In the pastel-pink corner - the chick literati, those young(ish) female novelists who, in the post-Bridget Jones era, won the big advances for writing cute stories about insecure girlies, and who now go by the motto: "We know it's not literature! So shoot us!" In the steely-grey corner - the Old Farterati, those literary academics and Booker Prize contestants who pop up once a year to condemn these "fluffy" young women who write "piddling" little books, and exhort them to do something more worthy instead. And, in the middle, the bemused reader - the twentysomething metropolitan professional who just wants something to get her through the morning commute on the Tube. Nobody could be expected to read War and Peace during rush hour; and hey, at least it's not Harry Potter.
So what's going on? Why do writers such as Jenny Colgan, Jane Green and Lisa Jewell invite such contempt - and such huge sales? What is this chick lit, or chick fic, or chick (insert yet more derogatory rhyming epithet here) anyway? These are the kind of books you really can judge by their covers. Beneath the candy-coloured jackets, the books are like penny chews: comforting, with a hint of childhood nostalgia, they leave you feeling self-indulgent and slightly queasy. Endorsements read "warm", "funny" and "poignant". The stories are resolutely middle-class and metropolitan - the protagonist, a twentysomething single female, generally lives in north-west London in the one-bedroom flat that her parents helped her buy, drinks wine or cocktails, smokes the occasional Marlboro Light, and works in the media or PR. She feels less attractive and popular than she actually is; and, by page 400 or so, she's got her man and is happy ever after.
As the original chick litters come of age, they are starting to build in a few exceptions to this style-sheet. One-Hit Wonder is Jewell's third book, and her Devon-born protagonist is experiencing London for the first time; Colgan's third novel, Looking for Andrew McCarthy, is about London girls trying to find themselves in the United States; and Green, having given birth to four bestsellers already, has dedicated Babyville to the trials and tribulations of new motherhood (among TV people and graphic designers in Hampstead).
But all these books contain the core principle of chick lit: the immediate empathy-buzz generated by reading books about ourselves, by people like ourselves. And it is this that distinguishes chick lit from all the other Tube-friendly trash that young women could be reading. You could, for example, spend a thoroughly enjoyable hour on the Northern Line with Louise Bagshawe's A Kept Woman - a riches-to-rags-to-riches romp of the Jackie Collins school, with the requisite graphic sex scenes (when sex features in chick lit, it sounds like cuddling). But chick lit's fan club does not want escapism into beautiful-people world, which demands you imagine a life beyond your own, and that you think about something other than yourself. Chick lit is more a kind of fictional self-help, a friendly navigational guide for a generation of young women feeling lost in a very small world.
In caricaturing chick lit as just fluffy find-your-man fiction, the critics have got it wrong. These books appeal to frustrated, university-educated professionals who know there is more to life than finding a man, but are struggling to see what that "more" might be. They have good but unsatisfying jobs; nice flats that only illustrate the meaninglessness of material possessions; great friends who cannot give them sex; and strings of loser boyfriends who can give them nothing more than sex. Life, to these women, is not about finding a man. Rather, finding the right man is a route to finding yourself.
Chick lit is non-aspirational, non-judgemental and thoroughly non-threatening. A self-conscious singleton identifies with a protagonist in the way you might identify with a mirror-image of yourself. Yes, she's not a size ten. Yes, she feels guiltily bored in a job she should love. Crucially, this identification lasts until the end, because all the protagonist has to do to solve her existential crisis is realise that she is more loveable, attractive and popular than she thought she was, thereby boosting her self-esteem - which is, apparently, the way to find the right man, who makes you feel even better about yourself and less bad about everything else.
I can see why notables such as Beryl Bainbridge and Doris Lessing might find this a depressing view of the lives and ambitions of young women, but as a reflection it's entirely accurate. And, by and large, it's a well-written reflection. Jewell's One-Hit Wonder is great, with an engaging and (relatively) original plot; Green's books are always warm yet perceptive; and Colgan's Looking for Andrew McCarthy is sharp, well-observed and hilarious. None of these books is particularly deep, but that's their saving grace.
The worst thing the chick literati could do is to take their critics' charge of fluffiness to heart and to transform their books from the comfort blanket they are into the Personal, Social and Health Education lessons they sometimes feel they should be. Anna Maxted's Running in Heels has a protagonist with an eating disorder (it seems like light reading after her previous novel, Getting Over It, about bereavement - with domestic violence on the side). After a sparky start with Ralph's Party, Jewell ruined her second novel, Thirtynothing, with a ham-fisted attempt to deal with the issue of child abuse. Green has done Aids; Marian Keyes has done addiction; and Serena Mackesy has done rape. Other novelists have dealt with these issues, but when chick litters try to integrate them into feel-good plots played out by cute-but-shallow characters, you just cringe.
Sure, we know it's not literature; and we also know it makes uncomfortable reading for anybody over 40. But at least it's not Harry Potter.
Jennie Bristow is commissioning editor of Spiked (http://www.spiked-online.com)