A Girls’ Guide
Never before have so many people been able to put so many words, ideas and images in front of a seemingly limitless audience. In the age of Instagram influencers and rampant Reels, discernment is a survival skill to be cultivated for posterity. This is not a condemnation of social media but a reminder that the same issues that have always been relevant to discussions of life, liberty and the pursuit of personal bliss are in play; they may be more difficult to identify as the world competes for our attention, but it’s important to take a breath and think about what we’re thinking about and why.
As an editor, I get a lot of questions about what constitutes good writing. The answer to that is both objective and subjective, technical and emotional. In this monthly column, I’ll share my take on outstanding stories — whether journalistic or fictional — and hopefully create a few of my own as we look at not only writing style but the media and industries that shape and deliver it.
This month, I found myself thinking about one of the most brilliant authors of our time, Melissa Bank, who passed away on August 2. Her name may not spark instant recognition, but you’ve likely seen her distinctive book cover depicting a girl with her back to the camera, running along and wearing a red coat and a black hat with ear flaps. Published in 1999, “The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing” was aptly described by writer Gideon Iago as “one of those beguiling books that, if you catch it at the right time, becomes a lifelong friend.” It provides no advice on the outdoor activities it references but proves worthy of its intriguing title.
Through a series of connected stories, “The Guide” follows protagonist Jane Rosenal from age 14 through adulthood. Looking profound issues such as loneliness and grief squarely in the eye, Bank’s signature wit makes her work simultaneously piercing and joyful. Jane may not be the most iconic character, and her relatable stories are understandably not unique; however, Bank’s kinetic prose brings an irresistible energy to every page. If you haven’t read it, imagine the sullen soul of John Cheever experiencing the world as a precocious Jewish girl trying to make sense of life and love.
Numerous critics have in fact compared Bank to the Pulitzer-winning Cheever. Some have said Bank — due to her subject matter — did not receive due respect for her talent. In an article for Gawker, author Cara Blue Adams wrote, “Because ‘Girls’ Guide’ was funny, popular, and . . . focused on a young woman’s life, her [Bank’s] fiction came to be perceived as less literary than it was.” I’m not sure how true that is, but I join Adams in applauding Publishers Weekly’s decision to nix the category of Women’s Fiction, a change that could potentially mean commercial and literary fiction are not mutually exclusive and have little to do with gender. To keep the wheels of progress moving in that direction, we must exercise the aforementioned discernment.
Bank may not have been known for Patterson-like proliferation, but she gave us vigorous stories that defied genre and form while striking familiar chords. Her life and her death, at age 61, prompted me to keep writing and to consider what we value. Whether you’re a writer, a reader or just someone looking to spend your limited time in a meaningful manner, “The Girl’s Guide” is a good place to start — and if you stick with me for future columns, I’ll do my part to clear a path as well.