The New Book Club: Ladies Penning Bodice-Rippers

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

romance novels.

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

Fishing.

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.

Hello, Harlequin.

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

wounded.”

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

fears.

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

several times.

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,

chocolate, kung-fu.”

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

mournful cigarette.

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

intimate moment?

“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?”