'Acne and hangovers' takes over women's fiction

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The Independent Online
Once The heroines of popular fiction were pale, wistful creatures pining for their man. Then, along with power dressing, came the red-lipped, red-nailed, bonk-busting superbitch. Now publishers are acknowledging a feisty newcomer who is gamely nudging aside her rival archetypes.

This is the "froth-busting" anti-heroine, born by way of Barbara Trapido and The Independent's own Bridget Jones, and she is neither winsome nor supercool. She is instead pessimistic and frequently suffers from hangovers and acne. She dreams of sex and not of love and, worst of all, she may not be worthy of her man.

The success of recent novels such as Marian Keyes' Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married and Freya North's Sally is proving the appeal of this kind of downbeat light fiction.

"Be honest - how many of us really like to read about glamorous, stick- thin heroines who don't know the meaning of the words 'unwashed hair' and have never had a spot in their life?" asks Lynne Drew, editorial director of Heinemann.

There is, she believes, a heartfelt relief at a trend which favours humour and familiarity. This year her company has been involved in a series of frenzied auctions for new works in the genre. Next month they will publish Straight Talking, a debut novel from 29-year-old Jane Green; in November Freya North's second book Chloe is launched.

"When Freya's first novel, Sally, was sent out on submission I went into battle with four other publishers to buy it for Heinemann. Sally was the first novel I'd seen which looked at the life of a single girl from a slightly older perspective," says Ms Drew. Published in May, Sally has already sold 50,000 copies. But is its plot really so different? The author herself is reluctant to admit to out-and-out anti-romanticism.

"I don't think it is a turn away from romantic fiction. It is just bringing it up to date, and up to date with a bang," says North, who gave up a PhD to write the book and who aims at a more realistic approach. Her heroine is allowed to catch chicken pox, break her leg and bump into her target man dressed in old Laura Ashley clothes, trainers and a cardigan.

Even that bastion of romanticism Mills and Boon has taken account of a fresh appetite for feasible storylines.

"It is true there has been a blurring around what exactly a happy ending is," says editorial director Karin Stoecker, who publishes 47 paperbacks a month. "Nowadays there is just as much emphasis on women behaving badly in women's fiction as there is on men behaving badly in men's magazines. But it is all escapism of one kind or another."