This is Not Chick Lit edited by Elizabeth Merrick

not chick litΒ Merrick, Elizabeth, ed. This is Not Chick Lit: Original Stories by America’s Best Women Writers. New York: Random House, 2006.

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Don’t get me wrong. Readers of this blog happen to know that I love a good chick lit book every now and again, especially those written by women who know how to write (Marian Keyes and Sophie Kinsella spring to mind). Contrary to popular belief, many such authors do write well (although I’d recommend skipping Celia Ahern. Poor thing. Maybe she’ll mature into her writing one day). I’ve also probably said more than a time or two that chick lit books are the Swedish Fish of reading. They won’t fill you up, and if you eat too many, you’ll probably feel sick. Still. I just have to have them sometimes.

It’s not surprising, then, that this title caught my eye when I was browsing the shelves one day (oh, okay, if we’re going to get picky here, I’ll admit that I wasn’t browsing. I was re-shelving books, an activity that usually involves finding one book I’d like to read for each book I put away). The cover is black, not the typical breezy pastel that wraps so much chick lit. The lettering is a shocking pink. It’s a title that’s pretty hard to miss. What is surprising is that once in my hands, I discovered it was a collection of short stories, and yet I didn’t put it back.

I’m not a huge fan of short stories. They always seem to end just as they’re getting started. I’ve finished many a short story and found myself thinking, “Yes, and then?” Contemporary short story writers often seem lazy, finishing smack in the middle of all the action with some dramatic sentence that sums nothing up at all. I wind up wondering if these authors just can’t be bothered to pull anything together (or maybe the younger ones don’t even know how, having been brought up on nothing but TV, movie, and book series that go on forever, constantly leaving audiences hanging), and want you to do all the work yourself.

This collection, however, had some authors in it whose novels I’ve wanted to read. Beginning with short stories seemed like a good way to introduce myself to their writing styles. I could explore them without making too much of a commitment. It was, in fact, an excellent introduction to these authors.

Yes, some of these stories were fine examples of all that I don’t like about so much contemporary fiction: “let’s write in some sort of odd, disquieting manner that makes the reader really have to work to turn it into a story” or “let’s write about despicable people and see how sympathetic we can make them” or “let’s hit the reader over the head with ‘the issue of the moment.'” (I have to add here that any one of these “let’s” is not necessarily bad in the hands of a brilliant writer. The problem is when those who are not brilliant writers think they are and choose to embrace them.) But let’s forget about those few-and-far-between stories in this collection, some of which had me wondering “She’s one of America’s best?”

I found many authors here who definitely had me sitting up and taking notice (if not actual notes). I’ve never read any of Francine Prose’s fiction, but now I must. She wrote the “cell phone eavesdropper” story I’ve always wanted someone to write. No one had ever told me how funny Jennifer Egan could be (I didn’t find her The Visit from the Goon Squad funny at all, nor did I like it much). She is (or at least, apparently can be), and I will have to check out some of her other works; likewise Binnie Kirshenbaum. She’s absolutely hilarious if her story in this collection is any indication. Christina Henriquez’s prose is as seamless as prose can get. Oh, and for some reason (based on reading something of hers years ago, I guess), I thought I didn’t like Mary Gordon. I guess I thought wrong (of course, how could I not like a story about a woman and the library branch in Manhattan that she frequents?). Putting up with an occasional dud in this collection in order to get to all these authors and their stories was well worth the effort. I’d highly recommend your doing so, if you haven’t already.