Our critics chose 15 remarkable books by women that are shaping the way we read and write fiction in the 21st century.
By Dwight Garner, Parul Sehgal and Jennifer Szalai
March 5, 2018
In 2016, the feminist press Emily Books held a panel in Brooklyn titled, a bit cheekily, “What Is Women’s Writing?” There was no consensus, much laughter and a warm, rowdy vibe. Eileen Myles read from a memoir in progress and Ariana Reines read a poem, wearing a dress with a pattern of a city on fire. All of this felt exactly right.
But even if it puts your teeth on edge to see “women’s writing” cordoned off in quotes, you can’t deny the particular power of today’s women writers — their intensity of style and innovation. The books steering literature in new directions — to new forms, new concerns — almost invariably have a woman at the helm, an Elena Ferrante, a Rachel Cusk, a Zadie Smith.
For Women’s History Month, The Times’s staff book critics — Dwight Garner, Jennifer Szalai and myself, Parul Sehgal — sat down together to think about these writers who are opening new realms to us, whose books suggest and embody unexplored possibilities in form, feeling and knowledge.
As we put together a reading list, we introduced a few parameters, for sanity’s sake. We consigned ourselves to books written by women and published in the 21st century. And we limited our focus to fiction, but not without some grief. Memoir has emerged as a potent political and literary force in recent years (see the terrain-shifting work of Maggie Nelson, for example). And poets like Claudia Rankine, Solmaz Sharif and Tracy K. Smith are some of the most distinctive voices working today.
The books we selected are a diverse bunch. They are graphic novels, literary fiction and works inflected with horror and fantasy. They hail from Italy, Canada, Nigeria and South Korea. They are wildly experimental and staunchly realist.
Any list, especially one as idiosyncratic as ours, is bound to leave off some worthy contenders, like “Wolf Hall,” say, or “Gilead” or “A Visit From the Goon Squad” (to name just a few). This is not a comprehensive list, far from it. We hope it will be seen as a start — a way to single out these extraordinary books and the ability of fiction to challenge and reimagine the world. Some of the books we selected, like “Americanah,” bring a fresh slant to the novel’s natural concerns about character and fate and belonging. Others, like “How Should a Person Be?,” pluck new questions out of the air, in this instance about authorship and authenticity. They ransack classic stories (“American Innovations”) and invent genres out of whole cloth (“Her Body and Other Parties”).
Every one of these books features a woman at the center. She is brainy (Rachel Cusk’s “Outline” trilogy), grimy (“Homesick for Another World”), terrorized (“The Vegetarian”) and all of the above (the new mother in “Dept. of Speculation”). Each book’s utterly distinct style emerges as its women try to invent a language for their lives.
You could say these books are on the vanguard, but to suggest just one vanguard feels so insufficient. What makes these books so rich is their plenitude, the variety they contain and embody. “My story flows in more than one direction,” Adrienne Rich once wrote. “A delta springing from the riverbed/with its five fingers spread.” — Parul Sehgal
The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante
Elena Ferrante’s blockbuster novels, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, follow the entwined lives of two childhood friends with an intensity and psychological acuity that put contemporary fiction on notice. The books are also social novels of remarkable and subtle power, offering a history of postwar Italy and the terrorism of the Camorra. But everything comes filtered through the personal lives of Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco, ordinary women who would never make it into the history books. Lila and Elena grew up in the slums of Naples, in a clinch so ardent and dangerous that to call it friendship feels hideously inadequate. The series carries us through 50 years, as the women rescue and betray each other, struggle to escape the slums and their mothers, and become mothers themselves. Ferrante captures the barely contained violence of domestic life and is taboo-shattering in her unsparing and relentless exploration of the secret lives of women — their ambivalence and shame. Like Lena, these books give off “an odor of wildness.” Their intelligence cuts into the skin. — Parul Sehgal