Elizabeth Merrick edited This Is Not Chick Lit, she explains in her introduction, to save female readers from our worst impulses. Left to our own devices at the local Barnes & Noble, it seems, we stumble to the bestseller table and buy the first pink paperback we pick up with our manicured fingers. How can we not? “After the millennium,” Merrick writes, “it became nearly impossible to enter a bookstore without tripping over a pile of pink books covered with truncated legs, shoes, or handbags.” Like the candy machine prominently placed in a middle school cafeteria, the chick-lit publicity apparatus plays to cravings young women can’t resist. “Cotton-candy entertainment,” as Merrick calls it, is OK for dessert (she herself reads Us Weekly on the treadmill); the trouble is, many women have it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. A steady diet of chick lit “numbs our senses”; “shuts down our consciousness”; and “beat[s] us over the head with clichés that promote a narrow worldview.”
Instead of chick lit, Merrick would like us to read its diametric opposite: not chick lit, formerly known as fiction written by women. Aimee Bender, Holiday Reinhorn, and Binnie Kirshenbaum boldly present the romantic woes of women who aren’t obsessed with Mr. Right; Judy Budnitz, Samantha Hunt, and Mary Gordon take on subjects as challenging as Joan of Arc, the Unabomber, and a woman who likes hanging around the public library. Francine Prose and Cristina Henriquez defiantly assume male voices in stories that have little do with women’s experiences. Henriquez’s protagonist lovingly recalls his ex-girlfriend, but mostly what he remembers are her bangs, her wrists, and “her navy blue knee-highs pulled up past her knees like a tramp.” Whatever it is, it’s not chick lit.
Given Merrick’s strenuous exertions, it seems worth considering this strange new genre. Not chick lit, she insists, “employs carefully crafted language to expand our reality”; “increases our awareness of other perspectives and paths”; “grants us access to countless new cultures, places, and inner lives.” Some of these stories are even good. Others, less so. Curtis Sittenfeld, author of the 2005 surprise bestseller Prep, contributes a story about a racist, obsessive-compulsive woman who wreaks havoc at a women’s shelter. “Hulking and monstrous,” alone and afraid to be touched, the narrator volunteers at the shelter because she seems to believe she can save the kids from their slatternly mothers. When a new volunteer (“bumpy and greasy”) threatens her status as favorite surrogate mom, she suggests she has no choice but to strangle the woman. She’s a second-wave feminist, overfed and run amok. What our heroine really needs, we’re made to understand, is a boyfriend, like her roommate’s, who will toast her Eggo waffles.
The protagonists of Merrick’s collection are certainly not chick-lit material (they don’t do lunch, they’re not shoe fetishists, and their sex lives aren’t especially fantastic), but neither are they the young women we recognize or admire. Merrick seems strangely unprepared to acknowledge the existence of women like herself—the intellectually alive, productive female actor in the world is hardly to be found in This Is Not Chick Lit. In place of the middle-class suburbanite’s fantasy of wealthy young urban singles, we get the young and urbane woman writer’s caricature of what used to be called female hysteria. Are the articulate, prolific writers we turn to for visions of life beyond girlhood able only to imagine a string of revived Ophelias?