This is Not Chick Lit: Original Stories by America’s Best Women Writers, an anthology of short stories, opens with a resounding introduction by the book’s editor Elizabeth Merrick. Recalling the birth of the chick lit genre with the triumph of Bidget Jones’ Diary in 1996, Merrick recounts the commercial success that is the woman swinging the designer handbag down a busy metropolis street:
“Chick lit is the daughter of the romance novel and the stepsister of the fashion magazine. Details about race and class are almost always absent except, of course, for the protagonist’s relentless pursuit of Money, a Makeover, and Mr. Right.”
Merrick goes on to recall her own flirtation with chick lit in the mid-90s, pleased with the success of women writers. However, when the genre soon exploded to the point of eclipsing literary fiction, Merrick began to question the commercial aspect:
“The problem is, rather, that the chick lit deluge has helped to obscure the literary fiction being written by some of our country’s most gifted women — many of whom you’ve never even heard of. […] For every stock protagonist with an Hermès Birkin bag and a bead on an investment banker, there is a woman writer pushing the envelope of serious fiction with depth and humor. […] Where chick lit reduces the complexity of the human experience, literature increases our awareness of other perspectives and paths. […] Chick lit as a genre presents one very narrow representation of women’s lives, a vision that is ‘the literary equivalent of a tract-house development,’ as novelist Whitney Otto recently wrote in The New York Times.”
This Is Not Chick Lit is true to Merrick’s promise of multifariousness, providing a range of subject matter, distinctive voices, and literary styles by women writers. Unfortunately, this variation is also applicable to the quality of the stories, some more memorable than others. Aimee Bender’s “Two Days” and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Thing Around your Neck” are among the strongest, delivering compelling narration and reflective prose.
In “Two Days,” a nameless female narrator ponders her connection with a male suitor, examining the cultural fixation on “the one.” Her infatuation with her date eventually transitions into noticing minute details about their days together, ending in a wonderful literary ambiguity. In “The Thing Around Your Neck,” the Nigerian protagonist misses her family and culture after she moves to New England. When she begins dating a wealthy white student, her feelings about home and identity become even more complex.
Many of the other stories in the collection are somewhat lackluster in voice and, placed along side Bender and Adichie, mediocre. Although a bit disappointing given Merrick’s resonating forward, these short stories do provide a peek into some different styles of fiction writing and can perhaps serve as a jumping-off point from which to explore other writers. Alone, though, This Is Not Chick Lit is a lukewarm anthology with its heart in the right place.
To read more about Elizabeth Merrick, click here.