When Cris Mazza’s second collection of short fiction, Is It Sexual Harassment Yet?, was reviewed in the Wall Street Journal, she received a call from a radio station wanting to interview her. Once someone at the station finally read the book, however, they canceled the interview. They were looking for actual victims of sexual harassment, and Mazza’s characters were too complicated to be neatly categorized as victims anyway.

“A woman character who’s a victim is a more commercial property than a woman character who is feeling and honest and makes her own mistakes,” says Mazza. A writing instructor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Mazza hopes to buck this trend in two anthologies of new women’s fiction, Chick-Lit: Postfeminist Fiction and Chick-Lit 2 (No Chick Vics), which she’s put together with coeditors Jeffrey DeShell and Elisabeth Sheffield for FC2, a Normal-based publisher of alternative fiction. “By using the term postfeminist we’re not saying that feminist causes are unnecessary or that women are never victims,” Mazza explains. “We’re saying that, please, there’s more to us than just being victims of a patriarchal society. We’re saying that we have individual personalities and we’re not only what society has made us.”

The editors originally adopted the term “postfeminist” as a lark. “I saw the word on a poster and used it in the call for entries as a joke because the prefix ‘post’ is thrown around in so many situations. Then as we were reading we realized the types of pieces we were drawn to were breaking away from the narrow path that women’s writing had been walking.” That path, Mazza says, has led to women being cast “as the victim of something that they must rise above. It reinforces the notion that the only value in a woman’s life is found after she’s a victim. It has extended to more than fiction.” She cites the subjects of TV talk shows and news stories about women. “Women’s victim status is what has been highlighted by the media and publishing industries.”

Most of the characters in Chick-Lit are neither hapless victims nor superhumans–they’re complex, flawed individuals who have often had a hand in creating their own situations. The frequently irreverent stories in the first anthology include depictions of an obese woman, a pedophiliac humiliated by his victim, and a men’s impotence group counseled by women.

Mazza says that editing Chick-Lit affected her own writing. Her novel Your Name Here:_________, published last year by Coffee House Press, follows a news anchorwoman who must deal with being raped and the way she has always viewed herself in relation to men. “I realized that the character in that book might look like a victim to some people. But she was not only a victim of these men. She was, in a more subtle sense, a victim of her own priorities. I was able to strengthen that aspect of the book because I became more aware of it. Her situation was too complicated to merely be the story of a victim.”

Mazza says she’s frustrated by the devaluation of fiction in these memoir-laden times and that fiction offers a fuller appraisal of life than true confessions. “No one’s life is large enough to contain all experience.” She hopes that her forthcoming novel, Dog People, will transcend the usual stereotypes; its story tells of the relationships among a fascist dog trainer, a lesbian dancer, an ineffectual interior designer, and a love-starved caterer. There will not be a third Chick-Lit. Mazza says, “I did these two books and I no longer want to consider myself an editor. I’m a writer.”

A reading by local Chick-Lit contributors Stacey Levine, Bonnie Tawse, Joshilyn Jackson, and Lily James–called “Four Live Girls Reading Very Funny Stories”–will take place this Wednesday at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division. The event, sponsored by the Guild Complex, promises to reveal what happens when women writers “stop obsessing about the moon as a nipple in the sky and start getting busy.” Doors open at 7:30 PM. Admission is $5. Call 773-278-2210 for more.

–Zoe Zolbrod

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jim Alexander Newberry.