New 'Chick-Lit' Heroines

Trembling virgins are out and sex-mad singletons are in as the world's largest romance publisher develops a passion for a new style of heroine.

Harlequin Mills and Boon, which sells more than 175 million bodice-ripping romances annually, says it is branching out into the modern "chick lit" genre to attract young women reared on the U.S. television series "Sex and the City" and the best-selling British novel "Bridget Jones's Diary."

"Definitely no virgins, no trembling and no heaving bosoms," said 25-year-old Sarah Mlynowski, whose debut novel "Milkrun" is the first book to be published under the company's new label, Red Dress Ink, on Friday.

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The approach is a world away from the traditional paperback romance formula in which innocent young women meet rich older men, fall in love and live happily ever after in lawfully wedded bliss.

Red Dress Ink, being launched in Britain on Friday, is aimed at the modern gal more likely to hit the town in a push-up bra and a G-string than a chastity belt.

"These books are something for real-life 20- and 30-somethings to relate to and have a bit of a laugh. And, like real life, the girl doesn't always get Mr Right," Mylnowski said.

The company says it was inspired by the success of "chick lit" in Britain and thought it would sell well in the U.S., too.

The term was coined to describe playfully frivolous books like Helen Fielding's "Bridget Jones's Diary" -- about a single woman obsessed by men, weight, drinking and smoking -- which has spawned a host of imitators.

Since then, scores of the women's novels have rocketed up the bestseller lists, earning millions for their publishers and the mostly young female authors who write for their peers.

But the genre has come in for its fair share of criticism.

Last year, Dame Beryl Bainbridge, 66-year-old nominee for Britain's most prestigious literary award, the Booker Prize, denounced chick lit as "a froth sort of thing" and said it was a pity people didn't spend time reading something more profound.

She was backed up by British author Doris Lessing, who asked why women had to write such "instantly forgettable" books.

Harlequin Mills and Boon's senior product manager Gemma Clutterbuck defended the genre, saying young women wanted to read about something relevant to the way they lived.

"Young women today also demand longer, witty and irreverent novels based on characters they can relate to, written in the language they use, reflecting 21st century values and cultural references they are familiar with," she said.

Clutterbuck said the company was excited about the new direction but had no intention of abandoning the traditional romance titles it has produced for more than 70 years.

Books in categories such as "Tender," "Sensual" and "Medical" -- the publisher's name for hospital romances -- will continue to be published at the rate of 30 a month, complete with happy-ever-after endings.

By Sinead O'Hanlon