On the morning before the Super Bowl, I sat in a Brooklyn
apartment, eating artichoke dip and drinking mimosas poured from a Tupperware
pitcher, as seven women between the ages of 24 and 31 read plot outlines for
They were not reading in a vacuum: They were auditioning for Red
Dress Ink, Harlequin’s new line of romance novels about urban women.
My friend Merideth Finn, who is an executive at Fine Line
Features, prefaced hers by explaining that she had planned to use the group to
test her novel about ghosts, but surprised herself by just writing a
fictionalized version of her own life.
Indeed, in her outline about Marcy, the book scout for a
Hollywood producer, I recognized Merideth: her relationships, her family, her
shopping habit. After two-thirds of her outline, one of the listeners in the
room asked her how Marcy’s story would end.
“I don’t know,” said Merideth. She went momentarily blank; then
she came to. “But there will be lots of scenes with her at sample sales.”
Launched in October 2001, Red Dress Ink publishes monthly,
soliciting 100,000-word manuscripts by women who want to try “chick-lit,” a
genre that chronicles city-dwelling life in the fashion of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary and Melissa
Banks’ Girls’ Guide to Hunting and
It’s a trend that has left me cold, suspicious, even derisive.
These were my artistic qualms about the chick-lit canon. Then there was my deep
jealousy of the successes of the Bridget brigade. My every molecule screamed
that I too could have been played by a healthy Renée Zellweger-I am, after all,
single, childless, over-analytical and self-obsessed.
The publisher of the bodice-rippers you kept in your underwear
drawer in junior high school has given us its new generation, Red Dress. And
Red Dress has provided New York women with an opportunity (or perhaps the
excuse) to transform the aimless self-absorption of our 20′s into something
controlled, meaningful or at least marketable.
The women congregating at Mari Brown and Jessica Paul’s Carroll
Gardens apartment were my age-late 20′s, early 30′s. We missed New York’s
cosmo-swilling, Blahnik-wearing heyday by five years and about a million
dollars. Many have lost their high-powered jobs in the past year. Some are
still “paying their dues” longer than it looked like they’d have to in 1997.
But as I heard my compatriots apply phrases like “character
motivation” and “narrative arc” to stories not so loosely based on their own
recent pasts, the power of Red Dress Ink became palpable. Chick-lit gave us
just the tool to recast our overworked, confused, lonely existences as witty,
structured narratives with the happy endings we’re hoping for.
Which is not to say that the Red Dress canon has provided a
wealth of creative inspiration to date.
Melissa Senate’s See Jane
Date begins with its assistant-editor heroine speculating on how “to go
from single to married in New York City without A) kissing fifty frogs, B)
unwittingly sleeping with a serial killer, or C) settling,” and it ends with
her getting twirled around the ballroom of the Plaza hotel.
I was once in the Plaza, but it was because I had to pee and
couldn’t bear the thought of facing that F.A.O. Schwarz song.
These Brooklyn women were
aiming higher. A good part of the meeting was devoted to fantasizing about
starting their own superior imprint, the rest to avoiding chick-lit clichés.
“I don’t solve all my problems
by buying a new pair of knee-high boots,” said Jessica Paul, a 28-year-old
former associate editor at Talk, who
owns an impressive collection of vintage purses.
Ingrid Ducmanis-married, 31
years old, the “den mother” of the group-nodded forcefully in agreement.
She said that she had created a heroine who did not struggle with her weight
because when she was in her 20′s, she had no trouble getting men. “That wasn’t
the problem,” she said. “The problem was that they were infants. Or the walking
New York broads have never been secretive about the fear that
they’ll end up broke, unloved and alone. Last year, when I was reading Edith
Wharton’s 1905 book The House of Mirth ,
a female colleague saw it on my desk and said, “I was obsessed with that book.
You’ll see-it’s like your life.”
Indeed, the tale of strapped, terminally single Lily Bart rang
troubling bells. I’ve no more worked in a millinery than been twirled around
the Plaza, but Wharton’s brutal portrait of a woman unable to capitalize on
opportunities highlighted every one of my self-destructive tendencies and
In the years since Lily, sex, drugs, feminism and career issues
altered the tenor of the stories, if not their core. The past decade embraced
the monied, promiscuous freedoms enjoyed by professional single women. The Red
Dress Ink authors seemed to be looking to bring a certain giggly depth back to
what has recently become a rather shallow pool.
“I just feel like I finally figured out how to put all this stuff to use,” said Rose Evans, 27, at a
Red Dress meeting in January. She waved a hand at the scented candles,
Halloween party snapshots and recently neutered Chihuahua that marked the
apartment as familiar.
It was a single girl’s pad.
“My sisters and I, we all love Jane Austen romance, but we live
lives in banks and law firms-you know, like the heart of darkness of New York
City.” Writing a novel, she said, “is how I can tackle all this and be talky
but actually say something at the same time.” She gave Mari Brown a little
squeeze. “I’m super into this.”
Ms. Brown, a 26-year-old
former assistant editor for Departures, now
working as a paralegal and applying to graduate writing programs, had turned on
Nina Simone and opened a bottle of red wine. She couldn’t drink since she was
in the midst of a 10-day “cleanse” in which she could consume only a concoction
of lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper.
Ingrid Ducmanis, blond hair in
a prim ponytail, arrived with a purple mat slung over her back. She’d just come
from yoga. She was the only woman at the Friday meeting who had actually begun
her novel. She and her writing partner, Mary Valle, were a quarter of the way
through their manuscript.
Ms. Ducmanis was businesslike in her approach, coaching the other
women to “use all these random bullshit conversations to set the stage.”
“Harlequin is sitting on a gold mine of talent here,” she said
Based on Ms. Ducmanis’ advice about Red Dress’ mechanical
requirements, Mari Brown sent out an e-mail about that night’s meeting,
inviting 30 women to join what she was temporarily calling “The Writing Club
for Girls.” It was charming, in a scary, backlash
kind of way.
“Here’s your first
assignment: think up a PLOT,” read the note.
According to the
instructions, the plot was to have these 10 elements: 1)
“twenty/thirty-something HEROINE,” 2) “NEUROSES (guys, career, hair, weight,
clothes, sex, self-worth, exercise, religion, alcohol, politics, body-flaws-hey
ladies, we’ve all got something to fret about),” 3) friends, 4) love interests,
5) self-perception issues, 6) career, 7) co-workers, 8) urban setting, 9) a
local hangout and 10) “MEANS OF THERAPY-parents, psychiatrist, holistic healer,
Ms. Brown’s next e-mail began: “We can’t wait to get everyone in
the same room to talk romance, dating, sex, writing, career, plot, decisions,
martinis, etc., etc., etc.” The Sunday morning meeting included “muffins and
mimosas,” as promised in Ms. Brown’s e-mail, as well as bagels, cookies and the
artichoke dip. Nobody said it was Yaddo.
Ms. Brown began by announcing that her Red Dress nom de plume
would be Lila Marchesse. Her heroine, Lil Millow, was a 25-year-old graduate
student in Comparative Literature who takes off for Spain, where “Sangria by
sangria, discoteca by discoteca , [she] succeeds in completely
avoiding doing any research at all.” Her outline described every social,
romantic and professional entanglement faced by Lil until “life comes full
circle for our heroine and she gets her shit together, finishes the paper, ends
the relationship with the professor, kicks Madrid boy out of her apartment, and
graduates, all in one crazy weekend. With all this shit cleared out of the
house, she can actually see what’s in front of her: her roommate Dean, The Guy
Who Is Perfect For Her. Our heroine turns over about five new leaves, gets it
on with Dean, and starts her life anew.”
This was not the threatening,
competitive narrative of the former New
York Post sex columnist Amy Sohn
or professional dater Lucinda Rosenfeld. Neither was it Jane Austen, nor even
Jonathan Franzen. This was the confessional novel dressed as a smart, warm
friend. It was the conversation I’d typically have over a maki combination plate,
complete with overthought detail, self-deprecating acknowledgment of cliché and
a sense of how the day’s drama might fit into the longer arc of “life.”
Red Dress fulfills the ultimate fantasy: We can rewrite our lives
and, this time, incorporate all those great comebacks we only think of as we’ve
poured ourselves out of the taxi, onto the stoop and clumsily lit our first
What was my response to the guy who asked me out on a second date
by confessing his horrifying intention to yell “Go, Mike, go!” at a crucially
“No, Mike no!”
Was it what I really said? It is now.
Elise Miller prefaced her
outline by explaining that she had already imaginatively cast the characters as
actors. Her heroine, Joanna, teaches second grade at a private school in
Brooklyn and looks very much like Drew Barrymore. Joanna’s roommate, a
“hard-assed lesbian,” was “played by Janeane Garofalo.” She described another
character, who looks like Antonio Banderas, as being “ripe with fuckability.”
I began fantasizing about me-as-Jennifer-Connelly.
Ms. Miller also passed out
flyers for “East Side Oral,” the reading series she hosts, and described her
non-Harlequin writing project, a memoir called Cock Crazy . “That’s what I was in my 20′s,” she said. “I thought if
I found the right cock it would make me whole. But then I found out that the
cock is not the answer. The hole is the answer.”
Ms. Miller is now married and temping at a law firm. During the
cock-crazy days, she was an elementary-school teacher and part-time librarian
at St. Anne’s in Brooklyn. The whole cock thing should have driven me batty
with its Power-Grrrl tone. Instead, I laughed.
This weird assemblage of young women shimmered with serious
potential. Contemporary women writers will one day figure out how to reconcile
feminism’s politicized language with our own sexuality and self-doubt without
being mean, exclusionary, classist or preening.
Despite their utter disinterest in actually producing a passel of
Red Dress volumes, the Writing Club for Girls felt like a tiny, winning step.
The big climax of the meeting
was a reading from Ingrid Ducmanis’ half-finished novel. As Red Dress den
mother, she sounded like a football coach, exhorting the rest of the
women to “just bang it out-this is product,” asking useful questions about
character motivation, reminding them that their heroines “are not the women we
aspire to be; they’re the women we are.”
When it came time for her to read, she got nervous.
“Mine is just a romance. All of yours were so creative,” she
said. The other six women prodded her to read anyway.
She began by describing her
heroine as wanting to “take a big swim in Lake Hurt” and one of her love
interests as “poor for five minutes, until he gets his inheritance.” Her
heroine worried, “What if I’ve spent the past two years banging my head against
the wrong tree?” Her chapter, the group agreed, was very good.
But Ingrid Ducmanis said, “Whatever.”
Then she added, “It’s only
because we’ve all been there, right?”