Women writers

I can’t write a post about women’s literature.  I could, but it’s not my field of study and I’d just wind up offending the scholars who know what they’re talking about.  But I can list some of the women authors and poets I admire most, which is all this is.  And by all means, if I’m missing someone you think I should be reading, please let me know–I’m always happy to take up new books.

I’ve divided the lists into three sections.  The A-Team (couldn’t resist the reference) includes the women I read most often and look forward to reading more of, and for them I’ve written short reviews.  The B-Team is just a list (for now) and includes women whose work I’ve loved but I haven’t read enough to comment on them more fully–these are the women I need to read more of.  Finally, the CW-Team, which includes the women whose books on craft have taught me the most about writing–and, in fact, they far outweigh the men on my writing shelf.

Also, before I get into the lists, I want to honor the publishers who specialize in women’s fiction, because the feminists of a not-distant-enough past were right:  Writing had been for too long a man’s world, and if you wanted to argue that it still is I wouldn’t debate the issue, so kudos to those publishers who promote women authors and women’s fiction.

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The A-Team | The B-Team | The CW-Team

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The A-Team

Jane Austen Karen Armstrong Judy Blume Sandra Cisneros
Louise Erdrich Beth Ann Fennelly Debra Monroe Alice Munro
Annie Proulx JK Rowling Sappho Mary Shelley

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Jane Austen

She’s slightly out of alphabetical order, but that’s because in my book, Jane Austen is always at the top.  Insightful social commentary?  Check. Deeply developed characters?  Check.  Biting wit?  Check and check.  Hilarious satire that’s unafraid to poke fun even at Austen’s own work?  Go read Northanger Abbey! She can seem dry or slow-paced by our standards today, but Austen remains popular because she understood how to write minutely observant and socially specific stories that nevertheless acheived a timeless universality.  Pride and Prejudice alone has been adapted several times into film just in the last decade or two, including a Mormon version and a Bollywood version, and more recent prose editions have even added zombies.  And if zombies aren’t a sign of P&P‘s continued relevance, I don’t know what is.  (Vampires, maybe, but I’d be awfully surprised if someone isn’t working on a “Dark Persuasion” novel right now.)  Austen has everything we academic writers go to grad school to learn, and she executes her craft brilliantly.  And for that, I will always love her.

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Karen Armstrong

She has become my go-to author for quick but insightful introductions to religions and religious history.  She generally keeps the books short, especially for her overview works, but she manages to pack in a lot of information into her books, and her scholarship is superb.  Best of all, she handles her subjects with an impressive degree of equanimity, as though she was some kind of journalist nun (she was, in fact, a nun).  She has never been one to hold back on criticism, sometimes sharp and hard for some to swallow, but if she expresses any bias in her writing, it’s a bias in favor of honesty, truth, and understanding.  In a field too often prone to gross generalization or exclusive specificity, Armstrong manages to strike exactly the right balance.

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Judy Blume

Surprised to find a YA author on the list?  Don’t be–I admit I don’t read it as often as I did when I was a kid, but I think too often YA fails to get the credit it deserves as serious literature.  But Judy Blume is here not only because her books are good but because she herself is outstanding.  I’ve had the great privilege of hearing her speak and the even greater privilege of meeting her, and she remains one of the most astute, vocal, and engaging writers I’ve ever come across.  Her passion for defending intellectual freedom and the right of all people–especially children–to read and to learn is astounding, and she gives generously of her time, her efforts, and her money to help support those causes.  Plus, she writes really excellent and timeless youth lit:  I remember feeling shocked when I learned that Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing was neither published nor set in the early `80s (it first appeared in 1972!), because when I read that book I thought she was writing about me.  That’s great fiction.

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Sandra Cisneros

Cisneros makes the list primarily on the strength of her two excellent fiction books, The House on Mango Street and Woman Hollering Creek, as well as her poetry collection Loose Woman.  She imbued those works with a kind of desperate honesty, a fervor for the unblinking truth, and her words and images sing on the page with a vividity you don’t often find these days, yet she doesn’t strip down her prose as many “honest” writers tend to do–she maintains an infectious rhythm in her language, in her prose and her verse alike, that makes you want to hum her words.  I need to read some of her longer works (I have a copy of Caramelo I’ve been meaning to get round to for ages), but the memory of reading and rereading these early books is still very close in my mind.

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Louise Erdrich

Some might disagree with this, but Erdrich has a kind of quiet honesty about her work, whether it’s poetry or essays or (my favorite) fiction.  I confess I don’t ordinarily go for quiet–I usually prefer loud, rowdy, violent, in-your-face fiction–but her work is so inviting I can’t resist.  When I’m behind on my New Yorkers (as I am now, by several months), I tend to read the articles and save the fiction for later, but I always stop when I see an Erdrich story.  She has a way of seeing a story from all sides, not just in her multiple-narrator stories but within a single story as well.  And the imagery in her poetry somehow is suggestive without seeming abstract, explicit without seeming overly concrete.  It’s not always what I’m looking for in literature, but when I am, she’s a great writer to go to.

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Beth Ann Fennelly

I can’t praise Fennelly enough.  She is hands-down my favorite poet, with the best of the beautiful insight and sharp honesty I love in poetry.  Whether her subject is motherhood or academic life or Southern culture (she is a transplant from Chicago but has set roots in the South, as she expresses so superbly in her poem “Kudzu“), she writes with the voice of a kitchen knife–nothing fancy or fine like a scalpel, nothing crafty like an Exacto, just a simple instrument but sharp and clean all the same.  And then there’s her memoir, Great with Child: Letters to a Young Mother, one of the best nonfiction books I’ve ever read on any subject, and while it retains the keen insight of her poetry, the prose of her nonfiction is somehow looser, more conversational and therefore more engaging, almost comforting.  (Almost–Fennelly never sugarcoats pregnancy, childbirth, or motherhood.)  Best of all, though, she takes her role as poet seriously enough to want to pass along what she knows, and word is she has a loyal following of students at Ole Miss.  She is certainly one of the coolest people I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing.

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Debra Monroe

I have two of Monroe‘s novels I need to get round to, but if they’re anything like her short fiction, I’m going to love them.  She has a knack for writing stories with a similar scope and feel to another of my favorites, Alice Munro, but she goes about her work in something like the opposite manner.  Both write realistic, open-ended literary fiction with a deep understanding of character, but where Munro feels organic, Monroe is precisely controlled; where Munro usually employs a distant, omniscient narrator, Monroe dives into an intimate familiarity with her narrators and characters.  Munro’s stories seem to build toward an idea, but Monroe has said she actively builds away from ideas, consciously taking turns she herself wouldn’t expect.  And where the effect of Munro’s fiction is often haunting, the effect of Monroe’s is thrilling.  Still, nothing in her work feels forced or contrived, nothing feels rushed (like Munro, Monroe enjoys the long story), and as controlled as her stories are, she knows enough to leave plenty of realistically rough edges and soft corners.  Her characters are messes not because that’s the cool thing to do to characters these days but because her characters are people, and we’re plenty messy all on our own.  And for digging up all that mess and organizing it for me to read, I gladly return to her fiction again and again.

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Alice Munro

Munro is frustratingly good. Her style is fairly straightforward, usually a now passe omniscient narrator that she still makes seem real and fresh.  And because her work is so straightforward, when I read her I want to go hit my own short fiction and try to write like her. But her style is also terrifically subtle, so there’s little on the surface to imitate, and after a while I’m just staring at the blank screen thinking, How the hell does she do that?

I think Munro is probably the epitome of the character-driven writer. I recently read her collection The Love of a Good Woman, and the last story I read was “The Children Stay,” which is quietly beautiful and unsettling as an itch, and while I was sitting around afterward trying to figure out how the hell she did it, I realized that story isn’t really even about anything. A woman has an affair and leaves her husband. This happens all the time and we’ve read the story again and again.  But over thirty-four rich, leisurely pages, Munro wallows in the psychological mud that is this woman’s inner thoughts on the subject, why she did it, what she thinks of the aftermath. In terms of plot, almost nothing happens–there’s rarely anything explicitly active in the story–but in terms of character, the ramifications of the story keeps going long after the end. I still don’t know how the hell she does it, but thinking about it in those terms reminded me of the Chekhov line about his ideas for stories:  According to Francine Prose, “Once, when someone asked him his method of composition, Chekhov picked up an ashtray.  ‘This is my method of composition,’ he said.  ‘Tomorrow I will write a story called “The Ashtray.”‘”  Like Chekhov, Munro reminds us that a story doesn’t have to be about anything, but it should wind up being about everything, and Munro pulls that off brilliantly.

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Annie Proulx

People used to complain about Annie Proulx‘s short fiction, claiming her prose was loose and sloppy.  But then she wrote The Shipping News and everyone fell in love with her for a while.  Now she’s writing short fiction again and people are complaining about The Shipping News, claiming it’s too tight and stylized, to aware of itself, compared with her brilliant short fiction.  I say Proulx isn’t willing to sit still and write what’s already been written–she pushes herself and the craft of fiction, and she’s brilliant for it.  I loved The Shipping News precisely for its stylization even as I love her recent fiction for its softer edges and more open spaces.  But the best reason I like Proulx is that I know someday we’ll be complaining about her Wyoming stories, and it’ll only be because she’s written something new and maybe better.

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JK Rowling

Sometimes the readers who view Harry Potter as children’s literature get angry at the more adult themes Rowling explores in the later novels.  And sometimes the readers who want to take the later novels seriously dismiss the early books as simplistic and cheap.  And this is what makes Rowling so ingenious:  She managed to write a series of novels in which not only the characters but also the audience and therefore the style matured as it went.  The early books are for children because Harry Potter was a child; the later books are uncomfortably adult because Harry Potter has been violently thrust into an adult world.  Yet throughout the series, Rowling maintains plot continuity and steady character development that would have been difficult to pull off in one novel, let alone seven.  CS Lewis and JRR Tolkein were dismissed as cheap kiddie lit in their day, too, and I suspect that in time, our children and our children’s children will be studying Harry Potter alongside Frodo Baggins and Aslan the lion not as pop lit or the latest thing to fill a college classroom but as serious, far-reaching literature.

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Sappho

Plato called her the “tenth Muse,” and I’d be foolish to make any list of women writers that didn’t include Sappho.  But I’m including her here not because she was a kind of protofeminist poet but because her poetry is simply beautiful.  The richness of her romantic poetry lies not in ornament but in honesty and simplicity, a voice so clear in the lines that you feel the yearning yourself, even knowing you’re reading a translation.  And her use of the second person makes that yearning all the more devastating–and appealing–to behold.  I read her work and I wonder, if I had access to ancient Greek, would her poetry make me weep?  I suspect it would.

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Mary Shelley

A lot of people beat up on Shelley, especially her most famous novel, and they call her sloppy, unrestrained, even frivolous.  I can see why–there is a kind of fury behind Frankenstein that renders it difficult to swallow at first.  But it’s a fury that rings true in the context of the story and the theme, I think, and her other works show a writer keenly aware of her craft.  But the thing that fascinates me most about Shelley is her role as a science fiction pioneer, not only in Frankenstein but also in her slow but haunting novel The Last Man, widely considered the first apocalyptic novel.  With all our attention on the masculinized (and zombified) rewrite of Pride and Prejudice or the deeply male narrative of Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant The Road, and with the upcoming interest in apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction in general (my friend Darin Bradley‘s upcoming novel Noise is one such book), I think it’s important to remember where it started.  Mary Shelley dared to create life in fiction, and then she dared to destroy it, and we owe her a lot for that.

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The B-Team

  • Jonis Agee
  • Jackie Kay
  • Robin McKinley
  • LM Montgomery
  • Toni Morrison
  • Marjane Satrapi
  • Alice Sebold
  • Nance Van Winkle
  • Alice Walker

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The CW-team

  • Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction
  • Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones
  • Jesse Lee Kercheval, Building Fiction
  • Ann Lamott, Bird by Bird
  • Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer
  • Diane Thiel, Crossroads: Creative Writing in Four Genres
  • Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write

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(PS: I just discovered this is my 100th post.  Not terribly impressive, I guess, by blog standards, but a milestone nonetheless.)


5 thoughts on “Women writers

  1. Maya Angelou.

    Angelou’s book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings does sing. And I will apply the Cormac McCarthy (because we finally agreed on a definition there) aspect of “literary” to her writing in that book. I can’t speak to others because I am woefully under-read in her work.

    I’m also surprised not to find Jamaica Kinkaid on your list. She made such a lasting vivid impression on me when I heard her speak that I sometimes forget I have read so little of her work.

    1. Thank you! I should have added both of those to the B-Team, because I haven’t read enough of them to make a claim on their influence but I’ve liked what I’ve read. Actually, I think if I went back and re-read Caged Bird, I’d probably put Angelou on the A-Team–I like her poetry and LOVE to her hear read it on audio recordings, and she has a presence that radiates wisdom and artistry. Thanks for the reminder–I’m putting her on my list of people to get round to soon.

  2. Interesting stuff! I’m way to tired to offer up any writers at the moment -I’m sure we’ll cover that in future discussions anyway. But I love how you have Judy Blume and Alice Munro together! That doesn’t happen on many lists, but both have been so important to me (for different reasons, but still) as well.

  3. I’m so tired Sam that I spelled too as “to” in my first comment. And I am way too(!) much of a perfectionist to go to bed without trying to correct. Eyelids drooping. Night, Sam.

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