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All they ask is that you don't think pink

Duo dodges the `chick- lit' designation with a book that's not about finding a good man.

July 10, 2006|Mimi Avins | Times Staff Writer

As first-time novelists, Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack did not have the clout to influence the cover design of their creation, "Literacy and Longing in L.A." Kaufman dreaded a pink book jacket. Mack decided if the cover's background was pink, purple or even Tiffany blue, she would let the publisher know that she and her writing partner were not happy. Not. Happy.

Because, as anyone who has trolled the hardcover-fiction section of a bookstore in the last 10 years knows, chick lit usually comes swathed in dust jackets the color of bubble gum. Kaufman and Mack didn't want their book lumped into that giddy girl ghetto, consigned to the genre of smart, funny, self-deprecating female narrators who chronicle the predictable romantic agonies and career disasters that pit the road to happily ever after.

The theme of most chick lit has been that a good man is hard to find. A good woman is hard to be is the subtext of "Literacy and Longing in L.A.," the tale of Dora, a 35-year-old Westside woman at a turning point in what might be seen as a charmed life. She's a little like a Prius -- certifiably chic and knowing, by upper-middle-class standards, but her heart's in the right place. Dora can scarf up designer duds and quote contemporary poetry with equal authority. If she's not a chick-lit heroine -- she was named, pointedly, for Eudora Welty -- she would fit right into a genre-in-the-making that occupies a zone somewhere between commercial and highbrow fiction (see "The Jane Austen Book Club: A Novel" by Karen Joy Fowler and Sara Nelson's memoir, "So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading").

So there was joy in Brentwood when the jacket art arrived, featuring a photograph of a full-lipped beauty leaning on a stack of weighty tomes. Great ghost of Jane Austen, there was no pink in sight. The writing team hadn't been so elated since they received offers from four publishers five days after submitting their manuscript to an agent.

With the exception of occasional whimpers about how tough it can be to get attention for a debut novel, the pair's joy has not abated. They were thrilled when their book landed on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list, where it has remained for four weeks, ecstatic when a favorable review in the New York Times described it as "appealingly offbeat." There was cause for more celebration when People magazine listed "Literacy and Longing in L.A." in their survey of summer books as a "page-turner" and not in the chick-lit section. Perhaps most rewarding, readers have embraced the novel, identifying with Dora and her addiction to fiction.

On a Thursday morning in late June, 25 women perched on chairs set up amid the stacks at Dutton's Beverly Hills Books. Like book groups throughout the country, they gather regularly to discuss a particular novel, but having authors like Mack and Kaufman present was a rare event. Stylish, poised and obviously acquainted with the grooming secrets that make certain L.A. women look more glamorous than their Midwestern sisters, the duo charmed their fans. They explained that although a salesman at Book Soup is convinced the character of Fred was based on him, Dora's sexually talented, emotionally limited love interest was really a composite of men they've known. It was Ian McEwan's "Atonement," they declared, that inspired many elements of Dora's story.

And while the scope of the pair's literary ambition might be surprising, most of the group at Dutton's got the reference, and they enjoyed being given such a clue. They're the sort of people who carry three novels onto a plane, the better to avoid their personal version of hell -- being caught with nothing to read if a flight is delayed. Jennifer Watling, dressed in Lily Pulitzer pinks and greens, stood and expressed what many thought while reading the novel.

"I feel like I'm Dora," she said. "When I first moved to L.A., I lived at Dutton's in Brentwood."

Although bingeing on books isn't as nakedly self-destructive as an alcoholic's bender, the more Dora uses reading to escape from life, the less life she has. "If there's one thing we hear from readers, it's that a lot of people share Dora's trait," Kaufman said. "They use books as a coping mechanism."

Back story

THE common assumption that first novels include large amounts of autobiography is somewhat insulting to a fiction writer. By working together, Kaufman and Mack avoided, or confused, that issue; they couldn't both be Dora.

Mack is a former entertainment attorney who worked for Lorimar Pictures and Republic Studios before becoming a producer of theatrical and television movies, she has been married for 25 years to Russell Goldsmith, chairman and chief executive of City National Bank, with whom she has three children. "My life is boring," she said.

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