Melissa Bank Deserved More

The author of the 'Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing' was a deft stylist whose work transcended chick lit

BANKS21-C-18JUN99-DD-MAC            Author Melissa Bank has a new novel out about growing up female ...
San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images/Hearst Newspapers/Getty Images
Cara Blue Adams

I first read Melissa Bank’s debut smash hit The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing in the early 2000s, and it was like a shot of pure pleasure and recognition. I’d majored in English at Smith College and, not knowing what to do with my degree, had accepted a job at a Boston law firm, the one sort of job that seemed on offer, though I did not want to continue on to law school. On my lunch breaks, I’d sneak off with a story collection or novel and try to puzzle out my place in the world.

Bank died last week from cancer at the age of 61, leaving an interesting legacy. She grew up outside of Philadelphia, earned an MFA from Cornell, worked in advertising, and spent 12 years writing her debut, which received an enormous advance. Though critically praised as well as popular, her books became regarded as light women’s fiction, when in reality they are anything but. There are many lessons to be gleaned from her writing: Painful experiences aren’t all of life, and as such, they aren’t all that’s worth capturing in literature. Funny doesn’t mean shallow. Courtship is a legitimate subject for serious fiction, even if we struggle to see that sometimes when a woman chooses it, as Bank did. It would be enough if that was her only subject, but she tackles much more. Bank’s themes include the complexities of family life, mortality, grief, and, crucially, loneliness. She explores the strictures of gender and how they might estrange us from ourselves and prevent us from finding real recognition and love; what it means to love a person who can never stop hurting you, a person you have to leave, though you don’t want to; what it means to try to create something of your own.

The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing — an interlinked story collection set mostly in New York City — spoke to me. Bank wrote about the struggles of being a girl and young woman, and she was funny. Her main character, Jane Rosenal, loved books, too, and she grew up to live in Manhattan and work in publishing, a dream that I hadn’t really let myself dream until reading the book. (I promptly gave it up for reasons of social class, but that’s another story.) Reading those stories, I remember, broke a slump: it was hard to find new writers I loved after graduating from college, and Bank was a welcome surprise.

It’s exceedingly rare for a book to be received as warmly as The Girls’ Guide. It received a rave review in the New York Times, which called it “charming” and “funny,” earned her comparison to Cheever, and spent 16 weeks on the Times bestseller list. More than 1.5 million copies have been sold; it was translated into many languages.

And yet, it never won Bank the kind of literary reputation that she deserved. Because her book was funny, popular, and — crucially — focused on a young woman’s life, her fiction came to be perceived as less literary than it was. A miasma clung to the book in the culture and in my own memory: rather than Bank being associated with Lorrie Moore, a more apt comparison, she was associated with Helen Fielding, author of the decidedly more commercial Bridget Jones’s Diary. This was true despite the best efforts of multiple critics to show that she was a superb literary writer.

I didn’t have the Girls’ Guide in mind when I began to write short stories, at least not consciously, nor when I decided to create an interlinked collection following a young woman named Kate Bishop through early adulthood — from adolescence into her mid-thirties, basically the span of Jane Rosenal’s life covered in The Girls’ Guide. I thought of many other writers, but not Bank. In fact, when my book neared completion a decade after I began it and an older writer friend said, “Just so you’re aware, editors will want a comparison. Like, you know, The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, but for millennials,” my immediate feeling was dismay.

Because ‘Girls’ Guide’ was funny, popular, and — crucially — focused on a young woman’s life, her fiction came to be perceived as less literary than it was.

In my memory, the book was breezy, inconsequential. I’d spent many years reading literary-award-winning stories and interlinked collections by canonized writers like Jhumpa Lahiri and Elizabeth Strout. I might as well go back and reread The Girls’ Guide, I thought, just so I can distinguish my book from it when I talk to people about my intentions.

Rereading the book on my commute to teach at a university in New Jersey, a two-hour trek each way, I was surprised to find the minutes and miles disappear.

The book was excellent. It was definitely literary fiction, not that dismissive designation “women’s fiction,” or worse, “chick lit.” I’d gone to a women’s college; I care deeply about gender and power. I’d loved the book when I first read it, and had recognized its quality. So why hadn’t I remembered it that way? And what made Bank’s fiction so good?

She was funny, for one thing. God, was she funny. Sometimes subtly so, sometimes in a pleasantly startling way. A character says he left L.A. because it was lonely, adding, “Everyone smiles at your jokes.” Jane, feeling unsophisticated in comparison with a woman with a cosmopolitan background, ruefully observes, “All my friends live in the tristate area.” When Jane’s older brother comes home, she thinks, “Standing there, he looked like a man. He’d grown a beard, for starters, and had on new wire-rim sunglasses that made him appear more like a bon vivant than a philosophy major between colleges.” But it’s the witty yet quietly crushing lines like this one, delivered when she learns that her much-older boyfriend — a brilliant and charismatic editor and sometimes-reformed alcoholic — has been drinking all along, that make the book: “It was like getting the subtitles after the movie.”

Some literary stories telegraph their depth; Bank’s proceed with a lightness, but beneath it, darkness glimmers.

It can be tempting to dismiss a funny writer as light, especially when the subject is a young woman’s life — a mistake I made when remembering the book — but Bank was not light. She explored humor as a source of connection, and also a defense, a method of escaping the pain of life that must sometimes be put aside. She knew that humor can be a dodge. This fact comes up repeatedly: At 14, Jane wishes that she could talk to her parents about sex and love in a serious way. She hasn’t learned what she needs to learn, she worries: “It scared me to think that my brother had failed at loving someone. I had no idea myself how to do it.” As an adult, she must work not to joke when told difficult things; her much-older boyfriend, despite his failings, helps her understand that.

Bank’s descriptions, too, possess a deceptive lightness underlaid with rigor: bodies “pale as larvae,” a young woman’s flush “like a child with a fever.” A certain time of night evoked like this: “The air is cooler now, with morning close. The sky is getting light. At this hour, you can believe that just staring at the stars will put them out.” Or this moment, in which Jane misunderstands and then understands what is happening between her and her brother’s girlfriend: “The silence between us seemed both intimate and hostile, like a staring contest. But Julia was just waiting for me to fall asleep so she could go down the hall to my brother’s room. I heard her bare feet on the wood floor and Henry’s door whisper open and close.”

Jane becomes an editor, and then a writer. (You might, in fact, call The Girls’ Guide a Künstlerroman, if you were feeling zeitgeisty.) It’s clear that the book reflects a deep engagement with literature on Jane’s part, and on Bank’s. Literary references abound, though again with a lightness of touch: Freud, Dante, Bishop, Eliot, Wharton, James, Fitzgerald, Kafka, Hemingway, Tolstoy, de Beauvoir.

Bank makes what she does on the page look easy, but her skill is breathtaking. It’s fiendishly hard to write a series of funny, swift, moving, illuminating stories that add up to a larger one. She accomplished it. By making it look so effortless, she made it easier for us to miss the skill.

Unfortunately, Bank’s reception did not recognize her worth. She was profiled in the New York Times in 1999, and the piece is like a horror movie about how even accomplished women were treated, depressingly familiar to anyone who had the deeply mixed luck to be female and alive in America around the turn of the century. We learn that her boss at the advertising agency where she worked as a copywriter was “surprised how funny the book was.” The profile goes on to quote him saying to her: “No wonder you're still single. Most men wouldn't be able to handle that kind of humor.’”

Some literary stories telegraph their depth; Bank’s proceed with a lightness, but beneath it, darkness glimmers.

It gets worse. Would Cheever have been asked on book tour whether “it's true that high-powered [men] are sexually dysfunctional”? Would Hemingway, had he been single when he published The Sun Also Rises, have had to wonder if he was being “cast in the role of the Ur single [guy],” with a healthy dose of pity assigned to that role? (Of course, Hemingway was pretty much never single. Come to think of it, most of the male writers of the last century who wrote about young men’s frustrated pursuit of love weren’t themselves single. Instead, they benefited from their girlfriends’ and wives’ family fortunes, domestic and administrative labor, and skills in the field of writing and editing, including, sometimes, borrowing what those women had themselves written.)

All of this was misogynist and unfair, and it hurt Bank. She said so in interviews. About her fiction being labeled “chick lit,” she observed, “I find it a demeaning category. It just sounds like a way of calling the writing limited. It doesn’t translate into anything universal.”

Bank wrote one more book, The Wonder Spot, which received a blistering review in the Times, followed by a more even-handed one. From there, she receded from public view. She moved from Chelsea to the Hamptons and taught creative writing. Seventeen years elapsed between the publication of that second book and her death. During that time, she was reportedly working on a third. She’d worried, writing The Wonder Spot, that she’d disappoint her fans; she’d worried that she was a fraud, not good enough to have deserved the critical praise she received; she’d worried that her work would be called chick lit, a fear that unfortunately and unjustly came true.

Things have changed somewhat since the Girls’ Guide was published. Publisher’s Marketplace, the industry website that logs book deals, is doing away with the women’s fiction category, finally. Fiction will be commercial, or it will be literary, or it will reside in a genre category that doesn’t make such explicit assumptions about gender. We are making progress. It’s too late for The Girls’ Guide to be received differently in Bank’s lifetime, but it isn’t too late for us to revisit the accomplishments of her fiction.

I wish that I had come to recognize those accomplishments faster. It was wrong to accept the culture’s assessment of Bank’s work without more resistance, and it deprived me of a little of my own humanity. I’m glad that I can see that now. In retrospect, it’s clear that as I struggled to become what I thought of as a real writer, there was much that I needed to unlearn. I suspect that that project will continue my whole life.

My own stories are about gender and power, about loneliness. Occasionally they’re funny, too, or so I hope, though what could be more embarrassing than saying so? An editor did compare them to Bank’s — like The Girls’ Guide, she said, but exploring class and privilege. I wanted to believe her, but I couldn’t. I respected the book too much. Instead I thought, with disbelief and awe, What a thing that would be to achieve.

Cara Blue Adams is the author of You Never Get It Back (University of Iowa Press, 2021), a New York Times Editors’ Choice.