new apartment in downtown Boston. Not only does The Family Fortune fail on the literary level it postures toward, but it also fails to reach the bar set by the genre’s own trailblazers. Part of what made Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary and Melissa Banks’ Girl’s Guide to Fishing and Hunting so successful were the misbegotten yet witty and endearing characters readers loved to love. Although Jane Fortune has all the elements of a chick lit heroine (disposable income, man troubles, artistic background and urban life), she comes across as roughly conceived, with Horowitz merely borrowing from the genre’s established outline.
A New York Times writer was correct when she wrote “to suggest another woman’s ostensibly literary novel is chick lit feels catty, not unlike calling another woman a slut.” Indeed had Austen herself been published today, her publishers would have categorized her book as chick lit and packaged it in a jacket showing designer shoes, but what Austen communicated, along with Fielding and Banks after her, was both savvy and entertaining, a literature that promoted discussion. Horowitz’s offering glorifies both heavyweight literature and the chick lit bandwagon, but joins neither parade.