A blog for everything bookish

Saturday 25 January 2014

Ten dead female writers everyone should read

I don’t know if you’ve heard, readers, but 2014 is the year of reading women. Yea-ha! It’s about time. And how rotten that it takes the likes of Twitter to highlight the under-representation of women in the literary world. I’ve said it before, so won’t labour the point, but there is an inherent sense in the literature that there is ‘fiction’ and ‘women’s fiction’. There are books that are ‘universal’ (e.g. written by men and about things that interest men and thereby everyone) and books that address ‘women’s issues’ (e.g. not of interest to men). Or put another way, half of the population take an interest (or perhaps are forced to take an interest) in the other half, and half of the population don’t. It seems to me that the latter half are losing out.

Of course I know it is not that simple. Many men read and enjoy and share and promote books by women, and many women almost exclusively read books written by men. That’s the thing with gender issues, they’re never really straightforward or easy to resolve. But what is straightforward is that there are many, many, many wonderful female writers out there and they should be read. And they’re not hard to find either (you can find many on my blog, right here). Please read them.  I am prepared to beg (or nag. I am better at nagging).

So, continuing not to labour the point, I’ve compiled a list of dead female writers that everyone, EVERYONE, should read. And if you read the list and think ‘but where are the Bronte’s and Austen and Woolf and Eliot and Agatha Christie and Doris Lessing?’ that’s deliberate as I’ve assumed most people are already familiar with the more well-known female writers (though if you weren’t I’ve sneakily mentioned them anyway. Did you notice?). So, without further ado, here’s my list. Who would you add?    

Murasaki Shikibu
Did you know that the world’s first credited* novel was written by a woman? She’s worth reading for that accolade alone, but fortunately her one, ground-breaking novel is more than just that. The epic Tale of Genji is a Japanese classic, telling the story of the ‘shining Genji’, illegitimate and favoured son of the Emperor. If you ever wondered how long that feeling that ‘things just aren’t as good as they used to be’ goes back, this tale sites it at least some eras earlier than the 11th Century. A beautiful and fascinating, and rather long, story that’s well worth the time it takes to read.  

Simone de Beauvoir
It always depresses me that the name Simone de Beauvoir is often followed by, you know Sartre’s girlfriend, because this remarkable women was much, much more than that. Perhaps most famous for her feminist critique, The Second Sex, which provides a remarkably detailed and quietly scientific overview of the problems women face in Western culture. However, for me the book that simply blew me away was the short but disturbingly powerful The Woman Destroyed which comprises three short pieces examining three women’s stories. There was something about that book that really woke me up, made me realise that it was not enough to know that the male-dominated culture made it more difficult for women to live successful and happy lives, but also women’s complicity within it made it less likely to change. In her work de Beauvoir presents the idea that women are responsible for achieving their own transcendence, for reaching beyond the limits society offers and grabbing more. She is, perhaps, the first true feminist, but don’t be misled into thinking that means her work is solely about or for women. Instead she is an insightful writer who belongs well within the Existentialist movement. Not on the sidelines, or behind her more famous partner.  

Elizabeth von Armin
Because The Enchanted April. If you can find a nicer, happier, lovelier, more wonderfully sweet and soul-cheering book anywhere I will eat my blog.

Sigrid Undset
Undset is a Nobel prize winning novelist. Do I need to say more? Well, perhaps it is worth mentioning her epic novel Kristen Lavransdatter, set in the 14th Century, which follows the life of a women from a well-to-do family who defies social expectation and marries the man of her choosing...and breathe. What follows is a love story, a story of freedom of choice over social expectations, how following your chosen path can be difficult, disappointing and yet marvellous and rewarding. It’s a whopper, but stunning, absorbing and beautiful.

Iris Murdoch
They don’t refer to her as a philosopher without reason. Murdoch was a prolific writer whose work is peppered with ideas, concepts, musings, psychology all wrapped up, often, in an engaging story. My personal favourites include The Bell, The Unicorn and the marvellous Black Prince which is a fantastic example of the unreliable narrator. Her magnus opus, The Sea The Sea is still on my ‘to read’ list. Hopefully I’ll get around to it this year. Also worth checking out the biopic movie starring the wonderful Kate Winslet and incomparable Judi Dench.

Anais Nin
A long time before Fifty Shades of Grey there was Anais Nin. In fact that’s a poor comparison because there is NO comparison between Nin and the juvenile drivel that shall not be mentioned again. Nin is a writer with her self on her sleeve. Honest, passionate, self-aware, explorative, she gained fame writing short, erotic stories which have since been bound-up in two collections – Little Birds and Delta of Venus – which explore a vast array of erotic themes (and make for quite nicely titillating bedtime reading). Her famed interactions with Henry Miller are covered in her wonderfully biographical story Henry and June. An early example of life reflecting art, or art reflecting life, or something like that. An absolute pleasure to read.    

Angela Carter
Angela Carter, I think, was my first grown-up discovery. Her writing is voluptuous, her characters often unsympathetic and their relationships awkward and combative. My absolute favourite of her works is The Magic Toyshop, a terrifying coming of age story of poor spoiled Melanie who steals her mother’s wedding dress and destroys it, only to find her parents destroyed too. Orphaned along with her brother and sister, she is sent to live with her Uncle Philip, a man she has never met, his strange, mute, wife and her brothers who live together in a degraded part of London. Philip is a toymaker, the proverbial puppet-master, and they live above the toyshop. It is a dark and magical story exploring the terror of self discovery and the unexpected places love can be found.

For a great introduction to Angela Carter, try her short story collections – The Bloody Chamber and Black Venus. In them she reworks a number of well-known stories from a female perspective: Little Red Riding Hood, Dracula, Beauty and the Beast, Puss in Boots, but it is the richness of her language which is most memorable. This from The Bloody Chamber:

Even when he asked me to marry him, and I said: ‘Yes,’ still he did not lose that heavy, fleshy composure of his. I know it must seem a curious analogy, a man with a flower, but sometimes he seemed to me like a lily. Yes. A lily. Possessed of that strange, ominous calm of a sentient vegetable, like one of those cobra-headed funeral lilies whose white sheaths are curled out of a flesh as thick and tensely yielding to the touch as vellum. When I said that I would marry him, not one muscle in his face stirred, but he let out a long, extinguished sigh. I thought: Oh! how he must want me! And it was as though the imponderable weight of his desire was a force I might not withstand, not by virtue of its violence but because of its very gravity.” 


Marlen Haushofer
I’ve read only one book by Haushofer, The Wall, which is perhaps her most well known and boy did it stick with me. A quiet tale of a woman trapped inside a valley behind an invisible wall. She suspects that everyone outside is dead. Under this bubble she wrestles with survival as well as the downsides and benefits of being outside society. Alongside her daily trials there is an unknown menace; someone else is in the dome, a man she suspects, and whilst there is no direct interaction the presence of this unexpected and unpredictable third party creates a terrifying edge. It is a powerful book which reflects interestingly on the pressures of society at large, and the ways in which we are threatened and freed by being outside of it.

Tove Jansson
Well, it wouldn’t be my blog if I didn’t mention her at least once. READ HER. I can’t say it loudly enough. She’s amazing.

*I say ‘credited’ because it probably wasn't the first novel ever written, but is often cited as being the first. 

Saturday 4 January 2014

Ten contemporary male writers everyone should read

This list was pretty difficult to put together because actually I’m not that well informed when it comes to contemporary male writers. In point of fact most the male writers I really like are dead, which is a bit of a shame for me (but perhaps more of a shame for them). Plus I’ve been so heavily focused on unearthing those great contemporary female writers I’ve lost touch with the men. Perhaps that is something I will rectify this year (though I do have some fairly heavy reading goals already). Though I’m aware of some names floating around out there without having read them it would be wrong of me to pin them here as worth reading (though possibly they might be...they might warrant a quick mention somewhere). So I should qualify at this stage that some of the writers might be a little bit on the fringe, but I’ve read them and found them worth it and perhaps the list is better for not being comprised solely of the usual suspects.

So, without further delay, here is the list.  

David Mitchell
Before you get confused that’s David Mitchell the writer, not David Mitchell the TV personality. Made famous by the amazing Cloud Atlas, described, quite fittingly, as a Matrioshka doll of a novel. But it’s much more than that. It’s an experiment in form, it’s a showcase of Mitchell’s talent and intelligence, it’s fun. However, Cloud Atlas is not Mitchell’s only novel, neither is it his only great novel. To gain a full appreciation of his skill it’s worth reading through his work: the loosely biographical Black Swan Green, the eclectic and brilliant Number9Dream (I challenge you not to fall in love with the quirky loveliness of Goatwriter), the contemplative Ghostwritten (my personal favourite), the historical masterpiece The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet in which Mitchell shows both his joy and mastery of the English language. Mitchell has always struck me as a writer who lives in a globalised world, a fusion writer bringing together the East/West cultures into a new kind of vision. It is perhaps not too surprising to find he spent time in Japan and has a Japanese wife (who is not me, sadly), when the flavours of Japan spice his work so liberally. In many ways Mitchell is a writer of blending; he shows you the forms, sticks to their rules, then stitches them together in a way which shouldn’t work but it does. It always does. 

J M Coetzee
Quite a different writer, but a master all the same. Coetzee is sharp as the knife he cuts his characters with, his prose so clean you can see your face in it. His work is intelligent, insightful, often bleak. His characters are unlikeable (but I think we’ve established before that likeability is not a necessary trait). Where Mitchell is joyful, Coetzee is a surgeon – all precision and sharp light and cutting. I think you probably get my point. If you enjoy comforting reads then Coetzee isn’t for you, but if you enjoy work that is perceptive and intelligent, with an eye on the darker side of life and a slightly parable-esque edge to it, then he’s your man. Disgrace, his seminal novel, reflects post-apartheid South Africa with an unforgiving eye and is not without controversy. It is not an easy read, but perhaps an important one.  

Don DeLillo

I may be slightly influenced by the knowledge that Don DeLillo was a key influence for David Mitchell in his work, with Mitchell going as far as stealing entire lines for his novel Cloud Atlas (and crediting it, to be fair). My first encounter with DeLillo was less than auspicious. I read a novel called The Body Artist and I hated and slated it and swore it would be a long time before I read a DeLillo novel again. It was a couple of years later when I picked up a cheap copy of Cosmopolis, intrigued largely by the movie which was due to be out that year (and which I have never seen). I took it on a camping holiday and spent three short days completely altering my view of DeLillo. I was mesmerised. I read it once, then read it again. And again. I went back to passages, phrases like ‘meat space’, ‘the zero-oneness of the world’. DeLillo’s writing has a very transcendent quality to it, a rhythm that is like a chant or a prayer. It almost doesn’t matter what the words say, it carries you along on a dreamlike wave and you go with it. He has a way with dialogue which is simultaneously completely unnatural and yet authentic in a way that makes ordinary speech seem empty and worthless. He’s basically great. Read him.   

Tom McCarthy
Known for his Booker shortlisted novel ‘C’, Tom McCarthy writes from an avant gard literary tradition. He has written only a few books, but all of them pack a punch. My personal favourite, one that really sticks in my head for some reason, is Remainder. This is the story of a man who is hit by ‘something’ that has fallen from the sky, and as a result he has had to relearn to use his body. He is also awarded substantial sums of money in compensation. He discovers that certain incidents or ideas, and the repetition of them, have a strange effect on him and uses his money to make these happen over and over continually. Not surprisingly this spirals into something quite terrible. There is something strange and addictive about this book; it is one I have returned to more than once (perhaps scarily like the character in the book) and each time I’ve found it equally compelling. His other novels ‘C’ and Men in Space deal with much broader themes. There’s a nihilism to his work which may or may not be linked to his organisation the ‘International Necronautica Society’, explorers in the adventures of death.  

Haruki Murakami
Murakami. I have a mixed relationship with Murakami. He has written a lot of books, many of them excellent. He’s also written some duffers. He sits somewhere between populism and excellence and each novel that is released sits somewhere between them too. He is a writer worth reading, worth exploring. There is probably something for everyone in Murakami’s books. His protagonists are often lonely or loners. His books explore themes of isolation and self-discovery. There is often jazz, and a lot about food. There are cats and people that eat their heads. Philosophy, unexplained phenomena, suicide. Wells, a lot of wells. I was disappointed with 1Q84, largely on account of the male sexual fantasy drawing of the main female characters and the baggy plot which, with a careful edit here and there, would have been fantastic. Many people loved it, however. In my opinion, Murakami is much better in his older works, and at his best in his only factual work Underground which centres around the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo underground, largely through interviews with survivors, family members of victims and members of the Aum Shinrikyu cult that perpetrated the attack. Other great books in Murakami’s canon include The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, After Dark and Kafka on the Shore.

Cees Nooteboom
Now here’s another writer who barely drops a poor word. Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom, also known for his travel works, has a small catalogue of extremely excellent works. The first of his I encountered, Lost Paradise, is a tiny but mind-blowing book that I read, read again and then again for good measure. Drawing on Dante’s Paradise Lost, it follows the interlinking stories of two people: a Brazilian girl who is gang raped and retreats to Australia with a friend, and an aging man, a writer, who goes on a retreat to find himself. It is a book about identity and angels, the wonder of the desert, and how we find ourselves in unsuspecting places. It is a book of pure beauty, terrifying and wondrous. Rituals is a quite different novel, following the fortunes of Inni Wintrop who in the opening pages hangs himself (unsuccessfully). It is a book filled with dark humour and unexpected people. As an introduction, you might want to try his book of short stories The Foxes Come at Night which is equally excellent (especially the one about the tortoise).

China Mieville
I’ll admit to having only read one of Mieville’s books and that one is The City and The City. I would like to read more. Mieville blends science fiction, horror, detective fiction and weaves his own magic around it, creating something quite new. The City and The City tells the story of a detective investigating a death which crosses from one city to another city, both of which occupy the same space. Is your mind bent yet? It will be. Mieville is a writer for the urban generation, setting his books in cities known (London) and unknown. There is no one quite like Mieville, he writes in an imaginative space, conjuring an alternate reality which is both strange and believable. He reminds me, I think, of what Ballard would be if he was writing now.

Simon Crump
This, I’ll admit, is my wildcard. Again, I have only read one novel by Crump but it is My Elvis Blackout and honestly I don’t think I’ve read a weirder or scarier or odder or more mind-blowing book than this in my lifetime. It’s bonkers. In it Crump presents us with an alternative Elvis or, in fact, several alternative Elvis’s. Yes, that’s right, the Elvis. Uh huh. Other cameo appearances come from Barbara Cartland and Chris du Burgh. Someone dies (everyone dies). It’s weird but brilliant.

Kazuo Ishiguro
Ishiguro writes such interestingly complex characters. His book The Remains of the Day, which is also an excellent movie, presents the perfect embodiment of mannered duty in the butler Stevens and yet it is a duty which is old fashioned and somehow wrong and which leads him to make terrible choices. Never Let Me Go is quite disturbing, again perhaps largely due to the complicity of the characters in their own situation. It is hard to discuss it without revealing too much. Like Mitchell, Ishiguro blends a kind of Japanese-ness and English-ness and creates, perhaps, the worst case scenario of both. A brilliant yet complex writer, hard to classify but well worth reading.

Nicholson Baker
There are two sides to Nicholson Baker’s work: the obsessive compulsive, detail heavy, mundane and yet not mundane, and then there’s the porn. It’s relatively easy to figure out which is which. The Mezzanine, for example, is the story of a man travelling an escalator having gone to buy shoelaces. Obviously that the obsessive-compulsive type. The Fermata is the story of a man who can freeze time and uses it to undress women and masturbate. That’s porn. What links them both is Baker’s distinctive voice which despite the mundane/porny theme of the books is charming and engaging and often very funny. Not to everyone’s taste, but definitely a unique writer with a unique voice, worth watching out for.

So that’s my list. I’m pretty sure there are some quite glaring omissions. You may note that Philip Roth makes no appearance, which is largely because Roth leaves me cold though I am aware many people think he is amazing. Martin Amis is another; there was a time when I liked Amis but that time is long past. He is another who has, I think, passed his prime. Will Self I haven’t read, neither have I read Karl Ove Knausgaard though I hear good things about him. Which writers would you add to my list?