Commentary - Why I love Bridget Jones

Helen Fielding has created a contemporary Molly Bloom

Bridget Jones's Diary (Picador, £6.99), by Helen Fielding, is one of the most important novels of the 1990s. Not only has its phenomenal popularity spawned numerous imitations, it has introduced an entirely new fictional voice. Bridget Jones and its imitations - what I call "thinnist fiction" because of the female protagonists' obsession with their weight and because of the novels' light, comic tone - have been widely vilified: by feminists for trivialising women's problems and implicitly suggesting that what a girl needs is a good man; and by literary critics for not being, well, proper literature. Most recently, Lola Young, chairman of the Orange Prize jury, complained that these books "tended towards the domestic in a piddling sort of way".

Yet the public have continued buying these novels in increasing numbers. Helen Fielding has sold more than a million copies in this country, and 460,000 copies of the paperback will invade the US soon. Other books, such as Jane Green's Straight Talking (Penguin, £5.99) and Kathy Lette's Altar Ego (Picador, £5.99), are also best-sellers.

So what explains this success? Without doubt, the thinnists are plugging a hole left behind by the diminishing popularity of Mills and Boon. Women between 30 and 45, the biggest buyers of fiction here and in the US, seem no longer content to read traditional fantasy romance. Hardened by the experience of holding down a job, they seek more realistic fiction set in the workplace. Yet they also want the basic narrative elements of the romantic novel to remain: the tortuous search for happiness with Mr Right. Nearly all the thinnists have a thirtysomething female protagonist falling for Mr Wrong - usually a sexually unfaithful, sports-loving cad/slob - but finally realising that Mr Right is the rather handsome lawyer/banker they once dismissed as dull.

Yet what is most interesting in thinnist fiction is the war the protagonists wage on their bodies and themselves. Fiction excels at dealing with internal conflict; no other art form can get under the skin so successfully. The modernists understood this - both James Joyce and Virginia Woolf used stream-of-consciousness devices to highlight the morass of conflicting information, feelings and thoughts that the mind trawls through at any given moment. In Joyce's Ulysses the tension between the mundane and the serious in Leopold Bloom's mind motors the novel: the tiniest, trivial details resonate in Joyce's choppy, poetic, diary-like prose.

In this sense, the thinnists pick up where the modernists left off. They are, like Joyce, obsessively concerned with the ordinary. The novels are suffused with the apparent trivia of modern living: the number of calories in food items, losing one or two pounds, the advantages of 1471 on the telephone, betting on the Lottery, chat-rooms on the Internet. But, as with Joyce and Woolf's fiction, when the reader puts these small but authentic details together, a larger, more terrifying picture is formed of a person at war with herself.

In Bridget Jones's Diary we find this sentence: "I am going to turn into a hideous grow-bag-cum-milk-dispensing-machine which no one will fancy and which will not fit into any of my trousers, particularly my brand new acid green Agnes B jeans." While this sentence is utterly authentic - it perfectly articulates the heroine's fear of pregnancy - it is also literary in its devices. It employs two subordinate clauses and a parenthesis to qualify the main clause and thus reveals, through its complex grammar, the endlessly qualifying and self-justifying nature of Jones's mind. The syntax also juxtaposes outlandish imagery (the grow-bag) with vivid realist detail (the acid green jeans), which makes the reader conflate the grow-bag with the jeans, creating a doubly surreal and, ultimately, disturbing image: huge, growing jeans, dripping milk. At times like these, Bridget Jones seems a contemporary version of Molly Bloom.

Fiction has never seen protagonists quite like Jones before; these heroines are inhabiting bodies that are their enemies.To complicate matters, the thinnists tend to be wonderfully ironic and self-deprecating. Like Lola Young, they really believe that their problems are "piddling". The protagonists may be beating themselves up over the way they dress, what they eat and how they are perceived by others; but the thinnists don't turn their novels into leaden critiques of the world. Rather, they turn the tragedy of modern consumer society - the truth that materially we have everything we ever wanted but suffer even more than before - into an absurdist comedy: an impossible search for a mythical male hero.

This article first appeared in the 26 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, I took tea with Pinochet