Great female writers
by, 12-21-2011 at 07:38 AM (1007 Views)
So this year I decided I wanted to read more books written by women, because when I looked back over my reading habits I noticed that I mainly read books written by men (which are all fine and good) and that women seemed rather underrepresented. And as a woman, I felt rather guilty about that. So I resolved to go out and find some great female writers and you know overall I've been pretty successful. Whether they'd be great in canonical terms, I can't say. I'm not really that good a judge. But I've enjoyed most of what I've read this year and discovered some writers who I'd like to read more of. So that's good. I thought I'd share my top 10 favourites (which includes some I'd previously discovered and read again) and maybe you might like to try them out (or maybe not, that's up to you).
10. Hilary Mantel
Okay, I'll admit I've only read Wolf Hall but goodness what a book! I was glad to hear than Mantel is planning not one but two follow up novels to this excellent charting of Thomas Cromwell's early life. With an impressive back catelogue, Mantel is a writer I intend to explore further in 2012. There's an eclectic mix of books there with something, perhaps, to interest everyone. And the fact that she grew up in my home town influences my judgement not a jot...honest.
9. Tove Jansson
To most people the name Tove Jansson will instantly stir up fond memories of The Moomintrolls and I'll admit that my reintroduction to Jansson came from reading The Moomintrolls closely followed by Comet in Moominland to my children. As an adult I found both books enchanting and if you read nothing else by Jansson I'd say that the Moomintrolls alone secure her a place in this top 10. But luckily for me the library had a copy of The True Deceiver which is a book Jansson wrote for adults. Oh my goodness. It's a strange little book filled with strange, slightly inaccessible characters, dowsed in snow and cold and icy details. There's a strangeness to Jansson's writing, but that strangeness makes it intriguing. If you're looking for something slightly bohemian, then Jansson is a good place to start. I hear her Winter Book is also excellent. I'll be looking out for more.
8. Penelope Lively
All year I've been 'getting around to' reading Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. Moon Tiger was the winner of the 1987 Booker Prize and I'd read about it on the Guardian's book site and was struck by the fact that a significant number of writers had come out in support of Lively. Which is unusual. So a couple of weeks ago I finally picked it up and I was so glad I did. It's only a short book, but it's packed with vibrancy, not the least of which is the main character Claudia who is self-absorbed, uncompromising, intelligent, ever so slightly immoral, cantankerous, unapologetic and not entirely sympathetic. And yet she is so well drawn a character that she leaps from the page. And it is the characterisation that is the strength of Lively's writing. And that's not to say that the rest of her writing isn't good, because it is. Just that the characterisation stands out. Also, Lively uses an interesting technique where she juxtaposes Claudia's memory of an event against those of another character with interesting results.
For some reason I had it in my head that Penelope Lively wrote 'girly' romance fiction. Shame on me. Shame on me. Moon Tiger is well worth a read. I strongly recommend it.
7. Marghanita Laski
I came across Marghanita Laski when I discovered this lovely little publishing house called Persephone Books. Persphone Books specialise in reinvigorating out of print books, primarily (but not exclusively) by women writers. The books they produce are slightly on the expensive side (£10-£12 plus postage) but are beautiful articles and very nicely bound. I've started a nice small collection and some of the writers will no doubt feature in my end of year review next year. Watch this space.
Anyway, back to Marghanita Laski. I've read a couple of Laski's books: Little Boy Lost ( ) and The Victorian Chaise-longue. The first thing to note about these is that they're quite different books. Little Boy Lost follows a man whose wife and child were missing in France (during WWII) and who receives word that whilst his wife is dead his son may still be alive. We follow his journey to France to find the boy, and his reservations about doing so. It's a tense and sad book.
The Victorian Chaise-longue on the other hand is a spooky little novella about a woman who is sick. She goes to sleep one day on a Victorian Chaise-longue she'd bought from an antique shop, and awakes to find herself inhabiting another person's body, the body of the original owner. It soon becomes apparent that the body she's inhabiting is also dangerously ill. Will she be able to return to her own time, her own body, before it is too late?
6. Marilynne Robinson
So far I've only read the one novel, Home, by Marilynne Robinson but I am encouraged to read more. Home was the winner of the 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction and her other novels Gilead and Housekeeping were winners and shortlists (respectively) for the Pullizer Prize. Whilst her catalogue is short, it's packed with intensity.
Home is the story of a prodigal son returning. Jack, a recovering alcoholic, returns home to help his sister Glory nurse their dying father. But he is perpetually at odds with his retired Reverend father, a source of constant pain and disappointment. What follows is a tense story, filled with hope and disappointment, expectation unfulfilled. A difficult read, in the sense that it is painful, but beautifully and sensitively written.
5. Muriel Spark
You may not know the name but I bet you've heard of Spark's most well known novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. My description of this novel would be small but perfectly formed. I've never seen the movie (but I now have to, aside from everything else I love Maggie Smith) so can't say how closely or otherwise the stories stick to each other, but I would strongly recommend reading the book. Mis Jean Brodie and her girls, strong, certain but devisive both in terms of the school and the wider community. Spark writes with clarity and humour, Jean Brodie is at once a clever, independent, single-minded woman and yet she is sad, lonely and dangeously misguided. Somehow Spark makes this laughable. A dark humour pervades the book, delicate but forceful at the same time. A perfect little novel.
Aiding and Abetting is another of Spark's novels which is an interesting read. Aiding and Abetting follows a psychotherapist who finds herself with two patients each claiming to be the real Lord Lucan. But the psychotherapist has secrets of her own, and both Lucan's somehow know this. Again, punctuated with a sharp humour, Aiding and Abetting is a fun, if brief, read.
4. Marguerite Duras
Read The Sailor from Gibraltar. I can't tell you why it's so great, but it just is. Marguerite Duras has a sparse, economical way of writing and what typifies her writing is a sense of space, an openness, and a sense that something is missing, unsaid. There's no nice neat little ending, but it's all the better for it. Just read it. Enough said
3. Ali Smith
Ali Smith is a poet. I don't know if she writes poetry, but she's definitely a poet. Her novels have such lyricism, they are beautiful little gems which sparkle under your eyes. The downside to Smith's writing is similar, if not more pronounced, than Marguerite Duras's - if you're looking for a neat little story with a definable plot and a firm ending then you simply won't like her. She leaves a massive space for interpretation and this can leave you with the feeling that the story is unfinished, incomplete. Personally I enjoy that, but it isn't for everybody.
As a starting point try Boy Meets Girl which is one of the Canogate Myths series which seeks to retell the myth of Iphis. If you like that, then try Like which is my favourite so far. There are massive unexplained bits in Like, so it can be a frustrating read, and for the life of me I can't tell you what it's about, but it is beautiful. Just beautiful. I loved it.
Here's a little extract, to whet your appetite:
2. Angela CarterSo over the border, soaring over it into the dark. The axle grinding in the wheel below your seat. The sea, huge, rolling down the coat somewhere out there to the left, swelling in its socket. A new country, invisible round the dim orange light of the bus moving through it, the roar of its engine, small firefly buzz between the vast darknesses. Different accents at the service stations giving you your change. All your money in small notes that you have to uncrumple out of your pockets each time. The the middle of the night again and the grass banks of the motorway, colourless.
I can include Angela Carter here because I've re-read her this year, but suffice to say Angela Carter is the writer I wish I could be. She is gory, glorious, overblown, delicious, naughty, wickedly imaginative. She always runs the gauntlet with overwriting, but with her gothic storylines she just about carries it off. She's at her best with her short story collections, the re-telling of well known horror and folk stories like Dracula, Beauty and the Beast, Red Riding Hood, she brings her own spin on it and writes, generally, from a feminist perspective. But don't hold that against her, please. She's really, really good.
For a great start on Carter try The Bloody Chamber which is naughty and chilling, or if you're up for a longer read I cannot recommend highly enough The Magic Toyshop which is one of my favourite books of all time.
But if you fancy something weird and wonderful, how could you resist her novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman? For the name only, it's worth it!
1. Doris Lessing
So if I haven't convinced you yet, I'll finish off with a real heavyweight - Doris Lessing. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, feminist heroine, unapologetically sure of herself, Doris Lessing my literary hero. In the imaginary dinner party with 5 people from any time or place, Doris Lessing would have a place at my table. And I would probably sit there the whole time like a gibbering idiot, over-awed.
Doris Lessing has written a wide range of books so there should be something to interest everyone there. My personal recommendations would be The Fifth Child which I read a while ago and which I still find disturbing. An earlier, and better written (in my opinion) We Need to Talk About Kevin exploring the relationship between a mother and a strange, unloved child. But her real magnus opus would have to be The Golden Notebook which almost drove me crazy but which was fascinating, troubling, challenging and enormous all at the same time. Again, I can't tell you what's so great about it but it is certainly no lightweight read. In my bookcase I have Memoirs of a Survivor which I always remember Jozanny recommending as a 'better' dystopic novel than The Road. One to read next year.
The writer I'll never be, but more admirable for it. Doris Lessing. My hero
And of course there are so many writers and novels which I haven't been able to mention here. Simone de Beauvoir whose The Woman Destroyed I think all women should read (it's feminist, but lays the roots of feminine difficulties quite squarely at the feet of women), Willa Cather's My Antonia which is another near perfect book, Ann Patchett, Iris Murdoch (polarising, but hard to deny the greatness of The Bell or The Black Prince), Virginia Woolf whose omission in my top 10 list is almost criminal, Elizabeth von Armin and Elizabeth Taylor for lighter, but no less enjoyable reads, Stella Duffy whose historical novel Theodora is a vibrant, exciting exploration of the Byzantine Empress Theodora's early life. And then there are the women writers I've heard about but not yet got around to reading: Dorothy Whipple, Susan Glaspell, Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Munro to name the few I can recall off hand.
What I've enjoyed most about this year has been exploding my own preconceptions of the female writers out there. Like Penelope Lively, I've too often dismissed female writing as lightweight, romance heavy and too 'girly' for me. Shame on me. Shame on me. I'll no longer make that mistake. Plus I've discovered more writers that I love and that's always wonderful. An enjoyable reading year for me.
My challenge for the next 12 months is 'short and long'. I want to read more longer novels - I've actually read a few that were over 500 pages this year and am finding it easier and easier to do so - as well as reading more short stories. But I want to keep that balance, of reading books by both male and female writers. Not sticking slavishly to a 50/50 split, but making sure I explore both without preconceptions. So that's what I'll do. I'm starting the year with Murasaki Shibuki's The Tale of Genji and will be posting up on the forum when I start; if anyone would like to join me, you'd all be very welcome