In the late 1990s, just as I was starting to embrace the idea that writing could be more than a hobby, a pretty much perfect book of fiction arrived on the scene.
It made me angry. It made me angry because it somehow achieved everything I thought a good work of fiction should do, and revealed the gap between what I wanted to be able to do and what I was actually able to do as a writer myself.
The book was closely observed at both the physical and emotional levels. The same story could make you laugh and make you hold your breath with anticipation within a few pages. It was a book about being young and feeling stuff that was the exact right amount of respectful and judgmental about what it is like to be young and feel stuff.
That book was “The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing,” and I’ve been thinking about the book because its author, Melissa Bank, recently passed away at the too-young age of 61.
“The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing” was a bestseller and publishing phenomenon upon its 1999 release. Structured as a series of linked short stories spanning the life of Jane Rosenal — a character with some biographical similarities to Bank — starting in her teenage years and stretching into adulthood. A Los Angeles Times review compared Bank to John Cheever, which strikes me as apt. There is a light touch that may occasionally make one think that serious stuff isn’t going on, but that light touch is merely a setup for a knockout punch of quiet emotion.
As strong a seller as “The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing” was with the general public, I think it made an even bigger impression on the aspiring writers of the age. Here was a book of the highest literary quality that was also accessible to large audiences. Because of the sexist asymmetry of how books by men and women are received, this was especially significant for books by and about women. This was the era of “chick lit” where books by women were dismissed — and often deliberately positioned by publishers — as frivolous entertainments.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” but here was a book that mined similar territory, while defying any pigeonholing.
I will admit that I was initially resistant to reading the book, insecure about my own abilities and wary of the hype, but after breaking down, my resistance was quickly overcome, and Bank had me in her grip. Looking back with hindsight, I think this was probably a seminal moment for me as I shifted my own interests as a reader (and writer) away from valuing the so-called “male gaze,” to seeking out stories told from perspectives less familiar to me.
I also believe I see Bank’s influence in some of my favorite contemporary writers, who like me, are half a generation or a generation behind. I’m thinking of folks like Jami Attenberg (“All Grown Up”), Katherine Heiny (“Early Morning Riser”) and the terrific new novel, “Notes on Your Sudden Disappearance” by Alison Espach.
Bank published one other book in her lifetime, “The Wonder Spot,” which didn’t have quite the same impact on the zeitgeist as “The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing” but showed the same meticulous care Bank brought to rendering her stories.
I don’t know that “The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing” will be part of the future canon of books we continue to read and remember, but I’m confident its DNA will be a permanent part of what gets read.
It’s already the case.
John Warner is the author of “Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities.”
Book recommendations from the Biblioracle
John Warner tells you what to read based on the last five books you’ve read
1. “Sleepwalk” by Dan Chaon
2. “Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell
3. “Bel Canto” by Ann Patchett
4. “The Dutch House” by Ann Patchett
5. “The Anomaly” by Hervé Le Tellier
— Mark P., Chicago
I’m hoping that the emotional depth and breadth of Adam Haslett’s “Imagine Me Gone” works on Mark, the way it worked on me.
1. “Nightcrawling” by Leila Mottley
2. “Sea of Tranquility” by Emily St. John Mandel
3. “Book Lovers” by Emily Henry
4. “Vladimir” by Julia May Jonas
5. “The Summer I Turned Pretty” by Jenny Han
— Anna P. Chicago
It’s been a while since I recommended Lynda Barry’s “Cruddy,” which I think is one of the best coming-of-age novels of all time, and hopefully will be a fit with Anna.
1. “The Paper Palace” by Miranda Cowley Heller
2. “Educated” by Tara Westover
3. “Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell” by Tim Miller
4. “The Flight Attendant” by Chris Bohjalian
5. “The Silent Patient” by Alex Michaelides
— Betsy P., Springfield
I think Betsy will find the smart suspense of Lisa Lutz’s “The Passenger” a compelling ride.
Get a reading from the Biblioracle
Send a list of the last five books you’ve read and your hometown to firstname.lastname@example.org.