Girl Genius

Aja Gabel

Sep 30, 2010

Last week, I showed my Mad Men-virgin friend (yes, they still exist) the pilot episode, the one in which Pete tells Peggy in Don Draper's office that it wouldn't kill her to show her ankles more. After the episode, my friend asked me, with a dose of skepticism, "Do you really think sexism was that overt and consistent back then?" After I suppressed my squirming proto-feminist reaction, I thought about his question. Back then? I don't know for sure. Now? Well, yes, but in a different way.

The first time someone in workshop dismissively referred to a story as a "relationship story," I bristled, and it's only gotten worse. I quietly fumed during Franzen-gate this August, in which Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner led the discussion over whether the hyberbolic accolades given to Jonathan Franzen's new novel, Freedom, were appropriate when compared to the attention given to equally talented and accomplished female writers and their novels.

Now it's almost November, and while I hold a special place in my cold heart for Franzen-haters, there really isn't anything new to say about that discussion. The never-wrong Katha Pollitt got the last word on that one, pointing out that female writers rarely get the reviews given to writers who are "'white and male and living in Brooklyn'," and that "'Girl genius' is not a phrase in our language." So this one is for all the ladies out there who feel like Peggy in workshop, but instead of the Petes telling you to show your ankles more, they're telling you to show it less, that your writing is too feminine, and therefore, not Important.

Here's a list of women writers and their new novels we ought to be paying attention to this year instead of just celebrating Jonathan whats-his-name:

Nicole Krauss, Great House, Norton, 2010 A sweeping and heartbreaking kaleidoscope tale, Nicole Krauss's novel is about Chile and Budapest and London and Nazis and poets and writing desks. It is a bold and lyrical examination of memory and loss. It's enough to forgive her living in Brooklyn.

Danielle Evans, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, Riverhead Books, 2010 So this is a collection, not a novel, but I couldn't resist. The widely anthologized story "Someone Ought to Tell Her There's Nowhere to Go" is about an Iraq war veteran returning home to a world even more disorienting than the one he came from. It's some of the smartest, warmest writing about war-related experience I've read in years.

Deborah Eisenberg, The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg, Picador, 2010 While we're on the subject of stories, this is the collection from the master writer that should have been on the cover of Time this year. I hope Deborah Eisenberg isn't done writing stories, but if she is, this collection is all I'd need on a desert island. The wickedly sharp "Twilight of the Superheroes," about post-9/11 New York, will knock you off your feet.

Antonya Nelson, Bound, Bloomsbury, 2010 Set explicitly in the realm of the domestic (and in Texas!), Antonya Nelson's novel weaves together the lives of two trapped women set adrift by choices they didn't get to make for themselves. I dare someone to read this and say it doesn't have as much to do with American survival as Freedom.

Karen Tei Yamashita, I Hotel, Coffee House Press, 2010 Lady writers do difficult and postmodern writing, too. Karen Tei Yamashita's novel is daring and epic, telling the story of Asian-American civil rights in San Francisco through multiple voices and forms, including prose, poetry, and plays.