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Success and the Single Girl

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There is a temptation to glean all kinds of cultural significance from the phenomenon. It wasn't that long ago, after all, that women over 30 were relegated to the literary scrap heap, lucky to find a date, much less a book deal. In 1984, this magazine published a much-bemoaned study that claimed that women who were still single in their thirties had a better chance of getting hit by lightning than finding a long-term partner; that sense of desperation colored the way they were represented in fiction as well. But as the number of never-married American women more than tripled over the past two decades, the stereotype seemed dated. Now, if not always sympathetic, at least they have readers hanging on their every word.

Though Grove/Atlantic publisher Morgan Entrekin, who edited Bushnell and Fay Weldon, among others, is wary of literary trends, he believes that the boom in single-over-thirty protagonists may be driven in part by demographics. "Without question, 30-to-45-year-old women are currently the core readers of the fiction market. They are the strongest buyers and readers. It's the same reason all the Oprah books do so well. If publishers are interested in these girls as characters, it's because they are the ones who read these days." (And it's probably not a coincidence that many of the editors and agents acquiring the books are women in their thirties as well.)

"When I go on call-in shows to talk about thirtysomething women, every line lights up, the phones get jammed, the faxes start pouring in," says conservative author Danielle Crittenden, who questions the notion that a modern woman's career can replace a family life. Fielding modestly describes herself as merely the first to tap into a clearly emerging Zeitgeist. "Novels are like life, just a few years later," she notes. "It just takes a long time for fiction to catch up with reality. It would be really arrogant," she says, to take credit for empowering this crop of new novelists. "But I do like that idea. It makes me feel marvelous -- like I'm the saintly benefactor!"

Undue concern for modesty doesn't seem to trouble Candace Bushnell, who just returned from a triumphant tour of Bridget's hometown last week. "They love me in London," says the author, whose book maintains a firm slot on the London Times best-seller list and whose TV show recently made its European debut. (The show's producers are now working on eighteen new episodes.) Bushnell, at 40, is like a walking character from her book: a pretty blonde with a penchant for power suits and powerful men. But while Bridget struggles vainly against her demons, Bushnell's babes blithely embrace theirs. They live, as author Katie Roiphe observes, in "a prolonged state of adolescence," wobbling in their stilettos from party to party. Bushnell believes that her books and others like them are successful because they give women an alternative to earlier stereotypes of single women. "That character has always been a cultural icon in America. There was Mary Tyler Moore, even Valley of the Dolls. But now, we've perfected the concept. I write about strong, funny people who do what the fuck they want." She admits the new paradigm might be intimidating to some men. "For some reason, men don't like funny. Funny is not a quality that's usually prized by men. Large, fake breasts are."

"Male writers have always featured characters like these," Roiphe points out. "Promiscuous yet good-hearted young men trying to make their way through life. Look at Philip Roth or Jay McInerney. This is just the female version. Women in their thirties who are just living their lives, not depressingly hunting for a husband -- they're the new archetype."

Melissa Roth, author of On the Loose, a nonfiction account of one year in three unattached women's lives, reeled in William Morrow by selling the publisher on that very notion. "There was a time when single women in their thirties who didn't have prospects would terrify people -- family members, married women, everybody. Now it's like they're envied: They're the ones with the exciting lives."

Well, not always. In general, the new Lit Girls fall somewhere between Fielding's muddled idealist and Bushnell's exuberant hedonist. In some ways, they are the descendants of the angst-ridden postcollegiates who peopled the coming-of-age stories of late-eighties and early-nineties writers like Mona Simpson, Susan Minot, and Tama Janowitz. But their dilemmas are those of an older, more mature audience. "Coming of age is nothing," says Christensen's literary agent, Elizabeth Kaplan. "Being of age is where it gets interesting. There's a whole generation of people who have grown up but are still struggling."


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