"When you are partnerless in your 30s, the mild bore of not being in a relationship … gets infused with the paranoid notion that … it is all your fault for being too wild or willful to settle down in the first bloom of youth."

So writes the witty, neurotic British heroine in Bridget Jones's Diary, the 1996 novel about a modern, urban, 30-something single woman.

Little did narrator Bridget or the book's author Helen Fielding know that together, they were about to spark a new craze in pop fiction.

"Chick lit," as the Brits dubbed the genre that first made a splash in England, typically follows an edgy, single, career woman's search for love and personal identity. Bright and droll, she trudges through her quest for a soulmate in a world of clueless, callous or taken men. And her journey is often complicated by an insane family, chaotic city life and a demanding boss.

"There's a lot of anxiety associated with being single and female and in your 20s and 30s," said Jennifer Weiner, 31, the author of one newly-released such novel called Good in Bed. "There are a lot of expectations about what your life is supposed to look like. These books are a way of helping readers and writers sort it all out."

Candace Bushnell's 1997 Sex and the City, the compilation of her New York Observer columns about 30-something glam girls in Manhattan and the inspiration for the hit HBO series, is widely considered the first American novel in the genre. Other bestsellers like The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank have also added to the rage.

The fiction genre is so popular that romance giant Harlequin is launching an entire publishing imprint dedicated to it, Red Dress Ink. See Jane Date, the first of nine titles the division has bought so far, hits bookstores in November.

Red Dress editor Margaret Marbury said the move is a natural progression for Harlequin, the world's largest romance publisher.

"We know how to write a woman's relationship book," said Marbury. "But we're not fulfilling a whole time in a woman's life before she meets The One. That time is getting longer … . There's a lot of life and romance before you settle down."

The 2000 U.S. Census Bureau concurs. The proportion of never-married women ages 30 to 34 has tripled, from 6 percent in 1970 to 22 percent in 2000. The percentage of never-married women 20 to 24 has doubled, from 36 percent to 73 percent.

"Everybody wants to marry a soulmate," said Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, co-director of the National Marriage Project who has two single daughters in their 30s. "People are putting it off partly because of fear of divorce and partly because they have really high standards. The phrase I've heard is, 'I'm not going to settle.'"

Whitehead, who is writing a book about marriage and relationship trends among Gen-X women, said the delay in tying the knot represents a new sequence of events. Her studies show most women and men will be married at some point in their lives. Census 2000 findings back that up: By age 35, 74 percent of men and women had been married and by age 65, 95 percent had.

"Some women are panicking," said Whitehead, who has read about 30 "chick lit" novels. "My view is high standards are good, being a little older is good. But if you have higher standards, the search is going to be prolonged."

Dallas resident Rebecca Brown, 30, has been married four years, but she's read novels like Bridget Jones because she knows about conflicting pressures on women — and remembers singlehood.

"Those single days are so lonely and so devastating," said Brown, a Ph.D. student in education policy. "There is kind of this unsettled feeling when you wonder, 'Who will I …?' It determines what your life will look like."

Whitehead said the fiction captures a significant cultural trend with shrewd social commentary.

"It expresses probably the only unfulfilled ambition of this highly educated, highly independent, elite generation of women," she said.

Thirty-something New Yorker Rachel Lederman, who is single, said the books make her realize she isn't alone — and give her hope.

"This conventional life of getting married and having kids at 20-something is not reality for everyone," said the ad agency producer. "But if we hang in there long enough, we'll find what we’re looking for. As my mother says, 'There's a lid for every pot.'"

Weiner characterizes the genre as female coming-of-age literature, comparing it to the male adventure-quest novel.

"You're supposed to have the career, you're supposed to have the guy, you're supposed to not wait to have babies — and you're supposed to do it all really well and look really good while you're doing it," she said. "It's a really thought-provoking place to be in life."