"Everyone thinks I hate tall blonde girls," says Lisa Jewell, "It's just not true!" Author of the bestselling Ralph's Party, the (dark and slim) 33-year-old has carved out a highly successful literary career revisiting the dating nightmares of a generation of readers who refuse to grow up. Tall glossy Sloanes pinch nice blokes from under nice girls' noses, unfaithful boyfriends are exposed (often literally) as the snakes they really are. Upfront, but not crude, streetwise, but not cynical, Jewell's curry-house romances seem to feed our bottomless appetite for novels that hold a mirror up to our everyday lives, but end in an out-of-this-world snog.
"Good honest fluff" is how the critics, mostly male, describe her novels. Beryl Bainbridge and Doris Lessing prefer "froth", and "instantly forgettable".
Does Lisa Jewell mind her fiction being regarded as some kind of Babycham version of the real thing? Is "chick-lit" really the insidious evil that her elders and self-styled betters would have us believe?
"Why so negative?" she responds, throwing up her hands in a suitably North London fashion. "OK, so I will look at Top of the Pops and look at Atomic Kitten and SClub7 and think who are these people, why are they so popular? But if I was an older musician I'd think: I've got my market, they've got theirs." In fact, Jewell's sales figures (Ralph's Party sold 212,000 copies; Thirty-nothing, 248,000) are on a level more literary writers can only dream of, with her success subsidising the kind of highbrow fiction Beryl and Doris would prefer to see us reading.
Although Jewell doesn't regard herself as part of the chick-lit bandwagon (she hadn't even read Bridget Jones's Diary at the time of writing her first novel) she has to wonder whether she would ever have been published without Helen Fielding. Her novels, she says, aren't about being "literary, or lofty or wordy", but entertainment.
As Pat Barker wisely pointed out following Bainbridge's comments that young women might like to read about people other than themselves, readers will always like stories that "mirror life choices back to them". Jewell happens to do this better than most, and, as she admits, within this prettily packaged genre there are plenty of duds (and publishers foolish enough to publish them).
"You have to ask yourself, is there a genre? And yes, there is," she says. Indeed, every two weeks the genre is made flesh somewhere in London W1. In an unusually sociable step for a group of writers, Jewell and leading chick-lettes Jenny Colgan ("top mate"), Victoria Routledge, Chris Manby, Fiona Walker and Anna Maxted meet for lunch at a cafe on Marylebone Lane ("Jenny used to go there when she worked for the NHS") for cappuccinos and sisterly chinwags. Not so much a genre, as a literary set.
Inspired by Nick Hornby, and the early novels of Alain de Botton, Jewell says she started out trying to write about ordinary men and women's relationships in a straightforward way. Her heroines are feminine and pretty, but "get on with men on an equal basis, eat curries, drink lagers" and smell iffy in the morning. Some of her men are bastards, but just as many are gentle souls searching for Mrs Right. Her trick is smart, unfussy prose, and a unerring populist instinct that gives her novels enviable cross-class, cross- gender appeal. (Tom Paulin remains a great fan).
Unlike many of her fellow lit-girls (Helen Fielding, Isabel Wolff, India Knight, Emily Barr, Sarah Harris), Lisa Jewell didn't spring from a media background - a factor, she agrees, that seems to give her an edge with critics and readers alike. …