Say a woman is “difficult,” and chances are that she will not get the job, the promotion, or the invitation to join the club. The adjective guarantees pariahdom. And yet as the New York Times Book Review launches a new feature of its redesign, “The Shortlist,” it groups four books about so-called “difficult women” framed by a collage of women’s cut-up faces and bright-red lips. True, if you reconstructed the fragments, the faces would be beautiful, but in their cubist presentation they also look vaguely evil. Why burden very different books with the label of negative gender stereotypes?
As in the recent NYTBR’s “Memoirs by Women,” “Difficult Women” is a hodge-podge of novels with vastly different styles and subjects: Terry McMillan’s new novel, Who Asked You, Chelsea Cain’s detective novel Let Me Go, Nicole Galland’s historical excursion, Godiva, and Kate Manning’s biographical novel, cast as a memoir, My Notorious Life. While Cain’s heroine sounds seriously, not to say, serially dangerous– capable of decapitation and disembowelment–the female figures of the three other novels are merely heroic or powerful.
Is it churlish not to see a silver lining here? After all, it’s four books by women writers, reviewed (somewhat condescendingly) by a woman writer, and four is better than one or none, if we’re doing it by the numbers. Still, what really is gained by lumping together books that have nothing in common beyond the gender of their authors and the assumption that their characters are best avoided?
To be fair, in the description of the new feature, the women are described as “defiant.”
So why not make that the heading?
Defiant is cool.