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Posts Tagged ‘Chick Lit’

Chick Lit in Historical Settings by Frida Skybäck
by Helene Ehriander

Chick lit is a genre that usually depicts what life is like for young women in big cities, or occasionally—for the sake of variety—on fashionable country estates. They pursue their careers, go to parties, gossip with their girlfriends, and shop, while dating a series of men in their hunt for the right one. They contemplate their identity and their life, and they want everything at once so that their life will be perfect. Being slim and fit, having flawless nails and well-coiffed hair, enjoying success at work, and having a beautiful, well-kept home is a must for these women who aim for perfectionism and long for happiness. Chick lit is usually associated with the present day, and tends to be regarded as a humorous and ironic commentary on contemporary ideals and expectations. Most of the books classified in this genre take place in our own time. [End Page 1]

There are, however, several novels very close to chick lit that take place in a historical setting. These novels include many of the ingredients that we find in chick lit, but here it is grand balls instead of clubbing, muddy streets instead of asphalt, horse-drawn coaches instead of sports cars, rustling silk and bobbing tulle from dressmakers in Paris instead of famous designer brands, and visits to the confectioner instead of a latte at the sidewalk café. The important questions that the young female protagonists have to confront are not very different from those occupying Bridget Jones and her sisters, and it is not difficult for the reader to recognize herself and identify with them (Ehriander).

“Chick lit in corsets” is written by women, read by women, has female heroes, and conveys a picture of women as being basically the same throughout the ages, so that much is still as it was in the past. The readers, moreover, are often young, and this is the type of book that attracts teenage girls and their mothers. In this article I discuss Swedish “chick lit in corsets” with examples from two novels by the Swedish author Frida Skybäck (born 1980): Charlotte Hassel (2011) and The White Lady (Den vita frun) (2012). I am particularly interested in these narratives as adolescent literature and adolescent reading. Frida Skybäck’s novels are marketed by the publisher Frank Förlag as adult literature, but Skybäck deliberately writes primarily for teenage girls, and Charlotte Hassel has been offered to teenage readers in the children’s book club Barnens Bokklubb (Skybäck, interview).

Chick lit in historical settings

According to Rocío Montoro, “Chick Lit is sometimes seen as a revamped version, a rebranding, or (for some) simply a renaming, of other more traditional forms of popular writing, namely romance or romantic fiction” (7). “Chick lit in corsets” can be regarded as a genre hybrid with some of its roots in older romantic literature. The novels are very close to what is usually called “romance” but they also have several typical features of chick lit. Many of them could also be called “feel-good” novels, a designation that comes from the emotions they arouse in the reader. Kaye Mitchell writes in her article “Gender and Sexuality in Popular Fiction” about how chick lit has also influenced the traditional romance. Chick lit is considered to have higher status and is treated with greater respect than romance, and authors and publishers alike believe that the romance genre has something to gain from being influenced by chick lit as regards, for example, the portrayal of better-educated, more ambitious heroines (Mitchell 134). Chick lit has also challenged the old boundaries between popular culture and more highly esteemed literature, and publishers tend to advertise romance together with chick lit so that the two genres will attract readers from each other (Harzewski 2011, 32, 41). That genres in today’s literature cross-fertilize each other is the rule rather than the exception, and there are many reasons for this. Authors who write in a particular genre are often regarded as innovative if they break one or more of the traditional structures. They can also profile themselves and express their personal authorial style by relating to the set framework of the genre, and by going against the conventions they can criticize the accepted norms and values of the genre. [End Page 2]

Maria Ehrenberg, in a book about present-day romance from Maeve Binchy to Marcia Willett, divides light historical novels into four categories:

  1. The unique person. In this category we meet historical personages and read about historical periods and events from the perspective of one person’s actions.
  2. Laborious everyday work. These books describe the misery and toil of everyday life.
  3. Recent history. The Second World War is a common topic here, and the narrative often continues down to the present day.
  4. The Miss Novel, also known as the governess novel or the manor-house novel. Here we find mystery and elements of thriller, as well as issues of class, money, and wealth. The historical backdrop is often sketchy and stereotyped, and the stories end with the by tradition dictated kiss (39-40).

Frida Skybäck’s novels do not fit into any of these four categories, although there are elements of the Miss Novel in particular. Maria Nilson writes that it may seem strange to call historical portrayals “chick lit,” and she cites as an example Anna Godbersen’s four-part suite The Luxe, which takes place in Manhattan in 1899–1900, of which at least the first part is close to chick lit (40). Nilson writes that it is fairly unproblematic to call the first book, The Luxe, chick lit jr., that is, chick lit for young readers: “There are parties and clothes and shopping and intrigues in an upper-class milieu. Then the series develops in a different direction, turning much darker, and it also becomes more difficult to identify the genre” (40, author’s own translation). Chick lit jr. is characterized by the inclusion of typical chick lit ingredients while simultaneously considering matters such as reaching adulthood, identity, awakening sexuality, the future, and relations to friends, customary elements in stories for adolescents and young adults (Johnson 141 ff.).

The action of Frida Skybäck’s debut book Charlotte Hassel (2011) takes place in 1771, with flashbacks to 1758. In 1758 Charlotte is a young woman from a well-off family who falls in love with a man of her own age. After a party she walks the short distance to her home, waiting for her parents, when an older man, influential and wealthy, follows her closely in order to assault her. Charlotte puts up a fight when he finds his way into her bedroom and tries to rape her, and she kills him with her letter opener in self-defense. When her parents arrive they help her get rid of the body and they send her to safety in England, where she finds a good life with a male friend, to whom she becomes engaged. Her parents and sister suffer fraud and extortion, and after thirteen years Charlotte decides to come back to Stockholm incognito to try to put things right. She also understands that a coup d’état is in the making. She meets once again the man she loved in her youth and breaks off the engagement in England; it turns out that her fiancé is homosexual and that they can only ever be good friends, which they remain even after Charlotte marries someone else. The kind, thoughtful homosexual male friend, with interests in fashion and interior decoration, is a common character in chick lit. The female characters in the novel are complex, and Skybäck plays with the stereotypes of the whore and the Madonna when she allows room for young women’s thoughts and feelings. [End Page 3]

In this novel there is plenty of female culture and feminine attributes: Charlotte buys mineral makeup, enjoys delicious pastries, and has exquisite dresses made for her. However, there is also a feminist intention in that Charlotte takes control over her life and her situation. She gets involved in the game of politics, showing a clear vision and sense of purpose as she averts the planned coup d’état. The reader follows Charlotte from the time when she is a young and somewhat insecure girl, which makes it easier for younger readers to identify with her, up to the happy ending, when she has developed into a grown-up woman who takes her share of what life has to offer.

Romance

The term “romance” is one that embraces a wide variety of literature on the theme of romantic love.[1] In Barbara Fuchs’s book Romance the analyses range from ancient Greece, through medieval tales of chivalry, Shakespeare and the Renaissance, to end with Harlequin romances. Fuchs also underlines how many sub-genres there are, and how popular contemporary romance literature is (124 ff.). Romances in the sense of romantic literature written by women for women usually have a similar construction, consisting of a number of set narrative structures that are varied in a more or less predictable way up to the happy ending when the heroine receives a kiss, an offer of marriage, or both. Frida Skybäck’s second novel, The White Lady (2012), contains less chick lit and more romance in the narrative, but it is powerful in its feminist message when it comes to emphasizing women’s right to shape their own lives and to be respected even if they are neither beautiful nor rich. This novel combines several literary motifs and patterns that often occur in both romance, chick lit and books for young adults: for example, the “ugly duckling”, “Cinderella,” and the orphan child (Harzewski 2006, 38). Most of the action takes place in the castle of Borgeby in Skåne. The story is about the fates of individual women, insolvency, and love across class boundaries: “love across the classes [is] an extremely common theme in historical romance,” Jerome de Groot writes in his survey in The Historical Novel (58).

Janice A. Radway, who has written a study of female readings of romance literature, Reading the Romance, states that the reading works for readers “as the ritualistic repetition of a single, immutable cultural myth” (194). But Radway goes on to claim, albeit in a rather limited study, that the reading women display different strategies and that their reading serves a number of different purposes. This is interesting given that romance literature and the reading of it has been criticized from many quarters for being conservative, presenting a distorted picture of society, fooling its readers, and even turning them into addicts and slaves since their real problems are never solved; instead they get stuck in a reading that brings temporary relief through illusory solutions. This outlook on the reading of romantic literature and female readers as victims has a long history. Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary (1856–57) has achieved great significance with its portrayal of a reading girl who through time loses contact with reality and as a young woman falls into a destructive pattern with reading, eroticism, fashion, and shimmering pink dreams of romantic rendezvous, while she cheats on her husband, runs up huge debts, and ends up seeing suicide by arsenic as the only way out. [End Page 4]

Perhaps some romance literature over the years could be called escapist, and can justifiably be accused of building on stereotyped gender roles, with protagonists that are poor role models for young readers, but in today’s romance and chick lit there are interesting exceptions which actually use the genre and the form to communicate feminist messages to their readers through playful, knowing hints and examples of energetic heroines who shape their own lives. It is also not infrequent that the genre comments on itself in its portrayal of literature and reading. This gives readers the chance to read subversively and to read against the text; instead of passivizing the reader, this can give strength. It is also quite common for the female protagonists to be interested in literature, and using the wisdom they have derived from their reading. Maria in The White Lady enjoys the castle library and immerses herself not only in romantic novels but also reads, for example, contemporary female poetry.

Diana Wallace, who has written a study titled The Woman’s Historical Novel: British Women Writers, 1900–2000, argues that the historical novel was one of the most important forms for women’s reading and writing during the twentieth century. She testifies to how she herself and many of the women she knows have read historical novels by and about women ever since childhood: “From an early age I read women’s historical novels avidly, as did my mother and sister. The same was true, I later discovered, of many of my female friends and colleagues, and of many of the literary critics, writers, and theorists who have been central to the development of feminist literary criticism” (ix). She points out, however, that there has been a tendency to associate female authors’ historical novels with romance and label them as escapist: “Associated with the ‘popular’, women writers have thus been doubly excluded from the established canon” (Wallace 10). What I think becomes clear when one studies what has been written about the different genres is that romance is perceived as a female genre while historical novels are masculine (and “serious”).

 Historical novels

Då som nu (“Then As Now”) by Hans O. Granlid from 1964 is still the standard Swedish work about the historical novel. Granlid does not write anything about children’s and young people’s literature, nor about young people’s reading, and of all the novels he analyses, only one is by a female author. The situation is similar in major English-language studies, and another remarkable thing is that, when the origin of the historical novel is described, only male authors are highlighted, with Walter Scott taking pride of place. Female authors and the genres they have developed and published their works in have to take a back seat as male authors set the pattern for how historical novels should be written.

In his introduction Granlid poses interesting and fundamental questions about what a historical novel is and what characterizes it. He is interested in the problems of analogy and archaization: that is, how the historical period is described in the literary work, how the matter is presented and placed in a particular time, how it is related to the present, and what specifically is archaized in content and style. Closely linked to the problems of analogy and archaization is the problem of anachronism: that is, what happens when writing about something from the past that is to be read in the present, made comprehensible to contemporary readers (Granlid 16 ff.). Archaization is thus about how the text is made [End Page 5] “old-fashioned”: anachronisms are things or expressions that are out of place in the period, and analogies are agreements between our time and the historical time.

Historical books often incorporate a large amount of fact in the narrative, which means that people often ask where the dividing line between fact and fiction runs. A historical novel can never be regarded as “true,” for somewhere the author has decided where history ends and the story begins: in other words, where facts give way to fiction, and if a factual event is described we must remember that it is slanted in some way by the author.

Maria Nikolajeva, in her book Barnbokens byggklossar (“Building Blocks of the Children’s Book”), discusses what a historical portrayal is, with examples from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, published in 1868. The novel is about the author’s experiences in a domestic setting during the America Civil War, and it is partly or mostly autobiographical. The book has been read by many generations of girls and has also been filmed:

Historical novels are set in the past. It is important to remember, however, that it is the author’s past, not the reader’s, that determines whether a novel can be called historical. From the perspective of a reader in the 1990s, Tom Sawyer, Little Women, Nils Holgersson, and Elvis Karlsson all depict a bygone time, but they were written as contemporary accounts. This may seem unimportant, but it is crucial when we judge values in the text. Little Women expressed its period’s view of the role of women in society. A modern young people’s novel set in the same historical period as Little Women would perhaps express our modern view of the same issue. (Nikolajeva 49)

With regard to values, which Nikolajeva finds important, a story thus cannot just lie maturing and subsequently become historical (49).

Ying Toijer-Nilsson writes that most historical novels for young readers have a boy as the leading character (24). This no doubt has something to do with the conventions of historical books for young people, where war, for example, is a common topic, and girls have traditionally stayed at home while boys have been at the center of the exciting events. Moreover, girls and women learned early on to read texts where boys and men have prominent roles, whereas boys and men tend to read only about their own gender, since they are brought up to view anything associated with the female sphere as less important. However, Maria Nikolajeva writes in Children’s Literature Comes of Age: Toward a New Aesthetic that one can discern a change in historical narrative as regards the leading characters: “In particular, the masculine viewpoint of the earlier historical novel has been challenged by contemporary writers in favor of the ‘her-story’” (131). To attract all readers it has often been considered important that the protagonist should be a boy or a young man and that there is excitement enough to keep the reader’s interest to the very end. It has also been common for the author to choose to have both a girl and a boy, often siblings, so that readers of both sexes can identify with one of the leading figures. Kent Hägglund has written about the significance of the historical novel both for our perception of history and as reading matter for young people:

Ever since the middle of the nineteenth century, the historical novel has meant a great deal for the interest that children and young people take in [End Page 6] history. Novelists have often taken the lead in giving new perspectives. Women, children, minorities, and war victims of bygone times were given a central position in literature, long before they were included in school history books.

It has even happened often that authors of young people’s books have taken up an interesting topic before historians have tackled it. There is nothing strange about that: both historians and authors are driven by a conviction that knowledge of the past can help us in our lives here and now.

Both use knowledge and imagination to explore people and phenomena in a bygone time. But the researcher always reaches a limit where he or she must stop, and dividing lines between what we know, what we can assume, and what we have no idea about. The author has the freedom—or perhaps rather the compulsion—to step over that line, to give life to persons who never existed, to forge links, to invent. (Hägglund, author’s own translation)

Hägglund goes on to say: “Of course there are novelists who use a historical setting merely as a backdrop for stories that could just as well have been enacted in the present.” The concept of the historical novel thus includes not only the time aspect but also a quality aspect. In research on literature and history there has long been awareness that history and fiction are closely related since all attempts to depict our past take some form of narrative, but this can be done in more or less responsible ways. There are and have been authors who have endeavored to write serious historical novels and there are those who have written what are somewhat condescendingly called “costume novels,” seeking to tell an entertaining story in a historical setting. In costume novels the historical period is just a backdrop; the historical details can be quite correct while the people and relationships are not put into any factual historical context.

There are thus many levels to take into consideration as a reader when reflecting on a historical novel and what is “true” and “correct”. The details must be accurate in that the clothes, for example, should correspond to the period and that there should be no cars in a period before the car was invented. In Frida Skybäck’s novels, the characters are placed in a historical time where genuine historical figures are named and possible historical events are depicted. Frida Skybäck, who teaches history and English, faithfully uses the vocabulary of the period and she is also careful to try to get the historical details right. During the time she was working on Charlotte Hassel, one of the books she read was the diary of Märta Helena Reenstierna (Årstafruns dagbok 1793-1839), and she learned how modern that lady was in her way of expressing herself, and how her thoughts did not differ noticeably from the way we think today. In both of Skybäck’s books there is an afterword outlining how much of the narrative is fact and how much is fiction.

Historical events must be correctly depicted, but as a reader one also has to be aware that they are probably depicted from a particular angle, perhaps with a specific intention, and that it is often the victor who writes the history. In historical accounts women, poor people, and children are portrayed less frequently than men, kings, and well-off people, although this is slowly changing (Brown and St. Clair 186). It is even more problematic in a historical narrative to picture how different people have thought and felt [End Page 7] through the ages. There is more documentation and material when it comes to men, but the material for women and children is very limited.

People are the same through the ages

“The problem for historians,” Karin Norman writes, “is that we have so little access to the way people perceived their own situation and justified their actions. It is easy to resort to ascribing our own thoughts and values and emotions to other people. It takes a balancing act between generalizing and relativizing: how similar or different were people in the past from us today? Similar or different in what way?” (51, author’s own translation). Authors have greater freedom in this matter than historians do. John Stephens, in his study Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction, says that major historical events tend to be described through love stories and human relations in this kind of fiction (206). On several levels, as Stephens also points out, there lies a contradiction within historical fiction. While the text links past and present, it simultaneously gives the illusion of an older literary discourse. The discourse constantly balances between “the same” and “different.” In a broader perspective this is a matter of a transhistorical outlook versus cultural relativism (Stephens 202 ff.). As I see it, it is not a question of either/or, but of where the discourse is positioned on different occasions on a scale between these two poles. In portrayals of the past there must be more similarities than differences to facilitate understanding, especially for young readers. A text that is placed too far on the scale towards “difference” makes identification difficult and risks not being perceived as plausible, and may even be incomprehensible. It is also a matter of the level on which one wants to put the interpretation. If you go straight into the text and look at the details, relations, or emotions that display similarity or difference, you tend to perceive the text as showing a high degree of cultural relativism. If, on the other hand, you choose to abstract and raise the relations and emotions to a higher level, there is a good chance of seeing the text as transhistorical and common to all mankind. The foundation is similar but the constituents take on relative expressions depending on the time in which they exist and the culture and social class they reflect. The transhistorical position means that humanity, wishes, and needs are the same through the ages, but that they find different social expressions. In other words, one could say that people are alike through the ages and that it is the stage on which they act that differs from one period to another. People are steered by their environment and their culture, but they are basically the same; if we peel away or abstract the exterior, the human core is constant. By emphasizing the similarities and the basic correspondences, it is possible to create an understanding of both past and present.

This understanding is also used by Frida Skybäck. The distance from the historical period allows readers to see their own lives and their own problems in perspective, and it offers an opportunity to come to terms with these. Moreover, the reader gets an idea of what it means to be a woman here and now in comparison with what it could be like in the past. When women read about women and the things that have occupied women’s time and interest through the ages, it also establishes a historical community. Family sagas tend to be popular, and by reading them one can glimpse historical connections that would not otherwise be visible. Women get their share of history and can draw parallels to their own [End Page 8] experiences. Frida Skybäck’s The White Lady depicts two generations of women in parallel. The older woman has just had a daughter, and since she is growing increasingly weak from a terrible illness that she does not understand, she writes a diary for her newborn daughter. The novel ends with the daughter reaching adulthood and having a daughter of her own, for whom she starts writing a diary. Through her own mother’s notes she has found out who she is and has got to know the mother who drowned herself to save her newborn daughter when she was just a few months old. Diana Wallace writes: “As a genre, the historical novel has allowed women writers a license which they have not been allowed in other forms. This is most obviously true of sexuality where it has allowed coverage of normally taboo subjects, not just active female sexuality but also contraception, abortion, childbirth and homosexuality” (6).

In Frida Skybäck’s two books we find, beside the portrayal of the young woman who does not understand that she has contracted syphilis from her husband, accounts of pregnancy before marriage, the contraceptive methods used in those days, attempted rapes, a sexual relationship with a man who is not a potential future husband but a tender lover who teaches the young woman “the art of love”, and sexual relations across class boundaries. History is written here from a female perspective, and female concerns are visibly in focus. At the same time, this can be viewed as a comment on life today, an explanation for why we relate to these parts of life in a particular way. Girls and women are lifted out of their exclusion and marginalization, and the author has the liberty here to write alternative history. John Stephens says that what is depicted as universal human experience in a historical account can mean that our descriptions of the past are colored by our image of present-day reality (202 ff.). In Frida Skybäck’s books this is entirely intentional, a narrative device to enable the reader to reflect on herself and her own life as she reads.

Role play in a historical setting

Diana Wallace writes in her preface how history lessons in school disappointed her since they were never about women, and she sees this as one reason why so many girls and women have read and still read historical novels where women are allowed to be central figures (ix). Wallace goes on to write:

The “woman’s historical novel”, then, encompasses both the “popular” and the “serious” or “literary” ends of the spectrum, but one of my arguments here is that the two are intimately linked. [. . .] We need to read both “serious” and “popular” historical novels together and against each other if we want fully to understand the range of meanings that history and the historical novel have held for women readers in the twentieth century. (5)

Eva Queckfeldt has written about “the historical novel without history” in the annual of the history teachers’ association: [End Page 9]

To restrict the discussion solely to historical novels, these have been considered and discussed both as a source of knowledge and as an educational aid, not least by history teachers. The advantages of the novels are thought to be, among other things, that they let the reader experience the past in a different way from the textbooks. For example, the reader meets figures from the past and it is, probably rightly, assumed that this makes him/her familiar with the people of bygone times, their context, their everyday life, and their thoughts. This almost always concerns the “good” historical novels: Per Anders Fogelström’s novels about Stockholm, Vilhelm Moberg’s emigration epic, Väinö Linna’s crofter trilogy, to name just a few examples. These are novels written by authors who took pains to give as correct a picture as possible of the past. Often they were accounts that not even professional historians could object to.

The problem is that these good novels are just a small proportion of all the “historical novels” produced. There is also a whole undergrowth of novels that call themselves “historical.” (63, author’s own translation)

The good historical novels mentioned by Queckfeldt are also all by male authors, and she contrasts these with seven “pulp novels” in which reality is doctored for the reader and the novels’ “conflicts become simple and are explained as a result of the individual persons’ actions.” The plot “circles around LOVE for the female readership” (64, author’s own translation). These novels have such great defects in their language, the anachronisms are piled on top of each other, and all the historical details are so vague that they could be used almost anywhere. Queckfeldt argues that these novels, carelessly thrown together and trivial in content, are “without history.” Frida Skybäck’s novels counteract this by showing, from a female perspective, how history repeats itself and how today’s women are a part of the past, therein giving women a place where they refuse to “take shit from anybody.”[2]

Frida Skybäck plays with historical depiction, with romance and chick lit, and with the stereotyped characters of the whore and the Madonna, in order to give scope to women’s thoughts and feelings. By playing with genres she opens possibilities for readers to read subversively, to try out new roles and lines, and to find themselves and stand up for who they are. Frida Skybäck, who works as a teacher at an international high school in Lund, is also aware that in other countries much more historical material is used than in the Swedish school. In Sweden, history as it is taught is comparatively dry and lifeless, and she thinks that it is important to arouse an interest in the source of power that history represents through literature that can move people. Diana Wallace writes about how women in Mussolini’s Italy were prohibited from studying history at university: “A knowledge of history, this suggests, has the potential to be dangerously subversive [. . .]. It is not surprising that in women’s hands the historical novel has often become a political tool” (2). Compared with Madame Bovary’s tragic fate, this is the reverse way to view women’s reading: either girls and women read with emotion and can then be affected to the point of madness, or else they are able to read with the brain connected and the result can be a threat to the prevailing society.

Janice A. Radway has exposed the narrative structures in romances in the same way that Vladimir Propp in the 1920s identified the set narrative features of Russian folktales. Radway has found thirteen recurrent features, which she calls functions, in romances: [End Page 10]

  1. The heroine’s social identity is destroyed.
  2. The heroine reacts antagonistically to an aristocratic male.
  3. The aristocratic male responds ambiguously to the heroine.
  4. The heroine interprets the hero’s behavior as evidence of a purely sexual interest in her.
  5. The heroine responds to the hero’s behavior with anger or coldness.
  6. The hero retaliates by punishing the heroine.
  7. The heroine and hero are physically and/or emotionally separated.
  8. The hero treats the heroine tenderly.
  9. The heroine responds warmly to the hero’s act of tenderness.
  10. The heroine reinterprets the hero’s ambiguous behavior as the product of previous hurt.
  11. The hero proposes/openly declares his love for/demonstrates his unwavering commitment to the heroine with a supreme act of tenderness.
  12. The heroine responds sexually and emotionally.
  13. The heroine’s identity is restored. (134)

It is important to have knowledge of how narratives are built up, since this is also the foundation for our interpretation of them. When we recognize the set form, we know what type of story we are reading, and when we have read several of them we soon detect when an author is going against the familiar pattern. In these deviations an author’s ideological intentions can be obvious: for example, when an author with feminist ambitions breaks the pattern in a traditional romantic narrative. This also opens up for questions about how historical literature functions, namely, that it brings our history to life and invites the reader to take the step into an alternative time, a kind of role play where one can learn something about our history, about our own time, and about ourselves and the contexts to which we belong as girls, women, and humans.


[1] “The term romance derives from the French and was first used exclusively to refer to medieval romances (sometimes called ‘chivalric romances’) written in French and composed in verse. These narratives were concerned with knightly adventure, courtly love, and chivalric ideals, often set at the court of King Arthur. Later the term was used to refer to any medieval romance, whether in verse or prose, and regardless of country of origin” (Harzewski 31).

[2] This idiomatic expression is often used by young women in Sweden today to indicate that they do not accept infringements of their integrity, outdated values, stupid comments, or lack of respect. [End Page 11]

References

Brown, Joanne, and Nancy St. Clair. The Distant Mirror: Reflections on Young Adult Historical Fiction. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press Inc, 2006. Print.

Ehrenberg, Maria. Nutidsromantik: Från Maeve Binchy till Marcia Willett. Lund: BTJ Förlag, 2009. Print.

Ehriander, Helene. “Chick lit i korsett.” Chick lit – brokiga läsningar och didaktiska utmaningar. Ed. Maria Nilson and Helene Ehriander. Stockholm: Liber, 2013. 159-173. Print.

Fuchs, Barbara. Romance. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Godbersen, Anna. The Luxe. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. Print.

Granlid, Hans O., Då som nu. Historiska romaner i översikt och analys. Stockholm: Natur och kultur, 1964. Print.

Hägglund, Kent. “Mot främmande land på Attilas häst.” Dagens Nyheter. 14 May 2001. Print.

Harzewski, Stephanie. Chick Lit and Postfeminism. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011. Print.

— — —. “Tradition and Displacement in the New Novel of Manners.” Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction. Ed. Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York: Routledge, 2006. 29-46. Print.

Johnson, Joanna Webb, “Chick Lit Jr.: More Than Glitz and Glamour for Teens and Tweens” Chick Lit. The New Woman’s Fiction. Ed. Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York: Routledge, 2006. 141-157. Print.

Mitchell, Kaye. “Gender and Sexuality in Popular Fiction.” The Cambridge Companion to Popular Fiction. Eds. David Glover and Scott McCracken. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 122-140. Print.

Montoro, Rocío. Chick Lit. The Stylistics of Cappuccino Fiction. London: Continuum, 2012. Print.

Nikolajeva, Maria. Barnbokens byggklossar. Lund: Studentlitteratur, 1998. Print.

— — —. Children’s Literature Comes of Age: Toward a New Aesthetic. New York: Garland, 1996. Print.

Nilson, Maria. Från Gossip Girl till Harry Potter: Genusperspektiv på ungdomslitteratur. Lund: BTJ Förlag, 2010. Print.

Norman, Karin. Kulturella föreställningar om barn: Ett socialantropologiskt perspektiv. Stockholm: Rädda Barnen, 1996. Print.

Queckfeldt, Eva. “Den historielösa historiska romanen.” Historielärarnas förenings årsskrift. N.p., 1995-96. 63-70. Print.

Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. 1984. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991. Print.

Skybäck, Frida. Charlotte Hassel. Stockholm: Frank, 2011. Print.

— — —. Den vita frun. Stockholm: Frank, 2012. Print.

— — —. Interview by Helene Ehriander. 2 August 2012.

Stephens, John. Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction. London: Longman, 1992. Print.

Toijer-Nilsson, Ying. “Lite välkommen ‘herstory’.” Abrakadabra 6 (1997): 24-25. Print.

Wallace, Diana. The Woman’s Historical Novel: British Women Writers, 1900–2000. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Print.

[End Page 12]

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Review: Chick Lit and Postfeminism, by Stephanie Harzewski

From almost the moment the terms chick lit entered the English vocabulary in the mid-1990s, the popular novels grouped into the category have faced derision, if not outright hostility in the popular press, as well as from so-called “literary authors” and “serious” academics. The authors branded—often unwillingly—with the label have been dismissed as chickerati, accused of selling themselves and their books as part of a commercial plot designed by publishers to peddle formula fiction to gullible female audiences.

Sound familiar? Naturally. Romance writers have been dogged by the same charges. But, as Stephanie Harzewski points out in the introduction to Chick Lit and Postfeminism, such vituperative criticism resembles that launched against another group of successful women writers: the novelists of the eighteenth century, such as Eliza Haywood, who took advantage of advances in publishing and an expanding middle-class readership to achieve recognition and success. Their successors in the nineteenth century, including Jane Austen, solidified women writers’ achievements while perfecting the novel itself, yet they still had to fend off criticism of the form as inferior literature. As Harzewski argues, “The critical reception of chick lit can be seen as another cycle of gendered antinovel discourse directed at the composer of romance and amatory fiction, a discourse that has punctuated the novel’s three-hundred-year history” (40-41).

But while few would now question a scholar’s decision to study the novel, critics of chick lit have encountered resistance, even though serious studies of popular culture are now accepted as routine—if not essential—contributions to critical discourse. Harzewski’s book, and a handful of others, are finally addressing the gap. In Chick Lit and Postfeminism, Harzewski makes the case for considering chick lit an “underanalyzed body of postmodern fiction” which provides “an accessible portal into contemporary gender politics and questions of cultural value” (5). Her book devotes sustained literary and feminist analysis to its origins, development and significance.

The astounding numbers alone, attesting to the cultural influence of chick-lit novels (and associated forms of what Mallory Young and I have termed “chick culture”), suggest that sustained critical attention to the form is necessary. Consider that Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, routinely identified as the novel launching the chick-lit genre, had, within 10 years of publication, been translated into 30 languages, sold more than 2 million copies worldwide, and, in 2001, became a popular film grossing over $245 million. As writer Jenny Colgan quipped, not all copies of Fielding’s novel have been “bought by lovelorn single women in London” (qtd. in Gibbons).

Harzewski notes that chick lit’s commercial success (along with its invocations of consumer culture) has been perhaps the greatest barrier to serious analysis of the genre. She argues that “Chick lit’s accessibility, humor, playfulness, and barrage of brand names at times overshadow innovative generic fusions and reflexivity” (53).

Her book excels in its analysis of chick lit in relation to established, traditional literary genres, from the Bildungsroman to the novel of manners. Scholars of romance fiction will be most interested in Chapter One, “Postmodernism’s Last Romance,” which considers chick lit in relation to the original romances of the medieval era and outlines its parallels and divergences from contemporary romance fiction. The chapter originated in an essay published in Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction (Routledge, 2006), but has been revised and expanded here to include a history of Harlequin publishers and a more thorough overview of the distinctions between the classic contemporary romances commonly identified by that name and chick lit.

For instance, Harzewski notes that while popular romance fiction adheres to a “one woman-one man” ratio, chick lit presents one woman involved with many men. If in romance fiction, the quest for romance is central, in chick lit, the heroine’s quest for self-definition and the need to balance work with personal relationships is given equal, if not greater, attention. The idealized protagonist of romance fiction, typically an active, intelligent beauty, is nowhere to be seen in chick lit, which features protagonists who are highly conscious and critical of their physical appearance and who are more often pictured as flawed than feisty.

More significant differences center on the characterization of men and depictions of love and sex. Harzewski argues that romance fiction presents men as objects of erotic desire who are valued for their sexual prowess. By contrast, in chick lit, she argues, men are “not really valued as individuals as much as a means to a lifestyle, wedding, or in some cases beauty boost” (33). The moments of genuine eroticism that punctuate and, for some readers, characterize romance fiction are missing in chick lit.

Above all, the two genres differ in their endings. There are no HEA (“Happily Ever After”) endings in chick lit, which offers “a more realistic portrait of single life and dating, exploring in varying degrees, the dissolution of romantic ideals, or showing those ideals as unmet, sometimes unrealistic, expectations” (40).

Subsequent chapters consider chick lit in relation to its most prominent, and oft-cited, precursors: the novels of Jane Austen and Edith Wharton. Chick lit is commonly seen as having a dual Anglo-American origin in 1996, the year that saw the publication of Bridget Jones’s Diary in the UK and Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City in the USA. As Harzewski observes, each now “has the status of a master plot” (91). Chick lit’s British roots extend to Austen and other nineteenth-century authors such as the Brontës and George Eliot (see Wells and Hale). With their Manhattan settings, the works of American writers, such as Bushnell, Plum Sykes and Lauren Weisberger, have invited comparison to Wharton’s novels set in Old New York (see Wells).

Chapter Two of Chick Lit and Postfeminism considers Bridget Jones’s Diary in relation to Austen’s novels, particularly Pride and Prejudice. There is little new in Harzewski’s analysis, which emphasizes general generic connections over detailed textual links. She notes, for instance, that chick-lit novels “lack the subtlety and ironic precision of observation that goes into the creation of Austen’s heroines” or “Austen’s dexterous use of silence” (67). Nonetheless, the chapter does provide a thorough comparison that will be useful to those new to the study of chick lit. In addition, Harzewski considers chick lit’s role in the current wave of Austenmania, the repackaging of both the author and her works for a popular audience, a phenomenon that has drawn much attention from Austen scholars in books such as Jane’s Fame and Janeites.

A companion chapter, on Sex and the City and other chick-lit novels set in New York, will be of greater interest to chick-lit scholars. It provides a thorough history of Bushnell’s career, supplemented by information from personal interviews Harzewski conducted with the author. She also argues persuasively that Bushnell cannot be dubbed “a quintessential ‘chick lit’ author” (94). Instead, she “can be credited more with inspiring commercial chick lit than directly authoring it” (108). Harzewski convincingly demonstrates that the close female friends featured in the television series and film versions of Sex and the City bear little resemblance to the characters in Bushnell’s novel, who are often antagonistic, if not openly hostile, to each other as they compete in a tight singles market. Instead, it is the novel’s “urban setting, its scenes of nightlife, its characters’ preoccupations with money and status” that have become part of the chick-lit formula (94). Bushnell’s novels do, in Harzewski’s view, share a thematic with Wharton’s fiction: they similarly feature women on the market navigating New York’s cut-throat social milieu and highlight the expenditures necessary to circulate in the set (110). However, she notes that Bushnell does not share “Wharton’s elegant, mannered narration” (113), an understatement indeed.

Certainly, chick-lit authors can claim more than two literary influences and Harzewski considers some possible twentieth-century precursors. She acknowledges that Imelda Whelehan has covered similar territory in her excellent study of popular women’s novels from the late 1960s and ’70s. In The Feminist Bestseller, Whelehan contended that chick lit shared common themes and literary devices with bestselling novels of the second-wave feminist era, including confessional narrative techniques that invite reader identification and a realistic treatment of women’s concerns with family, work, friendship and sex. Harzewski’s selections, some dating earlier (1920s-60s), extend the range of popular novels bearing kinship to chick lit. Her process of selection, however, is rather narrow and often seems more haphazard than meaningful. For example, she isolates two pre-WWII “career-girl novels”: Dawn Powell’s Wither (1925) and Faith Baldwin’s Skyscraper (1931). Certainly, these novels do share contemporary chick lit’s focus on urban, career life, but other popular novels of the same era could easily have been included, as well. For instance, Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the bestseller of 1925, which prompted a fan letter from Edith Wharton, may bear greater resemblance to contemporary chick lit in its use of first-person narration, its flawed, materialistic protagonist and allusions to sexual license. Harzewski’s selections of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963) and Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman (1970) are more problematic. Her contention that these “mental illness” stories anticipate the appearance of a “neurotic” protagonist in chick lit strains credulity on two levels: can characters who struggle with confidence and self-esteem issues accurately be called neurotic? And more importantly, can the serious portraits of mental illness in Plath’s and Atwood’s novels be compared to the lighthearted, humorous travails of chick lit heroines obsessed with their appearance and/or weight? Only Gail Parent’s Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York (1972) fits comfortably here, for, as Harzewski notes, not only does it exhibit the self-deprecating humor we associate with chick lit and share the genre’s critique of modern dating pressures on women, it has been cited by “Jennifer Weiner and Melissa Senate as a founding text of the chick lit genre” (133).

While Harzewski has extended the range of texts that might form part of the genre’s modern history, then, the unevenness of her analysis suggests that more work needs to be done by chick-lit scholars to develop meaningful connections among “feminist bestsellers” of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. As the author herself notes, “we need to exercise discernment in claiming titles as chick lit because they are female-oriented, employ first-person narration, or are set in a city. Chick lit should be viewed primarily as a comedic genre deliberately written for women, whose light-heartedness and optimism upstage social criticisms” (147).

This observation makes me question Harzewski’s choice of title, which may lead readers to expect a sustained analysis of chick lit in relation to postfeminist politics, in place of the thorough study of the genre that the book actually provides. In the book’s final chapter, Harzewski does provide a brief overview of the contested definitions of the term postfeminism, concluding that they range from negative (e.g., Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra) to positive (e.g., the various champions of the third-wave feminist movement) to neutral. To be fair, attention to postfeminism has been a recurrent trend of chick-lit criticism, for the two terms were fused in one of chick lit’s first appearances: in a title originally used by Cris Mazza and Jeffrey DeShell for a collection of alternative feminist fiction (and Mazza herself has recounted the story of what she contends is its misappropriation). Whelehan has also claimed in The Feminist Bestseller that “both feminist bestsellers of the 1970s and the bestselling genre loosely known as chick lit are in dialogue with feminism” (5). Perhaps given that the overwhelming majority of chick lit novels are written by women about women and for women, attention to feminist politics is both inevitable and necessary. Certainly, one can argue, as Harzewski, Whelehan and others have, that chick lit novels dramatize, with great verisimilitude, the social realities facing contemporary young women as they negotiate a shifting set of expectations for career and relationships—at least those women who are educated, urban and white.[1] However, to the chagrin of some critics, such as Tasker and Negra, they do not engage directly with feminist politics. So it may be misleading to define chick lit, as Harzewski does, as “the most culturally visible form of postfeminist fiction” (8) without a clear definition of postfeminist. At various times in her book, the term is used to describe “a confusion of girlhood and womanhood” (9), “a manifestation of the spirit of capitalism being displaced onto the intimate life” (100), a negotiation of “the tensions between feminism and femininity” (150), and an “insistence on the right to female sexual pleasure” (152).

Harzewski appears to come closest to agreeing with Rosalind Gill that a postfeminist “sensibility” characterizes chick lit. She claims that “chick lit as a temper of postfeminism seems to express the fact that feminism’s gains in the professional arena have not abated the desire for romance” (180). As such it is not “antifeminist” (181), but does not offer an identifiable political position at all. And it might be worth asking whether it is right to expect works of literature—even or especially those written by women—to do so. As Harzewski claims, “it is not fully fair to judge chick lit as a template for some twenty-first-century transnational feminist how-to guide” (192).

The strength of this book lies, not in considering chick lit as a manifestation of postfeminism, however it’s defined, but as a group of contemporary literary texts with ties to classic and popular literature of the past. Its great benefit to chick-lit scholarship is in taking the texts seriously as works of literature, as texts which are often cleverly and creatively engaged in reappropriating and rewriting generic conventions while providing enormous pleasure to readers—and not just women. Just as not all romance fiction should be dismissed as formulaic, nor should all chick lit be written off as disposable, commercial trash. Instead, selected works deserve scholarly attention and reward serious literary study. Harzewski has outlined some possible directions such an analysis might take, by considering chick lit’s generic conventions and situating the texts in the history of popular romantic fiction. Her work paves the way for scholars of both romance and chick lit to take up the threads of her investigation or to pursue other directions of literary analysis.

Works Cited

Butler, Pamela and Jigna Desai. “Manolos, Marriage, and Mantras: Chick-lit Criticism and Transnational Feminism.” Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism 8 (2008): 1-31. Print.

Donadio, Rachel. “The Chick-Lit Pandemic.” New York Times. March 19, 2006. Web.

Ferriss, Suzanne and Mallory Young. Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Gibbons, Fiachra. “Stop Rubbishing Chick Lit, Demands Novelist.” The Guardian 21 Aug. 2003. Web.

Gill, Rosalind. “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 10 (2007): 147-166. Print.

— and Elena Herdieckerhoff. “Rewriting the Romance: New Femininities in Chick Lit?” Feminist Media Studies 6 (2006): 487-504. Print.

Guerrero, Lisa A. “Sistahs Are Doin’ It for Themselves.” Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction. Ed. Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York: Routledge, 2006. 87-101. Print.

Hale, Elizabeth. “Long Suffering Females: The Case of Nanny Lit.” Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction. Ed. Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York: Routledge, 2006. 103-118. Print.

Harman, Claire. Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2009. Print.

Lynch, Deidre. Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000. Print.

Mazza, Cris. “Who’s Laughing Now?: A Short History of Chick Lit and the Perversion of a Genre.” Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction. Ed. Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York: Routledge, 2006. 17-28. Print.

Séllei, Nóra. “Bridget Jones and Hungarian Chick Lit.” Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction. Ed. Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York: Routledge, 2006. 173-189. Print.

Tasker, Yvonne and Diane Negra. Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007. Print.

Wells, Juliette. “Mothers of Chick Lit? Women Writers, Readers, and Literary History.” Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction, ed. Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York: Routledge, 2006. 47-70. Print.

Whelehan, Imelda. The Feminist Bestseller: From Sex and the Single Girl to Sex and the City. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Print.


[1] Harzewski questions “the social accuracy of postfeminism as a descriptive term” and asks “whether this term can still be used responsibly outside the context of white Anglo-American metropolitan feminism” (23). This may explain her book’s paucity of allusions to varieties of chick lit that feature protagonists who are not exclusively white Britons or Americans. While limited, there are examples of chick lit that feature African-American, Eastern European, Indonesian, Indian, and Hispanic protagonists (see, for example, Butler and Desai, Donadio, Guerrero, and Séllei).

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“When chick lit meets romanzo rosa: Intertextual narratives in Stefania Bertola’s romantic fiction,” by Federica Balducci

Introduction

This article examines the work of Stefania Bertola (b. 1952), a prolific Italian writer of romantic fiction who creatively blends the codes and practices of romanzo rosa, Italy’s tradition of popular romance, with narrative tropes and cultural trends set up by contemporary Anglophone chick lit. In the landscape of Italy’s contemporary romantic fiction, where the dramatic and educational tones of romanzo rosa still permeate the genre in form and contents alike, Bertola’s novels represent a truly innovative and refreshing voice: one that has intertextuality, humour, and comedy as its key features. I discuss Bertola’s original position within the genre through a reading of the four titles that constitute the core of her production: Ne parliamo a cena (Let’s Talk About It Over Dinner), Aspirapolvere di stelle (Star Hoover), Biscotti e sospetti (Biscuits and Suspects), and A neve ferma (Firm Slopes).[1] As we shall see, in Bertola’s writing the generic features at work in romanzo rosa and chick lit are not only acknowledged, but also rearranged and reinterpreted, resulting in a complex, innovative body of work that successfully overcomes literary and stylistic boundaries in genre fiction.

In order to understand Bertola’s novels and their relationship with Anglophone chick lit and Italian romanzo rosa, it helps to have some sense of the latter tradition. To begin, then, I will give an overview of the romanzo rosa, followed by an account of the arrival of chick lit on the international stage, and more specifically in Italy. Finally, I will draw on scholarly work on parody and romantic comedy films to explore the role of humour, comedy and intertextuality in Bertola’s fiction.

Romanzo rosa: an overview

Critic Eugenia Roccella defines the romanzo rosa (often shortened to rosa) as a modern literary product, the result of changes in the Italian publishing market that took place in the early twentieth century (31). In those years, the development of a modern economy, particularly in Northern Italy, led to the growth of a literate middle class that, along with economic wellbeing, was seeking social and cultural acknowledgment. Publishers identified different targets based on factual data such as age and gender as well as potential interests, and the romanzo rosa established itself as the genre written by women, for women, about women (Spinazzola Modernità letteraria 211). Its rise can be located in the early 1920s with publisher Salani’s “La Biblioteca delle Signorine” (The Young Ladies Bookshelf), a series featuring sentimental stories with an edifying message and dedicated to upper-middle class young female readers (Ghiazza 137). Along with the occasional Italian author, the novels were mainly translations of English and French works;[2] as they were intended to have a pedagogical purpose for young women, female characters strictly adhered to the binary opposition between good and evil, that is, those who conformed to established moral and social codes of the time were awarded the happy ending, and those who failed at it were punished instead, quite often with death (Ghiazza 153). The success of the series prompted the reprint of the books a few years later under a new name, “I Romanzi della Rosa” (The Novels of the Rose), featuring a design characterised by a pink cover and a rose on the jacket, the graphic elements that would eventually label the genre itself.[3]

The popularity of such novels attracted the attention of other publishing houses that began releasing their own series. As Silvana Ghiazza maintains, in this phase the focus was not on the writers but almost exclusively on the imprint, which guaranteed the quality and tenor of the stories (136-37). While critics have mostly focused on the conventional aspects of the rosa novels produced during/within fascism, such as their homogeneous and repetitive formulas and their conservative representation of female fantasies, Robin Pickering-Iazzi holds a different and more challenging view. In Politics of the Visible: Writing Women, Culture, and Fascism she analyses Italian romance fiction and its conventions during the interwar years, exploring the implicit and explicit politics present in these texts. Using a critical model elaborated by Teresa de Lauretis and Cora Kaplan in the context of female identification in narrative and cinematic fiction, Pickering-Iazzi convincingly argues that “[w]ithin the hegemonic system predominated by Fascist institutions and the Catholic Church, which promoted models of femininity dedicated to the role of wife and mother, cast respectively as political and sacred, the romance novel, and mass culture in general, represented an alternative authority on modern canons of beauty and fashion, etiquette, and love” (103). Likewise, Antonia Arslan and Maria Pia Pozzato say that one of the most significant traits of rosa narratives is their active role in inviting both the expression of and a discussion about sentimental and sexual issues in Italy’s sociocultural landscape: “il rosa non si limita a raccontare l’amore e il sesso così come sono valorizzati e vissuti nella nostra società ma è anche un invito all’amore e al sesso” (“rosa does not just narrate love and sex as they are valued and approached in our society but is also an invitation to love and sex”; 1036).

The master of romanzo rosa was Liala (Amalia Liana Cambiasi Negretti Odescalchi, 1897-1995), who remains the most popular romance writer to date (Arslan and Pozzato 1039; Roccella 12); all her novels have been continually reprinted through the decades. Her career stretched from the early 1930s to the 1980s, and her life and writing are so deeply interwoven that they have become the rosa’s prototype and foundation stone (Lepschy; Roccella 53). A member of the Italian aristocracy, Liala married Marquis Cambiasi, almost twenty years her senior. Shortly after the marriage she met the aircraft pilot Centurione Scotto and the two fell in love. Cambiasi agreed to divorce but in 1926, before the paperwork could be completed, Scotto died while performing an acrobatic flight. Liala’s first novel Signorsì (Yes, Sir) published in 1931 by Mondadori, is inspired by these events and became an instant bestseller (Lepschy 183-84).

According to Pozzato, Signorsì presents the “estetismo di massa” (“mass aestheticism”) that would become a trademark of Liala’s writing. Characterised by a sophisticated vocabulary and syntactical constructions, this style was rooted in the late-nineteenth century literary movement of decadentismo (Decadence), whose tones and values Liala absorbed and reworked in a more popular form, aimed at a broader readership (90). The main features of Liala’s “mass aestheticism,” Pozzato explains, are stunning heroines and stylish heroes, moral integrity, exquisite settings infused with a sense of grandeur, and refined tastes expressed through close attention to visual details, particularly when describing clothes, houses, cars and other material belongings (90). From a formal perspective, Anna Laura Lepschy identifies a strategy of “double focalization” in Liala’s courtship plots; that is to say, the emotions of both male and female characters are granted equal visibility and importance in the story (186). There is no room here for a detailed analysis of Liala’s place and in Italian literature and culture, as it would require a much lengthier discussion.[4] However, I would point to Pickering-Iazzi’s fascinating analysis of Signorsì, which underlines the “culturally specific” form of the novel and considers it a landmark text in the genesis and development of a genre that, for the first time, was entirely “fashioned by Italian authors and stories” (99).

Indeed, Liala’s success boosted the rosa publishing market and while she wrote well into the mid-1980s, many other authors came along as the genre evolved. Some of them soon disappeared into the crowd of an overpopulated genre, but others built close relationships with their readers from the 1930s until the late 1970s through the pages of dedicated magazines, where they published their stories in instalments but also worked as journalists and often as personal advice columnists. As Roccella notes, simply by virtue of their novels’ subject matter, rosa writers came to be perceived as motherly figures as well as experienced friends, so to speak, assisting readers with complicated questions on issues related to everyday life and emotions (76).

During the 1980s, however, the landscape of Italian publishing changed. In 1981 the leading worldwide publisher of serial romance, Harlequin Enterprises, joined forces with Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, the historical Italian publishing house that had been one of the first to actively engage with mass-market fiction since the late 1920s, and launched Harmony, a joint venture designed to publish exclusively serial romances in translation. Harmony became almost immediately the reference point for a new kind of romance fiction in Italy, one that decreed the death of the so-called “rosa artigianale,” that is, the locally crafted romanzo rosa, in favour of new and imported serial romances (Roccella 109-14). The latter hit the marketplace with an abundance of titles ranging from historical to Regency to contemporary romance, and within a couple of years the success of Harmony novels among Italian readers was staggering: in 1983 readers were offered 25 new titles each month, all translated from English and quickly recognisable through definite visual features (Brodesco 42-45).[5] In fact, it could be said that Harmony brought romance back to the early 1920s, when the imprint, rather than the author, was the element that guaranteed the reader’s fidelity to the genre.

From the 1980s onward the home-grown rosa production and its literary tradition, which were already struggling to reposition themselves in Italy’s rapidly-changing society and publishing market, slowly disappeared under the weight of what Arslan and Pozzato have called “l’acritica colonizzazione da parte di modelli stranieri” (“the acritical colonisation by foreign models”; 1046). Those “modelli” included not only the serial Harmony romances, but also, after the 1990s a new genre of popular literature—chick lit—whose relationship with local Italian tradition would play out rather differently from the colonising pressure of Harmony.

The new kid in town: chick lit

Emerging in English-speaking countries in the mid 1990s with Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary and Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City, chick lit rapidly evolved into a worldwide cultural and literary phenomenon.[6] As Joanne Knowles maintains, chick lit novels feature “a female protagonist seeking personal fulfilment in a romance-consumer-comedic vein” (3). Knowles’ definition highlights the multifaceted and comedic nature of the genre, which Claire Squires reinforces by arguing that nowadays Bridget Jones is “not only a term for a certain social type [ . . . ] but also shorthand for a certain sort of novel and a certain sort of success” (159). Indeed, the resounding success of Fielding’s and Bushnell’s works (for the latter due largely to its TV adaptation) resides in their hybrid status, located as they are at the crossroad of social commentary, escapist fiction and literary tradition.

In Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction, the first comprehensive scholarly study of chick lit, Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young point out the novelty factor that the genre brought into the cultural and literary landscape of the mid-1990s worldwide. On the one hand, chick lit was a decidedly new kind of women’s popular fiction, whose formal and stylistic features presented innovative elements such as the humorous tone used to negotiate sentimental relationships; on the other hand, write Ferriss and Young, these novels were explicitly “about and for” a new type of woman—middle-class, white, heterosexual and financially independent—caught in intricate discourses of consumerism, sexuality, race and class at the turn of the century (12). Some years later, the debate among scholars on the qualities and shortcomings of chick lit confirms that the genre is an intriguing subject for analysis, one that has been discussed equally as a marketing ploy, a “post-literary” and “post-romantic” cultural product, a genuine attempt at addressing the experiences and issues of contemporary women in Western society, and a commentary on feminism and its place in today’s society (Whelehan; Smith; Harzewski; Modleski; Knowles). As Imelda Whelehan points out, chick lit must be acknowledged as “a tendency found in popular women’s writing of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century which alerts us to key concerns and themes also to be found in popular culture more generally” (Teening chick lit).

Whether happily embraced or forcefully rejected—by critics, writers and readers alike—the genre has generated a great deal of debate in the social, cultural, and literary arena, crossing geographical and linguistic boundaries. A New York Times article on international chick lit published in 2006 observed that parallel to the novel’s success in English-speaking countries, translations of Bridget Jones’s Diary immediately came out worldwide: in Italy, France and Japan in 1998, then in Hungary and Indonesia, to name but a few (Donadio). The novel’s gesturing at both “triviality and seriousness,” pointed out by Squires (160), fostered its appeal across the global market, building the base for subsequent variations. Alongside the translations of American and British authors, local publishers around the world promoted and launched domestic writers, who, for their part, addressed local socio-cultural needs and values. In 2002, freelance journalist Zsuzsa Rácz published a novel that was hailed as the “Hungarian Bridget Jones,” prompting Nora Sellei to investigate the reception of both Fielding’s character and her local counterpart in postcommunist Hungary (173-74). In calling for a new interpretative framework for Rácz’s novel, Sellei maintains that while it openly acknowledged its debt to Bridget Jones’s Diary, the book was also “rooted in a complex but subtle way in Hungary’s postcommunist present,” capturing in real time the changes in language, society, and culture of the country (179-85). Similarly, Jenny Mochtar Djundjung’s study on chick lit in Indonesia offers a comparative reading of British and Indonesian texts that focuses on the representation and reception of key elements such as the female body and the single urban woman. Likewise, the rise in China of a new generation of young women writers engaging with themes such as consumerism, eroticism and urban lifestyle has been dubbed “Chinese chick lit” and read in the context of the recent changes in the market economy of the country, where discourses of globalised consumer culture, female empowerment and neoliberal agency borrowed from Western postfeminist media culture are shaping—but are also being shaped by—urban Chinese women at ease with mainstream commodities and languages from the West (Chen; Ommundsen).

In Italy, the translation of Bridget Jones’s Diary (Il diario di Bridget Jones) came out in 1998 and was received with great enthusiasm; two years later the HBO’s Sex and the City was aired in Italy, becoming an instant hit. In 2002, Mondadori teamed up with Harlequin Enterprises for a second time, looking to recreate their success with the Harmony books, and brought the chick lit concept into the country through Red Dress Ink (RDI). Established in 2001 as the dedicated chick lit imprint of the Canadian-based romance fiction giant, RDI claimed to “define, as well as offer books relevant to, the 21st-century woman [ . . . ] leading women’s fiction with attitude” (RDI Writing Guidelines).[7] In presenting the new genre to the Italian market, editorial director Alessandra Bazardi emphasised its innovative nature (compared to the traditional romance fiction published by Harmony until then), its role as social commentary, and the new and younger readership it was attracting (De Luca). In 2004, the New York Times featured an article about the first Women’s Fiction Festival held in Matera (Italy), underlining “trendy upstarts like chick lit” as particularly successful in the country: “Italians [ . . . ] have taken to chick lit, the post-Bridget Jones literary phenomenon, and Italy has been the strongest foreign market for Red Dress Ink, Harlequin’s chick lit imprint” (Povoledo).[8] Indeed, other Italian publishers—particularly the ones with a solid background in popular romance—had started to launch dedicated chick lit series, such as Sperling & Kupfer’s “Pandora Shocking,” Salani’s “Femminili,” and Newton Compton’s “Anagramma.” As with Harmony, initially such series offered only translations, introducing the Italian readership to the most successful American and British chick lit writers, but local authors became gradually more and more visible.

Some Italian critics and reviewers have recently started to examine the sociocultural reasons behind the genre’s success and the generational representations that emerge from its contents, yet the object of their enquiry has been confined to foreign chick lit novels translated into Italian, with local writers going mostly unnoticed (Corbi; De Luca; De Rosa; Giovanetti; Manera). Admittedly, for many of these local writers, “chick lit” was a ready-made commercial label that would bring them visibility in the marketplace, and their works simply imitated the genre’s key features, roughly adapted to the Italian context. Others, however, begun to develop their own take on the genre and produced a genuinely domestic version of it. This is the case of Bertola, who retrieved the abandoned rosa tradition and blended it with chick lit themes and tropes, delivering an original narrative that, in the context of Italy’s popular genres, successfully reinterprets both genres in light of humour and comedy (Lepri).

Celestino Deleyto’s The Secret Life of Romantic Comedy (2009), a study on romantic comedy films that examines the genre from both a cultural and historical point of view, is particularly helpful for the analysis of Bertola’s approach to chick lit and popular romance. Deleyto defines romantic comedy as the genre “which uses humour, laughter and the comic to tell stories about interpersonal affective and erotic relationships” (30). Rather than focus on the genre’s narrative structures, which in romantic comedy must follow a fixed pattern, Deleyto draws our attention instead to the transformative power of the comic perspective. In Deleyto’s view, the presence and scope of humour in romantic comedies has an importance far beyond merely making these films enjoyable; in fact, humour becomes instrumental for the interpretation of all the many issues and themes at work in the story. Certainly, writes Deleyto, romantic comedies draw from ideas about love and relationships that are specific to the cultural and historical context in which they are created, and they always feature a tidy closure where these ideas are wrapped up in a satisfying (if not predictable) ending, but it is humour that provides the unique angle from which these ideas are read and evaluated. The comic perspective, Deleyto continues, accounts for the way the characters interact and evolve in spite of their sociocultural habits and constraints, creating “a space of transformation and fantasy” where both the characters and the audience understand the complexity of sentimental relationships (45-46).

Although elaborated within film genre studies, Deleyto’s observations can be applied to narrative fiction as well, and in particular to Bertola’s works, where humour and comedy play a fundamental role in storytelling, creating a space of “transformation and fantasy” through the playful deployment of various narrative codes and conventions. In this respect, Bertola’s technique is better understood in light of Margaret A. Rose’s Parody / Meta-fiction, in which she discusses parody as “a form of meta-fiction” or “a technique of stylistic ‘imitation’ and distortion” (19). Central to Rose’s argument is the idea of parody as “the meta-fictional ‘mirror’ to the process of composing and receiving literary texts” (59), a concept that she explains through the analysis of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. Rose notes that Austen “marks herself as a reader of the text, the value of which she is questioning [and] ironically mirrors her use of parody in the use of parody by one of her characters”; this way, says Rose, the mirror adds to its “mimetic” function a “dialectical” one, as it works in several directions at once, inside and outside of the novel itself, making “characters, author and reader [all] simultaneously the targets and the tool of satire” (70-72). Rose also introduces the notion of the transformative power of parody, which she locates in its structure:

[T]he structure of the parody—based on the imitation, quotation or distortion of the target text creates a dialectic of imitation and transformation, superseding the act of imitation itself, and uniting the parody work with another text and literary tradition, while at the same time changing the direction of this tradition through its refunctioning of its models. (158)

Such process of transformation through “imitation, quotation or distortion of the target text” holds with regard to Bertola’s novels, and is at the core of her creative engagement with cultural and stylistic models derived from opposite directions: the tradition of romanzo rosa and contemporary chick lit. If Italian popular romance had always been permeated by a “serietà assorta” (Spinazzola Immaginazione divertente 54), a distinctive tone of sombreness in support of the educational message that the story was required to deliver to its (female) readers, Bertola borrows the comedic nature of Anglo-American chick lit in order to infuse with an ironic tone the melodramatic seriousness that is romanzo rosa’s hallmark and its most enduring legacy.

Chick lit, romanzo rosa and comedy in Bertola’s fiction

A first example of Bertola’s use of irony and comedy to mediate chick lit and rosa comes from the management of male characters. Following the rosa tradition, Bertola’s heroes are still temperamental, have striking features and are well upward on the professional ladder, but these stock characteristics are always cleverly rewritten. A case in point is Filippo Corelli of Aspirapolvere di stelle, a bestselling writer whose striking features and passionate prose make him particularly successful among female readers:

Era una specie di Brad Pitt padano, profumato e vitale come un albero di arance. Era alto, forte, sorridente, era tutto dorato e appassionato, metteva felicità a vederlo, e tanto più seducente e misterioso appariva il contrasto con le sue occasionali malinconie [ . . . ] Era più luminoso, più caldo e più profumato degli altri uomini. E che profumo . . . Cos’era? Non lo aveva mai sentito . . . E quel colore di capelli? Che biondo era? Non lo aveva mai visto. Anche l’azzurro degli occhi era di una sfumatura sconosciuta. Non proprio blu. Turchese. Non proprio celesti. Blu? Non troppo azzurri. Verdi?

He was like a Brad Pitt from the Po Valley, fragrant and vigorous like an orange tree. He was tall, strong, smiling, everything in him was golden and passionate, just looking at him would make you happy, so that the contrast with his occasional melancholy seemed all the more alluring and mysterious [ . . . ] He was brighter, warmer and more fragrant than other men. And that scent . . . What was it? She had never smelled it . . . And that hair color? What shade of blond was it? She had never seen it. Even the blue in his eyes was an unknown shade. Not quite blue. Turquoise. Not really celeste. Blue? Not too light-blue. Green? (62-65)

Together with the reference to movie star Brad Pitt, displaced in the rural landscape of Italy’s Po river valley, Corelli’s features come across not so much as rapturous but rather as comically exaggerated in the meticulous yet unsuccessful attempt at capturing the exact shade of his eyes. Here Bertola is playing on the redundant descriptions of stunning and sensitive male heroes in popular romance, which readers would perhaps overlook if the writer had not previously cast Corelli as a narcissistic sexual predator, who relentlessly uses his good looks to seduce women. Because the main plot is based on the fact that all the female characters in the novel are unaware of Corelli’s true nature and easily fall under his charming spell, the audience is put in the position of truly enjoying the comic effect at work.

Bertola’s use of the comic also recreates the “transformation and fantasy” proposed by Deleyto as a key feature of the romantic comedy genre, as humour often helps the characters (and the audience) in understanding and negotiating intimate matters. In Aspirapolvere di stelle, for example, Gabriele confesses his love to Ginevra with a dramatic “because I love you” in the middle of a quarrel. But as the excerpt below shows, Bertola immediately puts under comical scrutiny this fundamental trope of popular romance:

“Mi può venire in mente” le spiegò con pazienza Gabriele, “perché ti amo.”
Si bloccò, sconvolto lui stesso da quello che aveva appena detto. Mai e poi mai, in tanti anni di dedizione alla femmina, aveva pronunciato quella formula spaventosa. Aveva detto di tutto, dal desolante “Lo sai che a te ci tengo” all’ingannevole ardente “Ti adoro” [. . . ] Per fortuna, la stasi temporale passò inosservata perché si era bloccata anche Ginevra, a cui nessuno aveva più detto “ti amo” dai tempi di un remoto fidanzato giovanile. [ . . . ] Ma un “ti amo” così, a dieci centimetri, con quegli occhi fiammeggianti, be’, era qualcosa.

“I can come up with it” Gabriele explained patiently, “because I love you.”
He stopped, shocked by what he had just said. Never, ever, in many years of dedication to women, had he pronounced those frightening words. He had said everything and anything, from the bleak “You know I care for you” to the deceitfully passionate “I adore you” [ . . . ] Fortunately, the temporary standstill went unnoticed because Ginevra was shocked too, as no one had said to her “I love you” since the days of a remote high-school boyfriend. [ . . . ] But an “I love you” like that, ten inches away, with those burning eyes, well, that was something. (86)

The declaration of love is one of the eight essential elements of the romance outlined by Pamela Regis (34) and Bertola’s reassessment of the hero’s momentous “I love you” equally dismisses and holds up the codes and language of romance fiction. The impenitent bachelor Gabriele cannot believe that he has just uttered “those frightening words,” which he has always avoided and paraphrased with less compromising ones, and realises that his attitude toward commitment may have changed just because he has been able to say them. Ginevra, who on her part is aware of Gabriele’s feelings but is not ready to reciprocate them yet, is forced to admit to herself that such passionate words are indeed “something.” This way, the writer has reaffirmed the pivotal role of the declaration in romance narratives, but the comedic tone has displaced its usual frame of reference, to the advantage not only of the plot and its development, but also of the audience, who is engaged in a richer, more playful reading experience.

A further example comes from Biscotti e sospetti, where after a very long courtship Mattia finally spends the night with Violetta. The morning after, the two have the following conversation over breakfast:

“Non vuoi sapere quando torno? Quando ci rivedremo? Che ne sarà di noi? Se abbiamo solo passato la notte insieme o se c’è di più?”Lei ridacchiò. “E tu? Vuoi saperlo?”

Mattia le andò vicino e la baciò molto.

“Io lo so.”

“Okay, allora prima o poi confronteremo le nostre informazioni.”

“Don’t you want to know when I get back? When we’ll meet again? What will become of us? If we have just spent the night together or there’s more?”

She giggled. “And you? Do you want to know it?”

Mattia went over and kissed her a lot.

“I already know it.”

“Okay, then sooner or later we will compare our data.” (227)

The dialogue humorously mocks the load of emotional expectations after a sexual encounter, with Mattia taken aback by Violetta’s lack of concern about their relationship, and it does a very good job in delivering a happy ending that is both predictable and unconventional: on the one hand, the characters carefully avoid the declaration of love that would celebrate them as a couple; on the other hand, Mattia’s bold kiss and Violetta’s laid-back response leave no doubt about their blissful future, giving the scene a romantic closure that is understated and emotionally satisfying all the same.

The characters’ jobs are another area where Bertola engages with both chick lit and romanzo rosa features in a comedic way. In Biscotti e sospetti, for example, Caterina proudly embraces her family’s working-class tradition of seamstress but with a twist, as she specialises in quality clothes for blow-up sex dolls: “Io faccio vestiti per le bambole gonfiabili. [ . . . ] Sarta, non stilista. Sono una sarta come mia madre e la mia prozia, però in un altro ramo. Loro fanno vestiti per le signore vere” (“I make clothes for blow-up sex dolls. [ . . . ] Seamstress, not designer. I am a seamstress like my mother and my aunt, but in another branch. They make clothes for real women”; 17) The humble profession of seamstress, reclaimed by Caterina as opposed to the modern and more glamorous designer, frames her within the traditional feminine domestic sphere as her mother and aunt before her. At the same time, those class-inherited skills are now updated and transferred to a different field, one that could not be more edgy and sexually charged. As a result, Caterina ironically embodies dispositions that are antithetical to one another: chick lit’s middle-class, smart and sexually savvy professional, and the working-class, humble and chaste labourer of the traditional popular romance. Likewise, in Aspirapolvere di stelle the three protagonists Penelope, Ginevra and Arianna run a cleaning and catering company called “Fate Veloci” (Speedy Fairies). Each of them specialises in a domestic task (cleaning, gardening and cooking, respectively) and their services are in high demand among Turin’s upper-class families. When they are hired by a critically acclaimed writer (Filippo Corelli) to perform domestic duties in his villa, the brief they receive describes the tasks in detail:

Quello che Filippo Corelli voleva dalle Fate Veloci era una perfetta e totale gestione di ogni faccenda domestica, dalle pulizie alla cura del giardino. Voleva cibi perfetti ma solo quando li avesse richiesti, voleva mobili lucidi e profumati, voleva un terrazzo accogliente anche nel cuore dell’inverno, voleva legna per il camino sempre ben impilata nelle ceste, voleva lenzuola profumate, camicie stirate, bagni schiuma che non finissero mai, dentifrici sempre nuovi, frigorifero sempre pieno ma sempre pieno di sorprese. E non voleva, invece, nessuno che gli parlasse, gli chiedesse, gli stesse fra i piedi, passasse davanti allo studio in cui lavorava.

What Filippo Corelli wanted from the Speedy Fairies was the perfect and total management of all household chores, from cleaning to gardening. He wanted the perfect food, but only when he requested it, he wanted shining and fragrant furniture, he also wanted a cozy balcony in the middle of winter, he wanted firewood always well stacked in baskets, he wanted scented linen, ironed shirts, endless bubble baths, always new toothpaste, a refrigerator always full but always full of surprises. He didn’t want, however, anybody speaking to him, asking him questions, bothering him, wandering in front of the studio where he was working. (23)

As we can see, the “the perfect and total management of all household chores” is intended literally and encompasses a list of impossibly exaggerated duties that, indeed, could be successfully carried out by magical creatures only. The image of the “domestic goddess” portrayed in popular media culture is upgraded to a better and more efficient domestic fairy, who does her magic and quickly disappears.[9] By stretching this fantasy to its limits, Bertola plays on the supposedly natural competence of women in relation to domestic duties and intensifies the gendered nature of such a fantasy in a way that is less denigrating than ironic, emphasised by Corelli’s childish repetition of “he wanted”.

Finally, the following excerpt from A neve ferma offers a good example of how Bertola recasts chick lit’s obsession with beauty and appearance:

Ginevra aveva compiuto trentadue anni in ottobre, e quindi avrebbe dovuto combattere [le rughe] già da sette anni. Invece aveva appena cominciato. Si era data alle creme la settimana prima, e adesso cercava di recuperare con lo zelo. Dopo la crema idratante, considerò con attenzione gli altri barattolini allineati sulla mensola del suo bagno tutto rosa. Meglio l’emolliente con la calendula, carota e ginseng, o quello al ginko biloba e alla vite rossa? E buttarsi decisamente sulla crema tonificante all’olio di jojoba e al burro di karité? Si guardò ben bene allo specchio. Non vedeva la minima traccia di rughe di nessun genere. Cedimento dei tessuti? Assente. Con un sospiro di sollievo, scelse la crema alla vite rossa, che meglio si accordava alla stagione.

Ginevra had turned thirty-two in October, and should have started to fight [expression wrinkles] seven years ago. Instead, she had just begun. She got seriously into creams the week before, and now was trying to catch up. After the moisturizer, she carefully considered the other jars lined up on the shelf of her all-pink bathroom. Better the emollient with calendula, carrot and ginseng, or the one with ginkgo and red vine leaves? And how about going decidedly for the jojoba oil and shea butter tonifying cream? She took a very good look in the mirror. She couldn’t see a trace of wrinkles of any kind. Sagging skin? Nope. With a sigh of relief, she chose the cream with red vine leaves, in tone with the season. (5)

As Rosalind Gill and Elena Herdieckerhoff have noted, in chick lit narratives “the body is constructed in a highly specific way: it is a body that is always already unruly and which requires constant monitoring, surveillance, discipline, and remodelling in order to conform to judgments of normative femininity” (498). In the quoted paragraph, Ginevra, at the age of thirty-two, feels that she should engage with a plethora of skincare products in order to avoid wrinkles and premature skin ageing. In evoking the surveillance of the female body that so often recurs in chick lit, Bertola plays on discourses of normative femininity presented in women’s magazines and adverts, whose language she mocks in the detailed description of exotic and mysterious ingredients that promise miraculous effects. Moreover, the passing nod to Ginevra’s all-pink bathroom adds a visual detail that frames the scene in an utterly feminine space. The writer then works by subtraction, formally and stylistically: on the one hand, the passage stresses the contrast between Ginevra’s commitment to catch up with time and discipline her body—she is seriously into skincare now—and her overwhelming inability to choose the appropriate product among the many she has bought. On the other hand, the narrative structure builds a tension that is eventually released in a comic anticlimax where Ginevra, upon realising that her skin is still quite flawless, chooses a cream that complements the autumn season.

As we have seen, Bertola’s relationship with rosa and chick lit narratives is not just a passive update of formulaic conventions in light of contemporary literary trends; rather, it actively re-contextualises generic rules and conventions through comedy and humour. From this perspective, Bertola’s dynamic engagement with chick lit and romance narratives is most evident in the intertextual and metafictional subtext of her novels, inasmuch as it sets up a transformative dialogue between the old texts, the new ones and their readership, as I shall discuss in the final part of this article.

Intertextuality and metafiction in Bertola’s novels

As many critics have noted, intertextuality and metafiction are at the core of chick lit, a genre that Claire Squires aptly describes as a “genre-crossing fiction [ . . . ] placed between the ‘mass’ and the ‘literary’ market, by appealing to and playing on the conventions of romance fiction” (160). Suzanne Ferris, for example, has discussed Fielding’s overt borrowing of and homage to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (72), while Stephanie Harzewski has investigated the influence and presence of Edith Wharton’s fiction on Bushnell’s writing (108-14).

Bertola addresses mass-market popular romance and its place in Italy’s literary scene in Ne parliamo a cena and Aspirapolvere di stelle, with different yet related purposes and outcomes. In the first case, Veronica is an upper-class, stay-at-home mother who lands a well-paid contract with Harmony, and her family’s reaction is self-explanatory: “Scrivi Harmony? Gli Harmony?” (“You write Harmony? The Harmony?”; 214). The italicised definite article exposes the notorious fame that accompanies the publisher in Italy’s literary landscape, where over the years the word “Harmony” has become shorthand for cheap writing and inappropriate readings, regardless of the genre they belong to, and effectively conveys a sense of disbelief that is implicitly judgmental. Bertola, however, immediately reframes such conversation when Veronica impatiently dismisses her family’s biased notions and comments that being an accomplished writer in a highly specialised and thriving genre where competition is fierce will give her independence, both in the personal and the professional sphere. In the case of Aspirapolvere di stelle, by contrast, Bertola uses the complicit relationship that her characters entertain with mass-market romance to address and re-contextualise chick lit tropes:

Sono fantastica, pensava. Nessuna di queste slavate schiave del dovere potrebbe immaginare che nel mio cuore di perfetta e amorevole madre brucia un vulcano di passione (in effetti, Arianna aveva ricominciato a leggere gli Harmony). Sono una vera donna moderna, che concentra in sé la madre, la femmina, la compagna, l’imprenditrice . . . proprio come in un articolo di “Marie Claire”!

I’m amazing, she thought. None of these washed-out wage-slaves could ever imagine that in my heart of perfect and loving mother burns a volcano of passion (in fact, Arianna had started reading Harmony novels again). I am a truly modern woman, mother, feminine, partner, and entrepreneur all at once . . . Just like in a “Marie Claire” article! (78)

Arianna’s final line brings to mind the ambiguous relationship that chick lit characters entertain with glossy women’s magazines and the unachievable models of femininity they present, along the lines of Bridget Jones’s famous claim of being a “child of Cosmopolitan culture [ . . . ] traumatised by supermodels and too many quizzes” (59), yet it is the phrase in brackets that offers the chance to discuss Bertola’s interest in the forms and conventions of chick lit and popular romance. A few paragraphs earlier, Arianna said that she was not interested in Harmony romances; however, since the way in which she talks is indeed modelled on romance stock phrases (such as “in my heart [ . . . ] burns a volcano of passion”), the narrator intervenes to point out that Arianna is in fact reading such novels. Once again, Bertola introduces Harmony novels to play on the stereotype of the unsophisticated woman duped by these readings, but this time around her narrative strategy invokes a more active involvement of the audience. Indeed, the shift in the mode of address (where the writer uses a free indirect discourse that combines third person narrator, first person narrator, and external omniscient narrator) emphasises the stereotype but simultaneously tweaks it in a way that, as Rose reminds us, becomes a parodic “refunctioning” of it (158).

More examples of “genre-crossing” appear in A neve ferma, a novel where metafiction and intertextuality are performed through a direct and explicit engagement with the Italian tradition of romanzo rosa. One of the main characters is an aristocratic lawyer who secretly reads love stories and dreams of a love-life modelled on their characters, as the following excerpts shows:

Mario Mongilardi leggeva romanzi d’amore. Questa sua segreta attività era iniziata quando aveva nove anni, e passava le vacanze con sua cugina Ada, tre anni più grande, accanita lettrice dei Romanzi della Rosa Salani, che aveva trovato a mucchi nella soffitta di casa. … Mario aveva cominciato a spararsi Prima o Poi, Oltre gli Scogli, Sei giorni e altri significativi titoli. Poi, ormai assuefatto, era passato a più nobili autrici, e aveva letto tutta Jane Austen, le più significative fra le Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell e via via, fino a Margaret Mitchell e Rosamund Pilcher. Naturalmente erano letture segrete, portate avanti con somma discrezione. … Sul suo comodino sbandierava Clive Cussler, Stephen King e, quando voleva darsi un tono più intellettuale, Niccolò Ammaniti, ma nel cassetto chiuso a chiave c’era sempre un romantico romanzo femminile. Quindi lui sapeva. Sapeva da sempre, si può dire, quale fosse il suo destino.

Mario Mongilardi read romance novels. This secret activity had begun when he was nine years old and was on holiday with his cousin Ada, three years older, serial reader of the Romanzi della Rosa Salani. [ . . . ] Mario had started to feed himself on Prima o Poi, Oltre gli Scogli, Sei giorni and other meaningful titles. Later, by then addicted, he had moved on to the noblest authors, and had read all of Jane Austen, the most significant among the Brontë sisters, Elizabeth Gaskell and so on, up to Margaret Mitchell and Rosamund Pilcher. Of course these were clandestine readings, carried out with utmost discretion. [ . . . ] On his bedside table there were Clive Cussler, Stephen King and, when he wanted to appear a bit more cultured, Niccolò Ammaniti, but in a locked drawer he always kept a woman’s romantic novel. Therefore he knew. He had always known, one might say, what his fate was. (94)

The educated, professional male passionate about romance but ashamed to admit his guilty pleasure is not an original creation, but Bertola positions this narrative device in an intertextual framework that refers to a very specific literary tradition. Alongside with critically sanctioned female authors such as Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, and mainstream romance writer Rosamund Pilcher, the narrator of A neve ferma mentions the Salani’s imprint “Romanzi della Rosa” as part of Mario’s book collection, quoting actual titles to back up the character’s extensive knowledge of the genre.[10] By doing so, Bertola goes to the roots of the Italian tradition and, instead of making up romance titles by exaggerating their flamboyant style, she takes advantage of existing novels and links them to the works of critically sanctioned women writers. The metafictional and intertextual elements are even more subtle when we note that Salani, the publisher of Mario’s “meaningful” novels, is also Bertola’s publisher, thus inscribing A neve ferma itself in the very same tradition. As a result, while it is up to the reader’s awareness to notice and fully appreciate all the references at work in the quoted passage, the “Romanzi della Rosa” series is deployed as the bait that would lure Mario into the underbelly world of women’s romantic fiction. The dangers of such gendered and clandestine activities are then reinforced by the language and phrasing, which on the one hand cleverly imitate the lexicon of drug addiction, and on the other hand hyperbolically frame the novels as womanly readings. A few sentences later, the comic element is reinforced by the nod to manly popular writers such as Clive Cussler and Stephen King, but particularly to the critically acclaimed Italian pulp author Niccolò Ammaniti, whose books Mario puts on display in order to show a less feminine, more gender-appropriate taste.

Moreover, Mario is depicted as an avid reader unable to separate fiction from reality who constantly uses romanzi rosa to decipher people and situations, a narrative technique that is consistent with Rose’s aforementioned observations on parody as metafiction in Austen’s Northanger Abbey. According to Rose, parody is a transformative process which “mirrors the process of composing and receiving literary texts” (59), which we see clearly at work when we learn that Mario, duped by these readings, has been waiting for his true soulmate to come along, and when he meets his childhood friend Emma he convinces himself that she is the one:

Inevitabile, inaspettata, un giorno avrebbe incontrato LEI [ . . . ] la donna del destino, la magica fanciulla che avrebbe spazzato via tutte le altre, trasformandolo in un marito fedele e appassionato, proprio come i vari Conte Hubert e ingegner John e Darcy e Rochester dei suoi libri preferiti. E adesso, da vari indizi, aveva identificato questa nemesi dei sentimenti in Emma. Proprio come in una storia dei Delly, era una ragazza del paese, di bell’aspetto, colta, gentile, elevata, figlia di semplici ma oneste persone. [ . . . ] Una sola cosa lo disturbava. Doveva esserci, da qualche parte, un ostacolo. C’era sempre, nei romanzi.

Unavoidable, unexpected, one day he would meet HER [ . . . ] the woman of his destiny, the magical young lady who would sweep away all the others, turning him into a faithful and passionate husband, just like Count Hubert and Darcy and Rochester from his beloved books. And now, from various clues, he had identified this nemesis of the feelings in Emma. Just like in a Delly story, she was a girl from his hometown, handsome, intelligent, gentle, refined, the daughter of simple but honest people. [ . . . ] Only one thing bothered him. There must have been, somewhere, an obstacle. There was always one, in the novels. (94-95)

The above passage reveals Mario’s function in the narrative as a self-reflexive, metafictional approach to romance fiction: just like in a story written by the French siblings Delly, best-selling authors of early 20th century romance across Europe, Emma displays all the traits of the conventional romance heroine, as she is of humble origins, beautiful and tender. At this point, to conform to the romance narrative structure and match the courtship plot that Mario has in mind, their relationship must encounter an obstacle that would make their final union all the more meaningful. Here Bertola applies the parody to the romance trope of the “barrier” between the heroine and hero analysed by Regis, who defines it as the element that “drives the romance novel” (32). It could be external, such as a physical separation or rules imposed by society, but also internal, and in this case it will refer to the motivations, feelings and personality of the hero and heroine. Furthermore, Regis points out that “through [the barrier] element the writer can examine any situation within the heroine’s mind or in the world itself” (32), and Bertola makes the most of such an opportunity to further characterise Mario. In fact, when he learns that Emma is still in love with the man who has just dumped her, his reaction is one of relief: “Mario respirò sollevato. Tutto andava per il meglio” (“Mario sighed in relief. Everything was fine”; 105). Later on, when he tells his cousin and fellow romance reader Ada that he has finally found the woman of his destiny, he triumphally adds: “È perfetta Ada. C’è anche l’ostacolo (“She is perfect, Ada. There’s even the barrier”; 125). To make the situation all the more comic, shortly afterwards Mario falls in love with Emma’s friend Camelia, but once again, blinded by his beloved stories, he understands this event as an additional barrier in his relationship with Emma, stubbornly reading his situation in terms of the many love triangles he has seen in old romances.

The intertextual framing and Bertola’s use of parody become more evident when we look at specific tropes of the genre and how they are recast. In his study on the language of humour, Walter Nash argues that “a test of good parody is not how closely it imitates or reproduces certain turns of phrase, but how well it generates a style convincingly like that of the parodied author” (84). The focus here is on the writer’s “creative allusiveness,” which directs the audience toward either a specific author or text or, more generally, on “pseudoparody,” which Nash defines as the technique that evokes “a hazy recollection of rhetorical procedures” that readers would immediately recognise as familiar (100). Bertola’s “creative allusiveness” is well on display in the next passage, where the fierce and temperamental male protagonist is put under scrutiny. Mario is on his first date with Emma but does not know how to behave, so once again he resorts to his fictional role-models:

Darcy, l’aviatore John o il Conte Hubert, di fronte a una frase così avrebbero inchiodato la Donna Del Destino al più vicino faggio, sussurrandole incoerenti parole d’amore. Mario si sentiva un po’ pigro, quella sera, ma comunque baciò Emma.

Presented with a sentence like that, Darcy, John the aviator or Count Hubert would pin the Woman Of Destiny to the closest beech tree, whispering incoherent words of love to her. Mario was feeling a little lazy, that evening, but he kissed Emma anyway. (105)

Here Mario finds himself in a very tricky place: he acknowledges that the situation would require him to act boldly and audaciously, because this is what romantic heroes like Darcy or Rochester would do, but at the same time he is feeling a bit lazy, and eventually the dramatic and romantic gesture turns out to be an ordinary kiss. The effect is an anticlimax highlighted by the use of the adversative “but,” which pinpoints the split between the two worlds that Mario inhabits and brilliantly conveys his feeble attempt at living up to his fictional standards.

Likewise, the trope of the barrier is played throughout the narrative as Camelia and Mario, clearly in love with each other and sharing the same romance-mediated fantasies, withhold their passion in the name of the barrier—that is, Emma—until the end of the novel, when the obstacle is removed and the pairing successfully settled. Here Bertola’s parody takes a step further, as the removal of the obstacle comes in the form of a friendly (and anticlimactic) agreement between the two women, which leaves Mario quite baffled:

“Ma io non voglio sposare Camelia. Voglio sposare te.”

“Strano. Sei pazzo di lei.”

“Sì, be’, è solo una cosa . . . cioè, perché tu ami quell’altro, e allora io . . . si tratta di superare gli ostacoli, in modo che il nostro amore possa . . . be’. . . diciamo trionfare.”

“But I don’t want to marry Camelia. I want to marry you.”

“That’s odd. You’re crazy for her.”

“Yeah, well, it’s just . . . I mean, because you love that other guy, and then I . . . it all boils down to overcoming obstacles, so that our love can . . . well, triumph, so to speak.” (222)

Mario’s hilarious struggle to make sense of such an infringement of the genre’s main trope, in which the long-suffering lovers eventually triumph over the adversities, is all the more significant because he does not realise that he has been part of it all along, just in a different role and from a different perspective—one that readers, by contrast, have been able to anticipate and enjoy throughout the narrative.

Conclusions

Bertola’s novels occupy and innovative place in Italian romantic fiction. Rather than approaching Anglo-American chick lit and the Italian tradition of romanzo rosa as formally distinct genres, Bertola opts for a smooth interplay between the two. The result is an artful intergeneric dialogue in which these traditions are put in relation to one another in terms of themes, narrative structures and stylistic features: from chick lit’s comedic and tongue-in-cheek tone, to the intertextual references within the romance canon, to the multilayered and metafictional structure of the plot, as in the case of A neve ferma. More specifically, Bertola’s most important contribution to the genre is her use of comedy and intertextual parody, a strategy that is best read in relation to Deleyto’s transformative power of the comic space in romantic comedies. The comic space outlined by Deleyto is one that allows the interaction of several generic, cultural and social signifiers, which in turn loosens (and simultaneously enriches) the fixed set of features that the genre deploys. Similarly, in the landscape of Italy’s romantic fiction, Bertola’s comedic and intertextual approach to rosa and chick lit staples sets up an equally flexible framework that, running through all her work, plays on the social, cultural and literary background of both genres. The result is a new romantic narrative that is not derivative, but thought-provoking and creative in its own right.

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[1] Unless otherwise stated, all translations from Italian in this article are mine. Bertola has also written a comic self-help manual on how to cope with a sentimental break-up, and in 2010 published a collection of short stories. She is a literary translator and an accomplished screenplay writer involved in the production of successful TV series for many Italian networks, for example the sit-com I Cesaroni (2006-ongoing) and the historical romance Elisa di Rivombrosa (2003-2005). The latter has been exported to Spain, Germany, France, Canada, Belgium Poland and Russia among other countries.

[2] Under the pseudonym Delly, brother and sister Frédéric (1876-1949) and Marie (1875-1947) Petitjean de la Rosière wrote more than 100 books. Ghiazza argues that their production is the epitome of the conservative ideology and educational purposes of the genre (153-55).

[3] For the history and development of romanzo rosa, see Arslan and Pozzato; Banti; Ghiazza; Pozzato; Roccella; Spinazzola (1977; 1985; 1995).

[4] See Pozzato; Rosa; Roccella (51-74). Also, it is worth noting that in 1963, Italian Neoavanguardia (or “Gruppo 63”) belittled critically acclaimed novelists such as Giorgio Bassani (1916-2000) as the “Liala” of Italian literature because of their conventional use of language and narrative structure, which the avant-garde movement rejected in favour of experimental writing and political engagement.

[5] According to Harmony’s website, the latest sales figures account for 5 million copies sold each year (400 million in thirty years), with around 50 titles released monthly (Harlequin Mondadori). On serial romance, see also Rak (81-88).

[6] The term “chick lit” first appeared in 1995, as the title for the anthology of women’s short stories Chick-Lit: Postfeminist Fiction, co-edited by Cris Mazza and Jeffrey DeShell. The collection promoted a new kind of fiction rooted in feminist women’s writing that was also an ironic and thought-provoking commentary on issues concerning young women (Mazza 18).

[7] RDI’s publications ended in 2009; the guidelines have since then been withdrawn from Harlequin website. See also Craddock.

[8] The article also explains the marketing strategies adopted by Harlequin Mondadori to launch the new imprint, such as merchandising tie-ins like moisturisers, instant coffee and jewellery brands.

[9] On the figure of the “domestic goddess” in popular culture, see Hollows.

[10] All the cited novels were written by British novelist Elynor Glyn and published by Salani between 1925 and 1934, obviously in translation.

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