In this year of #MeToo and so much other urgent news, it can be hard to concentrate on fiction, but fiction can deliver the news, too. Two of my favorite recent novels, Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion and Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers, take their readers deep inside the current feminist movement and the early days of the AIDS crisis, respectively, using fully realized characters to illuminate a moment in history. Women have been writing big, pleasurable novels like these for decades, novels that set their engaging characters and juicy plots against a background of politics and social issues.
Rona Jaffe is certainly one of the pioneers of this genre; The Best of Everything, which came out in 1958, follows five young women who work at a New York publishing house, and sexual harassment is everywhere—even if, as Jaffe wrote in her introduction to the 2005 reissue, it “had no name in those days.” Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen (1972) has a chilling scene of a doctor harassing the main character as he prepares to perform an abortion on her: “What a tight little twat you have. It’s a pleasure to work on you after the gaping smelly cunts that come into the hospital.” When I wrote about this book back in 1993, I found this scene shocking, but after hearing about all the ways doctors are still abusing their patients—children and adults, women and men—it’s amazing how up-to-the-minute Shulman’s book feels.
Feminist novelists of the 1970s were angry, which makes many of their books feel newly relevant again. Try Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room, Alison Lurie’s The War Between the Tates, Marge Piercy’s Small Changes, or Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying to see women creating a canon of their own.
Laurie Muchnick is the fiction editor.