Sub-heading

A blog for everything bookish

Monday, 28 October 2013

Ten contemporary female writers everyone should read


Hot on the heels of Eleanor Catton’s recent MAN Booker prize success, I’ve been thinking a lot about great female writers. It’s no secret that the UK press lead up to the prize really ticked me off. With a shortlist of 4 female and 2 male novelists, a disproportionate amount of press time and headlines were given over to debating which of the two men would win, and dismissing the female shortlistees. So when Catton’s win was announced, it was one in the eye for the ‘established’ UK press and their powers of discernment and prediction. Of course, I know that is very unfair on Crace and Tóibín, both of whom would have made worthy winners. But perhaps the established commentators might have a little rethink post prize, and not be so swift to count the ladies out. Interestingly, Catton herself has spoken out against the inherent sexism in the publishing industry, which you can read here.

There are so great female writers out there. It’s a shame that so many people are so quick to dismiss them, to say that what they produce en masse is no good. History is dominated by male writers, predominantly because access to education, to literacy, has been denied to women in most places until relatively recently. In some countries, access to literacy along with other seemingly fundamental human rights, is still denied to women. But in countries where women are routinely educated the idea that women somehow still need to ‘catch up’ to male standards of literature seems bizarre. As though the male writers already carry within them the experience and merit of the work of other men that have gone before, as though the ability to write well is etched into their DNA. That’s just silly. Gender, in the literate West, just doesn’t come into it. Or shouldn’t, anyway. 

That being said, of course I am now going to tell you why you should be adding some contemporary female writers to your reading list. I don’t think it’s wrong to say this. There is a tendency in the world of literature to accept that women can be successful (e.g. J. K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, E. L. James) but not good, and if you want to read good quality fiction you really need to turn to the men. But that’s not really true. There is a range of fiction being produced and the idea that all the men are at the quality end of the scale, and the women at the production line end is a fallacy. Because they are so many writers that are really very good, and a good proportion of these are women. I think you should know about a few. So, without further ado, here is my list of ten contemporary female writers that you really, really ought to read.

In no particular order.

Hilary Mantel
Twice winner of the MAN Booker Prize with her historical novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, examining the Tudor era through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, advisor to King Henry VIII. What’s brilliant about Mantel’s novels, here, are how present and real she makes the characters seem, and how she spins Cromwell out of virtually nothing. Yes, anyone who knows the history knows how it’s going to end, but I, for one, can’t wait to read the final part of the trilogy.

Aside from Wolf Hall, Mantel has a fascinating back catalogue of equally excellent fiction of a diverse range. Pick one up today. I dare you.

Barbara Kingsolver
Barbara Kingsolver is a powerhouse, there’s no other word for it. Her books are dense, beautifully written, complex and intelligent. My first encounter with Kingsolver was when I received a review copy of The Lacuna, the story of a homosexual boy who finds himself working in the home of Frida Kahlo and Diego Riviera. What ensues is a stunningly complex novel combining historical events and a very lonely, human perspective. Simply wonderful. The Poisonwood Bible is equally stunning, with a quite different perspective. If you enjoy books that make you think, Kingsolver is definitely for you.

Jeannette Winterson
Jeanette Winterson is, perhaps, most famous for her ‘coming out’ story Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Needless to say, Oranges is not the only Winterson. Winterson is a tour de force, a writer who writes with freedom. She is funny, crude. She is adventurous. Her stories are rich and stunning, often short but with diamond clarity. When I was reading the Canongate myths series, Winterson’s novel ‘Weight’ a story of Atlas and Heracles was one of the stand-out pieces. Jammed with ideas, beautifully conveyed it is a story I could read again and again.

Helen DeWitt
I’ve blogged about the marvellous Lightning Rods, one of the two amazing books DeWitt has produced. The other, The Last Samurai, is even more awesome. It is singularly funny, clever (enormously clever), odd, crazy, linguistically fascinating and brilliant. A story of an almost unnaturally intelligent boy searching for a father, or a father figure, and finding it, strangely, in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. A brief explanation which doesn’t prepare you for its brilliance. Who says women can’t write books based around ideas? Read it. Read it now.


Ali Smith
Ali Smith is a real virtuoso in experimental fiction. Don’t expect a traditional narrative, but do expect to be drawn in by her expressively poetic language and fascinating sense of perspective. If you like neatly sewn up stories which leave you with nothing to figure out for yourself, Smith is not for you. I find her wonderful. I recommend There But For The, a story of a man who goes to a dinner party and locks himself in the bedroom and won’t come out, or Like which is a story of two halves which fit together and don’t. Intrigued? You should be.

Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates is famed for the scale of her output, an almost production line-like quantity. But don’t think that just because she’s prolific, this means she’s rubbish. It is definitely not the case. With a tendency to lean towards feminist works, Oates doesn’t shy from the difficult story, having tackled the life of Marilynn Monroe with Blonde and small town America gang rape, in the sadly prescient Rape: A Love Story. Unflinching, and yet startlingly poetic, Oates is an admirable writer whose work stands toe to toe with America’s greats (but somehow never gets mentioned. Why, I wonder?).

Marilynne Robinson
Marilynne Robinson’s output is small, a mere three books, but what she has produced is powerful. Housekeeping I have reviewed on this site; it is a stunningly brief and tenuous novel which remains with you, like a beautifully disturbing dream. Home is a poignant story of a prodigal son, a story of disappointment and unfulfilled potential, the ways in which we draw sadness upon each other without even trying. Gilead, a love story from a dying man to his son showing the kind of reverence for the world that would make religion palatable to even the staunchest atheist. Three novels I’m proud to have on my shelves, and ones to return to often.

Doris Lessing
Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize for Literature no less (with, perhaps, the best reaction to discovering her success ever (oh Christ!). I am not sure if she is still writing, but still alive and really more people should read Lessing than do. Doris Lessing is indomitable. She is fiercely intelligent, fearless. In those theoretical dinners at which you can invite four people from any point at any time in history, she would be at my table and I would be quietly in awe. Famous for her novel The Golden Notebook, largely pegged as feminist (which it is) but also a fascinating exploration of craziness, Lessing is not the sum of one book. She’s ventured into science fiction, dystopia, she’s written about South Africa and what it means to be a women restrained by social expectations and ideals. Her book The Fifth Child, the story of a strange and unlovable child, is one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read, the natural parent of Shriver’s rightly lauded We Need to Talk About Kevin. I think it would be hard not to find something you enjoy in Lessing’s catalogue.  

A M Holmes
I’ve only read one book by Holmes, but immediately went out and bought another two for myself and another one for a friend. She is a writer to share. This Book Will Change Your Life is a wonderful exploration of a lonely man learning to make connections in the world. It is happy and sad, quirky and wonderful. I’ve never been to Los Angeles, but I felt like I’d been there after I read that book. It made me want to hug someone. It made me want to eat doughnuts. It made me want to be kind. It is a funny, warm, humane book about finding yourself in the world. It is a hard blend for a writer, I think, to explore the sadness in life with a positive eye without making it mawkish or overly sentimental. This book was neither of those things. It is simply marvellous. It’ll make you smile if you read it. Go on. No really: go on.

Nicola Barker
Okay, Barker is my wildcard here. I’ve only read one of her novels, Darkmans, and it made an impression. It was odd, very odd. Very long, complex, weird, unsettling and impossible to define. Which is why I’m including Barker here. No one, no one, writes like Barker. She’s probably one of those Marmite writers, but I loved her. And for some strange reason every now and again the word Darkmansss pops into my head, in a evilly, whispery kind of voice that sends a shudder down my spine. Not to everyone’s taste, but another example of a female writer getting out there and pushing the boundaries, not writing ‘safely’. Dangerously. Fearlessly. Admirably.  

I’m aware that in formulating this list, I’ve taken a very narrow perspective on female writing. I’ve excluded, for example, any factual or scientific writing, and there are no women writing to a particular genre. I’ve excluded female writers who are no longer living, though arguably there’s an even richer range if you include them: George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Mary Shelley, the Bronte sisters, Simone de Beauvoir, to name a mere few. Which, in a roundabout way, means that there are lots and lots more amazing female writers out there.

Who are your favourites? Please share.