TEEN ROMANCE NOVELS Generating 'Gossip'
By KAREN HELLER
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
NEW YORK -- In the universe of the best-selling "Gossip Girl" novels, romances between pampered students at elite Manhattan private schools last pages. Relationships with name brands are more enduring.
"I think my books are very similar to Jane Austen," author Cecily von Ziegesar says of her five-volume series, which less involved observers have likened to a junior-edition "Sex and the City."
"Readers who have always wished Danielle Steel and Judith Krantz would write about teenagers are in for a superficial, nasty, guilty pleasure," observed Publishers Weekly of the tween and teen publishing phenomenon, with over a million copies in print.
"Gossip Girl" is the "nom de blog" of an as-yet-unmasked character who trades in tattle about her hard-drinking, hard-spending classmates at the Constance Billard School for Girls and the many boys they adore. The books' Romeo and Juliet are Nate Archibald and Blair Waldorf -- that is if Romeo were a lothario stoner and Juliet kept making passes at her Yale admissions interviewers.
The series -- there will eventually be eight books -- unfolds slowly over the course of one academic year and is peppered with Gossip Girl's Web postings. "I Like It Like That," the latest installment, takes place during spring break in Sun Valley. Christmas, naturally, was in St. Bart's.
Young female readers have taken to the hormonally volatile Billard girls like chic handbags.
"It's all my friends and I talk about at lunch, along with 'The O.C.' It's pretty much the dream life everyone wants," says Bergan Foley, 15, of Huntingdon Valley, Pa., who will be a sophomore in the fall.
In October -- just five months after "I Like It" hit stores -- publisher Little, Brown will add "You're the One That I Want" to previous titles such as "All I Want Is Everything" and "Because I'm Worth It." And Lindsay Lohan, Hollywood's current teen It Girl, has signed to play Blair in a screen adaptation written by "Gilmore Girls" creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, though Lohan seems too all-American and voluptuous for a cosmos that venerates Gwyneth Paltrow.
"Some things to know about this book: ... There's lots of swearing. There's tons of mention of sex, drugs, alcohol, and Blair throwing up her food. ... Check it out," writes one of "Gossip Girl No. 1's" 168, mostly teenage, customer reviewers on amazon.com.
Of her protagonists, von Ziegesar says "these people sound fabulous, but they do have the same problems as other teenagers."
They're the same problems, but for kids with better skin, thinner thighs, and fatter trust funds.
Yes, her name truly is Cecily von Ziegesar, better than any appellation she has concocted -- or pilfered from her former classmates at" the Upper East Side's Nightingale-Bamford School.
The first novel in the paperback franchise, which debuted in spring 2002, was modeled on Edith Wharton's "The Age of Innocence," says von Ziegesar, 34, whose omniscient blogger offers tart observations of the world she inhabits."
"Rehab and college are actually very similar as far as status is concerned," Gossip Girl muses in a typical Web posting. "Getting into the best ones is highly competitive, but once you're in, you're in."
Though in her books she obsessively hurls names and drops brands, von Ziegesar admits no firsthand experience with $400 Eres bathing suits. Her pocketbook is plastic. "I get the names from reading Vogue," she says.
Back when she was at the all-girls Nightingale-Bamford, where tuition now runs about $24,000 a year before uniforms, von Ziegesar "wasn't much of a partyer; I was more into horseback riding. But I was more everyone's best friend, so I heard a lot," she says.
The details she brings to the "Gossip Girl" world reveal a life more wanton than her classmates' parents must have imagined. "My mother has gotten to know me better by reading the books. Some of it rather horrified her. 'I had no idea you were doing all these things,' she said at one point."
Von Ziegesar relates most to 17-year-old Blair: "We both have overactive imaginations and share the same crazy family lives." However, from her many fan letters, which she reads but doesn't answer, "I hear that Blair is the least likable character."
The series has plenty of critics. "Sex seems easy, no one worries about protection or consequences, the alcohol flows like water, and the language is raw," wrote the Library School Journal.
And even ardent followers can exceed tolerance. "I was into the books when I was around 12. It was a fantasy about having a better life and being gorgeous on top of that," says Alix Furjanic, 14, of Cheltenham, Pa.. "But as I've gotten older, I find them very clich & eacute;d and unrealistic. To me, that's so not life."
"Gossip Girl" was launched as an Internet-oriented series by a packager of middle-school books and entertainment, 17th Street Productions, where von Ziegesar then worked. The original idea to also have an interactive Web site was deemed too time-consuming and a possible threat to book sales.
Of course, a successful paperback franchise spawns copycats. "The Insiders" series, by J. Minter, is set in artsy Lower Manhattan, told from the boys' point of view. And Zoey Dean's "The A-List" titles, advertised in the "Gossip Girl" books, document the troubles of Los Angeles rich girls.
The last volume in the "Gossip Girl" series is due out in fall 2005 when, presumably, Blair and her Gwyneth-like pal Serena van der Woodsen graduate. Blair may or may not go to Yale, depending on whether she stops kissing her interviewers. If the series continues -- 17th Street Productions retains the rights -- von Ziegesar will no longer be its author.
"I'd like to write an adult novel," she says.