When we think of author Meg Cabot, the entire chick-lit genre flashes before our eyes. She conjured “The Princess Diaries” (all 10 installments), the Heather Wells series and the Queen of Babble series. She dominates the genre with more than 15 million copies of her books sold.

Her beginnings, however, weren’t nearly as successful.

“My first book was pretty much a letdown,” Cabot confessed. “It was smutty. The kids in the dorms (where I worked) found out about it, and they started a drinking game based on the book. Every time I mentioned the world ‘nipple’ in the book, they would take a drink. That was the highlight of the book. It was pretty sad.”

This debut romance novel was written under the pseudonym Patricia Cabot and titled “Where Roses Grow Wild.” An Internet search yields the cover and the novel’s name written out in swoopy, hold-me-Fabio handwriting. Fabio is, appreciatively, not on it, but in his place is a quaint rosebush.

“I didn’t want my grandma or anybody to read it,” said Cabot, whose latest book, “Big Boned,” came out last week. “Fortunately, I started writing ‘The Princess Diaries’ around the same time, so I only had to endure gang humiliation for a short time before ‘Diaries’ came out.”

Upon the commercial success of the first book in the “Princess Diaries” series, Disney immediately snatched up rights to the books and proceeded to churn out two film installments with Anne Hathaway.

Her books now contain Fabio-less covers with sleek, no-rosebush marketing campaigns, aimed not so much at the lost romantic but a readership searching for slightly more empowered protagonists – not only is the heroine looking for the “right guy” (often unfortunately named “Tad”), but for a successful career.

“Not that finding a great guy isn’t good,” Cabot said. “Finding a guy is not necessarily ‘the end’. The world moves on after that.”

Chick lit’s target audience is predominately young, white and female, and the books often contain plots rife with problems everyday girls presumably deal with – relationships, shopping crises and body insecurities. In comparison, chick-lit sales correspond with the amount of redundancy: the shoe-shopping, fashion-obsessed, skinny, well-composed woman will end up with the sleek and tanned Brad. Formula dismissed.

Cabot does attempt to defy some of these conventions in her books, but they often rely on cultural clichés. In the Heather Wells series, the unconventionally fat heroine trudges through Hamlet-length monologues about Krispy Kremes and how her unusually large breasts hit her in the face when she jogs. In the Queen of Babble series, the American heroine finds herself in Europe, only to be ostracized by her cute British boyfriend because her unbridled, gossipy mouth. These recurring plot lines and themes are still solidly strung through Cabot’s books and the chick-lit genre, but Cabot said one particularly persistent theme has been dying out: shoe fetishism.

“I think the shoe thing is definitely over,” Cabot said. “And by the shoe thing, I mean that for a period of time, on every single cover there were shoes, and the heroine seemed to like shoes and shop for shoes.”

With any luck the death of the shoe theme will give rise to the death of other clichés of the genre. Already Cabot attempts to bend a new ideal formula in “Big Boned,” another installment in the Heather Wells series. She slips the book a genre twist: The book is a mystery, and there is gore. Lots of it. At least in the original draft.

“The Heather Wells books have a lot of blood in them, and most chick lits don’t have any blood in them. I actually had my editor tell me to tone it down,” Cabot said. “The books were kind of bloody, kind of gory, almost.”

It’s not often that the heroine of a book in the genre, only a chapter ago eating waffles and taking a shower with her boyfriend, finds the body of her dead boss in his office. Cabot applauds the idea of the integrated, expanded genre.

“I’m into mystery, so the more chick-lit mysteries we can get, the better. I’m hopeful that we’ll see more of those. I’m paving the way,” Cabot said.

“But not for people with high heels,” she added.

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