What would it be like to spend an entire year reading novels by women authors? Alexander Chee believes it’s a highly useful and interesting exercise; in an article for the New York Times, he writes of the lessons he learned from a year of reading books written by women. He also shares one surprise from his year of reading:
… The strangest discovery I made during my experiment came when I told women about my project. Many said: “Oh, how funny. I almost never read women.”
Last year’s Pew research study into our reading habits shows that men, overall, read less than women, with college-educated black women reading the most of any group. So whenever #ReadWomen2014 floats by my sightline on Twitter, I think of how women are, and have been historically, the primary book buyers. The data suggests that, yes, men could and should read more, and read women. But we need to reach the women who don’t read women, as well.
This is true for me personally: though I read a lot of women authors in my childhood (Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, etc.), my reading of women authors dwindled as I grew up—and while this isn’t wrong, necessarily, there are a lot of excellent authors I missed. Thus in the last two years, I’ve tried to read more women authors. Below is a list of some notables, along with others whose work I intend to read in the next year or two.
This list includes women authors whose stories are intriguing, delightful, thought-provoking. Some are genius; others, while not excellent, still have interesting insights to offer. Some are dark and graphic; others are sweet, simple, childish. But all are important and interesting, in one form or another.
Zora Neale Hurston
Gene Stratton Porter
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Lucy Maud Montgomery
Louisa May Alcott
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Why include Lucy Maud Montgomery, Louisa May Alcott, and Laura Ingalls Wilder? They are authors who shaped countless young girls understanding of womanhood, family, friendship, and the imagination.
Gillian Flynn’s work can be quite sordid. She captures darkness and the shadowy machinations of our minds better than most other authors. She’s almost like a secular Flannery O’Connor: her world has the same gothic blackness, but without any of the grace.
Alice Munro and Flannery O’Connor are the most talented short-story tellers I’ve ever read. Their work reflects an understanding of the eternal weight that can rest in a single moment of human life.
George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell are excellent preservers of small-town significance. Middlemarch and Cranford: two small towns, two stories of life and death, community and family. They’re the sorts of stories that remind you why simple community is so vital to human flourishing.
Jane Austen’s and Marilynne Robinson’s stories are completely different, but both chronicle personal struggles with virtue and vice, with relationships that stretch or comfort us, with the dynamics of pride, grief, prejudice, and fear that lace through every life.
Gene Stratton Porter was the Wendell Berry of my growing-up years: the novelist who helped turn me into a localist (particularly her book Laddie). Her works are about community and rootedness, loving place and the land in which you’re raised. She has a passion for agrarianism and human relationships, for stories that encompass one’s communal and geographic world.
Others whose work I haven’t yet read in depth, but who are at the top of my list:
Simone de Beauvoir
Let me know if there are other women authors who have been significant to you: whose work shaped your understanding of the world or human nature in a unique way.
#ReadWomen2014 may be a good opportunity for people who have not yet explored the work of women authors in depth. It enables us to see how authors in a particular genre have changed over time, the variety reflected within their thoughts, how they have transformed literature through their prose.
One caveat: I think that “women authors,” as a genre, is a rather weak bond in some ways—weaker than the genre of British or French literature, for instance. While those genres are tied to place, and thus reflect a collectively shared history and geographic familiarity, women authors have been scattered over place and time. The world of Jane Austen was very different from that of Zora Neale Hurston. Putting Lucy Maud Montgomery and Gillian Flynn on the same list may seem almost ludicrous.
But, that said, women authors are still something of a minority, at least when it comes to their place in the halls of classic fame. There is much we can learn from the women authors who “made it,” so to speak, who were able to rise above circumstance and adversity to claim a spot in the bestselling or most classic novels of all time. And many of them do have concerns and views of human nature that offer interesting compare/contrast possibilities for the reader.
Perhaps #ReadWomen2014—or 2015, if you prefer—will offer us an opportunity to uncover women authors we’ve never read. Perhaps some will re-read all Austen’s novels, or pick up Marilynne Robinson’s latest, Lila. But whatever we read, perhaps the question we should consider is this: what unique gifts has each woman author given to literature—not just necessarily because she’s a woman, but because of her unique talents and perspectives?
Update: Here are other recommended women authors, h/t Twitter users (@jeff_bilbro, @PeterBlairAL, @bdmcclay, @KDaniels8, @hipstercon, @CR_Morgan, @jake_meador, @matthewwalther), former TAC associate editor Leah Libresco, Susannah Black and Will Hough via Facebook, TAC senior editor Noah Millman, and the below commenters. Organized alphabetically:
Alice Thomas Ellis
Maria Mazziotti Gillan
Ursula Le Guin
Diana Wynne Jones
Daphne du Maurier
Joyce Carol Oates
Susan Moller Okin
Tina De Rosa
Leslie Marmon Silko