June 26, 2024

Photo from the archives of the Bentley Historical Library.
Hunting and Fishing
An essay by Leah Mandel

There are plenty of flexible traditions, but when it comes to rules we find them happily absent.—All About Darts

There has been, of late, a great discontent amongst the singletons. Those who are not already want desperately to be in love. At least, this is the word on the street—I’ve heard even the most promiscuous, commitment-averse people I know express a desire for partnership. The want began suffusing the air in the past year or so, it seems. Different from erstwhile summers this dawning season feels less libidinous, more reaching for something just out of grasp. Only palely sensual; a dampened, jaded yearning.

At the end of May a tweet about Bumble’s addition of “Intimacy, without commitment” to the app’s preferences circulated. “im so jealous of everyone who found love before the internet because this is pure hell,” the user wrote. A pal popped the link in our group chat with, “This is what I understand the vibe to be.” I am pretty sure intimacy without commitment is simply casual sex, what most get from dating apps anyway, aside from disappointing dates that are difficult to plan. The apps are on the decline, they’ve killed crushes, the gamification of lust and romance provokes disillusionment and addictive tendencies. The stats just aren’t there, and yet many continue to rely on the digital, continue to swipe with dreary thumbs.

It is nice to have an easy scapegoat. But the problem lies not just with the apps—they are more a symptom than a cause. Among myriad other circumstances, the political gap continues to widen—along with the economic—and that includes gender and sexual politics. Recently Cosmo UK reported a resurgence in dating advice books from the ‘90s, ones that espouse gender conservatism, like Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus and The Rules: Time-tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right. At the time these books were originally published, the ‘80s emphasis on being a kickass career woman was on its way out, and increasingly conservative ideas about dating were creeping back in, much as they are now. This is making itself evident not only in the fringe extremes—the emergence of a new kind of “trad wife,” for instance—but in the mainstream dating landscape. In the Cosmo piece, sex and relationships therapist Cate Campbell is quoted on the matter: “The dating scene has changed a lot recently,” she says. “We’re not in a time anymore where there are rules, so people are looking for something more traditional and for some security.” 


On my way to a party this spring, I got caught in a time warp and almost took the G train in the opposite direction of my destination. I was reading Melissa Bank’s 1999 coming-of-age-novel-in-stories The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, so rapt in its central story that I waited on the wrong platform for 12 minutes. Each chapter of Bank’s book begins with an epigraph culled from an instruction manual: 20th Century Typewriting, The Sensuous Woman, Junior Girl Scout Handbook, Amy Vanderbilt’s A Guide to Gracious Living, Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, as if to note that the narrator, a young woman named Jane Rosenal, is trying and failing to live by an amorphous sense of etiquette.

The story, or episode, I got caught in was “The Worst Thing a Suburban Girl Could Imagine”—epigraphed with a quote from The Sailor’s Handbook—in which our protagonist, a twentysomething assistant editor at H—— (HarperCollins, presumably), rekindles her complicated romance with older man and Big Time Editor at K—— (Knopf, surely), Archie Knox, while her neurologist father is dying of leukemia. It’s a story about hiding things, about stilted communication between people who care for each other. Who we want to be for those we love, what we conceal in the endeavor, what happens when we can’t.

Jane’s father hid his cancer for nine years; Archie, an alcoholic, has been drinking on the sly for years; and Jane’s been keeping her renewed flame with Archie a secret from her family. After her father’s funeral, Jane asks Archie about his drinking and he confesses. “This was how I’d felt finding out about my father; it was like getting the subtitles after the movie.” The fixation on narration, and on displaced authority, is a motif that peppers Girls’ Guide. Jane gets the voices of others stuck in her head. She struggles to edit manuscripts to her own standards, relying on Archie’s guidance. In “The Best Possible Light,” the only story not narrated by Jane—she appears only as a mention of the upstairs neighbor living in her dead aunt’s apartment—a family recalls their time dubbing Spaghetti Westerns, training their mouths to move out of sync with their words. Jane questions her own judgment; she is constantly sizing herself up in relation to other women—considering herself not as beautiful, young, stylish, cultured. In the days leading to her breakup with Archie, Jane quits her job in publishing, where she’s been floundering under the authority of her poised new boss, Mimi. Archie proposes and Jane says, “I’m sorry, honey.” A week later, Archie calls to let Jane know she can come get her stuff from his place. He says, “Don’t take the easy way out, Janie,” which is something her father used to say. Again, the lip-syncing, the words of others in the wrong mouth.

I’d picked up Girls’ Guide for the first time about two decades ago, three or so years after its release, loaned from the library on the third floor of my 88th street private school, a set of blue rooms with drab grey lighting which the middle and high schools shared. Girls’ Guide was displayed on the fiction shelf, by the door, cover out. A young person in a red jacket, black hunting cap, and yellow-trimmed rubber boots runs away from the title across a white background, which I always assumed was snow. The spine is Penguin Orange, with a plaid border that wraps around to trim front and back. GIRLS’ GUIDE. Surely I needed one of those. Some parameters through which to conduct my snowballing desires, when everything was beginning to seem absurd. It had an aura of adventure to it, like a Boy Scout’s manual. (For a moment, around this time, I considered joining Brownies, but was put off by the sweet name and the idea of further authority—middle and Hebrew school teachers were enough.) Even the ELLE quote on the back of Girls’ Guide likens it to a Baedeker. I liked manuals. Looking at them, anyway, not necessarily following their instructions. I’d flip through my little brother’s knot-tying guide but never tried tying any knots.

The inside of the hardcover’s dust jacket calls Girls’ Guide an “expedition through the perilous terrain of sex, love, relationships, and the treacherous waters of the workplace.” There turned out to be nothing instructional about Girls’ Guide, but the book developed talismanic status; I found an aspirational messiness in Jane’s searching, a vision of what it might be like to grow up. “What is love, she wonders,” the jacket text continues. “How do you find it (and keep it)—and above all, who makes the rules?” 

Re-encountering the moment between Jane and Archie, I had the sensation of being on two planes at once: the same feeling came over me that had as a teen and so did the memory and then I was having the feeling and the memory of having the feeling and the feeling of having the memory of having the feeling all together as the train was about to surge into the station. I remembered sitting on the floor of my childhood bedroom, heels under my butt, leaning on the pistachio green bunk bed my brother and I shared. That means I was probably 12, before I made bat mitzvah, before declaring to my parents that I could no longer stand living in the same room as my little brother. I was two years younger than Jane is in the opening story, in which she bears witness to her 20-year-old brother Henry’s relationship with a woman eight years his senior, during a series of weekends on the Jersey shore. Jane’s tale is told with scant retrospective affect—the tone is consistently, properly naive in the way that navigating love is. The story ends with: “It scared me to think that my brother had failed at loving someone. I had no idea myself how to do it.” Do we ever know how to do it? Love is different every time.


The party I was on my way to was a literary party, and turned out to be noticeably sexless, devoid of flirtation. Afterwards, on the sidewalk calling our cars, explaining why I’d been so late to meet her, I went on to my friend about Girls’ Guide, that with its stark sentences it was more like Carver than I’d remembered, that it had little to do with Bridget Jones’s Diary as the critics and the book’s blurbs claimed, aside from both being narrated by romance-focused women working in publishing. (The two authors gave a talk together at the 92nd Street Y in 1999 called “What Single Women Want.”) In the chapter “Sex and the Post-Literary City,” from a 2010 work of media theory, writer Jim Collins proposes the character of Archie “represents traditional New York literary culture, the pre-Tina Brown New Yorker incarnate,” and that their relationship ends not because of a lack of communication, not due to Archie’s alcoholism but his impotence (a well known side effect), “which speaks volumes about the use value of [Mr. New York Literary World’s] kind of literary authority.” Collins gets Jane’s last name wrong (Rosenthal instead of Rosenal) and misidentifies her as an Oberlin grad, but his argument is well-worn, if not tinged with a misogynist flavor—basically, that Girls’ Guide signaled a shift in publishing that began to center women as its main consumers, that women made literature into pop culture. 

To celebrate its 25th birthday this year, Girls’ Guide gets a reprinting, a Nick Hornby foreword, a declaration that it is a Penguin Classic, and a punchy new 2020s appropriate cover, a bright green swimsuit caught on an anchor. No one will mistake this for wintry. It screams Summer Reading—it screams chick lit, actually, the very designation Hornby decries as demeaning, the bucket he finds “depressing” and that Bank had to constantly “defend herself” against. (Horby’s appearance here smells a bit of retroactive validation.) “Chick lit” is defined by Oxford Reference as “written by women about the misadventures of contemporary unmarried working women in their 20s or 30s who struggle with multiple pressures from reproachful mothers, inadequate boyfriends, and tyrannical bosses while consoling themselves with shopping trips, chocolate, and erotic daydreams.” So Girls’ Guide, told in episodes spanning two decades of Jane’s life—a young woman’s life—“is asking for trouble,” Hornby writes, “or at least, asking for a snooty critic to dismiss it in patronizing terms while admitting at the same time that it’s entertaining and funny.” Bridget Jones and Girls’ Guide have been credited with jumpstarting the chick lit phenomenon, which, at the time, was positioned as an antidote to the “lad lit” penned by the likes of Hornby and Irvine Welsh. Despite the semi-recent eschewing of officially designated “Women’s Fiction,” books that would fall under the rubric remain a significant market. “It needs to be optimistic,” said Reese Witherspoon, interviewed about her eponymous and influential book club (whose picks always feature “a woman at the center of the story”). “It needs to be shareable.” It’s possible Girls’ Guide would have made the cut, but it doesn’t necessarily meet Reese’s requirements, even if its marketing may have initiated this rhetoric.

Girls’ Guide is entertaining and funny but it is also at times devastating. There is profound grief and a breast cancer diagnosis—told at a remove, in second person, in the penultimate chapter that references Simone de Beauvoir’s love letters. This seems not to have registered for most critics, who focused on Jane’s romantic affairs. Bank’s pithy style was in turn lauded and disparaged for being easy to read, too quippy. The writing itself is not difficult. But it can be hard to digest: Jane’s relationships are painful, confusing, they remind me of every ill-fitting attachment I’ve clung to. In the aftermath of each reread I find myself ruminating on former lovers and former friends: what made it tick, why did we force it, why did we fight, why did it end, thank god it did, thank god it happened, I was young, I wasn’t me yet.

I was thinking the other day, in a Girls’ Guide-provoked mindstorm, how each period of my life has been defined by my relationships, the friends I had, the people I was dating—no matter how brief. A six-week-long fling left me wrecked and all but defined my 23. I can organize the timeline of my adult life by who I was seeing when, figure out my frame of mind at a given period based on certain attachments. Times when I was desperate for affection, times when singledom suited me just fine. It makes sense to me to structure a coming-of-age novel around romantic relationships. To chronicle a path in relation to others isn’t reductive or frivolous. Maybe the narcissist I was with for a year-and-a-half will show up in a novel one day, maybe the three friends I lost during that time will make an appearance, too. I once dated an older man who seemed thrilled by the idea of becoming a character. Whenever he did or said something unsavory, and I returned, I told myself I was doing it for the story.


August 1999, the year of the Lewinsky trial, the year of She’s All That and Notting Hill, and the year Girls’ Guide was published, the author Stacey D’Erasmo wrote a piece for The New York Times Magazine “The Way We Live Now” column, titled “Single File.” “Why do the sexy, savvy new heroines want nothing so much as rings on their fingers?” asked the subheading. D’Erasmo collects the pop culture pieces of late ‘90s womanhood: Ally McBeal, Sex and the City, the forthcoming Mansfield Park adaptation, and The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing. Her MAC lipstick-bearing friend, with whom she’s gone to a macrobiotic lunch, is showing signs of becoming a “character in such a narrative.” The friend talks of marriage with a “wry hopelessness,” is rife with “single-girl pathos.” Charming as all this media is, D’Erasmo argues, these characters and their marriage-bound goals are signs of backlash to third-wave feminism: “[T]he new single girl…embodies in her very slender form the argument that not only is feminism over. It also failed: look how unhappy the ‘liberated’ woman is! Men don't want to marry her! [I]t's really cold being free, and though it may seem fun, it's not that much fun at all.”


A reader of manuals can find lessons in unexpected places. “Remember that your most valuable asset is a clear head,” advises Deer Hunting The Catskills, a guidebook I couldn’t help but sink into, even if I will likely never go hunting. “If you think you are lost, cool it. Sit down and think it over. Talk to yourself, if necessary. Get your bearing and figure out a logical route back to familiar territory.” Hidden treasures like these were perhaps a partial motivation for Bank’s epigraphs. Though she certainly doesn’t advocate abiding by any strict edicts.

The final, titular story, is a direct denouncement of Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider’s The Rules, published four years before Girls’ Guide in 1995. “[W]hen you’re with a man you like,” reads the epigraph, “be quiet and mysterious, act ladylike, cross your legs and smile. Don’t talk so much…You may feel that you won’t be able to be yourself, but men will love it!” The Rules became a sensation upon its publication. It is literally a set of guidelines. The first: “Be a Creature Unlike Any Other,” the rest teach women to be hyper-feminine, to not be funny, “easy to be with but hard to get.” The Rules are, essentially, a repackaging of the kind of Georgian Era courtship etiquette satirized by Jane Austen. Fein and Schneider’s manual epitomized the return to gender conservatism D’Erasmo identified as a backlash to feminism. D’Erasmo’s probing appeared the year after a TIME cover story examined the state of feminism. Is Feminism Dead?, it asked, pitting Ms. against Bust and Marilyn French against Helen Fielding, calling the anxieties of Ally McBeal and Bridget Jones “little more than composites of frivolous neuroses,” and comparing “Clinton-loving feminists” to the women who called themselves “Rules Girls.” Free love and Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl were no longer in fashion, replaced by the search for a man and curtailing your personality for the sake of a wedding band. My mother, who came of age in the late ‘60s, often tells a story from the mid-’90s: Working at an ad agency, she encountered young women excited to take on the names of future husbands. What are you nuts? she remembers asking them—as in, What happened to women’s lib?

Originally commissioned by Francis Ford Coppola for his magazine Zoetrope, “The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing” confronts the regressive politics presented in The Rules. Bank unsubtly changes the manual’s subtitle only slightly to How to Meet and Marry Mr. Right. Recommended to Jane by a fellow single friend—with a warning that it’s about manipulation, not love—right before the two attend Jane’s best friend Sophie’s wedding, Jane passes by the fiction shelf at Barnes & Noble, abandoning the pretense of browsing for Wharton, and shamefully purchases the self-help guide.

“Girls’ Guide” centers the intrusive voices motif at fever pitch. At the wedding, Jane meets Robert, a cartoonist and Oberlin grad (here is where Collins’ mistake stemmed from) and the two hit it off. But Jane is worried she’ll fuck up another relationship—despite the fact that those we’ve witnessed up to this point have broken apart organically, severed for sound emotional reasons. Mr. Right’s perky authors’ exclamatory advice nuggets invade at every opportune moment. Jane doesn’t call Robert, though she usually would and wants to badly. When she’d typically crack a joke she abstains. Against her intuition, she schedules dates with other men. In the end, Robert is about to dump her. He fell in love with someone else, he says, meaning Jane didn’t turn out to be the person he’d thought she was. She wills herself to turn the voices off, and explains: she’d been convinced she had to be elusive, busy, desired, feminine, for anyone to want to settle down with her. On the final page, Jane resolves to be nothing but herself.

It’s a little corny, but true. Love is corny, cringe—so is peeling back the layers of irony and self-branding encouraged by digital presentation now. Life online, dating apps included, champions smoothness, and the idea that data is crucial to compatibility. Which it is not. A study conducted by Hinge shows that these days interactions are judged in terms of “digital body language”—response time, emoji use, length of messages. Angst over potential rejection is apparently so deep that a new term, “Cringe Zone,” has emerged in place of the old “go for it.” It’s no wonder so many seem to be struggling for connection with all this misdirection, all these intrusions.

Where most of Bank’s prose glides by, the concluding story’s tone is riddled with anxiety. Neurosis of a similar kind crops up in earlier chapters—the first boyfriend we meet, Jamie, takes Jane on vacation with an ex and her husband, though that particular insecurity seems warranted. During Jane’s time with Archie, both are consistently preoccupied with the idea of past lovers. The focus of “Girls’ Guide” is this apprehension. On first reread I found it irksome, until realizing the disquiet is part of the point. “Girls’ Guide” is ultimately about the pressure that comes with aging, the fear of spinsterhood. Bank was responding to a particular and prevailing rhetoric, the re-encroaching notion that there is one way a woman should be.

“Girls’ Guide” was the book’s main marketing device, the only piece that truly fits into the single-girl pathos puzzle and likely why it ended up paired with Bridget Jones’s Diary, and, ultimately, a large part of the reason I was drawn to it as a tween. Various reviews of Girls’ Guide use the phrase “mating dance,” as does the opening blurb of the reprinting, though this story is the only one to explicitly make use of such an idea. One of two Times reviews, the more favorable one, written by a man, refers to Jane, in the titular story, as “a little desperate to find a permanent mate.” The review written by a woman imagines the book’s audience as readers of women’s magazines and “Starbucks-swilling, ‘Friends'-watching female denizens of the Upper West Side.” This isn’t surprising. The most savage assessment of Bridget Jones was written by a woman. These days one might call this a “pick-me” review. (Okay, she got me there—I did frequently drink Frappuccinos after getting out of class on the UWS.)

 Yada yada, another woman looks for love, we get it already. As Lana Rakow put it in her article “Feminist Approaches to Popular Culture: Giving Patriarchy Its Due” (Communication, 1986) disdain for women’s popular culture “has prevented [critics] from seeing how it speaks to the real problems and tensions in women’s lives.” And as Virginia Woolf noted, earlier, in A Room of One’s Own: “This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room.” Literature written by women remains marketed and discussed in the same vein, regardless of content. The final quote in the Girls’ Guide front matter, unchanged in its reprinting, calls Bank “The Lit World’s New ‘It’ Girl.”

Recent essays have revived this terminology, sparking a fierce debate about the nature of women’s writing, and how it’s presented and sold. Works by authors from Austen to Brontë, Plath to Didion, Munro to Ferrante, continue to come packaged with delicate, ladylike aesthetics, as though to signal, This is easy, this is for women. The reprinting of Girls’ Guide is no different. It’s frustrating that the nearly iconic red-and-white cover has been replaced with something that so blatantly signals “this is a Book For Women.”


In his foreword, Hornby writes that Bank would have had much to say about our contemporary dating landscape. Bank died in 2022, amid think pieces on the detrimental effect of dating apps, and having written only one other book, 2005’s The Wonder Spot (blurbed by Zadie Smith: “What Austen did for marriage, Melissa Bank does for serial monogamy”), apparently plagued with anxiety over her prose being received as mere chick lit. Girl’s Guide was published while online dating as we know it was emerging—Match.com in 1995, eHarmony in 2000, the now Match Group-owned OKCupid in 2004. “Girls’ Guide” is an artifact but it is perhaps surprisingly relevant: in the throes of continued MeToo and girlboss backlash and dating app malaise, there’s a renewed interest in the sort of advice Bank indicts. On TikTok, romance influencers coach women to have sparkling personalities (Be A Creature Unlike Any Other). “Don’t text him,” they say. Cosmo reports on the return of The Rules as well as a popular online course called “Manifesting Mr Right” that touts lessons such as “lead with your ‘feminine energy’” and “learn to withhold information to flatter his ego.” These are our not-so-new intrusive voices. Maybe people need to learn how to simply be themselves again. Maybe we’re wanting for etiquette, desiring guidelines by which to orient ourselves amid flailing sociality. But The Rules aren’t it. As Bank showed, relationships are messy. That’s how they should be. And how they will always, inevitably, be. 

Leah Mandel is a writer in New York. Her work has appeared in Real Life, Pitchfork, Majuscule, WSJ, NYLON, and more.