In 2014, about a million readers sobbed ugly tears over Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. The following year, everyone (really, 11 million everyones) took in the drunken hijinks of Paula Hawkins’s titular girl on the train. But then, in 2015, attention spans swiveled toward our very own Richard III, determined to “prove a villain” in the Oval Office. Since that year, no work of new fiction has sold more than a million copies in the U.S. No powerhouse novel, no cover spotted on every L train or Barnes & Noble front display. Only one novel, James Patterson’s The President Is Missing, sold more than half a million copies this year, according to NPD BookScan, and only half of the top-ten fiction sellers for 2018 were even new (the other half comprised “relevant” classics like Fahrenheit 451.) Fiction sales have fallen 16 percent from 2013 to 2017 — a brutal statistic Publishers Weekly has partly blamed on all those gangbusters books about Trump that are siphoning off the meager budgets of book-buyers.
And yet, not unlike the electoral resistance that rose up on November 6, there has been a grassroots pushback against hot-take nonfiction — one led, of course, by women. They didn’t launch any franchises — no “girl”-titled blockbusters and probably no future Jennifer Lawrence vehicles — but collectively, they dominated a shrunken literary ecosystem. Each week it seemed that a promising new novel emerged that reimagined fiction — for politics’ sake, for literature’s sake, for the sake of expanding whatever the hell fiction might become in an age when Twain’s old maxim about the truth being stranger is tragically truer than ever. Not every one of these novels will become a “relevant classic,” but this year they spread their roots so far and deep that they essentially choked off the usual white, male suspects.
Take the shopworn category of autofiction. In years past, sprawling collections of transparently veiled autobiography by Edward St. Aubyn and Karl Ove Knausgaard ruled the day. This year both took a somewhat deflated valedictory lap: The concluding book of Knausgaard’s My Struggle series elicited a wave of admiring ambivalence, and a TV adaptation of St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels earned a smattering of polite applause.
Meanwhile, Kudos, the final installment of Rachel Cusk’s “Faye” trilogy, prompted Jonathan Dee to write that “any new British novel at this particular moment must emerge, it seems, in the shadow of Rachel Cusk.” That wasn’t entirely true — the finale of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy might soon dwarf them all — but it did capture the fact that the latest wave of autofiction, defined by Cusk and Motherhood author Sheila Heti, is decidedly female, feminist, and new. Faye’s conversations with everyone from the contractor remodeling her London home to the creepy Greek driver who lures her onto his boat reconceived autofictive writing as a deconstruction of fiction itself. “I don’t think characters exist anymore,” Cusk told The New Yorker. Her narrator is passive to the point of translucence.
Lisa Halliday, taking a more traditional revisionist course, produced the sleeper literary hit Asymmetry, which was partly about a March-December romance like one she had had with the late Philip Roth. The first-time novelist insisted that the Rothian lover Ezra Blazer “is a work of fiction”; the world replied with a skeptical twist of the mouth. But there was far more to the book than literary gossip. A two-part rhapsody about the young book editor Alice and Amar, an Iraqi-American economist trapped in airport security, Asymmetry pivoted on a crucial coda unpacking the anxiety of (male) influence. In the Times, Alice Gregory found it “so strange and startlingly smart that its mere existence seems like commentary on the state of fiction.” It was certainly a commentary on Roth’s fiction — from the sexual sputtering of Portnoy’s Complaint to the dying animals of his late books. It defined itself, like Cusk’s reappropriations, against something that no longer felt fresh.
Other novelists reached much farther back — to Dickens, Balzac, and other avatars of fiction as a vehicle for not just empathy but also social and political awakening. In early February, Tayari Jones released An American Marriage, the story of an upwardly mobile black couple whose lives are unfairly destroyed by a wrongful rape conviction. Oprah chose it for her book club — which in previous years would surely have vaulted it into the stratosphere. This year it was merely the 51st best-selling novel, despite being passed around from reader to reader like a miracle tonic. It’s what you might irritatingly call “compulsively readable,” and the writing sings, but its greatest accomplishment was enlightening readers without instructing them. Oprah promised, “You’ll come away with greater empathy and understanding, but even if you don’t, it’s just a really great read.”
Ordinarily, such a dutiful mandate would be depressing, but in the hands of authors like Rachel Kushner and Rebecca Makkai, it’s the raw material of beautifully constructed literature that bends toward social justice. Kushner’s Booker Prize short listed The Mars Room and Makkai’s National Book Award finalist The Great Believers, both published last summer, eschewed pity, telling the truths of the voiceless — female prisoners in a maximum security prison and a tribe of gay men in the early AIDS years, respectively — without stripping them of dignity.
But there’s more than one way to address the abyss. On the flip side of earnestness is what I’d affectionately call the novels of disaffection, accounts of women who quite literally want to lay down their arms —their bodies, really — and opt out. Ottessa Moshfegh, whose first novel Eileen produced the most revoltingly desperate young woman literature has ever seen, pivoted her brand of ugly kink toward beautiful sloth in My Year of Rest and Relaxation, in which the unnamed, orphaned protagonist applies a Gradgrindian work ethic to pharmaceutically induced hibernation. “If I kept going,” she muses, “I’d disappear completely, then reappear in some new form. This was my hope. This was the dream.” It’s sleep as Ur-wellness, taken to its illogical extreme.
Lucy, the protagonist of Melissa Broder’s slimy unromance The Pisces, also crunches on Ambien for relief from the unbearable lightness of … her Ph.D. dissertation — but instead finds new complications on Venice Beach, in the arms of a merman with a very alluring sea cucumber. Moshfegh and Broder sang a familiar tune to their distressed peers — readers practicing bathtub self-care to avoid diminishing job prospects, ballooning rents, and the increasingly byzantine demands of digital reputation management.
As we’ve known for several years now, an increasingly dystopic status quo breeds increasingly inventive dystopia. Keeping up with reality (and competing to prove Twain wrong), this year’s women writers used America’s political sunken place as a fungal starter culture for festering nightmares of disenfranchisement. Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks, which takes as its premise the Mike Pence fever dream in which abortion is illegal in all 50 states, took up residence on multiple best-of lists, including Vulture’s own 21st Century Canon. In Christina Dalcher’s Vox, women are only permitted to speak 100 words a day; in Bina Shah’s Before She Sleeps, a female resistance subverts repressive gender laws by offering nonsexual comfort to men. Margaret Atwood ought to start receiving royalties for every book hyped as “a sister to The Handmaid’s Tale,” although she’s probably set for life; her 1985 novel sold over 350,000 copies this year (enough to spawn a very belated sequel).
Thrillers bent to the same theme, spilling over with livid women aiming for the patriarchy’s jugular. In Idra Novey’s Those Who Knew, a domestic abuse victim worries about her role in potentially exposing her famous, beloved abuser. In Megan Abbott’s Give Me Your Hand, an enraged teenager seeks (undeserved) vengeance on a man, and the star of Oyinkan Braithwaite’s dark Nigerian romp, My Sister the Serial Killer, goes farther still. The caregiver in Leila Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny confronts a class system that keeps her living in a barely habitable studio while her employers glide through their smart apartment in Paris’s Tenth Arrondissement. It doesn’t ruin the ending to tell you that she murders the children. Even Tana French’s The Witch Elm pivots on a #MeToo revelation.
To a woman, these writers avoided taking cartoonish shots at the anus-mouthed idiot in the Oval — and thank God: What a dull goddamn fiction world it would be that so garishly mirrored our own. Instead, Sigrid Nunez’s National Book Award–winning The Friend chronicled a relationship between owner and pup. Sarah Perry’s sophomore novel Melmoth channeled our anxieties into a single-handed revival of the Gothic tradition.
And yet another essay could be written about the Asian-American women — R.O. Kwon, Ling Ma, Crystal Hana Kim — who each made their own distinctive mark this year.
So if you’ll forgive me a maudlin moment, I’m here to declare that the state of fiction is strong, on the basis of no other metrics than excellence, variety, and Oprah’s Dictum of Really Great Reads. Trump propped up the industry that prints literature, but women preserved its soul. Forget the White House and screw sales numbers: This golden age of women’s fiction is the resistance that we didn’t know was coming to save us.