The rise of recession lit


LOSING IT:After the meltdown on Wall Street, sex-and-shopping chick lit is so over. The shelves are now heaving with stories of those who lose it all – including the species known as hedge-fund wives

IT’S A YEAR ago now since the Black September of 2008, the fiscal earthquake that brought the walls of so many financial fortresses tumbling down, burying the careers of thousands of Wall Street hedge-fund managers and the trillions of dollars they were entrusted with, in the rubble.

Looking back, the wonder is that it all didn’t come crashing down sooner, or harder. The sloshing about of trillions of dollars in free-for-all speculative hedge-fund and derivative markets fuelled the sort of reckless buccaneering reminiscent of the period in the 1920s that preceded the Great Depression.

Historically, cataclysmic events have produced great literature. Given the twin catastrophes that have rocked New York in the past decade, you’d expect a dam-burst of novels of literary heft.

Almost a decade after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, writers are still shy of mining a seam with such enormous deposits of human turmoil. Only a handful of novelists – John Updike, Ian McEwan and Joseph O’Neill among them – have attempted to grapple with its aftershocks, and with mixed results.

Not so with the fiscal Armageddon triggered by the collapse of Lehman Brothers on September 15th last year. The havoc unleashed by Dick Fuld, Bernie Maddox and their SEC cohorts has been seized by the purveyors of the sex-and- shopping branch of women’s fiction. Welcome to the world of the recessionista.

That the shallow end of the literary pool has claimed the financial meltdown, real-estate crash and economic misery that followed is not as surprising as it may seem.

Traditionally, recession literature has explored the consequences when the gap between expenditure and income expands to the point where it short circuits. Throughout the 20th century, each era of excess produced definitive novels by some of America’s greatest writers, from Edith Wharton and F Scott Fitzgerald to Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe. “I’m living so far beyond my income that we may almost be said to be living apart,” the poet e e cummings once cheerfully announced.

The Great Depression of the 1930s produced some of America’s greatest literature. Karl Marx wrote that major historical events always return as farce the second time. There was farce aplenty in the build-up to Black September 2008. So it is fitting, then, that the US’s second financial meltdown should produce some fairly farcical works of fiction.

Every era has its tipping point, its icon of decadence and decay, the moment where a society implodes beneath the weight of its own avarice. And nowhere produced more bewildering varieties of excess than pre-meltdown New York.

With hindsight, any New Yorker can pinpoint the moment he or she recognised that tipping point. For this writer, it was the launch of the $25,000 (€17,000) Frrrozen Haute Chocolate sundae. In November 2007, the dessert was launched amid great fanfare by Stephen Bruce, the owner of Serendipity 3, an Upper East Side restaurant and hub for hedge-fund wives, celebrities and newly minted billionaires. An ice cream loaded up with five grammes of edible gold, and with its own gold-and-diamond dessert spoon, was primarily a publicity stunt, but was the ultimate indulgence for New Yorkers who were richer and thicker than the chocolate sauce that adorned it. This was a sweetener for the hedge-fund managers celebrating their multimillion dollar end-of-year bonuses with their families, young investment bankers who accompanied the grand gesture with a marriage proposal, or corporate sugar daddies looking to sweeten up their young mistresses.

The very people who were trusted to invest the savings of 100 million pensioners were happy to blow $25,000 (when you include sales tax and tip) on a single dessert. The writing on the wall doesn’t get much bigger.

On September 15th, the same day as Wall Street marked the first anniversary of its meltdown, Serendipity 3 celebrated its 55th anniversary. The $25,000 chocolate sundae no longer graces its menu. It has become an embarrassment, an uncomfortable reminder of the sort of excess that plunged Wall Street into chaos. Nowadays, customers tend to opt for the Humble Pie, a creamy peanut butter cheesecake with a cracker crust that costs a mere $8 (€5.50), although the $1,000 (€680) Golden Opulence Sundae is still available on request.

The sobered-up menu at Serendipity reflects the new sobriety of the “women’s fiction” imprints at New York publishing houses. The marketing gurus that came up with the term “chick lit” are repackaging their latest line as “hen-lit”, having concluded that younger women who gorged on confections of conspicuous consumerism are tiring of the empty carbs offered by Plum Sykes et al as they teeter towards their 40s. Now, they crave a little more substance with their label fables – and what greater substance could there be than a cautionary tale about boundless avarice?

The looming winter of discontent will be accompanied by a new crop of contrition-themed sex and shopping novels that seek to atone for the excesses of Wall Street wives. The Penny Pinchers Clubby Sarah Strohmeyer, Hedge Fund Wivesby Tatiana Boncompagni, The Summer Kitchenby Karen Weinreb, The Ex-Mrs Hedgefundby Jill Kargman, Social Livesby Wendy Walker and Amy Silver’s Confessions of a Reluctant Recessionistadeliver a uniform take on the traditional chick-lit celebration of conspicuous consumption.

All of the heroines are hitched to Wall Street titans who come a cropper and find themselves unceremoniously ejected from their multimillion-dollar Upper East Side ivory towers. As they learn to cope with a life without credit cards, yachts and high-society friends, they divorce their now-worthless husbands, develop previously ignored talents and end up finding happiness and fulfilment that culminates with a new marriage to an even wealthier financial whizz.

The publishing industry is betting that this tweak of a formula that has been around since Barbara Cartland will provide a shot in the arm to the waning chick-lit industry. The refurbished theme requires only a very modest realignment of priorities as the women are forced to take stock of their lives before they are returned to even greater wealth. Readers seeking escape from their own financial messes can rest assured that none of their heroines end up living in a (Gucci) cardboard box.

Recession lit is somewhat lacking in dimension, but at least some of these cautionary tales contain a shred of authenticity. Karen Weinreb, author of The Summer Kitchen, lost her home and her niche in New York society after her financier husband pleaded guilty to fraud charges. A divorced and debt-ridden Sarah Strohmeyer wrote The Penny Pinchers Clubafter the market and her marriage simultaneously went into freefall. Jill Kargman realised the end was nigh after friends spent a million dollars on a themed party for their four-year-old daughter, who arrived atop a Cleopatra tent carried by four Sherpas.

Hedge Fund Wivesmay be the only novel of this genre that is penned by an unreconstructed socialite. As wife of the heir to the Hoover fortune, Tatiana Boncompagni has remained relatively unscathed by the vagaries of Wall Street, but Hedge Fund Wivesoffers the same formula of take-stock-and-salvage-while-you-can. Boncompagni’s contempt for the spending patterns of New York’s nouveau riche is palpable. She describes the invitations to a baby shower that are accompanied by Hermès scarves and goody bags containing diamond earrings and four-figure gift vouchers. The clear implication is that those who have had money in their bank accounts for five generations as opposed to five minutes are better equipped to handle wealth.

Hedge-fund wives (the arrivistesof New York society) are portrayed as especially greedy, miserable, unfulfilled predators whose competitiveness and compulsive spending forces their husbands into taking the sort of high-reward risks that triggered the recession. It is cherchez la femmewith a bitter twist. When authors such as Boncompagni talk about an “added feminist dimension” because their characters struggle with a bad case of bank-account dysmorphia, it’s hard to take her seriously.

But publishers are shrewd enough to know that in tough times schadenfreude sells. It’s about judging the public mood, says Keshini Naidoo, commissioning editor at Avon, which published Hedge Fund Wives. As the thirst for glamorous fiction wanes, she detects an opening for fiction that shows the tarnish behind these gilded lifestyles.

Jonathan Segura, deputy editor at Publishers Weekly says the Wall Street meltdown is the biggest thing to happen to chick lit in the past two years. Given the evaporation of $30 trillion dollars from the piggy banks of the super-rich, chick-lit bestsellers such as Plum Sykes’s Bergdorf Blondesor The Debutante Divorcéeseem so last season.

Segura predicts that the recession-lit genre is the new black in women’s fiction. “By next spring, publishing will have fully caught up,” he told the New York Times. “And by summer, you’re going to see a flood of new fiction specifically dealing with the meltdown.”

The hedge-fund party may be over, but can novels about socialites who are forced to sell their other Porsche find a sustainable audience? If there’s one thing likely to become less fashionable than fuchsia-pink power suits, it’s a recession that has passed its sell-by date.

Publishers’ predictions that recession lit will be the next big thing may prove about as accurate as those of the hedge-fund managers they skewer. For starters, the signs of an uptick have started – Wall Street has been bullish now for more than six months.

The economist John Kenneth Galbraith said: “Recessions catch what auditors miss.” Whether authors can capture either remains to be seen.