Sunday, September 17, 2006

"This is Chick-Lit"

I received a very interesting book in the mail not long ago - a book of short stories called "This is Chick-Lit." It turns out that last year there was a book of short stories published called "This is Not Chick Lit." I'd never heard of that book until I found out about this one, and I'm not sure I'd have bought it if I HAD heard of it, since I think defining something by what it isn't is a bit absurd. Couldn't that book just as accurately have been named "This is Not Science Fiction" or "This is Not 18th Century Romantic Poetry" or "This is Not a Treatise on Quantum Physics?" (Although I will admit to a bit of curiosity about that book now that I've read this one. It would be interesting to compare the two.) Anyway, the book "This is Chick-Lit" is a collection of short stories written and compiled as a response to the previously mentioned book, by a group of women writers who write chick-lit and are proud of it. I thought the introduction to the book was fascinating, as it turns out this is a debate that has raged since long before the term "chick lit" was ever coined. The editor quotes a letter written by Charlotte Bronte in 1848, in which she bemoans the popularity and critical acclaim of books written by a Miss Jane Austen, saying she doesn't understand their appeal and finds Ms. Austen merely "shrewd and observant." Um, yeah, ok. You know, if the very worst thing someone could find to say about ME was that I'm shrewd and observant I'd count myself as having done pretty well in life. In a similar vein, one of the criticisms frequently leveled at the genre known as chick lit is that it consists "merely" of stories written by, for, and about women. Well again, I'd say....yeah, so? What's wrong with that? Why are we, as women, so frequently hard on ourselves and on each other? I bet if there was a name for books written by, for, and about men you wouldn't have a bunch of men saying that's a bad thing. IMO, there ARE books out there written by, for, and about men, but they're just called "books." Sigh. It's hard to debate a thing if you don't stick a label on it first, yes? Anyway, on to the book itself. On the whole, I liked it. It was an interesting cross-section of writers and stories. As with any short story anthology, I think some stories worked better than others. Short stories can be a tricky bit of writing to do correctly. They need to be an engaging slice of life so that you want to know what happens to the characters, but they shouldn't feel like the writer tried to compress an entire novel's worth of story into just a few pages. Some of these stories managed that balancing act quite well, some not so much. There were, unfortunately, several stories that felt to me more like the Cliff's Notes version of novels rather than true short stories. They weren't bad, but they made me feel a bit rushed and cheated, and left me wishing the writers had developed these stories into novellas or full-length novels instead. And there were a few stories in the book that simply didn't appeal to me. They were well-written, but not to my personal taste. Again though, I find that in almost every short story anthology I've ever read. But at least half the stories in the book were true short stories and quite good ones at that. Some of my favorites include "Shell Game" by Lauren Baratz-Logsted, a story that effectively turns a nursery rhyme into a grown-up cautionary tale; "Trash Talk" by Karin Gillespie; "Meeting Cute" by Andrea Schicke Hirsch; "Secret Agent Chick" by Raelynn Hillhouse; and my personal favorite of the collection, "Cafe con Leche Crush" by Heather Swain, a slice-of-life story that is exactly what a short story should be. "This is Chick-Lit" is a book I'm glad I read. My grade for it: a solid B. Today's Daily Art Thang: "Orange Wings" (clickable if you want to see it larger in a new window)

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