In defence of chick lit

By Suzanne McFadden

Suzanne McFadden talks to Kiwi romance queen Michelle Holman about issues and critics.

Michelle Holman on chick lit: 'People will be sniffy about the genre, but I didn't write it for them so I don't care.' Photo / Christine Cornege
Michelle Holman on chick lit: 'People will be sniffy about the genre, but I didn't write it for them so I don't care.' Photo / Christine Cornege

I've never imagined myself as a character in a romance novel. Who does?

Michelle Holman, apparently. Before we started chatting, she had googled me and thought I might be the right stuff for the female lead in her next romantic comedy book. Well, parts of me, anyway.

Thankfully, she knows nothing about the passionate chapters of my life, and I think we'll keep it that way. But she's interested in my "struggles", in my previous incarnation as a female sports reporter making it in a testosterone-dominated arena. Just the kind of tension she's looking for in her next heroine.

Holman, a Waikato nurse and author of four best-sellers, has similar battles. Some class her books as chick lit, that much-maligned genre which constantly gets pink cupcakes smashed in its face by critics, and is now taking a stiletto heel to the heart.

Chick lit is dying, say the booksellers; in Britain, where recent sales by commercial women's authors have plunged by 20 per cent. Here in New Zealand, the genre appears to be quietly dissolving like a sugar cube in champagne, morphing into other assortments of modern romance.

Holman doesn't care what people call her books: "You can call them chick lit or Thomas The Tank Engine." Her publisher, HarperCollins, prefers to label her style "romantic comedy".

"Crime is predominately written by men, but do you see critics bagging their style? It is discrimination against women," Holman says. "Chick lit is the punching bag of commercial fiction. And if that's what I write, then get over it.

"We're entertainers; I don't try to be anything else. People write to me and say my books made them laugh out loud, and took their mind off things. I'm not there to moralise - I'm there to entertain.

"Book clubs are usually made up of women with very different tastes and backgrounds, but you can guarantee they struggle through some books simply to improve themselves. Honestly, what's the point?"

But what happens if women - and the occasional bloke - who have sent chick lit to the top of the best-seller charts in the past two decades no longer want to read the common cocktail of spirited-but-romantically troubled girl searching for her strong-willed, hard-bodied Mr Right and always with a happy ending? Will authors like Holman stop writing it?

"I believe in writing what you want to read. And that's what I like to read," she says.

"The biggest challenge, and I think I can speak for most New Zealand writers, is that unless you are a big name selling abroad, like Nalini Singh [the hugely successful paranormal romance writer], we hang on from a precipice. My books are all best-sellers. But in New Zealand you only need to sell 5000 copies to reach that.

"It's a constant battle of 'can I keep doing this?' I have come close very often [to giving up] and probably will again."

Holman turned 50 this year, but looks 10 years younger and thinks like a 25-year-old when she pens her prose. She lives on a lifestyle block in Cambridge with an English husband and - for now - two teenagers.

Her son is 17 and is heading off on a student exchange to Germany; at the same age Holman went on her own OE. She's thinking of sending some of her books as a gift to his host family - Germany has an enthusiastic following for Holman's fiction.

"But I don't know, I don't want them wondering 'what kind of debauched family has he come from?"' she says, with just a hint of jesting.

Yep, Holman's writing can definitely sizzle. Take an excerpt from the just-released Hand Me Down: "Tarn gazed at the soft, round, pink-tipped beauty of her breasts and her narrow ribcage and waist below. 'Believe me, April,' he said hoarsely, 'it's not my pity I want to give you'." Holman hasn't let her 14-year-old daughter read her books yet.

All five of Holman's novels have been set in New Zealand, but her OE could provide entertaining backdrops for future books set offshore. She worked on a kibbutz and as a Butlin's holiday camp chalet maid before studying at the Hedgecock School of Nursing in Essex and graduating as an obstetric nurse in 1983.

Back home in Auckland, she worked in North Shore Hospital's emergency department and as a tissue transplant co-ordinator in the coroner's office, before her husband Les' career in construction took them to Hamilton. There she worked on community youth health projects until last year, when she decided to concentrate on writing full time.

While she still fits in tertiary medical studies, Holman has never trained in the art of writing romantic literature. She figured she had read enough to have a crack at it herself. She has six unfinished manuscripts from those early days. "They're mouldy and faded now, but I'm working on some of them again."

Then in a dream, the idea came to her for Bonkers, her first published book. It's a fantastical premise of a woman killed in a car accident on Auckland's North Shore, returned to life mistakenly in the body of the (more attractive) woman who crashed into her.

"The hypnagogic state [between wakefulness and sleep] is some of your most productive time," Holman says. "My husband is used to finding me in the middle of the night sitting on the hallway floor with a pen and paper, jotting an idea down."

Her break came when she sent Bonkers' first three chapters to HarperCollins in Auckland. Within a week, the publisher asked to see the rest of the book. She had it finished at 5am the following Thursday and it was on bookshelves a year later.

"Writing Bonkers was easy. Now it's more of a job - you have contracts to fill, and deadlines to meet," Holman says. "And I demand more of myself, because I want to get better at it. I'm a bit anal like that."

By her own admission, she's a dawdling writer, taking a year to complete a book. She laughs that when people approach her with an idea for a novel and she suggests they should write it themselves, they reply, "yeah, I was going to do it one long weekend but I got busy".

"Through winter I sit in bed during the day with my laptop and the electric blanket on, looking like an absolute troll," she says. Her family has accepted her often reclusive work habits and her irritability when she's struggling with a storyline or a character. Family - "the interconnectedness of it" - features strongly in all her books, but her own family, friends and acquaintances don't feature in any of them, her characters are all made-up.

She's a fan of fictionalising small towns too, so as not to offend any locals. In Hand Me Down, she created Pisa, a cherry-orchard town which sounds remarkably like Cromwell with its famed fruit sculpture and cherry pip-spitting contest.

In fact, Holman spent time on a friend's cherry orchard, Brookevale, in Cromwell researching for the book.

"That whole province is so romantic. It's a very sensual experience going down there ... the colours are just scrumptious," she says.

Despite the cynical impression that chick lit is vapid and formulaic, Holman says she researches a lot. "Otherwise it's like a sausage factory - you get gorged and bored."

She stirs issues through her stories - in Bonkers, the lead character Lisa suffers from endometriosis and dyslexia; in Divine, Tara's husband wants to be a woman. Having seen the end product of family violence during her years working in hospital emergency departments, Holman spent time with a policewoman from the Henderson's family violence team researching for Barefoot, the follow-up to Bonkers.

She sought assistance from the Defence Force for Hand Me Down, with the lead male, Tarn Elliot, a retired army major just returned from serving in Afghanistan.

"I was very aware and very nervous of the fact we have forces abroad, and Tarn had lost some men in the story. The best advice I got from them was not to turn him into Rambo," she said.

But she is adamant she isn't trying to peddle morals through her books. The main ingredient is humour. "You can deal with serious issues as long as you fit it alongside humour ... like life, really."

Holman rarely reads critics' reviews of her books, knowing "people will be sniffy about the genre, but I didn't write it for them so I don't care". She happily recalls being confronted by a man at her local supermarket while buying frozen peas. He was furious his wife had her nose in one of Holman's books all weekend, and failed to cook his dinner.

Praise flows in from around the world on Holman's website and Facebook page. She has a strong following in Austria, Sweden and especially Germany - her books are also printed in German. Vicki Marsdon, Holman's editor at HarperCollins, is unsure why the Germans have embraced it, "But I'd like to think that it's for all those positive, 'feel good' reasons like humour being universal."

German chick lit author Sigrid Goddard explains, in the Romance Writers Report, that few German writers "choose to break with the traditional expectation of an intellectual novel in order to write for an audience who wants to be purely entertained".

Holman would love to break into the American and British romance markets, but it's tough when there's been a marked downturn in sales there. The answer could lie in eBooks.

"My New Zealand readership has made me a writer and I love them to bits, but I need those overseas sales to keep me writing. eBooks are something we need to embrace - they're more competitively priced, the royalties generated are better, and they can get you around the world when you can't get a foot in the door of bookstores."

But The Bookseller, Britain's leading business magazine for the book industry, has blamed reader migration to digital for the drop in sales of women's commercial literature. Sales of the recent mass-market novels by the likes of Marian Keyes, Jodi Picoult, Jill Mansell and Lesley Pearse are all down by more than 20 per cent on their previous mass-market publications - Keyes' latest, The Brightest Star In The Sky, has sold 42 per cent fewer copies than her 2008 best-seller, This Charming Man. Others say women are simply gripping their purse strings tighter.

But where chick lit is concerned, some editors blame the prescribed book covers - impossibly long-legged women swinging high heels and shopping bags, sparkly and pink.

"The jackets make it seem frothy and light, but a lot of books with those covers actually deal with quite serious things," says Eithne Farry, literary editor for Marie Claire.

Holman admits some covers can be cringe-making, but she's never had a problem with the artwork HarperCollins has produced for her books. Hand Me Down's is cherry-red, with a party-girl blonde in a strapless frock. She knows the cover is the beginning of a relationship with a reader.

So are we finally hearing the true death knell of chick lit, considering critics had it buried back in 2009?

Perhaps it is, but in name only. Marsdon, at HarperCollins, says chick lit "is an outdated, catch-all phrase for books that deal with "women's stuff - love, relationships and sex. There are now loads of smart, funny and clever women writers who are writing great stuff that's far broader in content than chick lit," she says. "Michelle is a writer we have huge confidence in, as she is writing great books with engaging characters and smart dialogue but with a sense of place New Zealanders can recognise."

Booksellers NZ hasn't noticed a downward trend in contemporary romance sales. In fact, new writers are emerging - Wellington writer Catherine Robertson's first novel, The Sweet Second Life of Darrell Kincaid, was No. 3 in New Zealand fiction for adults on the Nielsen Weekly Best-sellers list this month.

But veteran bookshop owner Barbara Clendon says chick lit is definitely on its way out. At Barbara's Books in Manukau, specialising in romance and science fiction, the new hit sub-genre is paranormal romance - a blend of love and sci-fi.

"Chick lit is a bit of a self-indulgent thing, isn't it? You know, girl finding herself and having a good time while she's doing it. As a society we are doing less of that - we're not so much Sex and the City anymore, and that kind of story just isn't selling enough to sustain a separate genre," she says. "In most markets it has morphed into other things, like Sophie Kinsella's light-hearted comedy, like Bridget Jones' Diary grown up."

Clendon puts it down to television's influence - the latest paranormal romance fans grew up on a diet of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

"Tall, dark and sexy as a heroic icon has been alive and well for thousands of years. Now he's a vampire," she says.

"Romance will always be strong. It has a reputation of selling better when times are tough, and it's selling well now."

Maybe I'll still get my moment as a heroine of the printed page.

Hand Me Down by Michelle Holman (HarperCollins $24.99) is available now.


- NZ Herald

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